The late Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe. (Internet photo)

By *Jomo Sanga Thomas 

(Plain Talk, Sept. 13, 2019 — Guest column by Richard Drayton)

Mugabe is a hate figure in the West, especially in Britain, where the political right had such important family, economic and political connections to white-minority Rhodesia. And he did his own memory no favours: he was a man with very serious flaws, whose government was marked by episodes of state violence and many authoritarian mutilations of Zimbabwe’s democracy. But while the word “dictator” is bandied about, he was not a dictator: Zimbabwe retained elections, opposition parties and an opposition press, a surprisingly independent judiciary, and in fact the preservation of white capital’s ownership of most of the economy. Mugabe deserves to be examined with more care than he seems to be. For what we have here is not just a man but a document of 20th century history: his achievements and failures were the products of historical forces which he was only partly the master of.

Immediately after independence in 1980, there seemed every reason to applaud Mugabe’s efforts. Here was the poor Shona boy who had made it to Fort Hare University, had spent a decade in grim imprisonment, then had led a war of liberation which he had won. Mugabe appeared to have managed a peaceful transition from the terror of the white minority regime in Rhodesia to a democracy in which significant new initiatives in education and healthcare were accompanied by economic growth. The Zimbabwe army was helping Mozambique fight the Renamo terrorists who had been created by South Africa and the CIA. Zimbabwe’s success was clearly strengthening the pressure on apartheid South Africa.

Few people knew that by 1983, Mugabe’s 5th Brigade were conducting a murderous crushing of a revolt in Matebeleland which resulted in the deaths of 10,000-20,000 people. What is interesting is that the Western states and media were quite silent at the time about this early dark turn. So long as he kept the white minority and their property safe, Western governments didn’t really care. The British, however, did not keep their side of the bargain. At the Lancaster House negotiations, it had been agreed that the British government would provide the funds which would allow for white farmers to be bought out to allow land reform.

For people who had suffered immensely in the liberation war to find themselves as poor as before, created great discontent. Mugabe tried to get land reform going with state revenues, on the willing buyer willing seller model. But nothing worked. In the 1990s it was still true that 1% of the population, almost all white, owned 70% of the arable land. That’s when he decided to take the step of encouraging people to squat on white owned farmland. By 2000, the state was encouraging reverse land grabs. It is in that late 1990s moment that the IMF decided to squeeze Zimbabwe, and he became the “African Hitler” of the establishment media. The people in Britain who had fervently backed white minority Rhodesia now became very concerned about the fate of democracy in Zimbabwe.

This 1990s and early 2000s period was accompanied by high levels of violence of all kinds, and a collapse of the economy. Trade unions and demonstrations met state repression. Opposition politicians were harassed. 

Ndebele Zimbabweans felt this was a Shona-biased government, while White and Asian Zimbabweans were made to feel unsafe, and to have their membership in the nation brought into question. At the same time, the political elite appeared to be living well, through their access to the state, and there was the rumour of corruption.

How are we to make sense of this collapse of the promise of the moment of Zimbabwe’s independence?

First, we need to understand that political independence and democracy means nothing if it is accompanied by extraordinary economic inequality. The land and inequality crisis in Zimbabwe has its partners in every postcolonial country, in particular in Africa, where independence in Kenya and the end of apartheid in South Africa left almost unchanged the structure of wealth and poverty created by white supremacist regimes. This is why there remains across Africa, and indeed in the wider African diaspora, great compassion, if not even in many quarters outright support, for what Mugabe was trying to do, in his chaotic and often violent way.

Second, we need to take stock of the legacies of 100 years of violence and undemocracy in Rhodesia. 

The 1990s turn in Mugabe’s policy was undoubtedly provoked by memory of the 1890s uprising which was crushed with extraordinary brutality by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa company troops. That 1890s defeat led to the first land grab by White farmers. And it was not just the violence of conquest, colonial power and the farming economy was accompanied by extraordinary private physical violence. Beatings of blacks were a standard part of ordinary life. Its result was an economic deprivation, extreme poverty and hunger. Those who know deprivation early in their lives will spend the rest of it seeking compensations.

Apart from this physical violence, we need to take stock of the psychic violence of white supremacy — it is said that Mugabe hated reggae and only valued western classical music — but in this I am reminded of Marcus Garvey’s refusal of jazz and Eric Williams’s contempt for carnival, we should not forget how even the anticolonial leader was formed by the colonial experience, by a culture of contempt and self-contempt, which could only be conquered by wearing a suit, acquiring first hand taste of “high culture” and showing you were the civilised match of the white man.

