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by book: The good, the bad and the dire
Zvomuya, Mail & Guardian (SA)
November 11, 2011
Deep End by Morgan Tsvangirai (Penguin)
Memories of a Freedom Fighter by Wilfred Mhanda (Weaver Press)
and the White African by Ben Freeth (Zebra Press)
One might take
it as a sign of approaching normality in Zimbabwe that activists
and politicians are taking a break from fighting President Robert
Mugabe to sit down and write autobiographies and memoirs.
is Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for
Democratic Change (MDC), who worked with his spokesperson and ghostwriter
T William Bango on a 550-page autobiography, At the Deep End.
It is a text
that should have been half its size - the first few hundred pages
are forgettable. The book lights up around 1999, the year the MDC
was formed, which is about chapter 10. So, if you are pressed for
time, skip the first 200 pages. I assure you, you are not missing
All right, what's covered between pages one and
200? It's a social history of Zimbabwe, the subregion and the world
through Tsvangirai's eyes. But who really wants to view the world
through his eyes? Tsvangirai writes about the fall of the dictatorship
in Portugal that resulted in independence in Mozambique and the
guerrilla war against Ian Smith's government gleaned from the "avid"
reading of Rhodesian newspapers.
Then there are Robert Mugabe's early years and he
even throws in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The result of this is, at times, unfortunate and
unschooled. For instance, writing about the relations between Pretoria
and Harare in the 1980s, Tsvangirai says: "He [Mugabe] played
into Pretoria's hands by adopting an aggressive stance and the entire
nation paid as a result."
What was Mugabe supposed to do? Engage in sweet
pillow talk with apartheid South Africa so soon after Mugabe, the
Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and the Zimbabwe African
People's Union (Zapu) had been generously hosted by Kenneth Kaunda's
Zambia, Julius Nyerere's Tanzania and Samora Machel's Mozambique?
Tsvangirai also criticises Mugabe for sending Zimbabwean
troops to Mozambique in the early 1980s to help fight the apartheid-sponsored
Renamo insurgency. That operation can't be compared with Zimbabwe's
questionable participation in the late 1990s war in the Democratic
Republic of Congo, for instance.
Mugabe, eschewing Durban as a port, had to help
secure access to the Indian Ocean via the port of Beira. "The
operation in Mozambique cost Zimbabwe an average Z$2-million a day
when the economy could hardly sustain it; nor were there any benefits
from such extravagance, apart from giving Mugabe the political mileage
he needed as a donor and powerful regional leader.
Wooden prose "I was born a few months before
the white settler administration formed the federation of Rhodesia
and Nyasaland," Tsvangirai writes in the first chapter of a
book, which can be read as a social anthropological study of life
in Zimbabwe after World War II. By page 24, I was struggling to
get into its mostly dense, wooden (apologies to all the trees out
there) prose. There is an explanation of sorts on page 24: "Although
I was extremely competent with figures, arithmetic and mathematics,
I had difficulties with both spoken and written English."
Then there are the strange sentences and weird thought
processes. What, for instance, does the following mean? "People
felt their former liberators were now preying on them, riding roughshod
over basic graciousness after having fallen hard into the trappings
of power, ambition and avarice."
Or this: "Zimbabweans live in a world dominated
by symbols. In fact, symbolism is so deeply embedded in our culture
that it can be seen as second nature." Which people don't value
symbols and symbolism?
"My life was destined to be closely interwoven
with political, economic and social changes in Zimbabwe." I
don't know what this means. I could understand it if Mugabe or one
of the nationalists said it, but as Tsvangirai joined Zanu-PF at
independence in 1980, its meaning is not immediately clear.
Tsvangirai's liberation war CV is sparse, involving
attending "several secret political meetings at which black
people sought to assure themselves that Zimbabwe was destined for
Early on in
the book he gives us a reason why, unlike some young men of his
age, he did not go to the bush to join other guerrillas. "Perhaps
I would have become a political activist but my parents needed financial
help to support the other children through school."
