Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 at the Kutama Mission in Zvimba, then Southern Rhodesia, only months after the country became a British crown colony. Son of a peasant farmer and carpenter, he began his education at a nearby Jesuit mission and then taught in various schools while studying for certification to go on to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, from which he received a B.A. in English and History. He then studied at Drifontein, Salisbury (now Harare), Gwelo, and Tanzania, and eventually obtained by correspondence a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of London. Next he began teaching in Accra, Ghana (1958-60), where he met Sally Hayfron, his first wife.
When Mugabe studied at Fort Hare, which was paid for by apartheid South Africa’s white taxpayers, it was the premier black university of all English-speaking Africa, producing a number of famous African leaders. At that institution Mugabe became radicalized, as did such future “freedom presidents” as Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and future rivals over absolute power in Rhodesia like Herbert Chitep. Ghana, which at the time was under the rule of American-educated Kwame Nkrumah, was also a center of anti-Western, “anti-imperialist” propaganda. By the time Mugabe returned to Rhodesia in 1960, he was a committed Leninist.
The term “Leninist” is used purposefully. There is no indication that Mugabe (or his colleagues, supporters, or mentors among the African liberation movements leaders, such as Amilcar Cabral in Guine Bissao, Samora Machel of Mozambique, and Sam Nujoma of Namibia) ever read Marx. If anything, they perhaps read Lenin and Stalin‘s brief treatises on how to take and keep power. One of Mugabe’s colleagues in this regard was Mengistu Haile Mariam, a briefly American-trained Ethiopian dictator and Stalin emulator.
The Zimbabwe liberation movements of the 1970s — primarily Mugabe’s ZANU and its competitor ZAPU (Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union) — had a confused history of idealistic rhetoric, Marxism-Leninism, and systematic atrocities. They were encouraged by Western liberals and provided safe havens across Rhodesia’s borders with Mozambique (which supported ZANU) and Zambia (sponsoring ZAPU). In the larger scheme of things, Moscow helped ZAPU and China supported ZANU. In fact, the two movements, militarily ineffective as they were against the (mostly black) Rhodesian military, were fundamentally instruments of the ethnic/tribal bosses of the country’s two main ethnic groups: ZANU for the majority Shona, and ZAPU for the minority Ndebele, close relatives of South Africa’s Zulus. Marxism Leninism was a cover for political ambition.
Mugabe’s ZANU was always the more violent and racially minded of the two organizations. The movement’s inner dynamics worked in favor Robert Mugabe, who in the 1970s was the least talented, least well-known, but most ruthless ZANU leader. His early opponents were the relatively more moderate Sithole and Herbert Chitepo. The first was defeated by Mugabe in a leadership struggle in 1974, the latter was killed in Zambia the following year. His killing remains an unsolved mystery, but Mugabe was clearly the beneficiary.
By 1979 the choice in Rhodesia was no longer between a white minority regime or a majority black one allied with the whites. It was between several competing radical black groups — this despite the fact that black moderates under Bishop Muzorewa were already in government and allied with the white minority that produced and controlled most of Southern Rhodesia’s wealth. Against them were pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese radical groups that, although they had won neither on the military battlefield nor in the realm of public opinion, had the backing of London and Washington.
The argument was that Muzorewa’s alliance with the white minority somehow made him insufficiently “democratic,” and that only the basically tribal revolutionary organizations like ZANU and ZAPU would be able to govern. Numbers (and ZANU’s open intimidation of voters) ultimately counted, and Mugabe won the elections in 1980, which resulted in ZANU’s gaining 63 percent of the vote and 57 seats, while Nkomo’s ZAPU won 20 seats. The whites, guaranteed 20 seats, gave them all to the Rhodesian Front of former prime minister Ian Smith. The black voters, threatened by the armed thugs of the “liberation movements,” inevitably and wisely chose to support the perceived winners: those very same groups. It was a classic example of the “one man, one vote, one time” pattern widespread in Africa then and since.
Once in power as prime minister, Mugabe allowed no opposition. First he pushed Nkomo aside. Then in 1982, using militias trained by North Korea, he crushed ZAPU’s military arm, destroying entire Ndebele villages in the process. In 1987 the position of prime minister was abolished, and Mugabe assumed the new office of executive president, gaining additional powers. He was reelected in 1990 and 1996, and, by open fraud, in 2002. Most of his supporters, including illiterate Shona peasants, voted for him out of a well-founded fear: The government was not above conditioning deliveries of outside food aid on political loyalty.
