‘Self-discipline the key: Mukonori’
The Interview Tichaona Zindoga
Roman Catholic Priest Father Fidelis Mukonori (FM) has known President Mugabe, and his family, since the 1970s and is regarded in some circles as the spiritual father of the veteran leader. Our Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ) caught up with the priest to know more about the relationship the two men have and the long journey that they have traversed. Also, what is President Mugabe’s key to a long and fruitful life? Read on . . .
TZ: You are one of the prominent persons around President Mugabe, could you just explain how you got to know the man and the history that you share.
FM: Yes I have had the privilege of getting to know President Robert Mugabe. As a family I know the Mugabe family, it’s a privilege. In fact I was too young . . . to have known him earlier in the 1960s face to face because he went into prison early and then I got to know the family.
To my surprise he got to know me more even when he was still in prison. Especially when I came back from Zambia in 1973 through 1974 till December when they were released because I was very much involved in the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Rhodesia at the time. Among them, besides the war issues that we were carrying out, included me visiting the traditional war zones like Chiweshe.
We were producing books. They received these books in prison and they got to know we were reviewing every political prisoner, their welfare, because of the experience we had from 1970 if I am not mistaken, when Shumba Churumanzu died in prison out of deliberate neglect by government.
So for us that was a lesson learnt so therefore we followed each of those political prisoners and that’s how they got to know who I was and that I was working with lots of young people.
Because of my involvement with Silveria House, there was Sabina, the President’s sister who was working at Silveria House and we started working together in 1974. She naturally fell in love with me, and so did I; we started working profusely together. I visited the family. Once I was introduced to Ambuya Bona we became good friends and I rejoice in my soul for having known that lady that time.
How she managed to take time for me, I still fail to understand because she would just open up herself to discuss matters of life, family issues. When it came to the issue of Robert she was very passionate about her son and she was very emotional about how he had been treated or ill-treated.
Because I did not have the opportunity to live with President Mugabe earlier I got to know more about him through long hours of discussion with his mother and most family issues we would discuss together.
Right in the heart of war his young brother Donato and Bridget his young sister and the children of Sabina and Bridget. I just got to know the whole family quite intimately. When I started travelling, international travelling, I had the opportunity to work with President Mugabe.
My first time meeting him was at Silveira House in 1974 and when he was visiting his sister Sabina, he would be invited by the civic department, very specially chosen people and Robert was among all those people who were always chosen to address people in the civic department especially on the politics of the country, politics of the nation, the way forward.
With economics, social, political and the war issue, the clearest person was Robert Mugabe, very clear. And one thing I liked most was that there was no trace — this is post detention, I think they were released December 8, 1974 — there was no trace of anger, of wishing for vengeance.
And I think with many others, like Mr Joshua Nkomo who I got to know very well, there were no signs of anger and that really touched me.
In 1978 we spent two weeks in Zambia with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, headed by Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa and Bishop Helmut Rector, he was Bishop President for the CCJP, and I was the chairman.
I was told suddenly one evening by Mr (Simon Vengesayi) Muzenda (the late Vice President). I rang him on the phone. I just wanted to know when President Mugabe was coming from Nigeria and he said: “Oh Brother right now. Just get in the car; let’s meet at the airport. President Mugabe will be arriving from Nigeria and I would want you to be there when we welcome him. And so I jumped into the car and we went.
Just before the plane arrived we went out to the tarmac and there were just two people, President Mugabe and Josiah Magama Tongogara. It was a presidential jet of Olusegun Obasanjo the military ruler of Nigeria.
We welcomed him, very soft in his speaking and I was touched by the kind of simplicity of the person. He was running all over the place, in Zimbabwe even children were wondering who Robert is and there he is standing there, very simple and talking gently and nicely.
He said when I was introduced to him by Vice President Muzenda he said alright I am pleased so let’s organise that tomorrow morning we meet at State House and we continue with the meetings which you and Mr Muzenda had been continuing in his absence. We were having meetings of ZANU-PF and PF ZAPU separately.
