Zimbabwe: Forward to the past

Trevor Grundy reviews "Kingdom, Power, Glory – Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987" by Stuart Doran

Kingdom, Power, Glory – Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987 by Stuart Doran (Sithatha, 2018 pp. 842)

 IN THE PREFACE to ‘Eminent Victorians,’ Lyttton Strachey issued a warning that resonates with writers, historians, journalists and members of the public trying to make sense of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. He wrote - “The history of the Victorian Age will never be written: we know too much about it.” 

That great early 20th century sender-upper of four lauded pillars of Victorian Britain (Cardinal Manning, Dr Arnold, General Gordon and Florence Nightingale) observed: “Our fathers and our grand-fathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it, and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it.”

To counter the ignorance we share about the past, Strachey suggested that if the historian is wise “he will attack his subject in un-expected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto un-divined. He will row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.”

In Kingdom, Power, Glory – Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987 the Australian historian Stuart Doran has lowered, not a small bucket, but a vast ship- size container into an opaque plastic-media-rubbish- filled African ocean.

He has brought to the surface for our ‘careful curiosity’ not only the criminals and crooks who ran Rhodesia under Ian Smith from 1962-1979 but a whole cast of villains, mass murderers and self-serving sycophants who dominated Zimbabwe from 1980 to the fall of Robert Mugabe last month.

The overwhelming theme of this large and enthralling book is the way Robert Mugabe was able to bamboozle people of all backgrounds and his single minded determination to create an over-arching ruling political party which many liken now to the Nazification of Germany in the 1930s.

And if that’s the overall theme, here’s the overwhelming question.

Will Emmerson Mnangagwa – the acclaimed new brush from the old storeroom – be able to turn back the clock and return Zanu (PF) to the grass roots organization it became after its formation at the home of the late Enos Nkala in 1963?

Hope springs eternal in the human breast. .

Stuart Doran’s book follows a well-worn path from the last days of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia caused by a seven year war that cost an estimated 35,000 black lives, into a peace process organized by Britain at a Commonwealth meeting in Lusaka in 1979 and then at the Lancaster House Conference at the end of that year. Then we take a ride to Salisbury where we see Lord (Christopher) Soames in his most famous role as the last Governor of Rhodesia and elections in March 1980 followed by Independence in April.

There’s not a great deal that’s new here apart from Doran’s additional material about the way three African leaders – Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, Mozambique’s Samora Machel and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere forced Mugabe to sign up for a new constitution or an early retirement at Quelimane, hosted by the Frelimo leader who never much liked Mugabe at the best of times.

He signed and for a short while appeared to be a picture of moderation.

The strength of this meticulously research book is what comes after Mugabe’s appointment as Prime Minister, his clever but at times terrifying use of power and the rise and then rise again of a ruthless, selfish and sycophantic nouveau riche that went on to grab anything of worth in a land once described by many who knew it (even after years of war in 1980) as the Jewel of Africa.

* * *

As a journalist who lived in Zimbabwe from Independence to almost the end of 1996, it’s hard to admit that after a thorough reading of Doran’s book, I now realise I had little knowledge about what was really going on at the time.

And mine is not the only voice of regret. Every honest journalist I’ve spoken to about this new book says the same thing – “We didn’t know much, did we? “

“How was it possible that so serious an error of judgement could have been made by so many people in the world, not only in Zimbabwe?” asked the Zimbabwean journalist Trevor Ncube in the foreword to From Liberator to Dictator – An Insider’s account of Robert Mugabe’s Descent into Tyranny by Michael Auret (Davidphilip, 2009).

Elinor Sisulu wrote in her introduction to Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe (Hurst & Company, London, 2007): “As I read this report, I felt a deep sense of shame about my own silence.”

She said that the perpetrators had a vested interest in maintaining their silence - “But what about the rest of us who lived through those years and continued our lives as if nothing was happening? “

This well respected African writer said that during those terrible years (when anything between 20,000 to 50,000 men, women, children and babies were slaughtered by the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army) the eyes and ears of the international community were closed.

And what courage to write these words – “I was taken aback by the account of the mass shooting of 62 young men and women on the banks of the Cewale River in Lupane on 5 March 1983. The silence that greeted this massacre is in direct contrast to the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, news of which reverberated around the world. “

Even Rhodesia’s white leader Ian Smith was, for a while, fooled by Mugabe and his well publicised speeches about reconciliation.

After their first meeting Smith told his wife, Janet - ”He (Mugabe) behaved like a balanced, civilised Westerner, the antithesis of the communist gangster I had expected. If this was a true picture, then there could be hope instead of despair.”

