"You have the jewel of Africa in your hands,"
said President Samora Machel of Mozambique and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to Robert Mugabe, at the moment of independence, in 1980. "Now look after
it." Twenty-three years later, the "jewel" is ruined,
Southern Rhodesia had fine and
functioning railways, good roads; its towns were policed and clean. It could
grow anything, tropical fruit like pineapples, mangoes, bananas, plantains,
pawpaws, passion fruit, temperate fruits like apples, peaches, plums. The
staple food, maize, grew like a weed and fed surrounding countries as well.
Peanuts, sunflowers, cotton, the millets and small grains that used to be
staple foods before maize, flourished. Minerals: gold, chromium, asbestos,
platinum, and rich coalfields. The dammed Zambezi River created the Kariba Lake, which fed electricity north and south. A paradise, and not only for the
whites. The blacks did well, too, at least physically. Not politically: it
was a police state and a harsh one. When the blacks rebelled and won their
war in 1979 they looked forward to a plenty and competence that existed
nowhere else in Africa, not even in South Africa, which was bedeviled by its
many mutually hostile tribes and its vast shantytowns. But paradise has to
have a superstructure, an infrastructure, and by now it is going, going-
One man is associated with the calamity, Robert Mugabe.
For a while I wondered if the word "tragedy" could be applied here,
greatness brought low, but Mugabe, despite his early reputation, was never
great; he was always a frightened little man. There is a tragedy, all right,
but it is Zimbabwe's.
Mugabe is now widely execrated, and rightly, but blame
for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence about him
for so many years among liberals and well-wishers-the politically correct.
What crimes have been committed in the name of political correctness. A man
may get away with murder, if he is black. Mugabe did, for many years.
Early in his regime, we might have seen what he was when
the infamous Fifth Brigade, thugs from North Korea, hated by blacks and
whites alike, became Mugabe's bodyguards, and did his dirty work, notably when
he attempted what was virtually genocide of thousands of the Ndebele people
(the second-largest tribe) in Matebeleland. Hindsight gives us a clear
picture of his depredations: at the time mendacity ruled, all was confusion.
But the fact was, we knew the Fifth Brigade: it had already murdered and
It was confusion, too, because Mugabe seemed to begin
well. He was a Marxist, true, but like other politicians before and since he
said the right things, for instance, that blacks and whites must flourish together.
And he passed a law against corruption, forbidding the top echelons of
officials from owning more than one property. When his officials only
laughed, and bought farm after farm, hotels, businesses, anything they could
grab, he did nothing. It was at that point that everyone should have said,
"This is no strongman, he is a weakling."
From the start Mugabe has been afraid to show his face
out of doors without outriders, guards, motorcades -all the defenses of
paranoia. When Queen Elizabeth visited, refused to ride with him in an
armoured car, and insisted on an open one, people jeered as the frightened
man clung to the sides of the car while the insouciant sovereign smiled and
Here is the heart of the tragedy. Never has a ruler come
to power with more goodwill from his people. Virtually everybody, the people
who voted for him and the ones who did not, forgot their differences and
expected from him the fulfillment of their dreams-and of his promises. He
could have done practically anything in those early years. When you travelled
around the villages in the early Eighties you heard from everyone,
"Mugabe will do this.... Comrade Mugabe will do that...." He will
see the value of this or that plan, build this shop or clinic or road, help
us with our school, check that bullying official. If Mugabe had had the sense
to trust what he heard, he could have transformed the country. But he did not
know how much he was trusted, because he was too afraid to leave his
self-created prison, meeting only sycophants and cronies, and governing
through inflexible Marxist rules taken from textbooks.
Someone allowed into his presence who came looking for
evidence of Mugabe's reputation as a well-read man would have found only
Marxist tracts. He had come to Marxism late, converted by the Mozambique independence leader Samora Machel, who was a sensible, large-minded man, unlike
Mugabe, who tended to be narrowly doctrinaire. (Machel was murdered by the
South African secret police in 1986.) There are those who blame Mugabe's wife
Sally, from Ghana, for what seemed like a change in his personality. She was,
this Mother of the Nation, corrupt and unashamed of it. Departing the country
for a trip home to Ghana and stopped at customs with the equivalent of a
million pounds' worth of Zimbabwean money, she protested it was her money,
and only laughed when she had to leave it and travel on without. But that was
when legality still remained.
