Biographer Tracks Mugabe's Decline

Ahead of Saturday's presidential election in Zimbabwe, Heidi Holland, author of Dinner with Mugabe, explains her theory of how Zimbabwe's leader of 28 years went from hero to deluded dictator.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, Robert Mugabe, faces his strongest challenge as president of Zimbabwe, a country that he has ruled or misruled since independence 28 years ago. His opponents say that he'll try to rig the vote. He says they're lying.

Mugabe's story is much more complicated than, say, that of Idi Amin. As an independence fighter, he was made of much more substantial stuff than mere bluster. He was a fiercely intelligent spokesman for his cause. In prison, he had earned a string of degrees by correspondence courses.

When this country, which used to be Southern Rhodesia, won its independence, Mugabe was celebrated as an African liberation hero; a character who foreshadowed the role that Nelson Mandela would play in neighboring South Africa. But Mugabe's rule has been ruinous for his country's economy, thuggish(ph) at times, and it has been above all, seemingly endless.

Heidi Holland has written a book that's been published in South Africa, not here yet. A book that explores what makes this man tick and it's called "Dinner with Mugabe."

And Heidi Holland, you should explain the title since the book is really framed by two meetings with Mr. Mugabe.

Ms. HEIDI HOLLAND (Author, "Dinner with Mugabe"): Yes, I met him first in 1975 when I was a journalist, but also an activist. He came to meet somebody else at my house. He didn't come to see me. I was just there providing a safe place and a dinner. He came late and then he kept looking at the clock because he had to be at the station at nine o'clock. And eventually, I suddenly realized that I would have to drive him to the station. My friend, the constitutional expert he'd come to see - couldn't drive. I had a baby asleep in his crib, so I drove him at break-neck speed to the station and said to him look, I'm sorry, I'm driving so fast but I left my baby at home alone and he clacked a bit and carried on talking with on in the back seat, this friend of mine.

And then, to my astonishment, he rang the next afternoon from a public call box and said, thanks for dinner and was your baby all right? So, over the years, I always had this - a rather different perception of Robert Mugabe than a lot of people around me. And that I knew he was a decent guy.

And then, recently, just three months ago, actually, just before Christmas, I finally met him again, and had a long interview with him. Certainly, long by the normal standards because he doesn't actually go to any interviews at all. Two and a half hours I spent with him. For the book that I had meanwhile been researching, to try and find out what happened to this man and that what I discussed with him in the meeting just before Christmas.

SIEGEL: Your inquiry was as much or even more psychological than political merely. What in the end do you conclude? What is it about Robert Mugabe that could have the clay of his feet rise well up his stature?

Ms. HOLLAND: He is a weak guy. I worked with three psychologists to interpret the fresh material I was getting from the interviewees, people who had dealings with him. And the conclusion was really very interesting. First of all, he came from a very, very deprived background. And he was a very shy little boy. He's still shy actually, quite noticeably so even though the film clips you see of him waving his fist in the air is obviously his public face and he is really friendless. As a child even, he didn't play with other kids. In the interview with him a few months ago, he agreed that he lived mainly in his head as he always had done. He always had a book; he said he liked to talk to himself to recite little poems, he said. A very lonely figure, really. I don't think I've ever met anybody who comes across as such a lonely figure. And as a result, he's really also quite aloof, cold. And I think over the years, because he lived in a bit of a fantasy world as a child being such a loner, he's had a very impractical take on his role as head of state in Zimbabwe.

SIEGEL: You're saying that that bookish childhood that resort to fantasy early on in life, paved the ground for an adult capacity for denial about what's been going on in Zimbabwe in recent years.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, well, certainly, he's in denial now, but in the meantime, he also lacked the capacity to cope with disillusionment. There were various moments when he was sorely challenged as one would be in politics, you know, sooner or later. One was in the white Rhodesians as they were voted against him after five years. They were guaranteed 20 seats by the British at Lancaster House…

SIEGEL: That was the independence conference that ended the war in Rhodesia.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, exactly. After five years, they were invited to vote. And that time Robert Mugabe had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the whites happy because they control the economy to a large extent. And then to his astonishment, they vote for Ian Smith, his arch-enemy and he's foreigner. That was I think one of the pivotal moments. He was very disillusioned. He was hurt actually, but more than that, he was angry.

