President Mugabe turned 91 last Saturday. He publicly celebrates his birthday today, a good seven days after. I join him, editorially that is. Not so much to feast on his age.
I am no Twenty-firster; let the little ones enjoy. But my culinary feast relates to a simple question: why after so many ravenous feasts Mugabe remains unfinished, barely eaten.
In fact indigestible!
The man who is huge copy
As I prepared for this piece, I googled “Mugabe, AU chair”.
I regretted. The machine spewed folds and folds of material I could hardly finish reading. A long while later, I gave up, pleased with my gallant failure.
The man is just too much copy. I changed tact, looked for the light-hearted: “Mugabe fall, memes”. The logic was simple: he is a serious politician; surely rare accident and cynical humour from it would be easy to encompass. My God!
It was as if the images were reproducing with every movement of my finger. Still more change of tact. I went for video/audio. Immediately the net turned into some cacophony.
Robert Mugabe has an emphatic presence: by word, by voice, by image. A full spectrum character. Maybe my puzzle is stupid. He is 91 years old, which means ninety-one years of recording opportunities. Need we marvel at the copious record around his person?
What God has proposed . . .
We do, in my view. For all the ninety years he has lived, the ninety-one years he is living, the world still can’t encompass him. Can’t digest him, if you want. Yes, the world may eat to his health, drink to his health.
Yes, the evil world may eat to his imagined death, drink to his wished-for death. But he remains here, firmly planted on this firm earth. But let’s not make virtue of necessity.
Frankly, he might have assisted his being ninety-one; but he did not cause it; he has not caused it.
He admits to as much, which is why he, too, marvels at the fact of his longevity, then sinks to his knees to thank his God, to live yet another day, another, another, and another, all more new days adding to his wonderment.
Once, his staffer congratulated him thus: “Nemakorokoto on your birthday, Cde President!” He replied: “Ndeedu tese imi wee.” The staffer responded: “Ahh, ndeenyu mega, isu hatisvikiko. I am only 52!”
Still the President came back: “There is nothing much you can do, beyond living each day as it comes. Of course a cleaner life helps.” About his life, clearly God has proposed; he himself cannot dispose, he, a mere man, born of woman.
The man who will not diminish
But there is something he owes himself, arguably something he owes all of us, possibly mankind.
How does this small-statured man wind up so enormous? So indigestible?
And, for the West, so inscrutable? An out and out enigma, a paradox so hard to encompass? Yet amazingly simple. Eats sadza, derere, likes boned meat, hodzeko and all those circumstantial delicacies of the African village. Of peasant born.
Virtually educated and employed here at home, save for those few odd years he spent at Fort Hare, then Chalimbana, then Takoradi, in Ghana. A significant chunk of his life spent in prison, detention or under restriction.
The geography and therefore experience of his cosmos was pretty simple, encompassable. Why this complexity, always ever mounting. True, he went to war, fought it successfully, came back from it to lead his people.
He leads to this day. But the more reason he should be easier to read. He is probably one of the most photographed, yet without diminishing his photo-worthiness. He is probably one of the most described human beings, yet hardly exhausted — exhaustible — as a news subject.
And his views are quite known, made even predictable by his Jesuitical adherence to principle. Surely he should have dwindled to a cliche by now? Why does the rule of diminishing returns fail to hold with this one man?
So many death wishes
Asked to comment on Thabo Mbeki’s true testimony that in 2000 or so, Blair accosted the South Africans to facilitate an attack on Mugabe militarily, Blair’s spokesperson responded to the effect that Blair has always held the view that Zimbabwe will be a better place without someone like Mugabe.
It was a macabre response. A few years back, Richard Dowden, another Briton in charge of that British colonial relic — Royal African Society — urged the British authorities to make peace with Mugabe who cannot be wished away, unless there was a successful plan to “put something nasty in his tea”.
Quite a bizarre way of calling for a truce. The British Telegraph, dutifully assisted by a hostile fringe of the local press, has penned numerous requiems for the President, only to retract and retreat before his thudding forward steps, as he walks into an unknowable future.
Never in the history of mankind, I would argue, has death been so wished for a man over whom death looks so stubbornly uninterested, so coy.
What the British cannot read or encompass, may death please take away! For Rule Britannia, Rule, it must always be!
Mugabe the patriarch
There is another side to it. Zimbabwe’s media include a rabid section which has turned itself into a serial Mugabe-watcher, Mugabe-basher. Not on behalf of Zimbabwean readers. Not out of a desire to grasp the man.
Not out of a sense of vengeance. In respect of the former, I am still to be convinced there is a real black Zimbabwean who cannot comprehend what their president is doing, quite often for them.
Many would not agree with his timing and manner of doing things, but that’s not quite the same as not understanding the promptings of his mind, the broad direction of his ideas.