Perhaps the saddest voice of them all belonged to Mike Auret who served for so many years on Zimbabwe’s Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace (CCJP).

Auret records how he had to force himself to stop doubting Mugabe, even when it became quite clear that a corrupt elite around him was more interested in buying (or grabbing) large commercial farms and luxury houses once owned by Europeans.

It was only after Mugabe dismissed reports by Auret and (Senator) David Coltart that Five Brigade was carrying out Nazi- style executions in North/South Matabeleland, the Midland and parts of Mashonaland that the scales fell from his eyes.

 “I could now see what I had refused to recognise before – that Mugabe would brook no opposition at all to whatever plan he devised. He believed that he was the only person who had the right to engineer the future of the country. He would do anything that was necessary to maintain the power of the party and his own position within it. To this end he would pardon the most heinous crimes, he would accept the corruption of his party colleagues and he would not concern himself with the torture and harassment used by his police and the CIO. He was indeed a most dangerous man.” (Page 150 From Liberator to Dictator).

Mugabe had released a balloon with the word “Democracy” printed on it. While Zimbabweans raised their eyes to the sky, knaves, charlatans and sycophants pinched their wallets and wrecked their economy.

How right Arnold Toynbee had been in his introduction to Charles Dawson’s Gods of the Revolution (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1972) when he likened so many of the widely acclaimed French revolutionaries of 1789 to real estate speculators and people we’d today call hedge fund managers. He said – “While the ideologues and the terrorists occupied the foreground of the stage, the background gave ample room for people whose main concern was not either theories or massacres but the sly acquisition of real estate on advantageous terms.”

* * *

Several Africanists say that Doran’s is the best book, so far, about a pivotal time in Zimbabwe’s history.

It’s certainly the longest with 21 chapters, a conclusion, notes, bibliography and index spread over 842 pages. It contains a couple of maps but not a single photograph or illustration.

That’s a shame, a bit like touring the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s and seeing the names but never the faces.

There are certainly other books worthy of our attention, to name but a handful -

Martin Meredith’s Mugabe – Power, Power and the Struggle for Zimbabwe (Public Affairs- New York 2007) :Geoffrey Nyarota’s Against the Grain (Zebra Press, 2006): Stephen Chan’s Robert Mugabe – A life of Power and Violence (I.B.Tauris, 2003): Michael Auret’s From Liberator to Dictator (Davidphilip, 2009): David Blair’s Degrees in Violence – Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe (Continuum, 2002): Judith’s Todd’s Through the Darkness – A Life in Zimbabwe (Zebra, 2007: Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (Picador, 1996) and When the Crocodile Eats the Sun (Picador, 2006): Paul Moorcraft’s Mugabe’s War Machine – Saving or Salvaging Zimbabwe (Pen & Sword, 2011) and Richard Bourne’s Catastrophe – What went wrong in Zimbabwe (Zed Books, 2011). Then the most valuable of them all for further understanding of Doran’s book, - Gukuranhundi in Zimbabwe – A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980 -1988 (Hurst & Company, London, 2007).

The latter was originally published in 1997 as Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace published by The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe and the Legal Resources Foundation in 1997).

So why a new book?

What else is there to be said that hasn’t already been said – not once but a dozen or so times before?

I believe where Kingdom, Power, Glory is unique is the author’s sourcing of almost all the great turning points – the hinge moments -in the Zimbabwean story between 1980 and 1987.

I respect many of the writers I’ve just mentioned and treasure their contributions towards a better understanding of Zimbabwe. But they often fail to source quotes, which is infuriating.

No-one will be able to say that about this book.

In an interview, the author said that his interest in Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe started when he arrived as a boy in post-Independence Zimbabwe.

In 1980, his father had been commissioned by the World Bank and the Zimbabwean government to design the land resettlement programme for Matabeleland.

Three years later, his field workers started bringing in stories about mass killings by the army. “So,” he explained, “I had an interest in the story from that time. My interest was further fueled by 1997 reports on the Gukurahundi written by David Coltart, a pioneering work based on witness accounts that provided a picture of the killings from a grassroots perspective. I decided to focus on the political and military angles – what the government did, and why.

“The source material for such a study wasn’t going to come from Zimbabwe but another way presented itself in 2003 when I was working as an historian for the Australian government. We were thinking of doing a piece on Australia’s role in Zimbabwe’s independence. I read through the still-classified files from the Australian High Commission in Harare (the Australian High Commissioner Jeremy Hearder had a very soft spot for Mugabe, as several quotes reveal – TG) and realized they were a goldmine. The extent to which Zanu (PF) ministers leaked information to diplomats during the Gukurahundi was a revelation. They implicated each other in the killings and also pointed the finger directly at Mugabe, revealing that he not only knew about events in Matabeleland but was directing them.”

