#Zimbabwe ex-President Robert Mugabe, champion for black empowerment dies aged 95

Robert Gabriel Mugabe (/muːˈɡɑːbiː/; Shona IPA: [muɡaɓe]; born 21 February 1924) was a Zimbabwean revolutionary and politician who has governed the Republic of Zimbabwe as its President since 1987, having previously governed as its Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he has led the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) party since 1975.

Mugabe was born to a poor Shona family in Kutama, Southern Rhodesia. Following an education at Kutama College and the University of Fort Hare, he worked as a teacher in Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Ghana. Angered that Southern Rhodesia was a British colony governed by a white elite, Mugabe embraced Marxism and joined African nationalist protests calling for an independent black-led state. After making anti-government comments he was convicted of sedition and imprisoned between 1964 and 1974. On release he fled to Mozambique, established his leadership of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and oversaw ZANU’s role in the Rhodesian Bush War, fighting Ian Smith’s white-minority government. He reluctantly took part in the peace negotiations brokered by the United Kingdom that resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. The agreement dismantled white-minority rule and resulted in the 1980 general election, at which Mugabe led ZANU-PF to victory and became Prime Minister of the newly renamed Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s administration expanded healthcare and education, and—despite his Marxist rhetoric and professed desire for a socialist society—adhered largely to conservative economic policies.

Mugabe’s initial calls for racial reconciliation failed to stem deteriorating race relations and growing white flight. Relations between ZANU-PF and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) also declined, with Mugabe crushing ZAPU-linked opposition in Matabeleland during the Gukurahundi between 1982 and 1985; at least 10,000 people, mostly Ndebele civilians, were killed. Mugabe’s government emphasised the redistribution of land controlled by white farmers to landless blacks, initially on a “willing seller-willing buyer” basis. Frustrated at the slow rate of redistribution, from 2000 Mugabe encouraged the violent seizure of white-owned land. The unrest severely impacted food production and brought international sanctions, heavily damaging Zimbabwe’s economy. Opposition to Mugabe grew, particularly through the Movement for Democratic Change, although he was re-elected in 2002, 2008, and 2013 through campaigns dominated by electoral fraud and nationalistic appeals to his rural Shona voter base. Internationally, Mugabe sent troops to fight in the Second Congo War and chaired the Non-Aligned Movement from 1986 to 1989, the Organisation of African Unity from 1997 to 1998 and the African Union from 2015 until 2016.

Having dominated Zimbabwe’s politics for nearly four decades, Mugabe has been a controversial and divisive figure. He has been praised as a revolutionary hero of the African liberation struggle who helped to free Zimbabwe from British colonialism, imperialism, and white-minority rule. Conversely, critics view him as a dictator responsible for economic mismanagement and widespread corruption whose regime has perpetrated anti-white racial discrimination, human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity.


Childhood: 1924–45

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 at the Kutama Mission village in Southern Rhodesia’s Zvimba District. His father, Gabriel, was a carpenter, while his mother Bona taught Christian catechism to the village children. They had been trained in their professions by the Jesuits, the Roman Catholic apostolic order which had established the mission. Bona and Gabriel had six children: Miteri (Michael), Raphael, Robert, Dhonandhe (Donald), Sabina, and Bridgette. They belonged to the Zezuru clan, one of the smallest branches of the Shona tribe. The Jesuits were strict disciplinarians and under their influence Mugabe developed an intense self-discipline, while also becoming a devout Catholic. Mugabe excelled at school, where he was a secretive and solitary child, preferring to read alone rather than playing sport or socialising with other children. He was taunted by many of the other children, who regarded him as a coward and a mother’s boy.

Circa 1930, Gabriel had an argument with one of the Jesuits, and as a result the Mugabe family were expelled from the mission village by its French leader, Father Jean-Baptiste Loubiere. They settled in a village about seven miles away, although the children were permitted to remain at the mission primary school, living with relatives in Kutama during term-time and returning to their parental home at weekends. Around the same time, Robert’s older brother Raphael died, likely of diarrhoea. In early 1934, Robert’s other older brother, Michael, also died, after consuming poisoned maize. Later that year, Gabriel left his family in search of employment at Bulawayo. He subsequently abandoned Bona and their six children and established a relationship with another woman, with whom he had three further offspring.

