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.

Modernising Africa and its inequality blindspot

Photo source: Dinesh Krishnan
Photo source: Dinesh Krishnan

When spoken about in Western media particularly, Africa has often been presented as a continent ravaged by wars and blessed with vast natural resources yet barely able to feed its people and compete with the rest of the world economically. To present the African continent in this way is not entirely untrue though in the words of the celebrated Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, it presents only one side of the story – “a single story.” The Africa of today is still plagued by many of these problems yet a great deal of change is taking place; the so-called ‘African middle class’ is well and truly on the move.

By ‘middle class’, I refer to individuals and households that are seeing their incomes rise at a rate that provides them with sufficient disposable income to consume on what in economics we call ‘a higher indifference curve.’ They are able to spend their ‘income excess’ on more, higher value non-food items such as foreign holidays, land, property, company shares, other financial securities, and more. These households and individuals are generally well-educated, to university degree level at least. Several have been educated abroad at some point in their lives and the majority of them can be considered to be in professional employment, as accountants, lawyers, engineers, doctors, IT consultants, educationists, or business people.

According to McKinsey, the global management consulting firm

“many Africans are joining the ranks of the world’s consumers. In 2000, roughly 59 million households on the continent had $5,000 or more in income — above which they start spending roughly half of it on nonfood items. By 2014, the number of such households could reach 106 million.” – McKinsey Quarterly, June 2010 Report: What’s Driving Africa’s Growth?

And naturally there will be many other households and individuals earning way above this level. When we look at the education of their children, many are opting for private education over state education systems which in countries such as Zambia, are just about coping due to numerous solvable challenges.

In the minds of virtually all respected commentators, the economic progress being experienced by the continent’s middle class is all good news for the continent’s populace. They often cite the benefits of strong local demand for local products, a widening tax revenue base and job creation undertaken by entrepreneurs. It’s worth pointing out, however, that rising living standards and increased consumption often lead to the middle classes in many countries (not just developing ones) to consume more imported products over local ones.

Just over two decades ago, many African countries, including my own, did away with the socialist economic model that was synonymous with the one-party state. Many of our Independence leaders had held on to that model unswervingly since Independence in the 60s and 70s. By the late 80s and early 90s, it became clear that the model was just not working. Strikes and protests became the order of the day. But with a new generation of African leaders came widespread change and the arrival of democracy and economic liberalisation. Some of Zambia’s state-owned enterprises, most famously its mining giant ZCCM (Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines), moved from public to private hands. The mines were now going to be run not directly in the interests of the people of Zambia but primarily for profit for their new private shareholders.

As the 20th century drew to a close, it became more obvious to people that they were living in a new economic era. I speak about Zambia particularly here but about the continent more generally. Government policies encouraged investment, primarily foreign but increasingly domestic too. It became an era where you did not have to wait to be employed, but you could start your own business and be an employer. An era where you did not have to rent a house all your life, but you could actually buy or build one and pass it on to your children as part of their inheritance. It was now an era where you did not have to feel bad about becoming financially successful, you just went ahead and did it. The American Dream, or something akin to it, was well and truly alive…in Africa!

And this is what all those protests in the 1980s and 90s were about right? These are the sort of societies we have been desiring to build all along, right? When we speak of lifting people out of poverty, this is the point we want them to get to, surely?

Amidst talk of economic progress, there however exists a thin line in my mind between immense optimism for the continent and grave concern.

As an African, I have become fed up of seeing images of poverty-stricken Africans become the defining feature of my continent abroad. We Africans detest that and so anything that reflects our continent in a more positive light is welcome. News of consistent economic growth is often presented as one of those positives. But I raise the question: are we at grave risk of becoming increasingly-divided societies in the process? I am entirely in favour of economic progress, private sector-led economic progress that is, but economic progress that supports the few over the masses is nothing to write home about.

The progress being achieved at present is not as widespread as it should be. Consider urban township dwellers exposed to poor sanitation and at risk (year in and year out!) of waterborne diseases such as cholera? Or the children unable to learn at their rural government school because of teachers striking in protest of better working conditions? Or the father grossly underpaid by his employers on one of the country’s several mines because Labour Ministry officials fail to enforce minimum wage laws? If GDP (Gross Domestic Product) figures are impressive, do these other issues become unimportant?

When governments fail to honour their obligations to the masses, those with a stronger voice must speak out for those unable to speak for themselves. Governments need to be reminded of their responsibilities and must be held accountable. And if the middle class become too comfortable and too preoccupied with the things that occupy middle class people, then they will soon be rendered passive and ineffective; a community side-stepping economic injustices that exist right on their doorsteps. I believe that educated and professional Africans (the ‘middle class’) have a responsibility to hold their governments accountable on behalf of those with a weaker voice.

Seeing the suffering in your brother’s or sister’s eyes should lead you not to shut the windows of your Lexus as you drive passed, but it should instead push you to fight for their well-being too. And I don’t just mean charity (“Hey, here’s a T-shirt!”) though that certainly will be part of it. I mean fighting for the authorities to take seriously their responsibilities of creating fair opportunities for all. To take seriously their responsibilities towards not only those already on the ladder of economic progress, but especially towards those that are barely able to get a grip of the first rung.

Without this and more, we risk blindly entering an era plagued by gross inequalities and materialistic obsession, if we have not already. Economic aspirations must be met but economic injustices must also be fought.

This piece was originally written in 2010 under a different heading.

BRICS Development Bank: More about political posturing than anything?