To people who are not from the subregion, this might
sound like pointless nostalgia, but the liberation war is a big
deal in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
It's not a coincidence that where the liberation movements have
been voted out, for instance in Zambia and Malawi, wars were not
waged to push for independence.
Tsvangirai's nostalgia for the liberation war recalls what Zimbabwe's
generals told him in 2000 - we won't allow you to take power even
if you win the elections. It was a message repeated by Constantine
Chiwenga, Zimbabwean military supremo, who said a few years ago:
"I would not hesitate to go on record again on behalf of the
Zimbabwe Defence Forces to disclose that we would not welcome any
change of government that carries the label 'Made in London', and
whose sole aim is to defeat the gains of the liberation struggle."
I have no space to point out the holes in Tsvangirai's
argument that "the social agenda that Mugabe had pursued from
independence faltered under ESAP [an International Monetary Fund-prescribed
neoliberal policy], with devastating results." Mugabe was able
to expand social services, education and infrastructure originally
meant to cater for a few hundred thousand whites. Even after a decade
of decline, Zimbabwe was last year listed by the United Nations
as the most literate country in Africa. Love him or hate him, that's
part of Mugabe's legacy.
So what new details does this autobiography put
in the open? That former president Thabo Mbeki was "financing
the Ncube group to destabilise the MDC", thus the splitting
of the MDC into two factions - Tsvangirai's and that led by university
man Welshman Ncube.
Tsvangirai also traces the roots of the anti-intellectualism
in the MDC. "If the political project was to succeed, I told
myself, it had to be led by ordinary workers, peasants ... not theorists,
but doers". Being one doesn't preclude being the other; Mugabe
is a classic example. He's very erudite and is a man of action (some
would say too much action).
One of the problems that faced the MDC after a few
years in existence was its lack of ideological cohesion. Apart from
being opposed to Mugabe, one was sometimes not sure what the MDC's
vision for Zimbabwe entailed. But Tsvangirai writes that the MDC
was "even more ideological" than the ruling party. "Zanu-PF
was just a nationalist movement whose agenda ended with independence
in 1980." Just a nationalist movement?
Tsvangirai writes about the perception that the
MDC is a front for the West. "While trying to rescue the white
farmers, London created an impression that the MDC was its vehicle
for regime change." It's not clear whether this impression
has gone away because people who dislike Mugabe and Zanu-PF will
still tell you that they find the MDC's positions wishy-washy. Still,
Tsvangirai insists, "for all the Zanu-PF hype, neither Zimbabwean
whites nor Britain influenced the MDC and me in any way".
Savage attacks If you like to see blood, Tsvangirai
uses his lance to get at his rivals. About Ncube, he writes: "I
had spent the better part of my tenure babysitting some of my highly
unpopular colleagues, including Ncube." He notes that Ncube
is a "superb boardroom idealist but lacks a popular or grassroots
insights". These politicians insisted that "I should never
address a meeting alone. They all wanted to be where I was, especially
at mass rallies, in order to benefit from my personal political
About Arthur Mutambara, the man invited from South
Africa to head the Ncube faction of the MDC, Tsvangirai says: "After
perusing a copy of his inaugural speech I realised that one could
pass a university and still come out unfinished as a human being."
He describes Mutambara (holder of an Oxford doctorate in robotics)
as a "politically illiterate newcomer" and a "lay
obviously, a brave man, conscious of his abilities and pulling power.
He is, perhaps, the most illustrious hero of the democratic cause.
Yet he uses
the "I" voice in places you would expect him to speak
in the collective "we". Writing about the delay in the
release of election
results in 2008, he writes: "I was positive that if I had
won control of the legislature, there was no way I could have lost
the presidency." And there are other instances of this arrogant
"I" voice, as in "finally I had dismantled the monolith
to its last pebble".
What about the contributions of the hundreds who
died for the democratic cause and the thousands who were tortured?