Loubiere died shortly after and was replaced by an Irishman, Father Jerome O’Hea, who welcomed the Mugabe family to return to Kutama. In contrast to the racism that permeated Southern Rhodesian society, under O’Hea’s leadership the Kutama Mission preached an ethos of racial equality. O’Hea nurtured the young Mugabe; shortly before his death in 1970 he described the latter as having “an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart”. As well as helping provide Mugabe with a Christian education, O’Hea taught him about the Irish War of Independence, in which Irish revolutionaries had overthrown the British imperial regime. After completing six years of elementary education, in 1941 Mugabe was offered a place on a teacher training course at Kutama College; Mugabe’s mother could not afford the tuition fees, which were paid in part by his grandfather and in part by O’Hea. As part of this education, Mugabe began teaching at his old school, thus earning £2 per month, which he used to support his family. In 1944 Gabriel returned to Kutama with his three new children, but died shortly after, leaving Robert to take financial responsibility for both his three siblings and three half-siblings. Having attained a teaching diploma, Mugabe left Kutama in 1945.

Teaching career: 1945–60

Over the following years, Mugabe taught at various schools around Southern Rhodesia, among them the Dadaya Mission school in Shabani. There is no evidence that Mugabe was involved in political activity at the time, and he did not take place in the country’s 1948 general strike. In 1949 he won a scholarship to study at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. There he joined the African National Congress, and attended African nationalist meetings, where he met a number of Jewish South African communists who introduced him to Marxist ideas. He later related that despite this exposure to Marxism, his biggest influence at the time were the actions of Mahatma Gandhi during the Indian independence movement. In 1952, he left the university with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and English literature. In later years he described his time at Fort Hare as the “turning-point” in his life.

Mugabe was inspired by the example set by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah

Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1952, by which time—he later related— he was “completely hostile to the [colonialist] system”. Here, his first job was as a teacher at the Driefontein Roman Catholic Mission School near Umvuna. In 1953 he relocated to the Highfield Government School in Salisbury’s Harare township and in 1954 to the Mambo Township Government School in Gwelo. Meanwhile, he gained a Bachelor of Education degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa, and ordered a number of Marxist tracts—among them Karl Marx’s Capital and Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England—from a London mail-order company. Despite his growing interest in politics, he was not active in any political movement. He joined a number of inter-racial groups, such as the Capricorn Africa Society, through which he mixed with both black and white Rhodesians. Guy Clutton-Brock, who knew Mugabe through this group, later noted that he was “an extraordinary young man” who could be “a bit of a cold fish at times” but “could talk about Elvis Presley or Bing Crosby as easily as politics”.

From 1955 to 1958, Mugabe lived in neighbouring Northern Rhodesia, where he worked at Chalimbana Teacher Training College in Lusaka. There he continued his education by working on a second degree by correspondence, this time a Bachelor of Administration from London University. In 1958 he moved to Ghana to work at St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Takoradi. According to Mugabe, “I went [to Ghana] as an adventurist. I wanted to see what it would be like in an independent African state”. Ghana had been the first African state to gain independence from European colonial powers and under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah underwent a range of African nationalist reforms; Mugabe revelled in this environment. In tandem with his teaching, Mugabe attended the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute in Winneba. Mugabe later claimed that it was in Ghana that he finally embraced Marxism. He also began a relationship with a Ghanaian woman, Sally Hayfron, who worked at the college and shared his political interests.


Early political career: 1960–63

During Mugabe’s absence, an anti-colonialist African nationalist movement was established in Southern Rhodesia. This was first led by Joshua Nkomo’s Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, founded in September 1957 and then banned by the white-minority colonialist government in February 1959. This was replaced by the more radically oriented National Democratic Party (NDP), founded in January 1960. In May 1960, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia, bringing Hayfron with him. The pair had planned for their visit to be short, however Mugabe’s friend, the African nationalist Leopold Takawira, urged them to stay.

