REVIEW by Max Epstein

Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe
David Blair
Publisher: Continuum--2002

October 15, 2002

David Blair was born (in 1973) and raised in Africa. He was the Zimbabwe correspondent for a British newspaper, "The Daily Telegraph", from May 1999 to June 2001, when the government of Zimbabwe forced him to leave. In 2001 he was named "Young Journalist of the Year" by the Foreign Press Association for his coverage of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps because he was born in Africa, and loves Zimabwe, this is an angry account of President Robert Mugabe and of what he has done in Zimabwe.

Most of the book is devoted to a detailed description of the violence committed against Mugabes's enemies within the country. Assuming it all to be true, one fourth of the examples would have conveyed the point and left room for other relevant subjects. It almost seems as if Blair saw his task as one of compiling the evidence which would be needed if Mugabe were brought to trial.
Although his focus is, by intention, on the period he spent in Zimbabwe, Blair offers a sketch of the history of the country. It was founded as a colony in 1893 by a diamond magnate, Cecil Rhodes, and named, in his honor, Southern Rhodesia. Lush land and gold deposits attracted white settlers, who were allowed by Britain to establish a system which gave them most of the fertile land and most of the privileges.

Ian Smith became Prime Minister in 1964, and when he failed to persuade Britain to grant Rhodesia independence as a white dominated state, he declared it to be independent of Britain.
Smith enjoyed a few years of peace, but by 1972, there was a black rebellion which became a brutal war, lasting until 1979, at which time the two parties decided to talk. At a conference in London an agreement was reached on formal independence, with black majority rule, and a new name "Zimbabwe" after the ruins of an ancient African empire. Rhodesia then became the last of Britain's 15 African colonies to achieve independence. Elections were set for the next year, 1980, Mugabe won, and he has won every election since.

Mugabe began his first term with all the right moves. He was cordial to his former enemy, Ian Smith, he spoke of racial conciliation and he gave whites important positions in his new government. Mugabe said to Smith, "You have given me the Jewel of Africa", but this was not to last.

One of David Blair's primary subjects is the personality of Mugabe which he does not treat with a journalist's dispassion. He tells us that Mugabe was born in 1924 in a Jesuit mission station and has remained to this day, Catholic. As a boy he was scholarly, hard-working, and a loner. He did some teaching as a young man, and when, at the age of 36, he became involved with politics, he landed in jail. In fact, he spent a total of ten years in jails. Along the way he earned seven academic degrees, some from jail, where his wife sent him the content of books in her letters, because books were forbidden him.

Blair's discussion of Mugabe's academic accomplishments stands as an example of his emotional reporting. The degrees Mugabe earned were in history and English Literature, economics, education and administration, at the bachelors level; a masters in economics; and two law degrees. Yet, on page 24, Blair says "Mugabe's writings amount to nothing more than crude Marxism¼Mugabe may have had (sic) seven degrees, but what passed for political thought was indistinguishable from that of any illiterate rebel". I have sufficient familiarity with the academy to know that degrees do not necessarily produce brilliance or originality. Still, among African leaders struggling for independence or survival, Mugabe's wrtiings cannot have left him quite in the class of "illiterate rebel". But there is worse.

Throughout the book, Blair describes Mugabe as "paranoid" because he will do anything to retain power, including conjuring up imaginary enemies. In the first place, there appears to be nothing in Mr. Blair's credentials which would render him competent to make this clinical assessment. In the second place, from the point of view of another amateur psychologist, namely this reviewer, Mugabe does not appear to be paranoid. I once asked an African friend why there is so much political turmoil in most of Africa. He said it was mainly because most African countries have no mechanism by which to change leaders. Once empowered, they tend to remain until death, by natural cause or otherwise, or until overthrown (This discussion was well before the remarkable story of South Africa). In the context of African politics, the process of doing whatever it takes to stay in power is not relevant to the Western notion of paranoia. Further, the tendency to take extreme measures to remain in power could be charted as a continuum and not a dichotomy between Africa and the rest of the world .

There is nothing about this argument which is meant to characterize Mugabe as a nice guy. He clearly has been as brutal as the Europeans who ruled Africa, and perhaps more. In fact, Blair draws interesting comparisons between Mugabe and Ian Smith, but unfortunately, he finds them both "paranoid".

There is no question that Mugabe's policies have bankrupted the country, and foremost among his mistakes has been his seizure of farms owned by whites. His basic premise has been that whites, at the end of the 19th century, seized the rich land, and that it should now be returned to the blacks. Originally he spoke of compensation for land, then moved to expecting the British to pay (which to some extent they had promised), to finally the violent seizure with no compensation, combined with brutalizing the white farmers as well as their black farm hands. Farming was the mainstay of the economy of Zimbabwe, and turning farms over to blacks who had neither the knowledge nor the promised assistance to make them viable has created havoc and poverty. On top of this, the recipients of the farms tend to be Mugabe's inner circle, as opposed to poor peasants. Recently there was the scandalous story in the Los Angeles Times about Grace Mugabe, the president's wife, grabbing one of the finest farms for herself.
In the spring of 2002, Mugabe, now 78, once again won the election for president. That election was widely condemned by western observers, but was generally praised by African leaders as fair. Peter Beinhart, who writes in the TRB column for "The New Republic", said, in his April 18 2002 column, "In the West, the post-cold-war era began on November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell-and ended on September 11. In Africa it began several months later when South Africa released Nelson Mandela from prison. And it ended last week when Robert Mugabe crushed the struggle for freedom in Zimbabwe-and African governments cheered." This may be a bit of hyperbole, but the fact remains that the wounds of colonialism have not healed, and Africans may have a higher priority than learning to play by Western rules.