Photo Source: Photo/Agencies
Photo Source: Photo/Agencies

“The BRICS development bank will take shape at the fifth BRICS summit to be held in the eastern port city of Durban, South Africa, next month. The governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will each make an initial capital injection of $10 billion to fund the bank, which will not only symbolize the unity of the world’s five most dynamic economies and showcase the rise of emerging nations; it will also become a global tool for “mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in the BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries”. – China Daily

Calling the BRICS economies “the world’s five most dynamic” is likely to be an overstatement of fact. Whatever “dynamic” means in this context. Nevertheless, the direction of travel around the creation of this development bank will be interesting to follow. It is intended that the bank will act as an alternative to Western lending institutions such as the World Bank. I wonder where its lending criteria will be positioned – somewhere in between the generous EXIM Bank of China and the conditionality-obsessed World Bank?

Some points to ponder:

(1) How much of this is simply about political posturing? Should citizens of the five countries (particularly South Africa) be sceptical? The implications of being involved in the project (and the grouping itself) are costly (initial capital injection of $10 billion) and therefore how these countries will benefit needs to be made more obvious to citizens.

I suppose putting your money where your mouth is is an essential part to being a member of the big boys’ club.

That said, is there really a case for a global emerging markets/developing world development bank? It’s well-known that these plans are borne out of frustration at the lack of reform in the Bretton Woods institutions but how different will the BRICS bank be to the World Bank in its actual lending?

(2) How sustainable is the whole project? An initial capital injection of $10 billion as already mentioned is no small amount. And that’s just the beginning. Given the notion that it will be different to the World Bank, will it find itself trying to be all things to all people (i.e. serving the interests of its founders while also acting as flag bearer for “sustainable development projects in the BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries”)? Surely its founders will, in the longer term, succumb to self-interested policies leading to accusations of it acting just like the World Bank?

It all remains to be seen.

Look out for the BRICS Conference from 26-27th March 2013 in Durban, South Africa.

See our December 2012 event report, ‘The BRICS: A view from South Africa.’

‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’: final excerpt

In the final chapter of the book, author Michela Wrong laments the prevailing attitude amongst Western donors who have, by and large, been more interested in disbursing ever-larger sums of money to recipient nations than in ensuring accountability frameworks are adhered to.

She suggests that Western qualms and sensitivities are in fact encouraging political elites to become more brazen in their abuse of state resources, as well as giving credibility to governments that don’t deserve it. She writes (pp326-327):

“If they only set foot on the continent, idealistic Westerners would be astonished to hear how often, and how fiercely, politically engaged Africans call for aid to be cut, conditionalities sharpened.

Kenyan journalist Kwamchetsi Makokha is not alone in detecting an incipient racism, rather than altruism, in our lack of discrimination. ‘Fundamentally the West doesn’t care enough about Africa to pay too much attention to how its money is spent. It wants to be seen to do the right thing, and that’s as far as the interest goes.’

One of the many lessons of John Githongo’s story is that the key to fighting graft in Africa does not lie in fresh legislation or new institutions [per se]. Most African states already have the gamut of tools required to do the job. A Prevention of Corruption Act has actually been on the Kenyan statute books since 1956. ‘You don’t need any more bodies, you don’t need any more laws, you just need good people and the will’, says Hussein Were [a quantity surveyor].

Rather than dreaming up sexy-sounding short cuts, donors should be pouring their money into the boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the years: the police force, judicial system and civil service.”

‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’: insightful and easy-to-read

I’ve just finished reading Michela Wrong’s ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’, an insightful and easy-to-read book on state corruption in Kenya.

I like her style.

One interesting thought from the book … state corruption as a threat to national security. I’d never really given much thought to that. She writes:

“Corruption can reach a point where an entire nation is there for the taking [by the political elite and its foreign friends], where sleaze has security implications not just for the nation concerned, but for its neighbours and allies.”

She quotes the former US Ambassador to Kenya, William Bellamy:

“The reason Al Qaeda came here in the 1990s wasn’t for the scenery. If you can lie your way through immigration, if you can get your goods through customs, if you can induce law enforcement to turn the other way, if you can sort out your legal problems with a few attorneys and judges, if you can launder your money and invest in legitimate businesses, well, why wouldn’t you come to Kenya?”

An interesting point I thought.

Despite focusing specifically on Kenya, the book presents many thought-provoking lessons for other African states especially around issues of history, ethnicity and governance. I’ll attempt a book review once I’ve gathered my thoughts.

Speaking of book reviews, look out for something I’ve written on Heidi Holland’s ‘Dinner With Mugabe’ later this week.

Thanks 😉

Rich and poor, side by side

Photos courtesy of Peroshni Govender (Reuters)
Alexandra township, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Peroshni Govender (Reuters)

An excerpt from ‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’ (p148), a book by Michela Wrong:

Among the most squalid the continent has to offer, these settlements nuzzle against well-heeled residential areas in provocative intimacy. ‘What’s striking about Nairobi is that each wealthy neighbourhood lies cheek by jowl with a slum,’ remarks former MP Paul Muite. ‘It’s almost like a twinning arrangement. Poverty and wealth stare each other in the face. And that’s simply untenable. Those slum-dwellers know what they’re missing, they’re educated now. I tell my wife: “There’s no way, long term, those guys are going to accept to die of hunger when the smell of your chapattis is wafting over the wall.

Apart from really enjoying the use of language here, it strikes me that this image of stark social contrasts can fit the vast majority of our large African cities quite easily. Remove all references to Kenya (Nairobi, Paul Muite) and you could well be speaking about Lusaka, or Johannesburg or Lagos.

A frightening thought.