Nkomo became one of the leading figures of resistance to white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia

In July 1960, Takawira and two other NDP officials were arrested; in protest, Mugabe joined a demonstration of 7,000 people who planned to march from Highfield to the Prime Minister’s office in Salisbury. The demonstration was stopped by riot police outside Stoddart Hall in Harare township. By midday the next day, the crowd had grown to 40,000 and a makeshift platform had been erected for speakers. Being a teacher who possessed three degrees and had travelled elsewhere in Africa, Mugabe was among those invited to speak to the crowd. Following this event, Mugabe decided to devote himself full-time to activism, resigning his teaching post in Ghana. At the first NDP congress, held in October 1960, he was elected the party’s publicity secretary. Mugabe consciously injected emotionalism into the NDP’s African nationalism, hoping to broaden its support among the wider population by appealing to traditional cultural values. He helped to form the NDP Youth Wing and encouraged the incorporation of ancestral prayers, traditional costume, and female ululation into its meetings. In February 1961 he married Hayfron in a Roman Catholic ceremony conducted in Salisbury; she had converted to Catholicism to make this possible.

The British government held a Salisbury conference in 1961 to determine Southern Rhodesia’s future. Nkomo led an NDP delegation, which hoped that the British would support the creation of an independent state governed by the black majority. Representatives of the country’s white minority—who then controlled Southern Rhodesia’s government—were opposed to this, promoting continued white-minority rule. Following negotiations, Nkomo agreed to a proposal which would allow the black population representation through 15 of the 65 seats in the country’s parliament. Mugabe and others in the NDP were furious at Nkomo’s compromise. Following the conference, Southern Rhodesia’s African nationalist movement fell into disarray. Mugabe spoke at a number of NDP rallies before the party was banned by the government in December 1961. Many of its members re-grouped as the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) several days later, with Mugabe appointed as ZAPU’s publicity secretary and general secretary.

Racial violence was growing in the country, with aggrieved black Africans targeting the white community. Mugabe deemed such conflict a necessary tactic in the overthrow of British colonial dominance and white-minority rule. This contrasted with Nkomo’s view that African nationalists should focus on international diplomacy to encourage the British government to grant their demands. Nine months after it had been founded, ZAPU was also banned by the government, and in September 1962 Mugabe and other senior party officials were arrested and restricted to their home districts for three months. Both Mugabe and his wife were in trouble with the law; he had been charged with making subversive statements in a public speech and awarded bail before his trial. Hayfron had been sentenced to two years imprisonment—suspended for 15 months—for a speech in which she declared that the British Queen Elizabeth II “can go to hell”.

Europeans must realise that unless the legitimate demands of African nationalism are recognised, then racial conflict is inevitable.

— Mugabe, early 1960s

The rise of African nationalism generated a white backlash in Southern Rhodesia, with the right-wing Rhodesian Front winning the December 1962 general election. The new government sought to preserve white-minority rule by tightening security and establishing full independence from the United Kingdom. Mugabe met with colleagues at his house in Salisbury’s Highbury district, where he argued that as political demonstrations were simply being banned, it was time to move towards armed resistance. Both he and others rejected Nkomo’s proposal that they establish a government-in-exile in Dar es Salaam. He and Hayfron skipped bail to attend a ZAPU meeting in the Tanganyikan city. There, the party leadership met Tanganyika’s President, Julius Nyerere, who also dismissed the idea of a government-in-exile and urged ZAPU to organise their resistance to white-minority rule within Southern Rhodesia itself.

In August, Hayfron gave birth to Mugabe’s son, whom they named Nhamodzenyika, a Shona term meaning “suffering country”. Mugabe insisted that she take their son back to Ghana, while he decided to return to Southern Rhodesia. There, African nationalists opposed to Nkomo’s leadership had established a new party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), in August; Ndabaningi Sithole became the group’s president, while appointing Mugabe to be the group’s secretary-general in absentia. Nkomo responded by forming his own group, the People’s Caretaker Council, which was widely referred to as “ZAPU” after its predecessor. ZAPU and ZANU violently opposed one another and soon gang warfare broke out between their rival memberships.

Imprisonment: 1963–75

Mugabe was arrested on his return to Southern Rhodesia in December 1963. His trial lasted from January to March 1964, during which he refused to retract the subversive statements that he had publicly made. In March 1964 he was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment. Mugabe was first imprisoned at Salisbury Maximum Security Prison, before being moved to the Wha Wha detention centre and then the Sikombela detention centre in Que Que. At the latter, he organised study classes for the inmates, teaching them basic literacy as well as maths and English. Sympathetic black warders smuggled messages from Mugabe and other members of the ZANU executive committee to activists outside the prison. At the executive’s bidding, ZANU activist Herbert Chitepo had organised a small guerrilla force in Lusaka. In April 1966 it carried out a failed attempt to destroy power pylons at Sinoia, and shortly after attacked a white-owned farm near Hartley, killing its inhabitants. The government responded by returning the members of the ZANU executive, including Mugabe, to Salisbury Prison in 1966. There, forty prisoners were divided among four communal cells, with many sleeping on the concrete floor due to overcrowding; Mugabe shared his cell with Sithole, Enos Nkala, and Edgar Tekere. He remained there for eight years, devoting his time to reading and studying. During this period he gained several further degrees from London University: a masters in economics, a bachelor of administration, and two law degrees.

