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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
"Are you a forgiving
"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
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
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
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.
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."
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
"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."
book, Dinner with Mugabe, is due to be released by Penguin Books
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