The life of Robert Mugabe is a human tragedy, but his awful failure is not all of his own doing. Mugabe could have been another Nelson Mandela—the renowned father of his nation, and a moral exemplar. Instead, he is finally being pushed from power in disgrace, years after a clear majority of Zimbabweans turned decisively against his violent tyranny.
What went wrong? So far, the mainstream media is missing or downplaying key elements of the Zimbabwe story, partly by whitewashing the poisonous legacy of British colonialism.
Although Mugabe’s own generals are orchestrating his downfall, there would be no change if there had not been two decades of courageous resistance preceding the latest crisis. The giant peaceful demonstration in Harare on November 18 is only the latest example of how a broad-based opposition maintained its commitment to nonviolence even after the ruling ZANU-PF party unleashed police, army, and Youth League thugs to assault and murder. One of the opposition stalwarts, the labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has survived beatings and three assassination attempts, during one of which the assailants tried to throw him out of a 10-story building. The pro-democracy forces have won a series of elections since 2000, and only the regime’s brutal force kept them from governing.
It may seem hard to believe now, but Robert Mugabe was once the most popular man in Zimbabwe. No one who was in the country for the historic February 1980 election will ever forget the exuberance of black Zimbabweans as they walked miles through the countryside to giant ZANU-PF election rallies, and then waited in line for hours to vote. That election took place during a tenuous cease-fire after a vicious seven-year liberation struggle, during which young soldiers from Mugabe’s party and another liberation group, ZAPU, fought their way to the negotiating table. I met young black fighters back then who told me the white-minority regime’s troopers routinely hanged anyone they captured; I also heard those white soldiers refer to blacks as “floppies”—because they supposedly “flopped” when you shot them.
The last time I saw Mugabe he was standing in a backyard in the northern suburbs of Salisbury, as Harare was still called, about to reassure the world after ZANU-PF’s smashing victory, while his elegant first wife, Sally, passed out home-made snacks to the international press. His soothing remarks won widespread approval, and Zimbabwe settled in for several years of peace and reconstruction.
But Britain had left behind two evil legacies: the harsh lesson that violence works, and a grotesquely unequal distribution of farmland. Legally, Britain had remained responsible for the colony it still called Rhodesia, and so it was Prince Charles who appeared at the ceremony that April to lower the Union Jack. In fact, the white colonialist Rhodesian minority, led by a disagreeable, slippery big landowner named Ian Smith, had unilaterally declared “independence” from the UK in 1965, in order to maintain a system of white supremacy just like that of apartheid South Africa. Smith boasted that Rhodesia would not have black-majority rule for “a thousand years.”