Thereafter we met overseas and then in 1979 we went for five days to Mozambique. There were two of us with Mr John Deary. We spent five days. The purpose was for us, because he invited us, was to compare notes, what was happening in Zimbabwe. They wanted to know and we were pleased to tell them what was happening in Zimbabwe with regard to the war situation.
And we also wanted to know what was on their minds with the way forward. We believed that negotiated settlement was the answer. That was very, very touching in the sense of the seriousness in which we were taken, going for six hours of serious meeting.
Six hours with no break and no meal, just a glass of drink, discussing intensely and just calling a spade a spade when it came to discussing war issues. In a war people kill and get killed; in a war people can misuse and abuse fellow citizens; soldiers can abuse their power because there are holding a gun and at the same time also one has to realise that a war is not a wedding and it was essential to take those matters seriously.
Those discussions were very fruitful. President Mugabe loved debating; he loves debating. My view even today if you want to understand the man intellectually, discuss the issue and have the time to present yourself with good arguments. He loves to see issues on both sides of the coin.
People used to ask me internationally, in Europe, America, “you speak to Robert Mugabe? He doesn’t smile!” And I would say I am quite sure he knows how to smile because when I am talking to him he smiles a lot. We laugh and he even giggles. He is amiable but I don’t know what happens to you when he doesn’t smile at you. Do you smile at him? Now we know who just asks questions. The kind of man who was known internationally had different faces, one, the face of a terrorist leader, the face of an uncompromising fighter and you had the face of a Mugabe made according to the media. For me Mugabe had so many faces and so many statures depending on which Mugabe you knew — and I talk of the Mugabe I know from day one to this day.
TZ: Has he undergone any fundamental changes over the years?
FM: President Mugabe’s personality has not changed. He is consistent and persistent in his wanting to understand the depths of an issue and its background . . . unassuming. The spiritual side I don’t know how much the world knows and I think very few people have the time to understand him and how spiritual he is.
Even people who worked with him in the height of the war I don’t think they knew — in fact they didn’t know that Robert Mugabe moved in the battlefield with the rosary in his pocket. Robert Mugabe would be saying his rosary sitting in the car, Robert would say his rosary flying on the plane. He flew thousands of miles every year during the war. He was a moving target all the time but he always prayed.
His own mother Mbuya Bona said to me one day: “Brother, when my son Robert told me amai ndakuenda kuhondo kuMozambique kunotungamira hondo, I said my son there is nothing more I can give you except that I will pray for you. Then I gave him my rosary: here is the rosary I have no other weapon that I can give to protect you, pray your rosary.
“And then I took a jacket when he was away and inside the jacket I sew in a medal, on whose one side is the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the other side our Lady Mary, our Mother Mary. And I sew that medal so that Sacred Heart of Jesus would take care of my son and Mother Mary would take care of my son.”
And that was Robert. I don’t think people knew how much he dedicated himself to the spiritual life which he still believes very fervently, very strongly today. The number of attempts on his life, the number is incredible; during the war, after the war: is it his own cleverness, is it the excellence of his State security apparatus? I am sure it is God who has saved his life.
TZ: You dwelt much on pre-independence, during the war, but what happened now he is Prime Minister, later President, how did you interact then?
FM: When Mugabe came back home as Prime Minister, 1980, we welcomed him, I went to welcome him at his new house in Mount Pleasant and he was very pleased that we were in touch again. He wanted to know the situation in the country and I briefed him on the situation in the country.
I was with Mr John Deary and he said any help we gave he would be very grateful, any advice most welcome. One of the advices or few of the advices we gave President Mugabe and Mr Nkomo (the late Vice President) were crucial because they arrived clearly with the fever for political campaigns and he was worried that they had been given only three lines, three working telephone lines. They had been there only 10 days and they were given only three working telephone lines, the whole party, by Lord Soames.