Mugabe gave refuge to the brutal dictator Mengistu from Ethiopia-he is still there, safe from the people who would try him as a war criminal. And
excuses were being made, as always. Mugabe had been in a brutal prison under
Ian Smith, the repressive prime minister of Rhodesia, who refused him
permission to attend his son's funeral. He had experienced nothing soft and
kind from the whites: Why should he now show kindness? As for Mengistu, well,
it was in the finest tradition of chivalrous hospitality to shelter refugees
from justice. Mugabe became a close friend of Mahathir bin Mohammed, the infamous
prime minister of Malaysia, and attempted to sell him a controlling interest
in Zimbabwe's electricity, but the quid pro quo was not enough and the deal
In the early Nineties there was a savage drought in Zimbabwe. When members of Mugabe's government sold the grain from the silos and pocketed
the money, by then the popular contempt for these ministers was such that the
crime was seen as just another little item of a much larger criminal record.
United Nations officials were saying as early as the mid-Eighties that
Mugabe's government was the most rapacious bunch of thieves in Africa. Well, said his defenders, often members of his bureaucracy, corruption was not
unknown in Europe. The secret police were arbitrary and bullying? "But
you can't expect democracy of the European type in Africa."
If you visited Zimbabwe after Mugabe took control and met
only the whites and blacks who hardly ever leave Harare or Bulawayo, you
heard laments for the corruption, the incompetence, the general collapse of
services. But if you took the trouble to visit the villages then it was
impossible not to be inspired by the people. The Shona are a sane, humorous,
enterprising people, but they have a fault: they are too patient. I have
heard a famous Zimbabwean writer complain: What is wrong with us? We put up
with you whites far too long and now we are putting up with this gang of
The villagers joked about their oppressors, and continued
to dream about better times, which they were only too ready to help bring
into being by their own efforts. In the early years, promised free primary
and secondary and university education, they were helping to build schools,
unpaid, though soon free education or, in some places, any education at all
would be a memory. For education, they did much better under the whites.
Denied a decent education, or any, they hungered for
books. At least two surveys said that what they wanted was novels,
particularly classics, science fiction, poetry, historical fiction, fairy
stories, and while at the beginning these were books that were supplied, soon
rocketing inflation made it impossible to buy anything but the cheapest and
locally published instruction books. How to Run a Shop. How to Keep Poultry.
Car Repairs. That kind of thing. A box of even elementary books may transform
a village. A box of books, sent by a humanitarian organisation, may be, often
is, greeted with tears. One man complained, "They taught us how to read,
but now there are no books." Three years ago a Penguin classic cost more
than a month's wage.
But even with books that were so far from what was
originally dreamed of, in no time study classes began, literacy classes, math
lessons, citizenship classes. The appearance of a box of books released (will
release again?) astonishing energies. A village sunk in apathy will come to
life overnight. This is not a people who wait for handouts: a little
encouragement, help, sets them off on all kinds of projects. In January 
I heard from a member of a book team with which I'm associated that
distributes books in villages, "I was out this week. I was talking about
books to people who haven't eaten for three days."
And there it is, the tragedy, one that could not have
happened if Mugabe had been even half the man people took him for. People
say, "Get rid of Mugabe and we will get back on course." But he has
created a whole caste of greedy people like himself. Get rid of him and there
will be others as bad. If this is the merest pessimism and the crooks can be
got rid of, then there will remain the damage that has been done.
Sometimes an adage dulled with age comes startlingly to
life. "There is a tide in the affairs of men...." Had Mugabe ridden
the tide that was running at Independence, Zimbabwe could have been an
example to all of Africa. But he didn't, and the shallows and the miseries
are there as evidence. Nothing can now recover that opportunity. Those of us
who are old enough can only mourn lost possibilities. Familiar words carry a
history lesson as sharp as the bitterest experience. There are indeed tides
that will never repeat themselves.
The racial hatred that Mugabe has fomented will not die.