While Mugabe was imprisoned, Ian Smith became leader of Rhodesia

While imprisoned, Mugabe learned that his son had died of encephalitis at the age of three. Mugabe was grief-stricken and requested a leave of absence to visit his wife in Ghana. He never forgave the prison authorities for refusing this request. Claims have also circulated among those who knew him at the time that Mugabe was subjected to both physical and mental torture during his imprisonment. According to Father Emmanuel Ribeiro, who was Mugabe’s priest during his imprisonment, Mugabe got through the experience “partly through the strength of his spirituality” but also because his “real strength was study and helping others to learn”.

While Mugabe was imprisoned, in August 1964, the Rhodesian Front government—now under the leadership of Ian Smith—banned ZANU and ZAPU and arrested all remaining leaders of the country’s African nationalist movement. Smith’s government made a unilateral declaration of independence from the United Kingdom in November 1965, renaming Southern Rhodesia as Rhodesia; the UK refused to recognise the legitimacy of this and imposed economic sanctions on the country.

In 1972, the African nationalists’ guerrilla war against Smith’s government began in earnest. Among the revolutionaries, it was known as the “Second Chimurenga”. Paramilitary groups based themselves in neighbouring Tanzania and Zambia, although many of their fighters were inadequately armed and trained. ZANU’s military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), consisted largely of Shona. It was based in neighbouring Mozambique and gained funds from the People’s Republic of China. ZAPU’s military wing, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), was instead funded by the Soviet Union, was based in Zambia, and consisted largely of Ndebele.

Mugabe and other senior ZANU members had growing doubts about Sithole’s leadership, deeming him increasingly irritable and irrational. In October 1968 Sithole had tried to smuggle a message out of the prison commanding ZANU activists to assassinate Smith. His plan was discovered and he was put on trial in January 1969; desperate to avoid a death sentence, he declared that he renounced violence and his previous ideological commitments. Mugabe denounced Sithole’s “treachery” in rejecting ZANU’s cause, and the executive removed him as ZANU President in a vote of no confidence, selecting Mugabe as his successor. In November 1974, the ZANU executive voted to suspend Sithole’s membership of the organisation.

Fearing that the guerrilla war would spread south, the South African government pressured Rhodesia to advance the process of détente with the politically moderate black governments of Zambia and Tanzania. As part of these negotiations, Smith’s government agreed to release a number of black revolutionaries who had been indefinitely detained. After almost eleven years of imprisonment, Mugabe was released in November 1974. He moved in with his sister Sabina at her home in Highfield township. He was intent on joining the ZANU forces and taking part in the guerrilla war, recognising that to secure dominance of ZANU he would have to take command of ZANLA. This was complicated by internal violence within the paramilitary group, predominantly between members of the Manyika and Karange groups of Shona.

Guerrilla war: 1975–79

The flag of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)

In March 1975, Mugabe resolved to leave Rhodesia for Mozambique, ambitious to take control of ZANU’s guerrilla campaign. After his friend Maurice Nyagumbo was arrested, he feared the same fate but was hidden from the authorities by Ribeiro. Ribeiro and a sympathetic nun then assisted him and Edgar Tekere in smuggling themselves into Mozambique. Mugabe remained in exile there for two years. Mozambique’s Marxist President Samora Machel was sceptical of Mugabe’s leadership abilities and was unsure whether to recognise him as ZANU’s legitimate leader. Machel gave him a house in Quelimane although kept him under partial house arrest, with Mugabe requiring permission to travel. It would be almost a year before Machel accepted Mugabe’s leadership of ZANU.

