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The life in denial of Robert Mugabe
Sunday Times, SA
March 09, 2008

In this final extract from her new book, Dinner with Mugabe, Heidi Holland interviews the Zimbabwean president and discovers the unconscious coping mechanism he employs to protect himself from the real world

I greeted Mugabe. He nodded, watching me closely. The tension in the room was suffocating. My strained voice sounded unfamiliar as I asked if I could record the interview. He nodded, waving his hand airily. Then he apologised for the time I had spent waiting to meet him. As I reached out to put my tape recorder on the desk in front of him, George Charamba, permanent secretary for information in the office of the President and Cabinet and the man charged with keeping journalists out of Zimbabwe, told me to describe my book to the president before proceeding with the questions. Then I began to question Mugabe.

"How would you describe yourself in a few words?"

"I feel I am just an ordinary person. I feel within me there is a charitable disposition towards others, just as I find charitable positions towards me from others. And I don't make enemies, no. Others may make me an enemy of theirs but I make no enemies. Even those who might do things against me, I don't make them enemies at all. No."

If Mugabe ever feels ordinary, which is doubtful, he is more accurately an ordinary person in an extraordinary mess. But if he were to admit that, where would it leave him? It would negate his whole life. From his perspective, he does not make enemies - it's not me, it's "them", he insists. He is in denial. When something is too much to bear, he makes it non-existent, an unconscious coping mechanism to protect him from the real world.

"So you're not a vengeful person?"


"Are you a forgiving person?"

"Yes, I think so. Otherwise, I would have slaughtered lots of people, including Ian Smith. I always used to joke with Smith that he had borrowed hair (meaning Smith's scalp) which rightly belonged to us, but he could continue to wear it..."

He mused almost wistfully about Zimbabwe's white population's attitude towards his government. "When it came to the land issue, there was no compromise on that one. But it was actually the British who spoilt things for the whites."

In fact, it was the unforgiving part of Mugabe that allowed the land grab and spoilt things not only for the whites, but for all those affected by the damaging policy. In his view, though, it was the white farmers who made him their enemy by supporting the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

He probably really believes that he is forgiving, otherwise why did he let Ian Smith stay on in Zimbabwe? He pushes his anger back, masking it with self-deception.

His unresolved rage towards white Rhodesians as representatives of British colonizers was endorsed when Britain and the farmers supported the MDC, which is why Mugabe condoned the resultant violence. If he had given full expression to his resentment of whites, he could have done to them what another African dictator, Idi Amin, did to the Asians in Uganda. So, while certainly not forgiving, he has been more controlled than people acknowledge.

Mugabe's manner did not allow for any contradictory ideas. Whenever I was on tricky territory, I backed off in the interests of keeping the interview going.

Had I stood my ground, there might have been an entirely different outcome. He silenced me whenever I drew attention to uncomfortable realities. He could not admit that he was in trouble and had made a complete mess of Zimbabwe. So he idealized the mess as if he really believed it was going to be wonderful two years hence.

"Do you worry about repercussions in the international justice system in respect of Gukurahundi (the campaign of beatings, arson and mass murder deliberately targeted at the civilian population and conducted by Mugabe's personal militia)?

Mugabe waved his hands dismissively and sighed in exasperation. "It's just political. It's just politics that people try to gain out of it. Gukurahundi - as it happened - what was it? You had a party with a guerrilla force that wanted to reverse democracy in this country. And action was taken. And, yes, there might have been excesses, on both sides. True, it's not the fact that there was Gukurahundi which is wrong. It's the fact that there have been excesses that have caused some people to suffer.

"But we'd have to start with the excesses of Ian Smith - and the colonialists, the British, who were still in charge - because lots of people disappeared; lots of people died."

"But Gukurahundi happened during your time," I told him. "Would you like to place on the record your regret about it?"

"No, there is no regret about the fact that we had to defend the country. But the excess, where it happened, yes. Any death that should not have occurred is a cause for regret, and wherever people have suffered. But the figures don't make sense because they don't represent the truth."

When I told him the estimates of deaths during Gukurahundi ranged between 8000 and 30000, he replied icily: "Who are those people; who are they? We want to know."

I had been expecting Mugabe to object to the question on Gukurahundi, but it was my scepticism that bothered him. The question itself did not disconcert him, because he simply justified his actions.

He clearly feels Gukurahundi was legitimate on the grounds that he was aggrieved. He was settling a problem with a terrorist group, though he regretted the excesses.

He sat on the fence, condoning the terrible violence without actually saying as much.

Like the husband who beats his wife mercilessly and then says he did it because she provoked him, Mugabe takes no responsibility for his loss of control or what Gukurahundi says about him.

"Do you have any regrets, sir?"

"Of what?"


"It would depend on what you have in mind."


"No, no regrets. You go into a fight. It's a fight against colonialism. You make sacrifices. And naturally, when people die, you regret the deaths of the people. And that's why we have created Heroes Acre in order to remember those whose deaths should not have occurred. Yes, we are sorry that there are those who have died, but other regrets, I don't know. We might have regrets where we've had a policy that we've had to revise. Or failures in our programmes because some people have not implemented them faithfully and honestly. Yes, you regret those failures. Failures in government are regretted, especially when they are because of corruption or inefficiency, incompetence or neglect. Sure, we regret."

"How would you like to be remembered?"

"Just as the son of a peasant family who, alongside others, felt he had a responsibility to fight for his country. And did so to the best of his ability. And was grateful for the honour given him to lead a country and be remembered as one who was most grateful for the honour that the people gave him in leading them to victory over British imperialism. Yes, for that I want to be remembered."

*Holland's book, Dinner with Mugabe, is due to be released by Penguin Books this month

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