In this way, Mugabe and ZANU quickly consolidated absolute power in the newly named Zimbabwe. They used that authority to concentrate all political power in the ruler and economic power with his family and tribal clique, and to openly promote anti-white racism, anti-capitalism and, in foreign affairs, the pursuit of “anti-imperialist” (anti-Western) goals. As the Economist put it: “Mugabe feels safer when whites and white-collar blacks leave the country; then they cannot vote. He pushes them out in various ways. Employing thugs to break their fingers is one. Confiscating private property is another. But he also uses more subtle techniques. For example, in May 2004, his government ordered the country’s private schools to reduce their fees or close. Armed police were sent to enforce the edict, so most schools complied. Given rapidly rising costs, this guarantees that standards will fall, which will prompt more middle-class parents to emigrate.”
Around 1990, Mugabe took his secretary Grace Marufu, 40 years his junior, as a second wife (his first wife would die two years later). The marriage was a strange one, entered into under a traditional African law which allows a junior wife. Grace became infamous for her influence on her husband and for her family’s voracious takeovers of former white farms.
Mugabe pressured the local Catholic hierarchy to celebrate his marriage with a nuptial mass. But on social policy, Mugabe evolved into a rabid enemy of the Catholic Church, or indeed any Christian church, and a persecutor of homosexuals. Ironically, in the past Mugabe himself had been accused of being a homosexual by South African and Rhodesian intelligence services.
From the start, Mugabe was against the whites. He began by changing laws so as to deny citizenship to whites (always less than 5 percent of the population) such as the Salisbury-born former commander of Rhodesia’s military, Gen. Peter Walls. Whites’ guaranteed parliamentary seats were taken away, and their remaining MPs, including most prominently Ian Smith, were harassed, isolated, and sometimes denied passports.
As long as the apartheid regime lasted in neighboring South Africa, Mugabe had to tread carefully, considering his country’s reliance on South African trade and energy. But these constraints disappeared when majority rule came to Pretoria in 1994 where Mugabe’s abuses against whites were tolerated, if not overtly encouraged.
The source of Mugabe’s anti-white bigotry was not difficult to discern. About 4,000 white farmers, some of whom had been established in the country for generations, produced the majority of the country’s consumer foods and all its agricultural and industrial exports. White-owned farms were an attractive prey for his own family and political clique, as well as an opportunity for political demagoguery. By 2006, there were only 200 left, and those were literally under siege.
Beyond his longstanding racial animosity, Mugabe’s main problem with whites was political and ideological. Politically, he had to satisfy his own Shona clique’s desire for the land and wealth that had long been concentrated in white hands (although only a few of the confiscated farms were transferred to local peasants). While “land reform” was the pretext for Mugabe’s move, the reality was that most farms were transferred to a parasitic clique around the president. Tens of thousands of black farm employees were left jobless, and the state lost most of its tax and export revenues.
Ideologically, the whites initially represented “the bourgeoisie,” Mugabe’s equivalent of Stalin’s “class enemies.” As he stated in 2001, “As a collectivity, they [white farmers] are a natural fissure and beachhead for the retention or re-launch of British and European influence and control over our body politic.” That is also the reason why the assault against the whites went beyond the agribusiness domain. The regime began confiscating and vandalizing white-owned property in Zimbabwe’s cities. During Mugabe’s earlier “Clean out the Filth” slum-clearing campaign, according to the UN, some 2.4 million people lost their housing. Many areas “cleared” were in fact prime real-estate locations, ready for the regime’s speculator sharks to take over for nothing.
In August 2002, Grace Mugabe, aided by the military, took over a 3,000-acre farm for her family, arresting the 78-year-old owner and dismissing the farm’s black workers. Two of Mugabe’s sisters, his brother-in-law and his wife’s nephew, subsequently received farms as well. ZANU party members burned millions of acres of crops and prevented many more acres from being farmed. As was the case with Stalin’s creation of mass famine in the Ukraine in the 1930s, the burning of crops had a clear political goal: a hungry population is easier to control.