Mugabe travelled to various ZANLA camps in Mozambique to build support among its officers. By mid-1976, he had secured the allegiance of ZANLA’s military commanders and established himself as the most prominent guerrilla leader battling Smith’s regime. In August 1977, he was officially declared ZANU President at a meeting of the party’s central committee held in Chimoio. During the war, Mugabe remained suspicious of many of ZANLA’s commanders and had a number of them imprisoned. In 1977 he imprisoned his former second-in-command, Wilfred Mhanda, for suspected disloyalty. After Tongogara was killed in a car accident in 1979, there were suggestions made that Mugabe may have had some involvement in it, although these rumours were never substantiated.

Mugabe remained aloof from the day-to-day military operations of ZANLA, which he entrusted to Josiah Tongogara. In January 1976, ZANLA launched its first major infiltration from Mozambique, with nearly 1000 guerrillas crossing the border to attack white-owned farms and stores. In response, Smith’s government enlisted all men under the age of 35, expanding the Rhodesian army by 50%. ZANLA’s attacks forced large numbers of white landowners to abandon their farms; their now-unemployed black workers joined ZANLA in their thousands. By 1979, ZANLA were in a position to attack a number of Rhodesian cities. Over the course of the war, at least 30,000 people were killed. As a proportion of their wider population, the whites lost a higher number of fatalities, and by the latter part of the decade the guerrillas were winning.

Mugabe in a meeting with Romanian communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1979

Mugabe focused on the propaganda war, making regular speeches and radio broadcasts. In these, he presented himself as a Marxist-Leninist, speaking warmly of Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Fidel Castro. Despite his Marxist views, Mugabe’s meetings with Soviet representatives were unproductive, for they insisted on Nkomo’s leadership of the revolutionary struggle. His relationship with the People’s Republic of China was far warmer, as the Chinese Marxist government supplied ZANLA with armaments without any conditions. He also sought support from Western nations, visiting Western embassies in Mozambique, and travelled to both Western states like Italy and Switzerland and Marxist-governed states like the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Mugabe called for the overthrow of Rhodesia’s white-minority government, the execution of Smith and his “criminal gang”, the expropriation of white-owned land, and the transformation of Rhodesia into a one-party Marxist state. He repeatedly called for violence against the country’s white minority, referring to white Rhodesians as “blood-sucking exploiters”, “sadistic killers”, and “hard-core racists”. In one typical example, taken from a 1978 radio address, Mugabe declared: “Let us hammer [the white man] to defeat. Let us blow up his citadel. Let us give him no time to rest. Let us chase him in every corner. Let us rid our home of this settler vermin”. For Mugabe, armed struggle was an essential part of the establishment of a new state. In contrast to other liberation leaders like Nkomo, Mugabe opposed negotiated settlement with Smith’s government. In October 1976 ZANU nevertheless established a joint-platform with ZAPU known as the Patriotic Front. In September 1978 Mugabe met with Nkomo in Lusaka. He was angry with the latter’s secret attempts to negotiate with Smith.

Lancaster House Agreement: 1979

Under pressure from South African Prime Minister B. J. Vorster, Smith accepted in principle that white-minority rule could not be prolonged indefinitely. He oversaw the 1979 general election which resulted in Abel Muzorewa, a politically-moderate black bishop, being elected Prime Minister. Both ZANU and ZAPU had boycotted the election, which did not receive international recognition. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 1979, held in Lusaka, the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher surprised delegates by announcing that the UK would officially recognise Rhodesia’s independence if it transitioned to democratic majority rule.

Lancaster House in London’s West End

The negotiations took place at Lancaster House in London and were led by the Conservative Party politician Peter Carington. Mugabe refused to attend these London peace talks, opposing the idea of a negotiated as opposed to military solution to the Rhodesian War. Machel insisted that he must, threatening to end Mozambican support for the ZANU-PF if he did not. Mugabe arrived in London in September 1979. There, he and Nkomo presented themselves as part of the “Patriotic Front” but established separate headquarters in the city. At the conference the pair were divided in their attitude; Nkomo wanted to present himself as a moderate while Mugabe played up to his image as a Marxist revolutionary, with Carington exploiting this division. Throughout the negotiations, Mugabe did not trust the British and believed that they were manipulating events to their own advantage.