SIEGEL: And felt terribly rebuffed then by Britain unable to adapt creatively or to that challenge. I recently asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu what he made of Mugabe's career and he suggested that, and I perhaps I had mentioned the comparison with Nelson Mandela as I remembered Mugabe when he first was a president of Zimbabwe. And then, Tutu suggested perhaps Mugabe had felt terribly upstaged by Mandela and if that experience could have been very embittering for him. Do you buy that?

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, I do. I think he was being jealous of Mandela because he had been the darling of Africa up to that point. Mugabe is very, very well developed intellectually but not emotionally. Mandela was so much more relaxed. You know, Mandela had charisma or rather a real warm kind, and I think Mugabe deeply resented this. I think it was probably a sort of sibling rivalry that he perceived.

SIEGEL: There's just one exchange from your lengthy interview with Mugabe that I'd like you to recount. It's when he's actually telling you, and you're being pretty challenging with him, and he's telling you that actually, the economy of Zimbabwe is excellent and it's better than other countries in Africa. He's talking about the minds, he's talking about - the only thing missing is the products in the stores where people to buy. It's an extraordinary comment.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, well, that's when I knew that he was completely deluded. I mean, it was just so obvious, then it had been obvious earlier on when he made comments like he doesn't make enemies other people make him an enemy of theirs and so on. But once he made light of the fact that there were no goods to buy on the shelves, it was completely clear that he was deluded. And yet when I said that to the priest who would organize the interview for me, I said to him, the president is very deluded about the economy, and he said, yes, well, that's because people don't tell him the truth, which is just not the right answer. He answer is you can't tell Mugabe the truth. He's deluded now to such an extent and he's positioned himself in such a way in a bubble where nobody can tell him the truth. You know, he can't be wrong, he can only be right. So, he really does live a very detached life now.

SIEGEL: It's Heidi Holland whose book "Dinner with Mugabe" has been published in South Africa. She's talking with us from Johannesburg and I gather the book is available online but not in book stores in the U.S.

Ms. HOLLAND: It's available on www.dinnerwithmugabe.com

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. HOLLAND: Thank you. Good-bye.

SIEGEL: This is NPR. National Public Radio.

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Mugabe Faces Strong Challenge in Zimbabwe Vote

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets church members in Bulawayo. i i

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets congregation members before addressing a church service in Bulawayo on Sunday. Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets church members in Bulawayo.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe greets congregation members before addressing a church service in Bulawayo on Sunday.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a rally outside Harare. i i

Presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a rally outside Harare on Thursday. Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a rally outside Harare.

Presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai addresses a rally outside Harare on Thursday.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean presidential candidate Simba Makoni gestures at a campaign rally. i i

Presidential contender Simba Makoni gestures on March 21 at a campaign rally in Mabvuku/Tafara. Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images
Zimbabwean presidential candidate Simba Makoni gestures at a campaign rally.

Presidential contender Simba Makoni gestures on March 21 at a campaign rally in Mabvuku/Tafara.

Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images

The southern African nation of Zimbabwe has had only one leader since escaping white minority rule 28 years ago: Robert Mugabe. The 84-year-old is bidding for a sixth presidential term in Saturday's vote, but he is facing his toughest electoral challenge yet from two serious presidential contenders.

The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, 55, of the Movement for Democratic Change, is Mugabe's long-term political rival and has twice opposed him in presidential votes. The image of Tsvangirai's bruised face — following a beating by Mugabe's police in a crackdown on the opposition — made news all over the world last year.

The latest challenge to Mugabe comes from his erstwhile finance minister and fellow Zanu-PF party member, Simba Makoni, 58. Makoni is running for president on an independent ticket.

Mugabe has dismissed Makoni as a political prostitute and Tsvangirai as a puppet of Western imperialism, led by the country's former colonial power, Britain. But Mugabe's critics and political opponents say it is time for the veteran leader to go. He has vowed that the opposition "will never, ever, ever" come to power during his lifetime.

Once a popular freedom fighter who led Zimbabwe out of a seven-year liberation war against white minority rule in Rhodesia, Mugabe has become an international pariah in the past decade.

One blot on his liberation struggle credentials was the ruthless subjugation of the minority Ndebele tribe, after a smaller liberation movement refused to form a one-party state with Mugabe's Zanu-PF in the 1980s. Mugabe unleashed his notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, dominated by his own majority Shona tribe, on Matebeleland, where 30,000 people were killed and thousands more raped and maimed.

Critics say the crackdown was a sign of things to come.

Since the early 1980s, when Mugabe was praised for promoting racial harmony and reconciliation, economic prosperity and stability, Zimbabwe also has been transformed into a near economic wreck.

