Book Reviews History and Culture Politics

Book Review: ‘Dinner With Mugabe’ by Heidi Holland


A family holiday in December 1996 took us to Kariba the Zimbabwean tourist town located a few kilometres from the border with Zambia. It is home to Lake Kariba, a vast and impressive dam teeming with animal and plant life, favoured by tourists and vital for the supply of hydroelectricity. We stayed at a small lodge overlooking the lake and soon after arriving, realised that we were the only black family there. Everyone else was white. We stayed.

On one of the days my siblings and I went down to the pool to enjoy a swim. The weather was hot and sticky, typical for that time of year. We arrived to find a handful of other guests playing and splashing around in the water. Uncomfortable stares greeted us. I vividly remember how when we got into the water everyone else started to climb out and clear up. In a matter of minutes they had all left. We were stunned. What just happened?

The mid-1990s were a relatively stable time for Zimbabwe. The country was still considered “the Bread Basket of Africa”, a well-known reference to its once-productive agricultural sector. Its government had prioritised education since Independence in 1980 and that had resulted in an admirable 90% national literacy rate. Compared to Zambia, Zimbabwe looked and felt better in many ways. But what lay beneath that veneer of stability was something complex and explosive with its roots in the country’s troublesome past. This had created a potent mix of mistrust, bitterness and selfish entitlement on either side of the colour divide. Perhaps the discriminative attitudes we experienced at that Kariba swimming pool were a small indication of that.

In Dinner With Mugabe author and journalist Heidi Holland, a former Rhodesian herself, is not concerned primarily with the historical narrative – what went on and so on and so forth. Instead it’s with trying to understand Robert Mugabe the man, his mind and personality, and how an individual of seemingly high ideals could years later mete out vindictive violence on his own people. She asks: “Was he always a ruthless potentate with a weakness for luxury or did he gradually become power-crazed?”

In the Preface of the book, Holland takes the reader back to 1975. That was the year she first met Mugabe and the point from which she frames the discussion. They met when he visited her home for dinner (hence the title of the book) and a secret meeting with Ahrn Palley, a lawyer friend of hers and fellow activist. Mugabe called her from a public payphone the following morning to check how her toddler son was doing. She had left him asleep in his cot while she drove both men to the train station the evening before. Mugabe’s concern would come to make a lasting impression on Holland. She would come to wrestle with it particularly when he started to lose his mind on a grand scale.

Their interaction over dinner and the subsequent phone call revealed Mugabe to be polite, tense and self-deprecating, a world away from the man many unhelpfully view as nothing more than “Mad Bob Mugabe” today. Behind the pomp and show of his public appearances hides the boy from Kutama who has been deeply insecure all his life; the star pupil who preferred books to playing outside; the dutiful son who carried the weight of his mother’s lofty expectations as “God’s special child”. At St Francis Xavier College, a top all-boys Jesuit high school, he immersed himself into the school’s culture of manners, gentlemanly behaviour and intellectual discovery. His deep admiration for British aristocratic airs and graces was a consequence of his warming towards such a culture, a great irony which became more obvious as the years went by.

Each chapter of the book is an account of separate interviews between Holland and individuals who have known Mugabe at different stages of his life – enemies and acquaintances. In the final chapter Holland interviews Mugabe himself; quite a feat in my view. Throughout the book her natural disposition is to probe and she probes well. She raises important questions and tries her best to provide objective context and analysis. This makes Dinner With Mugabe a thinking book. The reader is involved with considering what kind of man Robert Mugabe really is but also which players through the course of Zimbabwe’s history share some responsibility for the country’s dramatic descent.

Convinced that Mugabe’s actions from 2000 (i.e. the white land grab, violent elections and suppression of human rights) stemmed from complex historical settings, Holland delves into his life’s history in search of answers.

With the help of a psychoanalyst, she examines whether Mrs Mugabe’s lofty view of her eldest son caused him to later on become intolerant towards differing opinions (Mugabe became the eldest child when his two older siblings died). Did she instill in him an unhelpful high-minded view of self? Or maybe his father’s absence was to blame for creating an individual lacking the necessary emotional development? How else was young Robert going to learn how to properly navigate the choppy waters of life – its loves, hopes, fears, disappointments, compromises? His poor emotional development is a theme Holland returns to several times in the book.

