It was around January 1982. I had gone to Zimbabwe in 1981 to help the company I was working for, Memory Ireland, to establish a branch there. Memory was a fast growing Irish computer company. I was a software developer. They had a director who had been raised in Rhodesia. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, Memory thought it would be a good base from which to expand sales into developing African economies. Their intentions were not philanthropic. Memory was an entrepreneurial company in the worst sense of the word.
So I put my hand up for a four-month stint in the recently independent Zimbabwe. In my early days in Zimbabwe, I stayed in various house-shares and house-sits. I recall this particular time doing a house-sit for a bloke called Derek Bardot. I remember the name, of course, because of the beautiful actor of the same surname. I also recall that the house came with a cook and a gardener, whose names, I think, were Stephen and Crispin. Stephen and Crispin lived in breeze-block structures at the bottom of the garden, the other side of the swimming pool. I was curious about everything in this exotic country. I was in my late twenties. I was idealistic. I was socialist. I was vehemently anti-apartheid. I was unsure about having a cook and a gardener dedicated to looking after me. I fraternised with them, which was frowned on by the white “Rhodies”, as the remaining whites in Zimbabwe were called.
One Sunday morning, Stephen and Crispin were dressed in street clothes, as opposed to their uniforms (Stephen usually wore a white cook’s outfit, Crispin a green gardener’s outfit). I asked them what was happening and they informed me they were going to a ZANU-PF rally at nearby Borrowdale, where Mugabe would be speaking. I asked them if I could come and they were unsure, but when I said I’d drive them there, they agreed. First we drove to Borrowdale shopping centre to a cafe and drank Cokes from the old-fashioned curly glass bottles. I remember I played them at table football, which I used to be pretty good at. I won, several times, to the great amusement of the assembled African onlookers. This was a cafe not frequented by Rhodies.
Then we went to Borrowdale, to a “vlei”, an open, grass area that can turn marshy in the wet, but was dry and flat at this time. A large crowd had already assembled. There might have been a few other whites there but I don’t recall seeing any. The ZANU Youth arrived, running from one side in a phalanx, with flags flying (picture below). A ZANU official was rousing the crowd with some oratory in Shona, of which I only understood the odd word, such as “victory”, “people” and “ZANU”.
I don’t remember how Mugabe arrived, but in those days he always travelled in a large black limousine, preceded and followed by armed soldiers and police outriders, sirens blaring. You got off the road in a hurry if you saw one of these motorcades coming. He must have been delivered to the back of the stage directly from his limo.
In the picture above, which I took from within the crowd, Mugabe is seated on the wooden stage. I’ve put an arrow over his head. I’m not sure who the crowd warmer-upper is, but it would have been a senior ZANU official. I recall Mugabe speaking. He was, is an orator. He is a highly educated, intelligent man, an ex-teacher. Like Nelson Mandela, he languished in prison for years as punishment for resisting white oppression. Like Mandela he spent that time furthering his education, burnishing his political ideas, gaining several university degrees by correspondence.
Mugabe knew how to get a crowd going. He spoke only in Shona, so I’ve no idea what he said, but he soon had the crowd shouting “Pamberi, Pamberi” (forward, forward) in unison, fists pumping the air. It was an impressive performance, and I have to admit, that with Crispin and Stephen’s encouragement, I joined in with the fist pumping and slogan-shouting.
This was early in Mugabe’s reign. He was Prime-Minister in those days. Canaan Banana was President (yes, really, it was President Banana). Mugabe had some similarities to Mandela. He said that he wanted to retain white expertise to keep the economy strong. He said he wanted to improve the lot of the masses of poor Zimbabweans. He was strongly committed to improving the education system. Even now, Zimbabwe has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
In those days, the Zimbabwe dollar was worth about one U.S. dollar or about 75 pence. Now it is a joke currency, which you can’t exchange for anything. Theoretically you need 363 Zimbabwe dollars to buy US$1, but I’d be surprised if you found any takers.
Mugabe still had a war mindset in those days, was obsessed with the threats from his perceived enemies, especially Joshua Nkomo and the murky, capitalist foreign governments that he was convinced were trying to undermine Zimbabwe. There were signs then of his ruthlessness. I recall nurses going on strike for better wages and conditions. He sent his ZANU Youth (think Hitler Youth), to round them up on the backs of trucks, take them to remote camps and ‘re-educate’ them.
I don’t think Mugabe ever got out of this liberation war mindset. I doubt if his successor, Mnangagwa, has got out of it either. If you weren’t involved in the great struggle against the whites in the war, if you are not a veteran, then you have not earned a stake in the new Zimbabwe. If you are not for us, you are against us. This constant battle against perceived enemies, internal and external, is prioritised over any concern for developing the economy or providing decent housing and infrastructure for the people. It also comes with a sense of entitlement, which is used to justify diverting millions and millions of dollars into their off-shore bank accounts (allegedly).
My four-month stint eventually turned into four years in Zimbabwe and Malawi. I ended up as General Manager of the Zimbabwe company, but work permits were becoming harder and harder to renew and foreign currency had all but dried up. Memory’s few business ethics were being further eroded. Mugabe was showing his true colours. I got out in 1985 and returned to Ireland, where the economy had nose-dived and Memory was rapidly going bust.
A few years ago, when he was apparently on his death-bed, I wrote a poem about him, “Robert Mugabe’s Last Words“. No doubt he’ll die in some luxurious foreign hospital in one of those countries where deposed dictators go to die. I’m still waiting to hear his last words, but don’t expect them to include “sorry” or “I fucked up didn’t I?”
--- Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017