Throughout the period from Independence onward, beginning in 1980, anti-white
rhetoric went alongside the Marxist slogans that were as primitive as they
would be if Marxism had been invented in Zim-babwe. Yet what everyone
remarked on was the amiable race relations, friendliness between whites and
blacks, compared to South Africa, where apartheid created such a bitter
legacy. Fiery articles in the government press were read in the same
perfunctory way as were the public pronouncements of the Soviet government,
or any Communist government. The official rhetoric in Zimbabwe was worse than anywhere in Africa-so said a United Nations report. "Never has
rhetoric had so little to do with what actually went on."
This anti-white rhetoric was directed at whites
generally, but particularly at the white farmers, who owned sizable tracts of
land and were growing most of the food and earning Zimbabwe's foreign
currency. They were well aware of their anomalous position, and the
Commercial Farmers Union, the organisation representing white farmers and
some black ones, was putting forward proposals for a redistribution of land
that would not disrupt the economy. Not one of these proposals was ever even
acknowledged by Mugabe. Meanwhile farms that had already been acquired by the
government were not being turned over to the poor blacks; that happened only
at the beginning. They were being acquired by Mugabe's greedy cronies.
Why then, when there was no need for confrontation, did
Mugabe unexpectedly launch an attack on the white farmers, in a clear attempt
to drive them from the country?
Mugabe had enjoyed seeing himself as the senior black
leader in southern Africa: he did so at a time when he was increasingly seen
as an embarrassment. When Nelson Mandela appeared and became the world's
sweetheart, Mugabe, according to many accounts, was furious. There were
ridiculous scenes where Mugabe imagined he was establishing himself as first
in importance. At lunchtime during a conference of African leaders, Mandela
got in line with everyone else at the buffet, while Mugabe sat at a table
that had been moved so that it would be prominent in the room, and had his
followers bring dishes to him. This made everyone laugh at him; but
surrounded by flatterers, he never understood why people were laughing.
He became desperate to establish himself as the Great
Leader. The issue of land had always rankled, not least because during the
War of Liberation in the 1970s he had promised land to "every man,
woman, and child." Why had he made such foolish and impossible promises?
Ah, but then it was by no means certain that he would come first in the race
to be leader. But now he, Mugabe, the great statesman, the father of his
people, would throw out the white farmers, and Mandela, that paltry figure,
would be forgotten. And in some backward parts of Africa, and other places,
he became famous. He did so at the price of ruining his country, already so
misgoverned by his regime that it was on the edge of collapse. And there
remains an unanswered question: Why did he act so destructively? Mugabe isn't
stupid. His cunning as he established his position showed a scheming,
guileful man. For instance, the war in the Congo, which impoverished Zimbabwe when it was already on its knees, enriched him personally with the loot he got
from its mines in return for his sending troops. And it enabled him to buy
off his greatest threat, the army officers who are the only force that can
Many people said he was mad: I among them. But perhaps
one has to be a sentimental liberal to doubt that a leader, particularly one
so prolific with resounding onward-and-upward rhetoric, could be making plans
that would ruin his people. Did he really not foresee what his campaign of
forcible acquisition of land would achieve? A friend of mine, meeting a
former friend, black, a Mugabe crony, in the street, was told, "We never
meant things to get out of hand like this"-this was spoken casually as
if about some unimportant failure. "The trouble is that Robert can think
of nothing but Tony Blair. He is convinced Blair wants to ruin him, even kill
him." It is true that Blair has been critical of Mugabe, but, as my
friend said, "I doubt whether Tony Blair thinks of Mugabe for as much as
half a minute a week." "Ah, but Robert would not like to believe
that," was the answer.
Now, putting on the spectacles of hindsight, it is easy
to recall scenes and events that spelled danger. First, and above all, there
were the masses of unemployed black youths. Anywhere in Zimbabwe, along the roads, in distant villages, outside schools and colleges and missions,
were very young black men just standing about, or more often trying to sell
pitiful carvings of wooden beasts- elephants and giraffes and so forth. Also,
some sculptures. Zimbabwe has some fine black sculptors. Typical of the
magical thinking that has always bedeviled Zimbabwe were such statements as
"If he can make all that money from carving stone figures, then so can
I." There are places in Zimbabwe where sculptures cover acres. Most of
it is rubbish.