In a bitter war of words, Mugabe has blamed Britain and its Western allies for imposing sanctions and has accused them of colluding with the opposition to bring Zimbabwe to its knees.

"The West still negates our sovereignties, by way of control of our resources, in the process making us mere chattels in our own lands, mere minders of these transnational interests," Mugabe said. "In my own country and other sister states in southern Africa, the most visible form of this colonial control has been over land — despoiled from us at the onset of British colonization."

But Mugabe's detractors hold him personally responsible for the economic chaos, accusing him of ruinous policies, notably a controversial land reform program that he imposed on Zimbabwe in the past 10 years.

An Economic Slide

After a defeat almost a decade ago in a referendum that Mugabe hoped would entrench his hold on power, his government began seizing, often violently, viable, white-owned commercial farms that were the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy.

The appropriation of white farms, or farm "invasions," as they came to be known, led to some killings and also meant the loss of jobs and homes for thousands of black Zimbabwean farm laborers.

Mugabe's justification for his ambitious land restitution agenda was that just 5,000 white farmers owned 80 percent of Zimbabwe's most productive agricultural land. He said this colonial legacy had to be reversed.

Britain's program to right this inequality after independence, on a willing seller-willing buyer basis, came to an abrupt end when it was found that most of the best land was not going to landless black Zimbabweans, as Mugabe promised, but to the elite and his cronies. Mugabe accused the British of reneging on their commitment.

For many people, this period marked the beginning of Zimbabwe's tragic slide.

A country that exported food to its neighbors in southern African now imports essential commodities and accepts international food handouts. The economy is all but propped up by remittances from millions of exiled Zimbabweans — a third of the population — sending money back home to support their families and friends.

The struggle to survive — with staggering inflation running at more than 100,000 percent, the highest rate in the world — has left poor Zimbabweans even poorer. Many live hand-to-mouth, dealing with chronic shortages of food, fuel, water and other essentials.

Anecdotes abound about how shoppers enter supermarkets only to find that, by the time they reach checkout, prices for their groceries have gone up — maybe twice.

Even the cost of a soda is counted in millions of Zimbabwean dollars.

Concerns About Election

The economic crisis is not the only problem in Zimbabwe. As almost 6 million voters prepare to choose their new leaders on Saturday, there have been allegations of pre-election irregularities and a vote skewed in favor of Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

A report released by New York-based Human Rights Watch last week concluded that there was little chance of proper elections in Zimbabwe. The advocacy group said the government had failed to meet its democratic obligations, and that Zimbabweans were not free to vote for candidates of their choice.

"We have documented numerous abuses, including incidents of political intimidation and violence, limits on the right to freedom of association and assembly, biased media access — in terms of political coverage over the campaigning period —numerous flaws in the electoral process, which preclude the possibility of a fair and free election taking place in Zimbabwe," researcher Tiseke Kasambala said.

Washington also has voiced concerns that Zimbabwe will not hold a transparent vote. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the documented irregularities endangered the vote. He urged Mugabe and Zimbabwe's electoral commission to address what he called shortcomings.

Mugabe's government dismissed the Human Rights Watch report as merely a reflection of what Western countries wanted to hear about Zimbabwe, and not the reality.

Promises of Change

During a weekend campaign rally, Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, also raised concerns about an unfair election. He pointed the finger at Mugabe's government.

To loud applause and chants of "A new Zimbabwe, a new beginning," he told a throng of supporters, "The goal is in sight and we expect the enemies of justice to engage in every trick in the book."

Tsvangirai said Zimbabweans would be witnessing "the last gasp of the dictatorship come the elections on March 29." He said voters were "ready for those that would like to subvert the people's victory. We are ready for those that would like to engage in nefarious activities to subvert the will of Zimbabweans."

Tsvangirai has described the other challenger, Makoni, who entered the race for the presidency at the 11th hour, as "old wine in a new bottle" because of his long association with Mugabe and Zanu-PF. But the former finance minister's dramatic last-minute defection from the governing party is an indication of dissent within Mugabe's ranks.

Makoni said he represented change for Zimbabwe.

"I share the agony and anguish of all citizens over the extreme hardships that we have all endured for nearly 10 years now, in this sad nation which is full of fear, a nation in deep stress," he said.

He called Zimbabwe a "tense and polarized nation," and said he shared "the widely held view that these hardships are a result of failure of national leadership."

The challenges facing Zimbabwe are formidable. But Mugabe appears determined to thwart all attempts to oust him through the ballot.

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