The Lancaster House Agreement called for all participants in the Rhodesian Bush War to agree to a ceasefire, with a British governor, Christopher Soames, arriving in Rhodesia to oversee an election in which the various factions could compete as political parties. It outlined a plan for a transition to formal independence under black-majority rule, also maintaining that Rhodesia would be renamed Zimbabwe, a name adopted from the Iron Age archaeological site of Great Zimbabwe. The agreement also ensured that the country’s white minority retained many of its economic and political privileges, with 20 seats to be reserved for whites in the new Parliament. By insisting on the need for a democratic black-majority government, Carington was able to convince Mugabe to compromise on the other main issue of the conference, that of land ownership. Mugabe agreed to the protection of the white community’s privately owned property on the condition that the UK and US governments provide financial assistance allowing the Zimbabwean government to purchase much land for redistribution among blacks. Mugabe was opposed to the idea of a ceasefire, but under pressure from Machel he agreed to it. Mugabe signed the agreement, although felt cheated, remaining disappointed that he had never achieved a military victory over the white-minority government.

Electoral campaign: 1980

Returning to Salisbury in January 1980, Mugabe was greeted by a supportive crowd. He settled into a house in Mount Pleasant, a wealthy white-dominated suburb. Machel had cautioned Mugabe not to alienate Rhodesia’s white minority, warning him that any white flight after the election would cause economic damage as it had in Mozambique. Accordingly, during his electoral campaign Mugabe avoided the use of Marxist and revolutionary rhetoric. Mugabe insisted that in the election, ZANU would stand as a separate party to ZAPU, and refused Nkomo’s request for a meeting. Predictions were made that ZANU-PF would win the election on the basis of the country’s ethnic divisions; Mugabe was Shona, a community that made up around 70% of the country’s population, while Nkomo was Ndebele, a tribal group who made up only around 20%. For many in the white community and in the British government, this outcome was a terrifying prospect due to Mugabe’s avowed Marxist beliefs and the inflammatory comments that he had made about whites during the guerrilla war.

Mugabe on a visit to the Netherlands in 1979

During the campaign, Mugabe survived two assassination attempts. In the first, which took place on 6 February, a grenade was thrown at his Mount Pleasant home, where it exploded against a garden wall. In the second, on 10 February, a roadside bomb exploded near his motorcade as he left a Fort Victoria rally. Mugabe himself was unharmed. Mugabe accused the Rhodesian security forces of being responsible for these attacks. In an attempt to quell the possibility that Rhodesia’s security forces would launch a coup to prevent the election, Mugabe met with Peter Walls, the commander of Rhodesia’s armed forces, and asked him to remain in his position in the event of a ZANU-PF victory. At the time Walls refused.

The electoral campaign was marred by widespread voter intimidation, perpetrated by Nkomo’s ZAPU, Abel Muzorewa’s United African National Council (UANC), and Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. Commenting on ZANU-PF’s activities in eastern Rhodesia, Nkomo complained that “the word intimidation is mild. People are being terrorised. It is terror.” Reacting to ZANU-PF’s acts of voter intimidation, Mugabe was called before Soames at Government House. Mugabe regarded the meeting as a British attempt to thwart his electoral campaign. Under the terms of the negotiation, Soames had the power to disqualify any political party guilty of voter intimidation. Rhodesia’s security services, Nkomo, Muzorewa, and some of his own advisers all called on Soames to disqualify ZANU-PF. After deliberation, Soames disagreed, believing that ZANU-PF were sure to win the election and that disqualifying them would wreck any chance of an orderly transition of power.

In the March election, ZANU-PF secured 63% of the national vote, gaining 57 of the 80 parliamentary seats allocated for black parties and providing them with an absolute majority. ZAPU had gained 20 seats, and UANC had three. Mugabe was elected MP for the Harare constituency of Highfield. Attempting to calm panic and prevent white flight, Mugabe appeared on television and called for national unity, stability, and law and order, insisting that the pensions of white civil servants would be guaranteed and that private property would be protected.


Statues atop the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Heroes’ Acre; the monument was designed by North Korean architects who reported directly to Mugabe

Mugabe took his oath of office on 17 April 1980. In April 1980, Mugabe gave a speech at Salisbury’s Rufaro Stadium in which he announced that Rhodesia would be renamed “Zimbabwe” and pledged racial reconciliation. Soames aided Mugabe in bringing about an orderly transition of power; for this Mugabe remained grateful, describing Soames as “so good a friend”. Mugabe tried to convince Soames to remain in Zimbabwe for several more years, although the latter declined and returned to Britain. The new Prime Minister had also requested that the UK assume a two-year “guiding role” for his government because most ZANU-PF members lacked any experience in government, however the British declined. Although ZANU-PF’s absolute parliamentary majority would allow them to rule alone, Mugabe invited members of rival parties to join his cabinet, thus creating a government of national unity. Mugabe moved into the Premier’s residence in Harare, which he left furnished in the same style as Smith had left it. His Harare residences would be heavily fortified.