The confiscations, along with arbitrary currency manipulation, led to astronomical rates of inflation — more than 500 percent in 2005 — and a growing black market. Primary school enrollment dropped precipitously with Zimbabweans so poor that they could not afford state school fees of $4 a term. Infant mortality doubled while life expectancy fell from age 60 to 35. All this occurred after the regime had driven some 3.4 million Zimbabweans, one quarter of the population, into exile, 1.2 million to South Africa alone, according to Harare’s own figures. By 2006, Zimbabwe had no credit. Boeing had cut off supplies to Air Zimbabwe. Even China, Mugabe’s old friend, avoided investments in the country.
Except for ensuring the survival of his regime, Mugabe’s foreign relations policies were no more successful than his domestic program. To a large extent, Zimbabwe’s foreign policy was intended to compensate for the failures of the regime’s domestic economic decisions. Thus, its 1999 military intervention in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which cost millions of dollars a month despite the fact that Zimbabwe had no interests there, was intended to compensate for the trade loss brought about by the destruction of Zimbabwe’s entrepreneurial native class, largely white and Asian.
The beneficiaries of the Congo intervention were of course the presidential clique. Zimbabwean troops were stationed in the diamond mining areas of Congo, and, as Zimbabwean Defense Minister Moven Mahachi put it, “Instead of our army in the DRC burdening the treasury for more resources, which are not available, it embarks on viable projects for the sake of generating the necessary revenue.” Two companies based in Zimbabwe and DRC were granted licenses to buy and sell diamonds and gold, and to set up offices manned by military officers, and in October 2000, the DRC’s Kabila awarded Zimbabwe’s Agricultural and Rural Development Authority more than 500,000 hectares of farming land in DRC.
Zimbabwe, with few friends remaining, aligned itself with anyone supportive of anti-white, anti-Western racism. From the outset, Mugabe’s friends included some of the most odious governments in the world: North Korea, Libya, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, and China. While in Rome in October 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Mugabe accused U.S. President Bush and the UK’s Prime Minister Blair of illegally invading Iraq, asking: “Must we allow these men, the two unholy men of our millennium, who, in the same way as Hitler and Mussolini formed [an] unholy alliance, formed an alliance to attack an innocent country?” Some FAO delegates applauded Mugabe, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez paid tribute to him, saying “The president of Zimbabwe is made out to be a villain-because he takes land from those who don’t need it to give it to those who need it to live.” It is thought that Mugabe intends to follow North Korea and Iran in using a nuclear threat to blackmail the West into subsidizing its economy.
A combination of factors allowed Mugabe to maintain his grip on power. These included the incompetence of Zimbabwe’s domestic opposition, continued outside support, mostly from South Africa, and an unduly indulgent “international community.”
Many middle-class Zimbabweans had the means to make their ideas about democracy heard. They bankrolled the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an opposition party that would have won two national elections had those votes not been rigged. But the MDC, led by Morgan Tsvangirai and supported by Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, was vulnerable to factionalism and lacked international support, even from otherwise vocal human-rights organizations and from neighboring South Africa.
Because of Mugabe’s thuggery, the educated middle classes of Zimbabwe, by the early 2000s almost all black, were forced to leave in droves, denying the remaining opposition its leadership and resources. However, as the Economist noted, “You have to admire Robert Mugabe’s chutzpah. First he makes life so miserable for Zimbabweans that busloads of them emigrate. Then he asks the fugitives to send money home to prop up the regime that drove them out in the first place.” When they did send money, he confiscated it through currency manipulations.
Mugabe’s destruction of the independent media played a major role in defeating the opposition, and he was thorough in that respect. His attacks were relentless and often Orwellian. In January 2006, Security Minister Didymus Mutasa stated that “the net will soon close” on those remaining journalists whose criticism of the government threatens the nation’s security. Journalists were arrested, including those of the independent radio station Voice of the People (now transmitting from a Dutch-funded station in the Malagasy Republic), which was accused of being “driven by the love for the United States dollars and British pounds, which they are paid by the foreign media houses to peddle lies.” By 2006, there were hardly any media left in Zimbabwe, and even fewer foreign correspondents. The regime refused or postponed indefinitely journalists’ accreditation and then accused them of breaking the law by operating without it.