The youths had no future because Mugabe's promises had
come to nothing; they were hungry and idle. It was these youths that Mugabe
paid to harass and take over the white farms (and the richer black farms too)
in the name of the war veterans. And they are still hanging around,
brutalised, drunk, and futureless, because if they have acquired a little
plot of land, they have no equipment, or seeds, or, above all, skills. Many
have already drifted back to town. They are heard to complain, "We did
all these bad things for Comrade Mugabe but now he has forgotten us."
Another scene: it is 1982, two years after Independence, and there is still a sullen, raw, bitter postwar mood. But in an inn,
formerly a white drinking hole, in the mountains above the town of Mutare a
group of young black people are dressed for a night out. The men are in
dinner jackets, the girls in dance dresses. They look like an advertisement
in a glossy magazine from the Thirties. Nothing could be more incongruous in
this homely rural setting, which has probably never before seen a dinner
jacket or a d,collet, in its life. But they are thinking that this is what
the long war was about. Here they are in a hotel, formerly a white enclave,
dressed to the nines-just like the whites, drinking fancy drinks, and, above
all, waited on, like the whites, by black menials.
For the ninety years of white occupation, the blacks,
most of them roughly torn from their village life, had watched unreachably
above them rich whites with their cars and their black servants. The white
people they saw as rich included many poor ones, but most blacks were so far
below an apparently cohesive white layer that they could see only riches.
Effortless riches. Take the example of a white youth who left home in Britain because of unemployment during the depression of the 1930s and went to work as an
assistant to an established farmer. Before he tried for a loan to make the
gamble on farming on his own account, he was a man without more than his
clothes; the family in Britain was probably only too pleased to get rid of
him. To the black waiter who served that young man beer at a district Sports
Day he seemed like some rich apparition for whom everything was possible. The
whites were all rich. And the most enticing of the dreams, the unobtainable
dreams, was the life of the white farmer, the life of the verandas. When they
thought of Mugabe's promise during the War of Liberation, that everyone would
have land, this is what they wanted. A house like a white farmer's, the
spreading acres, the black menials effortless ease.
A fact about the white farmers that must be recorded is
that most of them were very good farmers, inventive, industrious, with an
ability to make do and mend, even when Mugabe would not allow the import of
spare parts, supplies, sufficient gasoline. To visit a white farm was to be
taken around by people proud of their resourcefulness. "I invented
this," one of them might say, referring to a process in the curing of
tobacco or a bit of machinery. There was the farmer's wife who made a cottage
industry out of delicious crystallized preserves from the gourds the cattle
eat. Many built up their farms from nothing-from raw bush. By the Nineties
their attitude toward their black employees was changing. I was brought up
with the unregenerate white farmers of the early times. At best they had
maternal and paternal attitudes toward blacks, running basic clinics or
elementary schools. At worst they were brutal. Because of the enforced exodus
of the white farmers, attempts are being made now to soften their history.
This won't work; too much has been written and recorded about their domination
of blacks. But visiting them in the late Eighties or the Nineties, I found
that they were, most of them, making attempts to change.
As the collapse of the country worsens, few, however, can
resist saying, "We told you so. We always said they couldn't run a
bicycle shop, let alone a country." Such remarks come from people who
had made sure there was not merely a glass ceiling but a steel one,
preventing blacks from rising, from getting education and experience. In old Southern Rhodesia, when there were too many blacks on the voters' roll for the whites'
comfort, the qualifications for voters were adjusted upward to exclude them.
At Zambia's independence celebrations, I saw a district commissioner radiant
with malicious delight because the black newcomers had mismanaged a minor
aspect of the festivities. Not very nice people, some of the white settlers
and administrators. But changing. Alan Paton, in Cry the Beloved Country:
"...By the time they have come to loving, we will have come to
The reporting of the transfer of farmland has been
biased. All the emphasis has been on the white farmers who are losing their
land. Not nearly enough has been said about the hundreds of thousands of
black farm workers who lost their work and their homes, and also were beaten
up (and are still being beaten up), their wives raped, and their daughters
too. Well-off black farmers-some assisted by their white neighbours-and more
modest black farmers have had their land taken from them. A key fact, hardly
mentioned, is that since Independence 80 percent of the farms have changed
hands, and under the law they had to be offered first to the government,
which refused them. Mugabe's rhetoric about white farmers grabbing land from
the blacks is contradicted by this fact.