Across the country, statues of Cecil Rhodes were removed and squares and roads named after prominent white colonialists were renamed after black liberationists. In 1982 Salisbury was renamed Harare. Mugabe employed North Korean architects to design Heroes’ Acre, a monument complex in western Harare to commemorate the liberation struggle. Zimbabwe also received much aid from Western countries, who were hoping that a stable and prosperous Zimbabwe would aid the transition of South Africa away from apartheid and minority rule. The United States provided Zimbabwe with a $25 million three-year aid package. The United Kingdom financed a land-redistribution program, and also provided a military assistance team to aid the integration of the guerrilla armies and old Rhodesian army into a new Zimbabwean military. Members of both ZANLA and ZIPRA were integrated into the army, although there remained a strong rivalry between the two groups. As President, Mugabe retained Walls as the head of the armed forces.

Mugabe’s government continued to make regular pronouncements about converting Zimbabwe into a socialist society, although did not take concrete steps in that direction. In contrast to Mugabe’s talk of socialism, his government’s budgetary policies were conservative, operating within a capitalist framework and emphasising the need for foreign investment. In office, Mugabe sought a gradual transformation away from capitalism and tried to build upon existing state institutions. From 1980 to 1990, the country’s economy grew by an average of 2.7% a year, but this was outstripped by population growth and real income declined. The unemployment rate rose, reaching 26% in 1990. The government ran a budget deficit year-on-year that averaged at 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. Under Mugabe’s leadership, there was a massive expansion in education and health spending. In 1980, Zimbabwe had 177 secondary schools, but by 2000 this number had risen to 1,548. During that period, the adult literacy rate rose from 62% to 82%, one of the best records in Africa. Levels of child immunisation were raised from 25% of the population to 92%.

A new leadership elite were formed, who often expressed their newfound status through purchasing large houses and expensive cars, sending their children to private schools, and obtaining farms and businesses. To contain their excesses, in 1984 Mugabe drew up a “leadership code” which prohibited any senior figures from obtaining more than one salary or owning over 50-acres of agricultural land. There were exceptions, with Mugabe giving permission to General Solomon Mujuru to expand his business empire, resulting in him becoming one of the Zimbabwe’s wealthiest people. Growing corruption among the socio-economic elite generated resentment among the wider population, much of which was living in poverty.

Prime Minister Mugabe departs Andrews Air Force Base after a state visit to the United States in 1983

ZANU-PF also sought to establish its own business empire, founding the M&S Syndicate in 1980 and the Zidoo Holdings in 1981. By 1992, the party had fixes assets and businesses were worth an estimated Z$500 million (US$75 million). In 1980, ZANU-PF used Nigerian funds to set up the Mass Media Trust, through which they bought out a South African company that owned most of Zimbabwe’s newspapers. The white editors of these newspapers were sacked and replaced by government appointees. These media outlets subsequently became a source of the party’s propaganda.

At independence, 39% of Zimbabwe’s land was under the ownership of around 6000 white large-scale commercial farmers, while 4% was owned by black small-scale commercial farmers, and 41% was ‘communal land’ where 4 million people lived, often in overcrowded conditions. The Lancaster House agreement had maintained that for ten years after the 1980 election, the sale of land could only take place on a “willing seller-willing buyer” basis. The only exceptions that were permitted were if the land was “underutilised” or needed for a public purpose, in which case the government could compulsorily purchase it while the owner with full compensation. This meant that Mugabe’s government was largely restricted to purchasing land which was of poor quality. Its targets were to resettle 18,000 black families on 2.5 million acres of white-owned land over three years. This would cost £30 million (US $60 million), half of which was to be paid by the British government as part of the Lancaster House agreement.

In 1986 Mugabe became chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a position that he retained until 1989. As the leader of one of the Front Line States, the countries bordering apartheid South Africa, he gained credibility within the anti-apartheid movement.

