Op-Ed: Robert Mugabe – the power of lies, and the lies of power

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    In the years before Mugabe took power, perceptions
    of him were more cardboard cut-out than reality – ranging from
    Marxist fanatic at one end of the spectrum to selfless
    liberation icon at the other. So it is of little wonder that
    these views were radically altered when occasional glimpses
    were replaced by regular acquaintance after he became prime
    minister of the new Zimbabwe in 1980. His Rhodesian political
    nemesis, Ian Smith, was typical, writing of their first meeting
    that Mugabe was “the antithesis of the communist gangster I had
    expected”.

    Yet, in many cases, the new perceptions of Mugabe
    were as flawed as the old. Stale illusions were replaced by
    fresh ones. In part, this was a psychological phenomenon:
    out-sized fears – when shown to be false – tended to be
    replaced by rose-tinted enthusiasm. It is for this reason that
    key members of the Rhodesian security apparatus, who had
    expected the imposition of a communist dictatorship, became as
    dedicated to Mugabe’s cause as they had previously been to
    killing him. Likewise, the British, who had colluded with the
    Rhodesians to keep Mugabe from power, now became strong
    supporters and tenaciously clung to the notion that he was a
    “moderate”.

    But there was more to these misconceptions than
    emotional factors. Mugabe consciously set out to mislead others
    in order to manoeuvre them – and he was highly proficient at
    it. Behind every statement or action there was, almost
    invariably, a hidden agenda. Ironically, it is other deceivers
    – among them, agents of apartheid South Africa in his inner
    circle – who lay some of this bare through their records of
    private encounters with Mugabe.

    In November 1980, for example, reports appeared in
    the press that Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) government intended to take
    white farmland without compensation because Britain had
    allegedly failed to fulfil promises to provide finance for the
    purchase of land. A South African source reported to Pretoria
    that Mugabe had “discussed this matter (with him) before he
    made it public” and had “intentionally made these statements to
    try and prod the Brits into making funds available”. When the
    source “pointed out to Mugabe the danger of the effect that it
    would have on … the (confidence of) white farmers … Mugabe’s
    reaction to this was that he would repudiate it after he had
    said it. This is exactly what happened”.

    Indeed, on this issue, Mugabe went as far as
    delivering flatly contradictory messages to different audiences
    on the same day. On one occasion, he told white farmers that
    they should “stay on in Zimbabwe and reassured them that the
    government recognised their role as the backbone of the
    Zimbabwean economy”, only to tell a black audience shortly
    afterwards that the government would “take over” white-owned
    farms and “redistribute them to peasant farmers”.

    Attempting to make sense of such contradictions,
    the British concluded that Mugabe was politicking in order to
    manage expectations among his black constituency. A year later,
    a British diplomat wrote to London of another instance when
    Mugabe had claimed “we were denying his government funds to
    purchase land for resettlement and said that we must buy land
    from ‘our kith and kin’”. If the British failed to provide
    funds, “the government would not hesitate to take over this
    land and give it to the peasants”. The author lamented that it
    was “disheartening that Mugabe should have spoken in this way
    when he knows full well that there is no lack of money for land
    purchase and that delays in the scheme are largely caused by
    the inefficiency of the Zimbabwe bureaucracy and physical
    restraints”. Still, the British were persuaded that the
    government’s “real policies” were different to “such talk” and
    that they would have to live with the prime minister’s
    posturing from time to time. It does not seem to have occurred
    to them that they were being played by Mugabe.

    It was not just the “imperialist”, white West that
    was the target and victim of Mugabe’s dissembling. He took an
    equally cynical approach to Zanu (PF)’s ostensible ideological
    fellow travellers and closest wartime allies. Remarking on a
    visit he made to China and North Korea at the end of 1980, he
    told a colleague – who was also a South African spy – that it
    had been necessary to go because of the assistance these
    countries had provided during the war, but added that the trip
    was a “lot of bull”. The Chinese and Koreans wanted to assist
    Zimbabwe only “by supplying a few tractors and many
    technicians”. He was “personally … not at all impressed with
    the idea of the technicians” because they were little more than
    a fifth column – a posse of “Marxists who will start a process
    of undermining” and who would “only contribute to more friction
    within the party”.

