“You have the jewel of Africa in your hands,” said President Samora Machel of Mozambique and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to Robert Mugabe, at the moment of independence, in 1980. “Now look after it.”
Twenty-three years later, the “jewel” is ruined, dishonored, disgraced.
Southern Rhodesia had fine and functioning railways, good roads; its towns were policed and clean. It could grow anything, tropical fruit like pineapples, mangoes, bananas, plantains, pawpaws, passion fruit, temperate fruits like apples, peaches, plums. The staple food, maize, grew like a weed and fed surrounding countries as well. Peanuts, sunflowers, cotton, the millets and small grains that used to be staple foods before maize, flourished. Minerals: gold, chromium, asbestos, platinum, and rich coalfields. The dammed Zambezi River created the Kariba Lake, which fed electricity north and south. A paradise, and not only for the whites. The blacks did well, too, at least physically. Not politically: it was a police state and a harsh one. When the blacks rebelled and won their war in 1979 they looked forward to a plenty and competence that existed nowhere else in Africa, not even in South Africa, which was bedeviled by its many mutually hostile tribes and its vast shantytowns. But paradise has to have a superstructure, an infrastructure, and by now it is going, going—almost gone.
One man is associated with the calamity, Robert Mugabe. For a while I wondered if the word “tragedy” could be applied here, greatness brought low, but Mugabe, despite his early reputation, was never great; he was always a frightened little man. There is a tragedy, all right, but it is Zimbabwe’s.
Mugabe is now widely execrated, and rightly, but blame for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence about him for so many years among liberals and well-wishers—the politically correct. What crimes have been committed in the name of political correctness. A man may get away with murder, if he is black. Mugabe did, for many years.
Early in his regime, we might have seen what he was when the infamous Fifth Brigade, thugs from North Korea, hated by blacks and whites alike, became Mugabe’s bodyguards, and did his dirty work, notably when he attempted what was virtually genocide of thousands of the Ndebele people (the second-largest tribe) in Matabeleland. Hindsight gives us a clear picture of his depredations: at the time mendacity ruled, all was confusion. But the fact was, we knew the Fifth Brigade: it had already murdered and raped.
It was confusion, too, because Mugabe seemed to begin well. He was a Marxist, true, but like other politicians before and since he said the right things, for instance, that blacks and whites must flourish together. And he passed a law against corruption, forbidding the top echelons of officials from owning more than one property. When his officials only laughed, and bought farm after farm, hotels, businesses, anything…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.