And they said, “How are we going to campaign?” And I said “you want to campaign?” and I said, much of the campaign has been done already so whether you have three telephones lines or 30 telephone lines, campaigning should not be much of a worry. Surely, people would have liked to see you in person in body and soul that’s what people want to see. Very few people remember you after 11 years in prison, but do not worry about the campaigning.
There was also the issue which had been brought to our attention by some international governments, some governments I am not going to mention; it was brought to our attention, exclusively to us in Justice and Peace to say there was a plan, there was a coup plan that should ZANU-PF win, that coup was going to take place.
So we were told by this particular country to deliver the message, both to President Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo which we did. Any other issues that were necessary to advise, we did, especially security issues.
Security was very fluid in Zimbabwe, in the country, security for the individual, personal security, especially their own security as well as the security of the ordinary citizens because the spirit of vengeance, the spirit of tarnishing, the spirit of finger pointing, the spirit of devilling — making other people looking like devils — was very much rampant. It needed to be handled maturely and patiently as well.
After independence the amount of work that the Prime Minister had to do was one of reconciliation – the spirit of reconciliation between black and white. Constitutionally, the Rhodesian Constitution, I am talking of the Rhodesian republican constitution of Ian Smith, that’s very clear we were Africans and Europeans and Asians and others and therefore what was very clear was that it was necessary to have reconciliation of the whole nation of Zimbabwe and Mugabe handled it very well.
Thus the famous speech he gave in 1980 (of turning swords into ploughshares). I wish that could be repeated from time to time so that there is a focus of the type of vision that Zimbabwe should have. For me that is a keynote address, it is essential.
The younger generations should learn from that – that is what other countries do. You don’t just take and package this and put it in the shelf, no. Young people, generations and even the old guard should be in a position to say, what do we say? What is the position?
TZ: And apart from the huge task of reconciliation and reintegration what were other immediate challenges?
FM: There was need for political rehabilitation. Those who were out of the country had come back as fighters, had come back as refugees . . . There was need for rehabilitation to say we are now in a new Zimbabwe, to say we are moving now. It was the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The spirit did not have to end with the spirit of the national flag but the actual spirit of living in a new state.
There was also the rehabilitation of the wounded, physically wounded. People with no limbs, no hands, no feet, and people had been injured very badly. That had to be carried out. And also the 15 years under sanctions and there was need of the economic rehabilitation. It was key, and unfortunately in my view it was not taken seriously because economic rehabilitation meant industry, the physicality of industry, and most of the industrial machines were out of date. There was also the need for reconstruction. The amount of destruction and devastation that had taken place through bombs . . .destructions throughout the war so reconstruction was essential.
TZ: So with these imperatives what is your assessment on how the President steered the country during that transition period?
FM: The President steered on very well. His language was very, very reconciling, his language was very forthcoming, his language was to say let us build one Zimbabwe and I think he succeeded. When it came to issues to do with international recognition, international acceptance and acceptability – yes I think Mugabe was quite accepted everywhere but one still could ask, was the international community really ever ready for Robert Mugabe to be the new Prime Minister of new Zimbabwe?
I don’t think so. Some countries were shocked, some countries were not ready, and it was a shock. That kind of understanding is necessary, 35 years down the road, it is necessary to be looked at to say some people are very blind when you go into the modern Information Technology era; it is very easy to forget that humanity does not operate like IT, no. We operate as human beings and we remember the past and the past creates the present and the present creates the future. And therefore what happened and how Robert Mugabe was accepted in the international community right at the beginning had very serious political bearing and consequences to what it is today, 35 years down the road.
It is my thinking, it is my political thinking and understanding. I will say it is necessary to unpack and to reflect on issues of that nature.
Robert Mugabe himself, did he know the kind of person he was outside the country, worldwide? Yeah, he was aware that he was portrayed with negativity. The large part of the international community had to learn to understand him and study him, re-look at him, listen to him and try to say, in the end, “after all he is not bad. Oh he is quite educated. Oh yes he is very dignified.”