What is inscrutable about land reforms? What is inscrutable about indigenisation and black empowerment? Much as there is a wish to cultivate and nurture animosity against the President, there is hardly any such impulse in the country.
Not even in the opposition, with whom Mugabe has worked in the past. What should be acknowledged is that there is angst over his departure from office some day, worse still from this earth, with many wondering whether or not national unity and stability will hold after him.
And this is an anxiety felt across the country, not in just one region or party. The West won’t admit to it.
Feral on Mugabe, silent on West
If truth be said, the western world has subcontracted Mugabe watching and Mugabe bashing to willing and paid locals.
The watching bolder is the fully sponsored media house, always connected to western interests through funding and other forms of gainful patronage.
The sentinel has always been the modestly educated editor — almost a type — who must never ask the whys and wherefores of the stories he chases at the behest of these interests.
Typically he is feral on a Mugabe story, docile and obsequious on anything to do with the West, including acts which hurt him, his people and his country.
They have a problem with copy from Mugabe’s government; they have no problem in embracing copy from the ambassador of a western government!
So Western intelligence interests use these sniffer and attack dogs to watch on Mugabe, sponsor rumours, and of course to defend succession models they in the West have designed for us in Zimbabwe.
It is a Western discourse using local mouths, local trope. Yet, why does he not finish?
What is in that corner?
I said no black Zimbabwean finds Mugabe incomprehensible. Or finds his life or thinking a mystery. The West does. And when it does, it seeks to turn its puzzle into a local national question, a Zimbabwean question, better still a governance issue.
Mugabe must prove that he is not yet dead; which is why the West needs so many stories speculating on his “journey” to the grave. Mugabe must prove that he is still running this country, which is why so many stories must be originated claiming his wife is now in charge.
Mugabe must answer why he took land from white interests, which is why he must answer charges that over 300 000 beneficiary households are all from Zvimba, are his cronies.
Or that all minerals have been given to the Chinese. Or that uranium has been given to Iranians. Frankly these are matters for western interests asked on their behalf by paid locals.
They have been able to direct what issues we ask and think about, when we do it, and with what venom. And the vibrancy of the questioning betrays the size of the purse that sponsors the anti-Mugabe campaign.
These attack dogs are paid on fury. Still the man does not finish. A good friend who works out of the country, upon noticing that the headlines of one such paper daily focused on the same subject, asked: what is in that corner which the paper does not want to get out of?
The story of the elephant
But Mugabe remains indigestible to the West. I propose to sample for you some of the paradoxes of Western view — call it white view — of the man. Let me provide backdrop so the silhouette gets more marked.
A Zimbabwean businessman, one Tendai Mutasa, decided he donates 2 elephants, 2 Buffaloes, 2 sables, 5 impalas and one lion, towards the President’s birthday bash. The response to the proposal was instant and worldwide.
“They have been doing this for years now. Every time there is a celebration . . . several elephants and Buffaloes are killed for the celebrations. This is totally unethical and should not be allowed”, fumed one white man, Johnny Rodrigues, fronting an all-white nature NGO called Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force.
And Tendai shot back: “What is an elephant? It’s a drop in the ocean compared to what we got from the president in the form of 12 600ha of land.
“We know it’s not enough, but it’s just a gesture for his values which we uphold dearly . . . The President has done much more for us and we see him as our father, our provider, our hero.”
Who destroyed animals?
What a fantastic juxtaposition of contrasting views on man and matter! Contrasting views of black versus white.
A bit of history. The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force hit the headlines at the height of our land reforms when most white conservancies on farms fell to new black landowners.
Only then did the erstwhile poachers become game-keepers, indeed turn into green warriors.
The fabulous profits from trophy-hunting had collapsed, and if these whites were not monopolising that business, then no one should, let alone blacks.
Always well connected to hallways of Western power, the matter became intergovernmental in an instant.
It became another plank for sanctioning the post-land reform process, with people like Musasa getting caught up in a campaign which battened on key organisations like WWF.
Zimbabwe was closed out of this lucrative trade which had been monopolised by whites for well over a century, with the few white hunters who sought to continue with the hunting practice under ownership coming under tremendous pressure to boycott.
The campaign persists to this day, with local sentinels playing dutiful incendiaries. Historically too, from about the 1830s to well into the early 1920s, Zimbabwe’s teeming game fell to the indiscriminate guns of white hunters who killed for trophy and sport.
Selous and those before him cut their hunting skills here.
The high point was when Churchill’s father Randolph crossed the Limpopo to come hunting, as part of a wider sales effort for the new colony.
Up north, the Kenyan wildlife was also entertaining Theodore Roosevelt, who also came on a hunting expedition. Lobengula got so exercised about the destruction of national fauna that he introduced hunting seasons, created a royal elephant herd, declared some species sacred and outside hunting quotas.