Canadian and South African documents were acquired through various contacts and excursions and this enabled Doran – after years of study, research and probably frustration, to complete a book that for the first time has drawn from material sent to home bases by British, Australian, Canadian and South African diplomatic missions.

But for the most part, Britain’s role during Gukurahundi will be kept under official wraps. One wonders, for example, whatever happened to the memoirs of Sir Martin Ewans, British High Commissioner between 1983-1985.

It was left to that great Irish journalist Fergal Keane to tell the world about the way Britain told its diplomats to shut up and not annoy Mugabe because Britain had “bigger fish to fry in Africa. (BBC: The Price of Silence, 10 March, 2002)

In short, Britain’s didn’t want to show how vile was the new regime north of the Limpopo to whites in South Africa who were so worried, so fearful about black rule.

Keane spoke to Ewans, also to the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, and Mike Auret.

Keane: Did you protest personally about what was happening?

Ewans: No, I didn’t.

Keane: No protest?

Ewans: No.

Keane: Do you have any regret about that?

EwansNo. I think this business has really perhaps been rather blown up . . .

Keane: What was the advice from London about how one dealt with Mugabe, particularly around something like Matabeleland?

EwansI think the advice was to steer clear of it in the interests of the . . . of help to build Zimbabwe up as a nation. . . . We had very much an eye to what was happening in South Africa at that time with apartheid and we were hopeful that Zimbabwe would be something of a contrast and South Africans would say ah yes, it is possible to work with a multiracial society. So I think Matabeleland is a side issue. The real issues were much bigger and more positive and more important.

Archbishop NcubeHe should imagine if his own family is being murdered. Is that a side issue?

Mike Auret (on Perence Shiri who, after the massacres was invited to attend lunch and meet Britain’s top military brass at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London) Perence Shiri above all knew precisely what was happening, he gave the orders and he, if nobody else, he deserves the world court. The crimes committed by the 5th Brigade under his command were gross crimes against humanity.

It is, I believe, Doran’s research into who did what, where and when during Gukurahundi that the reader will find most interesting, especially the roles played by Zimbabwe’s new head of state, Emmerson Mnangagwa and those closest to him in the new post-Mugabe set-up - Perence Shiri (the new Lands Minister) General Sibisio Moyo (Foreign Affairs) and General Constantine Chiwenge.

Already Mnangagwa’s spin doctors and rapidly on-side journalists from the slavishly loyal to anyone in power newspaper The Herald, are saying in Harare that all these things happened decades ago. It’s a new world so why dreg up the past?

One thing has certainly improved over the years – Mnangagwa’s language.

 During Gukurahundi, he was notorious for his chilling use of Biblical phraseology –

Blessed are they who follow the path of the government laws, for their days on earth shall be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents, for we shall certainly shorten their stay on earth.”

 While introducing Five Brigade to Matabeleland in early 1983 he described his enemies as “cockroaches and bugs”. He said their activities had reached “epidemic proportions” and the Mugabe government had to bring in “DDT” (Five Brigade) to deal with the problem.

The military clique that surrounded Mugabe then is still (largely) with us today.

And the little known (to the outside world) Sydney Sekeramai, former Defence Minister, CIO chef and Fifth Brigade supporter is still around . . . somewhere.

During the mass slaughters in North/South Matabeleland, the Midlands and parts of Mashonaland, Mnangagwa and Sekeramayi acted as bridges between Zanu (PF) and the military.

One of the most fascinating parts of Doran’s book is the way he shows how the officers of the outgoing Rhodesian Security Forces and the CIO (run mainly by Ken Flower and Danny Stannard) sided with Mugabe.

Behind the curtain Mugabe dangled them on strings, like puppets at a seaside Punch and Judy show.

Doran shows that the military saw Gukuranhundi as a black Zimbabwean war and that whites should keep their distance. They did not understand that what was about to happen in Matabeleland because it was an African thing, a largely Shona war against a historic enemy, the Ndebeles, who under Mzilikazi and Lobengula, stole cattle, raped women and slaughtered thousands of Shona men in the 19th century.

A war of African revenge was about to be launched, a war about whose origins most whites knew little about.

So many of them – the ones who wanted to stay on – found psychological comfort by idealizing the African past, rather like the professional cranks who spent the 19th century of the Christian era idealizing what Arnold Toynbee in his 12- volume Study of History called “the primitive Pagan Nordic race” and their part responsibility for the Nazi terror of our own time.