    Rather than be exploited by his allies, Mugabe
    turned the tables and used them for his own ends. On the same
    trip, blowing hard on the horn of Kim Il-sung and the language
    of socialist brotherhood so beloved by the “Great Leader”, he
    negotiated a deal for the Koreans to train and equip a brigade
    of the Zimbabwe National Army. This Fifth Brigade was to
    operate separately from the units being trained by the British
    and was to become what amounted to a private army of ruling
    party. Two years later, it was used to smash the grassroots
    structures of Zanu’s nationalist rival, Zapu, and to massacre
    its supporters.

    Not that Mugabe was any more grateful to the
    Koreans for their assistance in “consolidating” Zimbabwe’s
    independence (as the bilateral verbiage described it) than he
    had been for their help during the liberation struggle.
    Contrary to the appearance of intimacy with the Koreans that
    was created by the notoriety of the Fifth Brigade, Mugabe
    remained as distrustful of them as he had been before. Using
    West German technology and white Cold War warriors from the
    Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) – a Rhodesian
    institution previously much maligned by the nationalists but
    now appropriated by Zanu (PF) – Mugabe tracked every move of
    the Koreans in the country.

    A case in point
    is found in the transcript of a wiretap of October 1983, not
    long after the first Fifth Brigade military operation during
    which thousands of Zapu supporters were butchered in
    Matabeleland North – an operation (as new evidence shows) that
    was furthered by on-the-ground assistance from Korean officers.
    Taken in its broader context, it is difficult to conceive of a
    document that exudes greater irony or speaks more eloquently of
    the mindset that Mugabe brought to the task of ruling
    Zimbabwe:

    P (Korean party secretary, Dar es Salaam): What’s
    wrong with this line? Something’s wrong.

    K (Kim Won-Kyu, North Korean embassy official,
    Harare): Nothing. It’s Okay.

    P: Isn’t somebody wire-tapping our
    telephone?

    K: No way. It is quite alright.

    P: Could someone be listening to our
    conversation?

    K: No. There is nobody to listen to us here

    P: It seems like some section of the Zimbabwean
    Government wire-taps our telephone.

    K: No way. We are the only ones here (who can speak
    Korean). Unless there is somebody at your side.

    P: There is nobody over here who would listen to
    our talk.”

    Commenting on the conversation, the CIO’s
    counter-intelligence division noted with satisfaction that
    “this serves to illustrate … that the Harare-based Koreans have
    no idea of our operations against them”.

    CIO counter-intelligence, undoubtedly with Mugabe’s
    approval, also placed other professed friends under
    surveillance. One of those was South Africa’s African National
    Congress (ANC). Thabo Mbeki has since claimed that Mugabe
    agreed to allow the ANC to use Zimbabwe as a base from which to
    conduct covert military operations in apartheid South Africa –
    a claim that seems to have more to do with Mbeki’s latter-day
    dalliance with Mugabe than the historical reality of the
    antagonistic relationship between Zanu and the ANC. But if
    Mugabe did give the ANC such assurances, he lied.

    Counter-intelligence watched the ANC – and Mbeki
    himself – as intensively as those Mugabe loathed the most, all
    with a view to preventing ANC operations of the kind that Mbeki
    says were authorised. In what is another conspicuous irony, the
    voluminous nature of CIO intelligence on the ANC, much of which
    was photocopied by apartheid agents and sent south, provided
    Pretoria with a detailed manual on how to attack ANC targets in
    Zimbabwe. While Mugabe was concerned about the threat posed by
    South African agents to his own security, it is not clear that
    he was particularly bothered by collateral damage to the ANC.
    Given his antipathy towards Zapu and the Russians, two ANC
    allies that attracted the deepest of his not inconsiderable
    hatreds, it is reasonable to suspect that he was
    not.