Mugabe benefited from the support or benign neglect of his fellow African presidents, particularly South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki. It took a long tim,e but finally the African Union began to understand the danger to its credibility represented by its silence over Mugabe’s atrocities. Thus the AU Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, meeting in Gambia in January 2006, expressed concern over “the continuing violations and the deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, the lack of respect for the rule of law and the growing culture of impunity.”
Mugabe’s recipe for destroying a prosperous country had more imitators than critics within Africa. Indeed, his racism, totalitarianism, corruption, and blatant disregard of all norms of decent behavior were not just tolerated but, by silence or commission, encouraged by the very same third-world leaders who demanded and expected Western aid.
Although former British Prime Minister Blair took a strong and persistent position in condemning Mugabe, virtually all Western media and academia traditionally pretended that the racism at the core of Mugabe’s worldview actually played no part in Zimbabwe’s transformation from food exporter to basket case. Even Western human-rights groups, while condemning Mugabe’s atrocities, avoided using the word “racism.”
Not all of Zimbabwe’s neighbors supported Mugabe, as was demonstrated when Zambia, and Mozambique cut power deliveries to Zimbabwe due to nonpayment. Even more significant, both countries welcomed the expelled white Zimbabwean farmers; Mozambique even offered them free land.
Similarly, the large and growing Zimbabwean diaspora in Britain was vocal in its criticism of Mugabe, resulting in a European Union ban on travel for Mugabe and his government members, who already had been banned by France and Italy. As to aid, while it was clear that Zimbabwe’s famine was due exclusively to Mugabe, the West continued to send food aid, even though this only strengthened the very regime that made such aid necessary.
In Zimbabwe’s political elections of March 29, 2008, Mugabe and his ZANU party narrowly lost control of Parliament to the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Disputing the election results, Mugabe and his government forces promptly began cracking down on the MDC. A run-off election was scheduled for June 27, to settle the dispute. In the meantime, Mugabe and his regime unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation aimed at terrorizing voters and thereby winning their support.
Named “Operation Makavhoterapapi?” (“Operation Where Did You Put Your Vote?”), this was a months-long campaign of state-backed repression and mass terror, targeting all who had dared to vote against Mugabe in March. Thousands were brutalized; dozens, if not hundreds, were killed. Those Zimbabweans who did not flee the country were scared into submission. Just prior to the runoff election, the MDC reported that at least 86 of its supporters had been killed since the March 29 vote. Moreover, human-rights watchdogs conservatively estimated that at least 10,000 Zimbabweans had been beaten and tortured by ruling-party militias; at least 2,000 had been jailed.
Bearing the brunt of Mugabe’s vengeance were Zimbabwe’s rural provinces. Deemed a hotbed of sedition and MDC support by Mugabe, they were beset by the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), a combination of police, army veterans, and other uniformed sadists serving, in cold-blooded fashion, as Mugabe’s henchmen.
Instances of ZANU-PF brutality are too many to enumerate, but a few stand out for their sheer depravity. In one case, a man was beaten and castrated with barbed wire, dying later that day in what Human Rights Watch describes as a “leaning position because he couldn’t lie on his stomach due to his injuries.” The victim’s crime? He had been listening to the March 29 election results on a Voice of America radio program. In another village, a 76-year old woman was dragged before a crowd and beaten with logs until residents confessed to being MDC supporters. Whether they were in fact sympathetic to the MDC was irrelevant; fear, not truth, was the business of Mugabe’s terror squads.
So, too, with the “reeducation camps” that sprang up across Zimbabwe. Intended to instill fear and root out alleged traitors, the camps were a testament to Mugabe’s murderous paranoia. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Joshua Hammer records this chilling scene:
“… [V]illagers were summoned to a ‘reeducation meeting,’ where they were forced to denounce the MDC and pledge their allegiance to the ZANU-PF. Then names were called, and those singled out were hustled into the darkness. ‘Next we heard the whips and screams,’ a witness named Bernard Pungwe said, describing a night-long rampage that left six MDC supporters dead and dozens injured. ‘Every time someone screamed hard the chairman of the meeting would stop his lecture and say: Listen to the traitors, they are dying.'”