At other times he speaks about himself in the third
person: "Given Mugabe's fiery rhetoric and his deep personal
hatred for Morgan Tsvangirai " (Mutambara also does this quite
a lot.) I think that's part of the problem with Zimbabwe now, how
everything revolves around Mugabe.
When I told
a close friend who has worked in Zimbabwe's civil society for decades
that I wanted to give her a copy of the biography as a Christmas
present, she said I should rather get her Julian Barnes's Man Booker-winning
novel, The Sense of an Ending. When I pressed her further that,
as an activist, she should read At the Deep End, she said Tsvangirai
shoud have written more than one paragraph on the National
Constitutional Assembly and also mentioned Tawandah Mutasa and
Deprose Muchena. (Muchena is briefly mentioned; Mutasa is not.)
Strange turns of phrases My friend asked: "Does
he finally come out on his polygamous situation?" No, he doesn't,
instead portraying himself as a single parent following the 2009
death in a motor vehicle accident of his wife, Susan, whom he describes
as "my pillar and holistic stabiliser".
Tsvangirai has such strange turns of phrases. On
page 542, he writes: "I wish to acknowledge the lack of space
in this memoir for me to go into detail about my new experience
in the changed political arena." I wrote in the margin: "No,
Morgan, you had over 500 pages to do this."
In contrast, Wilfred Mhanda's 300-page autobiography,
Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, is one of the most important
works to come out of Zimbabwe. It has authority because it was written
by a senior combatant, a liberation war aristocrat, once a member
of the high command of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation
Army (Zanla), which was the armed wing of Zanu.
In an arena where war credentials are important
Mhanda's CV is sterling. He went to high school at Dadaya, the institution
founded by New Zealand-born missionary and former prime minister
of Rhodesia, Sir Garfield Todd. Todd was accorded the title mwana
wevhu (son of the soil) and billed as the "rallying cry of
From early on Mhanda wanted to be a politician.
Among the most treasured gifts he got from his parents were Ndabaningi
Sithole's tome African Nationalism and a transistor radio (to younger
readers, that was the iPhone of its day).
A bright student, Mhanda was accepted in 1971 at
the then University of Rhodesia for a bachelor of science degree,
majoring in zoology, botany and chemistry. While there he joined
the university's underground Zanu branch. After taking part in protests,
he was arrested. He skipped bail and went to Botswana, before proceeding
to Tanzania for military training.
Multifaceted account Mhanda's account is part war
diary, part scholarly tome, part insider/outsider account of one
of the most interesting episodes in Zanu history. The book is so
authoritative that, not a few times, he disputes what other nationalists,
historians and scholars have put out. He was one of the chief protagonists
when nationalists such as Mugabe and Edgar Tekere were locked up
in Rhodesian prisons and when Josiah Tongogara, Zanla's supremo,
was in detention in Zambia following the suspicious death of lawyer
and Zanu chairman Herbert Chitepo.
Mhanda's book is a clever critique of the uniform
nationalist historiography ("patriotic history", as British
historian Terence Ranger called it) that has become staple since
2000, sometimes known as Mugabeism.
Some of the information might not be of interest
to the general reader but would be to scholars of that period. For
the general reader, what's noteworthy is the rise of Mugabe. He
wasn't well known in the training camps in Mgagao, Tanzania. "At
the time we knew nothing about Mugabe except for the fact that he
was the party's secretary general." Rugare Gumbo, one of the
few guerrillas who knew him, "spoke highly of him and described
him as articulate".
When Mozambique gained independence in 1975, Zanla
moved to the east. When Machel asked them to submit a list of their
political leaders, Mugabe topped it. Mhanda writes that "Machel
leapt from his chair in disgust. He was clearly not happy that we
had included Mugabe, let alone as the leader." Mugabe was then
living in exile in Quelimane, on the Mozambican coast. "He
loves the limelight," Machel said prophetically about Mugabe.