One of the missionaries reported this to the world around 1880, reported it as the first ever conservations policy in the whole world, and what is more, one pioneered by “this savage monarch”.
I leave you to draw your conclusion, bearing in mind that as I write, Zimbabwe is sitting on tons and tons of ivory which she cannot dispose of, thanks to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, working in cahoots with a network of bitter white farmers who lost land here.
Always bearing in mind venison is served in white hotels routinely, served to white guests. Musasa is the black successor to these white wildlife magnates.
Why won’t this man Mugabe finish?
Sample Two: Not more than a day or two ago, the British Financial Times did an expose on the looming land battle in South Africa.
President Zuma recently announced a new land policy which requires white farmers to hold no more than 12 000ha of land, the size of two farms.
Its additional component is the 50/50 policy by which vast estates upward of that figure will be held half-half by the original farmer and his black workforce.
The president adds the policy is not retrospective, and will still require the South African government to pay for the land at “fair prices”. South Africa is still swathes and swathes of land away from our own land reform model.
They are not about to be dramatic and Zuma is no Mugabe.
But the echoes are now audible, which is what gets white writers like Andrew England, assisted by our own Tony Hawkins, to raise alarm. And the headline is telling: “Zimbabwe disaster looms as SA land reform kicks into gear”.
A key line reads: “At stake is the future shape of farming, and South Africans only have to look at neighboring Zimbabwe to see the consequences of getting it wrong.”
Hawkins comes in handy with a reel of statistics showing how eminently qualified Zimbabwe is to be ranked as a trope on how-not-to-do-land-reforms.
Hawkins though has a bit of a problem with statistics on tobacco which baulk the neat trend of Mugabe’s destruction of “commercial farming” in Zimbabwe, itself a euphemism for a privileged white landed gentry.
As always, Mugabe’s ever fresh picture is pasted to give a face to the evil. But the man will not finish.
A different view, the same man
A month or so ago, Algy Cluff of the famous Cluff Resources gave his testimony on Mugabe. He set off on what appeared like a big colonial claim in the I-know-my-native mould: “I knew him very well. I remember clearly a stand-up row with him 15years ago. But I always thought that he nearly got it right. He preached reconciliation long before Mandela did, and protected the white farmers, notwithstanding the fact that he’d won the war. I thought he behaved, for the first 15years, really rather well.” Then Algy Cluff edges closer to the touchy subject of Andrew England and Tony Hawkins, but from a different angle: “They (white farmers in Zimbabwe) had a lot to answer for. They were in a catatonic state after independence. They should have gone to Mugabe and said: “Look, we realize we’ve now lost this war, it’s about land. Why don’t we give you half our land, train some Africans to run it? But there was nothing. They were absolutely in a kind of sclerotic state so Mugabe just got fed up after a while, extremely regrettable.” Here are two contrasting views, two narratives, both white, on a black subject. One melds British and Rhodesian sensibilities, the other Irish candour and sensibility, plus an understanding of man and matter. Cluff baulks at a simplistic racialized reading of Mugabe’s mischaracterization. But he also damns that same white world, clearly showing that its lack of grasp of Mugabe does not owe to the absence of resource persons to correct and deepen its understanding of the man. The miscomprehension is willful, born out of entrenched interests which induce myopia and depend on obfuscatory myth-making. These interests do not want the world to meet Mugabe the full, rounded nationalist fighting for his people. They prefer a vignette, a flat character exhibiting this horrid, anti-white reflex. A gorgon which Boris Johnson, a likely British premier candidate, wants to depict in such vivid language.
————-Made in England. ——
The England article reads familiar to any Zimbabwean, tragically recalling those arguments – now staid – which white farmers here used to sponsor, views that precipitated more radical responses from Mugabe and the landless. You get a sense of a white farming clan which is Siamese, which is placeless, and which would not learn. It does not want to let go of African land, and will seek to retain it on worn out arguments. The problem is the black man who wants his land back. Who wants to be like Mugabe. It is not about white bigotry and selfishness. It is not about debating appropriate white responses in circumstances of black landlessness. That question is studiously dodged, to allow the debate to fixate on productivity losses which result from forcible land reforms triggered by white resistance. Surely it cannot be hard to comprehend that land appropriation and acquisition precedes productivity miracles, as indeed both the Rhodesian and South African land experiences clearly show. Or that matters of heritage cannot be delegitimized through arguments on utilization of that heritage. And the more these questions are put off limit, the more inaccessible Mugabe becomes to the white world. Indeed the more his enigma grows, with it his currency. Above all, the more the man will not age at ninety one, die even, when his God finally reassigns him. For against such white obduracy, the African question remains the same: who tames the white world for the black man? Happy Birthday, Mister President. Icho!