Doran writes (page 450/451): ”At this level, it was the established connection between senior members of Zanu and Zanla (the party’s military wing) that drove the Five Brigade operation – one in which officers from otherwise separate units played a part in operational planning. An illustration of this military – political nexus is provided by Woods’ account (Ken Woods being a white CIO officer who was a double agent working for the apartheid regime) of a JOC meeting in Bulawayo after which he received the order to provide reports for Mugabe. The briefing was attended by Mugabe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Edison Shirihuru (a former Zanu (PF) MP and the CIO’s acting deputy director of political affairs), Sheba Gava, Constantine Chinenge (his Chimurenga, or war, name was Brigadier Dominic Chinenge) and Perence Shiri, and the room was filled with ‘wall to wall with political and military wannabees.’

When Woods mentioned the possibility of international repercussions arising from the planned massacres and killings, Shirihuri told him ‘amid great mirth’ that he would ‘personally deal with any international hassles’ and that Woods should ‘stay out of their war.’ (The Kevin Woods Story – In the Shadow of Mugabe’s Gallows (30 degrees South Publishers, South Africa 2007).

Back to Fergal Keane.

Keane: Two names recur in this horror (Gukurahundi), Robert Mugabe who sent in the 5th Brigade and his close associate the Brigade Commander Perence Shiri. To officers from the regular army Perence Shiri was a distant figure.

Lt-Col Esau Sibanda (Zimbabwe National Army, 1980-95): He’s not talkative. He tends to be by himself all the time, drinking all the time, appears lonely to me, and I won’t say he’s a . . . I won’t describe him as an intellectual type, no, he’s just an ordinary chap, below average if you like.

Keane: Shiri did more than give orders.

Mandla Nyathi (a survivor): I saw him demonstrating what he meant by beating a peasant and he was using a massive log. He beat so thoroughly all over the body, buttocks, and head, anywhere where he could land the log.

Keane: Some eye witnesses still live in fear of Shiri. What do local people call this man?

Anonymous: They used to call him Black Jesus.

Keane: Why?

Anonymous: Because he could determine your life like Jesus Christ. He could heal, raise the dead, whatever. So he claimed to be like that because he could say if you live or not.

As mentioned, those were days of heavy and heady rhetoric and the master of them all was Mugabe . . . this being but one of his post-reconciliation speech catchy phrases which his followers went on to parrot almost on a daily basis - An example: “Some of the measures we shall take are measures which will be extra legal . . . An eye for an eye and an ear for an ear may not be adequate in our circumstances. We might very well demand two ears for one ear and two eyes for one eye.”

After the death of thousands of Ndebeles between 1983-1987 the Queen knighted Robert Mugabe.

His title was removed after the death of 12 white farmers following Mugabe’s white-owned land grab in 2000. A Foreign Office spokesman explained that Britain could not justify an individual who was responsible for a consistent campaign of human rights violations and the disregard for the democratic process retaining such an honour.

* * *

I doubt we’ll never know the exact number of men, women, children and babies slaughtered with the connivance of Robert Mugabe and the military men who surrounded him almost 35 years ago. The government’s figure is as low as 3,000.

Doran draws attention to an interview Stannard gave to Dr Sue Onslow, now Deputy Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in October 2008 and co-author with the BBC’s ex-Africa editor Martin Plaut about Mugabe to be published in America next year.

Stannard said: ”We knew that they were having operations in Matabeleland, we knew they were using the Selous Scouts type (method of) ‘freezing’ areas, no personnel whatsoever were allowed in there other than the Fifth Brigade . . . Nobody knows the actual figure but between 30-50 thousand.

Onslow: I was going to say I’ve read between 10 and 20 (thousand).

StannardNo it’s more than that.

Onslow30-50 you believe?

StannardYes I personally believe anything between 30-50 thousand.

Maybe the British satirical magazine Private Eye (1-14 December, 2017) got it right when it headlined a story about the generals taking over from Mugabe –

“Zimbabwe rejoices at choice of mass murderer to replace the previous one.”

* * *

Whether Stuart Doran’s book becomes a best seller remains to be seen.

Maybe the cry of TMI “too much information” will be heard and the book will end up as a well-respected and well-thumbed reference work on the shelves of libraries, colleges and universities.

I hope that doesn’t happen because this is a book that deserves a wide readership. It stands as a monument to good research, fine writing and a deep understanding of Zimbabwe’s past and present problems. It is essential reading for anyone trying to make sense of a hard to understand country as it embarks on a perilous journey in to the future where there are few democratic landmarks but many landmines.

Trevor Grundy is a British reporter who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996.