"We lived to regret the day we had put forward
Mugabe's name," writes the man who later spent three years
in a Mozambican prison for his dis-agreements with Mugabe, who was
taking control of Zanla at the time.
Selective amnesia Mhanda is strange bedfellows with
Ben Freeth, in whose company he travels to the west of Zimbabwe
in a section of Freeth's Mugabe and the White African.
"Deeply moving" and "fascinating",
writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the foreword to the book. As I
read Freeth, however, I wondered how much of the memoir the bishop
had read. It's about the struggles of the British-born farmer fighting
off war veterans, thugs and politicians who are after his farm.
The most maddening feature of the book is its amnesia
about the genesis of the Zimbabwe crisis. "In Zimbabwe none
of the white exploiters will be allowed to keep a single acre of
their land," the book declares on page seven. "From 1973
to 1979, 320 white farmers were murdered. This counted for more
than the total number of white civilian deaths over that whole period."
Why the farmers are being killed is never explained.
Freeth doesn't mention the 50 000 blacks who died in the same period.
It's almost as if apropos of nothing black "terrorists"
(his word) started killing white farmers.
Ghost of Ian Smith The book is written in the spirit
of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence announced by the late
Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith, on November 11 1965. When Britain
was "granting" independence to its colonies in the 1960s,
Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain.
The ghost of
Smith suffuses every page of Freeth's book - so much so that I wouldn't
be surprised if Smith's brood argued for a share of the royalties.
Early on in the book Freeth tells us about his encounters
with "tribesmen" in Ethiopia, "terrorists" killing
the whites. The traditional healer is a "witch doctor".
On a visit to a white-run farm, Freeth is impressed by the commercial
operation, "an oasis of irrigated crops and productivity".
In contrast the black-populated areas are "dry and barren",
even though both sections receive the same amount of rainfall.
The Land Apportionment Act of 1930, the cornerstone
of laws that began the impoverishment of black people, is written
of affectionately. The law was meant for the "security of tenure"
it provided, argues Freeth. "Contrary to the repetitious propaganda,
every serious farmer knows that land in these communal areas can
be made to produce every bit as well as other land in Zimbabwe,"
Freeth writes of the rocky, infertile land to which black people
were driven by Rhodesian administrations.
Freeth, who is an evangelical Christian, quotes
the Bible so liberally that at some point I had to check whether
his book was put out by a religious publisher. But his idea of Christianity
is one with no empathy for others except his fellow "white
Africans". The Munhumutapa dynasty, whose seat was at Great
Zimbabwe, is described as one of "master pillager[s]"
and "dictator[s] of the time". Freeth and his Christian
God seems to care only about white people.
The black men's traditions are "evil practices"
and even animals are not spared. The crocodile, Mugabe's totemic
animal, is described as "ugly and evil-looking". Can't
a crocodile be allowed to be, well, a crocodile? "When I think
of African tyrants, I think of the crocodile, because crocodiles
are absolute tyrants." The continent is in a big mess because
"the spirit of the crocodile has been roused by many of its
leaders". I will admit that African leaders have messed up
but we have to factor in the centuries of colonial rapine and plunder.
Lawless Africa Before the advent of the white man,
the land was a "place of insecurity and hunger and escaping
from invading, looting tribes", Freeth writes. This is another
way of saying that before the white man's arrival Africa was formless
and without order, with no history. Freeth also writes about the
first Chimurenga, a war that involved "attacks on the white
people". There is no mention of the dispossession that preceded
that heroic struggle.
Freeth's narrative of dispossession and legal fights
is, to be sure, touching and heroic. He stoically fights off an
assortment of hoodlums and politicians. After being rebuffed by
Zimbabwean courts, he took his case to the Southern African Development
Community regional court in Windhoek. The court ruled that "white
people could be African".
If they so wish, whites can be black, too. The American
liberation theologian James H Cone argued that "to be black
means that your heart, your soul, your mind and your body are where
the dispossessed are". It is never about pigmentation.
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