The day I cheered Robert Mugabe

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

Poem a Day #15 – Lion

Banks of the Zambezi

Banks of the Zambezi


I wrote a poem some time ago about being stalked by lions when I lived in Zimbabwe in the early ’80s. You can read it here. The scene of the stalking, a remote area on the banks of the Zambezi, and some of those stalked, are shown above. It was undoubtedly the most frightening experience of my life – I’m pretty sure we all thought we were going to die that night.

I was reminded of the incident today when reading a poem called “Lion” by Jericho Brown, in which he addresses a lion.

I’ve taken that idea, and addressed one of the lions that stalked us:

Lion …

that night you stalked us,

circled us


sent us to ground

consumed with fear


what was it

that drove you?


An animal lust

to taste the other,


a ritual of bonding

with your mate


like a young buck

on a first date?


Was it bluster,

an alpha maleness?


Were you making a point

with teeth and talons


stamping your ground

with roar wildness


or playing a game

of hot pursuit


and why


just as faint hope

flickered, dimmed


and dawn bled light

onto the scene


did you pad away,

your hunger unsatisfied?



Poem a Day for April – Day 11 – Mugabe and his Words

I’ve committed to writing a poem a day for the month of April as part of National Poetry Writing Month.  This is day 11.

The thing about writing and posting a new poem every day is that you don’t get time to review it, edit it, sit on it for a while, think about it. Which is to say, they are pretty raw.

Especially this one. Vitriol with a capital ‘V’.  Inspired by news that Robert Mugabe is on his death bed.

I lived in Zimbabwe from ’81 to ’85, when Mugabe first came to power. Hard to believe, but he was quite reconciliatory, relatively reasonable in those day.  Like Mandela, he was a political prisoner for many years.Whilst in prison, he studied by distance education. He ended up with SIX degrees.  A highly intelligent man.


Final Words

Words flew in your cell window

as you served your time

a fighter for freedom

an enemy of oppression

such fine words flew in your cell window


you devoured those fine words

studied them hard

loved them all:

liberty, democracy, reconciliation

humanity, equality, justice

fine words flew in your cell window


but when you ascended to power

words flew out of your palace window

the first to go was justice

such a difficult word

it kept getting in your way

swiftly followed by democracy

too many people wanted to share it

those fine words, they took flight


next to go was reconciliation

you never really came to terms with it, did you?

liberty didn’t last long

it was too free with itself

you couldn’t put up with tolerance

so you tossed that out

eventually sanity deserted you

you were driving it mad

those fine words

they couldn’t stand the stench


You will die soon

and as  you die

final words will come back to taunt you

to circle your fading body

they will screech and caterwaul

hiss and spit at you

drop onto your chest

and in your shrivelled face they will shriek:

Robert Mugabe: monster, hypocrite, fool, traitor to his own people

a man whose words meant nothing


copyright Mike Hopkins 2012

Jacarandas, Jasmine and Geraniums

Jacarandas & Geraniums-Malvern

Jacarandas & Geraniums-Malvern

This time of year in Adelaide means, the Jacarandas and Geraniums are in full flower. If you’re lucky, the scent of jasmine may pervade your garden as well. Jacaranda are all around the suburb where I live.  They burst into bloom, and then shower flowers onto the roads and pavements, giving a sort of ‘purple mirror’ effect.  If Jimi Hendrix was still around, he’d write a song about them.

I first saw Jacaranda in Zimbabwe.  In full bloom, they take your breath away. Photographs don’t do them justice somehow. They were prevalent in Harare and its suburbs. The best display was in what used to be called Cecil Square (named after Cecil Rhodes), now called African Unity Square. Here are a couple of shots from outside our house in Adelaide, and then one from Cecil / African Unity Square.

They are native to South America, but now you’ll find them in warmer climates all over the world: Africa, India and Australia.

Anyone spotted Jacaranda in unexpected places?

Jacarandas in Malvern

Jacarandas in Malvern

Harare Jacarandas

Harare Jacarandas (Cecil / African Unity Square)


I was out having a curry last night with some friends, in Adelaide, and the subject of Zimbabwe came up.

I lived in Zimbabwe (and Malawi) for four years in the early 80s.  This was just after Mugabe came to power.  It’s hard to believe now, but in those days Mugabe was, at least in words, pro-reconciliation with the remaining white population of the country. He seemed to see the need to keep the white farmers and their expertise, to provide some economic stability to the country.

I was house-sitting for a while.  One Saturday morning, the African cook and gardener of the house were going off to a ZANU-PF rally where Mugabe was going to speak. I tagged along with them. Not many white faces in the crowd, but it was a good-natured rally, and I felt perfectly safe.  Here are a few pics, of the crowd, and of the ZANU-PF ‘boys’ arriving.

ZANU-PF rally in Harare

ZANU-PF rally in Harare

ZANU-PF Boys arriving at Mugabe rally in Harare

Nowadays of course, such a rally would have an entirely different atmosphere.  You wouldn’t want to be a white person or a Morgan Tsvangirai supporter amongst them.  Pure thuggery would be the order of the day.

But when I was there it was a mostly peaceful place, especially considering the recency of the civil war.  The infrastructure was good, the economy was spluttering along not too badly, the people were friendly and open, the wildlife and the national parks were sensational, tourists were relatively scarce.  I used to go on long walks in remote places with the mountaineering / bush walking club, and saw all sorts of animals at close quarters.  Sometimes too close for comfort.  All in all, it was just a fantastic time to live there.

I have a few poems about those days.  This one recounts an incident when doing a long 4-5 day walk along a remote part of the Zambezi, sleeping on the ground at whatever spot we found ourselves at the end of the day.  On this particular day, we saw two lions running off from the spot where we were going to sleep the night:

Banks of the Zambezi

We didn’t think too much of it. Until…..

On the Banks of the Zambezi

We cowered by the fire

banging billies

cursing the dark

the dark where now and then

on both sides

hot coal eyes burned

blinked, disappeared

then a mounting roar

a foul smell of urine on the night breeze

intended to make us panic and run

into the maw of the she-lion downwind

we fed the fire, huddled closer

cursed louder, banged harder

minute by minute

hour by hour

dawn approached

the lions tired of the game

leaving their sleepless playthings

to smouldering cursing hysteria

© Mike Hopkins 2011. A version of this poem was published in Friendly Street New Poets 16, 2011