15 APRIL 2000, Page 28


A lot of people got Mugabe wrong in 1980 (and they're still doing so)


I should be very interested to hear from Mr Benn how he justifies this celebration of a man who is now almost universally reviled as a tyrant. Let me anticipate his reply. Of course, he might just put up his hands and mutter mea culpa. But I think it more likely that he will defend himself by saying that Mugabe may have turned bad, but he was perfectly all right back then. Something of the same thought process was implicit in a recent headline in the Guardian, accompa- nying an excellent article by Matthew Engel from Harare. 'From freedom fighter to oppressor.' He was all right then, it is sug- gested (and that is why the Guardian also supported Mr Mugabe back in 1980, though less fulsomely than Mr Benn) but somehow he has since flipped his lid.

But Mugabe was never all right, though he may have got worse. Back in 1980 there was already enough evidence as to his true char- acter. During the war in Rhodesia he spout- ed Marxist rhetoric and threatened the whites, saying that 'in Zimbabwe none of the white exploiters will be allowed to keep an acre of land'. The war was a dirty business on both sides but none of the atrocities com- mitted by the Smith regime matched what was done by Zanu guerrillas in the Vumba mountains in June 1978. Mugabe's 'freedom fighters' murdered nine British missionaries and four children, one of them a month old. The women were raped and one child car- ried the imprint of boot on its shattered head. During the election campaign in February 1980, Zanu guerrillas practised widespread intimidation against supporters of Bishop Abel Muzorewa and Joshua Nkomo. Christopher Soames, briefly installed by the British government as gover- nor, considered disqualifying Zanu in three provinces before being told not to by the Organisation of African Unity.

After his victory Mugabe made immediate overtures to the whites and within a few days appointed a white minister of agriculture, but his past hardly gave cause for optimism. Nevertheless, some British newspapers championed him. The Observer noted how Mugabe 'had behaved with considerable restraint and good sense', and rebuked Julian Amery, the right-wing Tory MP, for his scare stories. The headline of an article on the facing page was 'How Mugabe changed his spots'. The Guardian was no less enthusiastic, publishing a very positive lead- er under the headline, 'The clearest and best outcome', and dismissing charges of extrem- ism. 'To call a man a Marxist in the context of Zimbabwe is like calling him a black or a settler. It is a non-descriptive term,' the lead- er opined, and ended, 'Mission accom- plished, and not without aplomb.'

The right-wing press was more circum- spect, though not all Tories were. Robert Jackson, a Conservative Euro MP and spe- cial adviser to Soames, made the ridicu- lous statement, 'British constitutionalism has waved its magic wand over Rhodesia and it looks as though the pumpkin is turning into a carriage.' (Soames himself had earlier said of Mugabe, in late 1979, 'He sounds a terrible chap.') The Times and Economist both agonised, trying to find good in Mugabe while not ignoring his record. The Daily Telegraph, in a full- column leader that bears all the marks of Bill Deedes, also attempted to find cause for hope amid the ruins. 'Meanwhile Zim- babwe Rhodesia is launched on a journey into the dark and inscrutable unknown, taking with her our prayers and deep anxi- eties and — dare we say? — some mea- sure of fingers-crossed contrition for what we may have brought about.' The Spectator, I'm glad to say, hit the nail on the head, describing 'Mugabe's triumph' as 'Carrington's defeat' — Lord Carring- ton having presided over the Lancaster House Agreement, 'The upshot is what [he] has been seeking to avoid.'

After a few months the press mostly for- got Zimbabwe. Mugabe's immediate target was not the whites but the Matabele, on whom he unleashed the notorious Fifth Brigade. Even now no one knows how many thousands of Matabele were killed. These events were reported in the British media, though with only a fraction of the interest that would have been shown had the victims been white. Donald Trelford, then editor of the Observer, stumbled across the story in April 1984 after he had been dispatched to interview Mugabe by his proprietor, Tiny Rowland. Even so, Mr Trelford's brilliant despatch was largely deconstructed in the British media in the context of his own power struggle with Rowland. Mugabe's extermination of thousands of Matabele was of secondary importance.

Years passed during which the name of Robert Mugabe barely appeared in British newspapers. Some good things were done in Zimbabwe, such as the improvement of the educational system, but Mugabe's poli- cies of centralised planning, and his shame- less corruption, were all the time impover- ishing the country. None of this seemed greatly to concern the Left — nor, for much of the time, the Right. The turning point may have been Mugabe's lunatic attacks on homosexuals. The great freedom fighter was politically incorrect. The left-wing press began to see him as the bad man that he had been all along, and, irony of ironies, the once-vilified white farmers have sud- denly become victims.

A lot of people got Mugabe wrong — not just Tony Berm but most of the Labour party and some of the Conservative party and the left-wing press and Lord Carrington and his Foreign Office advisers, who included Charles Powell. And now that everyone is clambering aboard this bandwagon on which some of us have been travelling for some time, I feel like saying, hang on, you were wrong then and you're not quite right now. Zimbabwe is still not a police state and Mugabe is not a dictator in the mould of Idi Amin or Emperor Bokassa. There is an independent judiciary in Zimbabwe and there is free speech, so that Ian Smith, the former prime minister, can openly describe Mugabe as a gangster and get away with it. There are fiercely independent newspapers, such as the recently launched Daily News, whose sales are overtaking those of the gov- ernment-controlled Herald. But these are fine points. I realise that for most of us for most of the time Africa is merely an ideolog- ical battleground in which we pit our own differences with little interest in the precise realities. Let's keep it simple. Mugabe is a bad man, and always was.