    Certainly, Mugabe’s Machiavellian bent extended
    well beyond superficial liberation partners such as the ANC to
    his own party colleagues and even his closest confidants.
    Mugabe used the CIO to watch the activities of troublesome
    party leaders such as Eddison Zvobgo, and there were other
    times when Zanu (PF) ministers agreed to report on their
    counterparts directly. Joice Mujuru – along with her husband,
    Solomon, then army chief – served as Mugabe’s moles in 1980
    when two of Mugabe’s most disruptive internal rivals, Edgar
    Tekere and Enos Nkala, met to discuss the formation of a rebel
    faction dubbed “Super Zanu”. Thirty years later, the wheel had
    seemingly turned, with Joice tracing Solomon’s mysterious death
    in a 2011 house fire to his participation in a committee that
    had been established to discuss a successor to
    Mugabe.

    Throughout the 1980s, there was no one more deeply
    immersed in Mugabe’s machinations than the minister of state
    security, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He was, more often than not, the
    day-to-day link between the schemes in the prime minister’s
    head and their implementation. It was Mnangagwa who oversaw the
    CIO’s surveillance operations – and much more besides. And it
    was because of this dangerous proximity that he knew, better
    than anyone else, that Mugabe had no friends, only interests –
    most of which had a clandestine element. As early as 1981,
    there were reports from South African sources that Mugabe was
    determined to “keep an eye on Mnangagwa”, with some accounts
    suggesting he wanted to “get rid of” his intelligence sidekick.
    While the more dramatic stories were probably little more than
    makuhwa, or rumour, Mnangagwa himself was clearly
    watching his back. In 1982, when minister of home affairs
    Herbert Ushewokunze set up a rival intelligence agency that
    began to cause the CIO considerable problems, Mnangagwa sent
    Mugabe a minute registering his “concern”, but heard nothing
    back. He confided to another minister that he “wondered if this
    was not evidence of covert backing for Ushewokunze by Mugabe”.
    Evidently, Mnangagwa shared South African suspicions that
    “Mugabe, a cunning politician, is playing off Ushewokunze and
    Mnangagwa against each other”.

    Unlike Solomon Mujuru, Mnangagwa has – so far –
    successfully navigated the murky waters around Mugabe for
    decades and, as a current vice president of Zimbabwe, is a
    potential successor to his ailing boss. Whether that will
    continue to be the case remains to be seen, although, to the
    extent that Mugabe influences the outcome, Mnangagwa is still
    well ahead of other pretenders in terms of understanding what
    makes the old conniver tick.

    Yet what precisely are those common threads, the
    driving forces, that explain how Mugabe thinks – not least of
    which are his predilection for duplicity and conspiracy? Two
    suggest themselves, based on the evidence from the 1980s when
    he was at the height of his powers. At one level, there were
    the objectives and attitudes that informed his ideology – a
    philosophy that was common to the Zimbabwean nationalists of
    his generation, and one that elevated realpolitik and the
    ruthless pursuit of supremacy. But that alone is insufficient
    to explain the degree to which Mugabe was able and prepared to
    deploy deceptions against those who were his comrades.
    Personality and personal ambition were the ultimate
    determinants here. Many others in the party were animated by
    material gods, but for Mugabe it was always the accumulation of
    power and its exercise that held him in thrall. He was not the
    only one. He simply lusted for control more intensely – and had
    more effective tools for achieving it. His capacities were
    exceptional; his instincts, less so. Perhaps that is why we
    prefer to caricature those who are little loved and long
    remembered. They tell us more about ourselves than we would
    care to know. DM

    Dr Stuart Doran is a historian and the author of
    a newly published book on Zimbabwe’s formative years,

    Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for
    supremacy, 1960–1987, which is available in major bookstores
    and online at www.sithatha.com

    Photo: Zimbabwean President
    Robert Mugabe (L) inspects a guard of honour before officially
    opening the 107th edition of the Harare Agricultural Show in
    Harare, Zimbabwe, 25 August 2017. EPA-EFE/AARON
    UFUMELI

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