Then there was the death of his young son while he was in a Rhodesian prison. Mugabe was never allowed to see the child’s body or attend the burial. Could this harrowing experience and the bottling up of his true feelings have numbed all possible expressions of trust and friendship? It’s worth pondering whether his prolonged periods of closed introspection destroyed something of his humanity and vibrancy. What about the impact of his first wife Sally’s death? Holland presents her as a strong (even feisty), committed, passionate and intelligent woman. They were deeply in love. Did he feel robbed of his rock, that person that had brought a stability he had lacked previously? And what about the violence and mistrust that characterised the country’s liberation movement of which he was a part? What was its impact on his mind? Did it shape him into a slippery, calculating man or had he always been like that?

Or perhaps it was the refusal of his reconciliatory hand by Ian Smith at Independence. This may have allowed him to become paranoid and embittered. ZANU-PF’s failure to win an important mid-1980s bye-election seemed to confirm a personal dislike and distrust from the country’s white (mainly rural) community despite his own personal efforts to reassure and accommodate them in the new Zimbabwe. Ian Smith’s party won that bye-election. Was this the beginning of Mugabe’s ‘us versus them’ post-Independence mindset? And what about Britain’s colonial and post-colonial record? Its double standards and New Labour’s careless handling of previous Tory government commitments to the Lancaster House agreement? And who could ignore the inability of African leaders to confront and curtail his excesses, oversensitive perhaps to accusations of compliance with “the West”? Had they inadvertently propped up a monster?

As Holland wades through these and other big questions, her skill as a writer and researcher shines through. These qualities make the book a remarkably accessible and insightful piece of work. Through her discussions, she humanises Mugabe without releasing him of ultimate responsibility for his poor decisions; decisions that have come to cost Zimbabwe dearly. She shows his admirable ability to seek out friendship and reconciliation but also shows his childish inability to stomach rejection and opposition.

I come to the conclusion that Mugabe is a deeply flawed character which is a real tragedy for him and his country. He hates Britain for its colonial involvement in Zimbabwe yet he greatly admires its cultural airs. He calls himself a communist, advocate for the poorest in society yet his opulent living defies all of that. He believes that the majority of Zimbabweans love him and want him to continue as their leader yet a quick survey is likely to show him otherwise.

I reached the end of the book unconvinced that Holland shows us clearly where his moral climb down began – and that’s assuming he was on a higher moral plane in 1975! The psychoanalysis she employs is weak and frankly doesn’t add much value. The stories she tells are fascinating and the questions she asks vital. But sadly, the book simply ends up being a narration of events rather than an analytically-conclusive piece of work showing why the Mugabe of 1980 had changed so dramatically over the years. This was her stated aim at the start of the book. It’s a reminder that perhaps trying to neatly explain a person of any sort isn’t as simple and straightforward.  My feeling is that the meeting they had in 1975 forever clouded her vision of a man who already had a weakness for luxury, a high view of himself, violent tendencies and other deep flaws. Time and circumstances simply brought these weaknesses to the fore, something Holland seems to have missed altogether. Despite that, I still think the book triumphs in two particular ways.

Firstly, Holland takes what is still a highly emotive subject and by applying courageous commentary and analysis, sets it within its right historical context. The book challenged my view of history and how I interpret it. To what extent do my own preconceived ideas shape how I look at the past? We must be willing to admit that we all bring different preconceived ideas to the table. That said however, we sometimes put little effort into sober, objective reflection of the past. It is much easier to make sweeping, comfortable statements. 

Secondly, the book shines a bright light on human nature in a way that can’t be ignored. There is more that unites than divides us – and I’m not referring to positive characteristics as is often meant by that phrase. Rather, negative and dark traits in us all such as greed, selfishness and manipulation. In the whole Zimbabwe debacle, we see accusing fingers point in all directions yet that will never be the source of true peace and nation-building. You know what they say: when you point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at you.

Those with responsibility for Zimbabwe’s dramatic descent ought to be called out, including President Mugabe. But mere punishment and public embarrassment, though necessary steps in themselves, will do little to build a united Zimbabwe if that’s where we end the conversation. Perhaps the country ought to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the coming years, as did South Africa and Kenya after their respective 1994 and 2007 general elections. That may be one of the steps to ensuring some healing in a country with a history as chequered as Zimbabwe’s.

Book rating: 3.5/5

© Chipo Muwowo, 2013.


4 replies on “Book Review: ‘Dinner With Mugabe’ by Heidi Holland”

Thanks Chipo. I have read this book and your review is a perfect summary. I love the way you relate it your personal experience in your intro…

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