Those issues, they started coming up. Right in the middle of independence, I am talking of the 1990s, it became very clear that the land issue was one of the unfinished businesses. It became very clear and it continued to preoccupy him because he knew that the Lancaster House did not resolve the land question. The Lancaster House lasted 17 weeks from September 10 1979 at 3 o’clock to December 17 at 7 o’clock in the evening when they signed the agreement.
The ceasefire was signed afterwards, 22/ 23 December the same year. The land question was the last to be discussed at the Lancaster House because it was the most difficult issue. All other issues from September 10 were actually galloping and the international community was actually surprised by the Patriotic Front’s attitude and in fact the way they handled themselves, it was quite something. But it was the land issue and Robert Mugabe had to face this land issue in the 90s.
What I understood President Mugabe when he was dealing with the Conservatives, the Thatcher era and the John Major era, he was genuinely satisfied in the sense that every year in the UK someone came, sent by the Prime Minister to discuss the issue of the land question. When the Labour government took over it was throwing out the baby with the bath water and that of course is when land invasions started taking place.
TZ: OK, speaking about the land question, the land reform programme resulted in some international reactions and economic challenges. During this long night of economic troubles how have you interacted with the President and what have you shared with him?
FM: My brother you have to realise that I am not a politician, I am not part of the Government but we discuss issues the way I see them and he is always there to listen whether he takes advice or if he thinks it is worth it or there are serious concerns. It was a privilege that whenever I mention what I think and theviews of those outside the circle of Government and governance, he would always listen with respect.
TZ: OK, there have been some reports to the effect that, taking advantage of your proximity to the President, you at some stage suggested that he steps aside. Have you interacted on that level?
FM: I have never thought of that to be part of my responsibility to be the one to say, President may you step aside and neither am I the one who stepped him in? I am not the one who stepped him in so I am not the one to step him aside. The President is running, is a President of, a political party. It is those political party members who have the right to say as president can you step aside or you can continue to step in. So I am not a member of ZANU-PF. So yes I am a citizen and I have my own opinions but the real issue is an organisation has to be respected in its own right. If he were to ask my opinion, I would give him my opinion.
TZ: Lastly, you have known him for over 40 years, he is now 91 years old, what would you think is the key to his longevity?
FM: Discipline. My brother one of the things I think as humans we have yet to learn, even at my age, is to learn how to try to understand someone and especially public figures. To try to understand a public figure and to look at the person as an individual and to try to understand and understudy the person, the personality, the characteristics. As people who are educated, we should have a certain respect for each other. What I have managed to grasp from President Mugabe’s longevity is self-discipline. The physical side of it is discipline but he always enjoyed doing physical exercises. The social disciplines, he is very socially conscious, all the time. It is very helpful socially, it helps him to be focused. It helps him to understand friends because when one is not disciplined socially, we make enemies in life and the President has made lots of enemies by the fact of him being head of state and a politician. He does not need to make more enemies by being socially reckless and he is not a reckless person socially. He has a consciousness of his being. Spiritual discipline. When people are in prison, they get close to God. Others don’t want religion. Some are neither here nor there. Robert Mugabe in prison stuck to his God. The priests who went there to say mass, to pray with them, he was always the altar boy. That requires a lot and, my brother, it is essential. Spiritual discipline, whether one believes in God or does not, at least you have to believe as a human being. We are spiritual human beings and we have to have a certain spiritual discipline. Once we can have that spiritual discipline it is more than 50 percent of our discipline that we require as human beings that really goes forth and President Mugabe had a lot of that spiritual discipline.
Intellectual discipline. He liked to read, he liked to study and he kept reading, he kept studying. Intellectual discipline is crucial in the sense that you have to think, and he is a thinker. That is why he is a debater, that is why he is a strategist, that is why he is a tactician, that is why he is a good speaker; that is why he is a good listener. It is linked to the intellectual capacity that he has. It doesn’t come on its own. One has to work on it. Those are my views, those are the major issues that kept him going for a long time. He has a passion for the life of Zimbabwe, not his own life but the life of Zimbabwe. He has an objective, he has a vision of what Zimbabwe should be, Zimbabwe ought to be, can that be?