Zimbabwe: The Takeover

Before he became prime minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was a Marxist. At least, he insisted he was—not just because he needed arms from the East. His nationalist rival, Joshua Nkomo, got bigger and better weaponry from the USSR without ever affirming a Marxist belief.

But Mugabe is master of the Delphic phrase. Nowadays he prefers to say he has simply been the fortunate beneficiary of a wealth of “influences”: those of Marx, Lenin, the Jesuits, “our own tradition,” even Lord Soames, the brief British governor. “We adhere to definite socialist principles,” he asserts. “He stands somewhere between Swedish social democracy and Yugoslav socialism,” one of his closest friends suggests. Mugabe is also said to admire Albania. Yet he has also to accommodate himself to South African capital. He gets on well with South Africa’s greatest tycoon, Harry Oppenheimer, and pleads for aid and investment from the West.

Mugabe is today an enigma. No one seems sure what his real ideological intentions will be once he has consolidated power. Meanwhile he is all things to all men. He needs to be. Even within his own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF, Mugabe has to juggle factions, to control thousands of guerrillas without seeming to dictate to them, to appear an arbiter rather than a boss.

Often he is silent. When some of his ministers denigrate Nkomo in public, Mugabe in public says nothing. Does he privately approve or not? One morning in early October, he gave a mellifluous speech to university students in praise of reconciliation. That afternoon he attended a country rally where one of his own guerrilla commanders, standing a few yards ahead, led the crowd in ritual denunciation of Mugabe’s veteran nationalist rival: “Pasi Nkomo! Down with Nkomo.” Mugabe sat impassive, inscrutable. He cannot afford to offend. He leads quietly, from behind. He does not yet feel strong.

Some of his tougher public statements are complaints against the West, for giving him too little aid. But, again, his private views are said to be gentler. The British argue that the $375 million already pledged after six months of independence is a healthy start toward the “Kissinger Billion,” the $1.2 billion spread over five years that was vaguely promised and eagerly awaited in Zimbabwe. Bankers say that at present not much more aid can immediately be absorbed by Zimbabwe’s vigorous but small economic machinery. The country’s economy as a whole, however, is among the best balanced in Africa and has proven remarkably resilient in the face of international sanctions. Granted political good will, the economic prospects for Zimbabwe are better than almost anywhere else in Africa.

Commercial loans and investment are certainly wanted, however. But Western firms are being cautious. Mugabe is a trap. He needs the money to bolster stability: but he will not get the money unless investors are convinced the country is going to be stable. The depth of his commitment to a partially capitalist economy …

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