Robert Mugabe: A child of unusual gravitas
Rhodesia-born author and journalist Heidi Holland has opened the window and, with the help of three psychologists (two white, one black) let in some fresh air and clear bright light on a man we are unable to get enough of, 84-year old Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
With Wordsworth’s dictum that “the child is father of the man” clearly in her mind, Ms Holland begins her story with a little help from her intriguing subject’s former friends. In 1934, it can’t have been much fun being the 10-year old Robert Mugabe.
His father Gabriel was a carpenter who went to Bulawayo looking for work and who never returned to the small and impoverished Mugabe family, which lived at Kutama in Mashonaland, close to the famous Jesuit Mission station where young Robert (and many of the men who went on to lead Zimbabwe at Independence in 1980) were educated.
It was also the year that Robert’s elder brother Michael, popular with local village girls, was found dead, poisoned by something he ate, or someone jealous of him.
In her despair, Bona Mugabe, a woman who would have made a better nun than mum, told tiny Bob that not only was he the new male head of the family but also a child sent to her by God, a special delight who would one day become a great Catholic priest, perhaps even a cardinal or even the Pope.
Intellectually furious, the teenage Robert kept to himself, locked himself into the private world of books and religion and attracted the attention of Jesuits, who saw him as one of them. “A child of unusual gravitas,” said Father Jerome O’Hea SJ, a wealthy priest who took an interest in his young protégé’s education and became Mugabe’s surrogate father.
Robert fell in love with an attractive teacher in Nkrumah’s Ghana and returned home to introduce Sally to his mother.
In 1960, he joined the ranks of African nationalists fighting against a still fairly “liberal” Rhodesian government. After 10 years of imprisonment, during which time he lost his son in Ghana and was not allowed to attend the boy’s funeral, he became a freedom fighter based in Mozambique in 1975.
That was the year that Ms Holland, through a Rhodesian lawyer, had her very brief encounter with Mugabe; which provides her with the title for this book. The following day, Mugabe telephoned her and thanked her. Ms Holland was bowled over.
Upon his arrival in Mozambique, President Samora Machel put Mugabe under house arrest for close to a year. Machel disliked Mugabe intensely, preferring the more down to earth guerrilla leader Josiah Tongogara.
With great effort and admirable determination, Ms Holland turns towards some of Mugabe’s erstwhile fans and followers for an answer – to his surviving brother, to Dennis Norman, Mugabe’s first Minister for Agriculture, to Mary, widow of Lord Soames (Britain’s last Governor in Rhodesia), the head of the Jesuits in today’s Zimbabwe, half a dozen or so rather nauseating former secret service agents for Smith and Mugabe, and to the great historian and writer Lawrence Vambe, who was once a close friend, supporter and Mugabe admirer.
Dinner with Mugabe is a brave but deeply flawed attempt to answer difficult questions about a complicated man. Yet it is still a thought-provoking work that should engage the mind of anyone with a serious interest in post-colonial Southern Africa.
Title: Dinner with Mugabe
Author: Heidi Holland