As a result of his campaign of misinformation, moreover,
you meet people who will tell you, "The whites threw my grandparents off
their farm and took their house." At the time of the whites' arrival in
the area that is now Zimbabwe there were a quarter of a million blacks, and
they lived in villages of mud-walled, grass-roofed huts. The women grew
pumpkins and the maize imported from South America, and gathered plants from
the bush. The men hunted. When I was a girl you met the men walking through
the bush, dressed in animal skins, carrying assegais, people a step or two up
from hunter-gatherers. On a BBC program you hear a young woman, in all
sincerity, saying that the playing of the mbira (thin strips of metal on a
sounding gourd, which whites called the hand piano) was formerly forbidden
under white rule. Yet when I was growing up the tinkling of the hand piano
could be heard everywhere, including black villages. It will take a long time
for Mugabe's version of history to be corrected, if it ever is.
He has recently set up compulsory indoctrination classes
in villages throughout the country, mostly for teachers, but for other
officials too, where they are taught that they should worship Mugabe and be
totally obedient to ZANU, the ruling party. All the ills of Zimbabwe are said to be caused by machinations of Tony Blair in cahoots with the opposition
parties. The students learn useful skills like how to murder opponents with a
blow to sensitive parts of the body, and how to strangle them with bootlaces.
This type of sadistic cruelty is not part of their own traditions and
history, to which lip service is continually paid.
Many blacks I've talked to and heard about do not like
their own history, although they talk about "our customs." In fact,
many I have seen and known cannot wait to wear dance dresses, behave like
whites, live the white life, put the bush far behind them. A group of
sophisticated, urban blacks will make sentimental remarks about photographs
of a traditional village, but they haven't been near their villages for
If you want to see just how much "our customs"
really mean, then visit the park in Harare on Saturday or Sunday, where
dozens of wedding groups arrive, the brides in flouncy white and veils, with
bridesmaids and pages. The woman may be very pregnant, or with several small
children. But this rite of passage into the modern world, the white man's
wedding, they must have, and the photographers are there to preserve the
beautiful sight for posterity. (It should perhaps be asked why a ritual
invented by middle-class Victorians should have conquered the world from Japan to the Virgin Islands.)
In fact, "our customs" are strongly valued when
they have to do with the subjection of women. The law of the land may say one
thing on paper- Zimbabwe's early Marxist phase, as in other Communist
countries, imposed many kinds of equality. But "our customs" still
make sure that a woman has no right to the money she has earned, or to her
children. She is her husband's vassal. When Mugabe was met at the airport by
hand-clapping and kowtowing maidens, and he was criticised (in the early
days) for this sign of backwardness, the reply was "it is our
A man in a three-piece suit, in a government job, will
still beat his wife-or try to; the women are fighting back. And he will
consult soothsayers and shamans. Superstition still rules. It is "our
custom" to look for the evil eye when a family member gets sick or a cow
falls lame and then pay the witch doctor to exact revenge. It is becoming
"our custom" to seek for a virgin if you are HIV-positive, for to
have sex with these will cure you of AIDS. The use of human parts in medicine
goes on; it is the custom. The politically correct response to this kind of
thing is, But how can we criticize the blacks for being superstitious when
we had President Reagan who consulted fortune-tellers.
By now the expulsion of the white farmers is nearly
complete. It should be evident that what we have been seeing is not
principally about race; it is a transfer of property. Many of the poor people
who settled on white land have been thrown off again by powerful blacks.
Those still there may grow maize and pumpkins and the plant called rape on
their patches-when it rains, that is. There is a bad drought again. The poor
settlers are farming without machinery or even, in some cases, basic
implements, such as shovels. The irrigation systems have broken down. I
remember another prophetic scene from the Eighties: a water tank of a certain
school was not working. A valve had gone. No one replaced it. The women went
back to getting water from the river, which was infested with bilharzia. Two
years later the water tank had not been mended.
The recent settlers who had depended on Mugabe
("Comrade Mugabe will look after us"; "Comrade Mugabe
will...") have no chance of getting their children into school because
school (unlike under the whites) costs a lot of money; and how will they get
money for clothes, even if they survive this terrible time when there is
nothing to eat and people are dying of hunger? If they manage to stay on the
land they will be as poor as subsistence peasants anywhere in the world.
