On the occasion of turning 90 years old on February 21 2014, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe entered the rarified circle of ruling nonagenarians. Mugabe is the second oldest sitting African President right behind record holder Kamuzu Hastings Banda, former premier of Malawi who stayed in office till age 95 and lived till the ripe age of 99. The local media coverage of the Mugabe’s 90th birthday and the festivities surrounding his only daughter’s wedding showed a glimpse of Mugabe the father and parent and left me wondering what the man behind the mask was really like. How did a one-time Nobel peace prize nominee evolve into an isolated irrelevant man loathed by many? The desire to know what makes Mugabe tick led me through a plethora of books on Mugabe and the book that stood out was Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland
Heidi Holland, the author met Mugabe for the first time in 1975 at the height of Zimbabwe’s bush war for independence after he had just been released from 11 years of imprisonment by Rhodesia’s white government led by Ian Smith. Her brief interaction with him left an indelible mark that ignited what would in later years ignite a need to know the actual men behind the polite, well-spoken and impeccably dressed self-proclaimed Marxist persona. As Mugabe rarely grants interviews the author interviewed people who have been part of Mugabe’s circle from his early days as a young boy in rural Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known then) to his rise and rise within ZANU during the liberation struggle through to his nomination as Prime Minister. Those interviewed include political rivals, close family, friends and colleagues. She also manages to land an interview with the man himself in 2007 at time when Zimbabwe was infamously experiencing hyperinflation.
The narrative is intriguing and delves deep in to the psychology of the man. What are the reasons that make him think and behave the way he does? The author paints a picture of how the actions of adults (his mother, an absentee father and the Jesuit Priests) in Mugabe’s early childhood and historical circumstances i.e. the idea that he was chosen by God to become a great person, the manner in which he was plucked from obscurity and literary handed him the leadership of the armed struggle and eventually the reins of newly independent Zimbabwe, fed his ego and the resultant inability to handle rejection and the development of a cult personality. The book paints a portrait of a lonely, bookish child who developed in to a lonely, sensitive man whose only friend was probably his first wife Sally a woman whose death greatly affected him. The book provides a historical timeline which one can “see” the evolution from hero to villain
The book explores the complicated relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain, Mugabe’s anglophilia , his resentment of Mandela displacing him as the region’s darling upon Mandela’s’ release from prison and his ruthlessness in the face of real or perceived betrayal. The reader will also find the anecdotes very interesting. One can view this book as a psychological analysis of Mugabe or as an apologist for a nationalist who goes rogue. I will let the reader will decide.
The author Heidi Holland was born in South Africa but grew up in Zimbabwe, became a journalist, married and moved back to South Africa two years after Zimbabwe’s independence. She was found deceased at her home in South African in august of 2012. Her death was classified as a suicide.