Mugabe’s life, which bore all these invisible wounds, was knotted by scar tissue which stiffened him and made his movement through the world awkward. That Mugabe, with all his horrors, we bury with regret and compassion, to be absorbed by Zimbabwe’s future history. May he in death be healed, or at least separated from that experience of pain and mutilation. But there is another Mugabe, the little boy who said to himself this is not fair, this is not right, I will fight, whatever the cost, we will demand freedom and justice. That Mugabe who lent his help to the making of freedom in Angola, Namibia and South Africa. That brave big-hearted man is an object of great interest to me. For his courage is shared by many, even are many of his wounds and scars. Mugabe is in no simple way a hero, but there was much heroic about the man.

*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to

12 replies on “Robert Mugabe, a history of wounds”

  1. Sanga I understand all what you ar e saying, I applaud him for taking back the land but there was no excuse for destroyin the economy.

      1. Strange that sanctions to other countries did not destroy them as much as Zimb has been destroyed. Even Cuba never got so bad and they have had things far, far worse. Truth is that these Socialist Dictatorships do not ever do so well as free-market, free nations. Venezuela has more resources than any nation on earth, but leadership has never had the intelligence or concern to use them for the benefit of the people…just the empty words that they care. Singapore does not have agriculture or even drinking water but the most successful nation on Earth!. Fact is that Maduro, Mugabe and other Socialist dictators are there for themselves and not for thier people, otherwise, like Iran, they would be able to find a way to go around sanctions. Part of the problem is that some of these leaders just lack the intelligence and compassion to make things work, as long as they themselves are able to live in luxury.

    1. Amos Greaves.
      31st August 2019 at 11:05 PM

      “There is no such word in the English language that is referred to as “irregardless “.Is this a new invention?”

      But you are so very wrong Amos, this a real word listed in most all dictionaries. Along with a lot of other words beginning with ‘ir’, about 600 in total.


      The fist known use of irregardless was 1795.

      Its all very well making statements as you regularly do, but check your facts.

  2. If one had never experienced hardship, then take a little trip to today’s Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia. Hardship however, is well known among certain groups in SVG, particularly the mass of our unemployed, just as it is now in Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe. The said same Zimbabwe that was Rhodesia then known as the “Bread-Basket of Africa”.

    So what went wrong for the country? Jomo and others like him, could never accept the fact that anti-colonialist could be grubby dictators, do wrong or commit errors in doctrines.

    Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years until he was forced to resign in the wake of a military coup in November 2017, died last week in a Singapore hospital at the age of 95. And while Mugabe’s coffin, draped in the green, black, gold and red Zimbabwean flag, was marched slowly into the country’s sports stadium, which was only half-full, many Zimbabweans were asking who is going to pay to build the proposed mausoleum to house his remains.

    A very pertinent question, for by the time Mugabe was forced to step down from office in 2017 to wild celebrations across the country of 13 million people, he was viewed by many at home and abroad as a power-obsessed leader who unleashed death squads, rigged elections and ruined the economy just to keep control. Something we here can understand full well!

    Indeed, by the time he was forced to step down in 2017after 37 years, Zimbabwe was absolutely “Stone-broke”. No longer the Bread Basket of Africa but rather truly a basket case in Africa. Zimbabweans know that the country has no money to build the proposed mausoleum. Money that could be better spent elsewhere like in public hospitals where there is a lack of essential drugs. A sentiment that rings home true too with us here in SVG.

    After the Civil was Mugabe was feted as a champion of racial reconciliation when he came to power in 1980 in one of the last African states to throw off white colonial rule. Much was expected of him then but sadly, the revolution was most brutally betrayed, as it so often is, by power-obsessed dictators.

  3. Jomo sanga Thomas your veiws here seem to be very ate educated in the world now educate yourself in righteousness .so you can see the light

      1. When at a university function in London I met a young lady whose family had farmed in Rhodesia for several generations.

        Their farm was taken from them along with cattle breeding stock. Within 12 months the whole of the breeding stock had been eaten along with several prize bulls.

  4. Democracy is very fragile Jomo and constantly needs defending but because of its very nature, it leaves itself open to be taken over by very anti-democratic forces. Here in the Zimbabwean experience is a warning for future generations.

    Indeed, it is so easy to move from a plural democratic society, to a totalitarian dictatorship, such as experienced in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua and even as many would say, as is in now being experienced in SVG too.

    Democracy requires first of all popular belief and popular support in institutions such as a free press, an independent judiciary and truly real democratic elections. What we have found in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, in Venezuela, Cuba, and in Nicaragua and repeat, even as many would say, now in our little SVG where one extended family have ruled over us, for indeed over the past near on twenty years, speaks volumes for this truism.

    This assault on democracy has allowed the state’s rulers to put their own plans into operation, no matter how nefarious or half-baked, despite opposition or real accountability. The institutions of democracy should never be taken for granted but needs vigorous defence against anti-democratic forces and against those hell-bent on creating ruling dynasties.

    And in Mugabe we can only say “thank God that all men eventually dies” and the way of all Dictators invariably ends up the same! From hero to zero evicted from power by the people or by one of their own inner circle.

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