At another “reeducation” meeting, armed government soldiers dispensed live ammunition to the villagers. As they held the bullets in their hand, soldiers warned: “If you vote for MDC in the presidential runoff election, you have seen the bullets, we have enough for each one of you, so beware.”
Pre-election violence was nothing new in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s regime had been known to ratchet up its intimidation in the run-up to a vote. But, as Human Rights Watch noted: “What is happening now eclipses the violence in any previous election.”
As Mugabe’s militias intensified their attacks, the opposition MDC presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, dropped out of what he termed this “violent sham of an election,” despairing that he “can’t ask the people to cast their vote on June 27 when that vote will cost their lives.”
With each passing month, Zimbabwe spiraled ever further into economic chaos as a result of Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies. By the end of 2008, the country’s inflation rate stood at 231 million percent, while unemployment was above 80 percent. It was commonplace for human-rights activists and opposition-party leaders to be abducted and murdered. Most pressingly, a deadly cholera epidemic was ravaging the country. Mugabe’s response to the epidemic may have worsened the crisis; he had sent mixed signals about the epidemic since its beginnings, alternately calling for millions of dollars in international aid, and then denying visas to a French medical team.
On August 2, 2013, Zimbabwean officials reported that Mugabe had won the country’s latest presidential election by a 61-to-33 percent margin over challenger Morgan Tsvangirai. The result infuriated Tsvangirai, who claimed that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF had stolen the election via voter intimidation and voter fraud. Moreover, Tsvangirai characterized the election result as a “huge farce” that was “null and void,” and his party vowed to “exhaust all legal remedies” in an effort to overturn Mugabe’s victory.
A number of days later, Mugabe responded to the allegations of his rivals, saying: “Those who are smarting from defeat can commit suicide if they so wish. But I tell them even dogs will not sniff at their flesh if they choose to die that way…. We have thrown the enemy away like garbage…. We say to them: ‘You are never going to rise again.”‘
On November 15, 2017, Zimbabwe’s military removed Mugabe from power and placed him under house arrest. Although denying that it had engaged in a coup, the army also took over the headquarters of state broadcaster ZBC and blocked access to government offices. Zimbabwe’s Major General SB Moyo tried to downplay the significance of the military’s action. “We are only targeting criminals around him [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country to bring them to justice,” he said.
What may have been the last straw for the military was Mugabe’s decision (the previous week) to fire 75-year-old Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who dated back to Zimbabwe’s fight for independence and until recently had been considered an ally of Mugabe, on grounds that he was now suspected of plotting against Mugabe. Mnangagwa had been considered Mugabe’s most likely successor until Mugabe fired him and began purging his supporters, which Mugabe reportedly did to clear the way for his 52-year-old wife, Grace Mugabe, to succeed him. The old guard from the independence era resented this possibility. “Before November’s takeover, some army generals publicly said that they will not allow someone who did not fight in the independence war to rule the country after Mugabe, seemingly a reference to Grace Mugabe,” Aljazeera reported.
According to a statement purporting to be from Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF party, Mnangagwa assumed leadership of the country following Mugabe’s ouster. The statement read as follows: “There has been a decision to intervene because our constitution has been undermined, in the interim Comrade Emmerson Mnangagwa will be President of ZANU PF as per the constitution of our revolutionary organisation. Last night the [Mugabe] family was detained and are safe, both for the constitution and the sanity of the nation this was necessary. Neither Zimbabwe nor ZANU are owned by Mugabe and his wife. Today begins a fresh new era and comrade Mnangagwa will help us achieve a better Zimbabwe. There was no coup, only a bloodless transition which saw corrupt and crooked persons being arrested and an elderly man who had been taken advantage of by his wife being detained.”
After Mugabe was removed from power, an impeachment hearing was begun against him. But that hearing was cut short on November 21, 2017, when Mugabe formally resigned from his office. He was succeeded by Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mugabe died on September 6, 2019, at Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore where he had been under observation for several months for an undisclosed illness.
The majority of this profile first appeared as an article titled “Left-wing Monster: Robert Mugabe,” written by Michael Radu and published by Front Page Magazine on March 14, 2006. The section on Zimbabwe’s 2008 election is adapted from “Mugabe’s War,” written by Jacob Laksin and published by Front Page Magazine on June 26, 2008. The remaining sections of the profile were added later.