Every telephone conversation with people in Zimbabwe, every visitor from there provides tales as bizarre as anything else out of Africa.
The black elite drive around the white farms and say,
"I'll have that one." "No, I want that one." Mugabe's
wife had herself driven through the countryside, picking among farms like
fruit on a stall. She chose a really nice one. A white farmer's wife watched
a black woman arrive in her smart car. She was pushed out of the way, while
the interloper began measuring for curtains. "Are you going to live
here?" inquired the dispossessed wife. "Me? I wouldn't live in this
dump," the black woman said scornfully. "I'm going to let it. I've
already got three houses in Borrowdale" (the most fashionable suburb in Harare).
Around Harare and Bulawayo, during weekends on the farms
taken over by blacks, cars arrive and out pile the city dwellers enjoying a
rural excursion. They set up a barbecue; music blares across the veld; they
sing and dance and eat, spread themselves for the night through the empty
house, and depart next morning back to Harare.
A farmer from Matebeleland, third generation, whose
boreholes supplied water not only to his labourers but to those on nearby
farms, now black-owned, saw a car driving up and some drunk black men get
out. "We are taking your farm," they said. "I shall take you
to court," he said. "But we are the law now." They had parked
the car outside his gate. He asked them to move it. "That's where the
cattle come across to the dam," he said."We know why you want us to
move. You don't like to look at black people." "But I look at black
people every day from sunup to sundown."
They drove off, returned drunk, and took over a wing of
his house, where they drank and caroused, day and night. After months the
farmer gave up: he had been maintaining the water machinery, but after he
tried to show the interlopers how to look after it, and failed, he simply
left. "Why are you taking away those ladders?" he was asked.
"They are my ladders," he said."No they aren't. They are our
ladders. You are sabotaging us."
A farmer, observing how the white farmers around him were
being stopped from planting crops by the black mobs, thought he would accept
his fate and simply leave. But one of the leaders asked him to plant his
crop, tobacco, the chief currency earner. "What's the point, you'll only
take it." "No, you plant, you'll be safe." He planted, the
crop was a good one, and when it was reaped, baled, and ready, the mob leader
told him that now he must get off the farm. "I am taking your farm and
Some white farmers are in Mozambique; they had to begin
again without capital, implements, machinery. Skilled and hard-working, they
will survive. They are in Zambia, invited by the black government: white
farmers in Zambia produce nearly all the food. They are also in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, while the people in Zimbabwe are starving.
A month ago came this tale. The black occupiers of a
white farm, a ranch, drove dozens of cattle into a dam and drowned them.
Traditionally Africans in Zimbabwe have loved cattle, their
"mombies" as they call them. Cattle are currency, riches, links with
the past, a promise for the future. It is hard to believe that Africans could
harm one of those precious beasts. What has happened?
It is very easy to corrupt a country, a people.
And now a small, more hopeful story. On a pig farm the
animals were dying because they had not been fed and watered since the white
farmers were thrown off the land. And drunken blacks had hacked pieces of
meat off some of the pigs and left them to die. A white woman vet stood by
weeping, forbidden to help the pigs. But then one of the new black settlers,
unseen by the others, came to her and said, "We are townspeople, we have
these animals now and don't know how to look after them. Please help
us." They had taken a couple of the dying pigs and put them in a shed.
The white woman went with him and began showing him and his wife how to look
after the animals.
The latest news is that Mugabe, under a contract with a
Chinese company, is importing Chinese farmers to grow food, since the
forcibly acquired white farms are not producing. He says this is because
there is no farm machinery. Yet all the expelled white farmers had been
forced to leave behind their machinery. If lack of machinery is the problem,
then why not import some? But is the story true? It has the tone of zany,
brutal, hasty improvisation that characterises news from Mugabe. We can pity
the Chinese, who may not be protected against Mugabe's arbitrary cruelties.
And what about the poor blacks who will yet again watch their land being
taken from them?
This article originally
appeared in The New York Review of Books, April 2003. If it were written in
2008, Ms. Lessing would certainly have more to say about the recent events in
Zimbabwe, where she grew up. [Ed.]