Race relations

Mugabe in the Netherlands, 1982

On taking the Premiership, Mugabe emphasised a message of racial reconciliation and was keen to build a good relationship with the white Zimbabwean community. He hoped to avoid a white exodus and to allay fears that he would nationalise white-owned property. Mugabe appointed two white ministers—David Smith and Denis Norman—to his government. He also met with white leaders in agriculture, industry, mining, and commerce, as well as with senior figures in the previous white administration like Ian Smith and Ken Flowers, impressing them with his apparent sincerity. With an end to the war, petrol rationing, and economic sanctions, life for white Zimbabweans improved during the early years of Mugabe’s regime. In the economic boom that followed, the country’s white minority—who controlled considerable property and who dominated commerce, industry, and banking—were the country’s main beneficiaries. This continuing domination of the economy brought heavy criticism from various government ministers and the government-controlled media. One of these ministers, Tekere, angered many whites after he condemned the Anglican Church as “an instrument of oppression”. Tekere was subsequently involved in an incident in which he and seven armed men stormed a white-owned farmhouse, killing an elderly farmer; they alleged that in doing so they were foiling a coup attempt. Tekere was acquitted of murder although Mugabe dropped him from the cabinet.

“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If ever we look to the past, let us do so for the lesson the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are inequalities that must never find scope in our political and social system. It could never be a correct justification that just because the whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today because they have power. An evil remains an evil whether practised by white against black or black against white.”

— Mugabe’s speech after his 1980 victory

Prominent white figures made comments critical of the new order; Ian Smith for example stated that black Zimbabweans should be grateful for the benefits of the previous ninety years of white minority rule. Both he and other whites began to complain that they were suffering from recrimination. Many white Zimbabweans remained uneasy about living under the government of a black Marxist and feared that their children would be unable to secure jobs. There was a growing exodus to South Africa, and in 1980, 1700 whites—approximately a tenth of the white Zimbabwean population—emigrated. Mugabe’s government had pledged support for the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid forces within South Africa, although did not allow them to use Zimbabwe as a base for their military operations. To protest apartheid and white-minority rule in South Africa, Mugabe’s government banned Zimbabwe from engaging South Africa in any sporting competitions. In turn, South Africa tried to destabilise Zimbabwe by blocking trade routes into the country and supporting anti-Mugabist militants among the country’s white minority.

In December 1981, a bomb struck ZANU-PF headquarters, killing seven and injuring 124. Mugabe attributed the attack to South African-backed white militants. He stated that “what baffles my government is that reactionary and counter-revolutionary elements” in the white community, despite having not faced punishment for their actions under the previous regime, “have hardly repented”. Instead of trying to aid racial reconciliation, he argued, “they have in practice rejected it and are acting in collusion with South Africa to harm our racial relations, to destroy our unity, to sabotage our economy, and to overthrow the popularly elected government I lead”. Increasingly he criticised not only the militants but the entire white community for the economic privilege that they continued to retain, stating that it was necessary to remove their monopoly on “Zimbabwe’s economic power”.

Racial mistrust and suspicion continued to grow. In December 1981 the elderly white MP Wally Stuttaford was accused of being a South African agent, arrested, tortured, although not charged, generating much anger among whites. In July 1982, South African-backed white militants destroyed 13 aircraft at Thornhill. A number of white military officers were accused of complicity, arrested, and tortured. They were put on trial but cleared by judges, after which they were immediately re-arrested. Their case generated an international outcry, which Mugabe criticised, stating that the case only gained such attention because the accused were white. His defence of torture and contempt for legal procedures damaged his international standing. White flight continued to grow, and within three years of Mugabe taking power half of all white Zimbabweans had emigrated. In the 1985 election, Smith’s Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe won 15 of the 20 seats allocated for white Zimbabweans. Mugabe was outraged by this result, stating that most white Zimbabweans had “not repented in any way. They still cling to the past and support the very man [Smith]… who created a series of horrors against the people of Zimbabwe.”

Relations with ZAPU and the Gukurahundi

The flag of ZAPU, which were largely eliminated by ZANU-PF in the Gukurahundi

On becoming Prime Minister, Mugabe offered Nkomo the Presidency, making him a ceremonial head of state with no real power in government. Nkomo declined, and instead settled for becoming Minister of Home Affairs, giving him responsibility for the police force. Despite working with each other in the cabinet, there remained an aura of resentment and suspicion between Mugabe and Nkomo. Nkomo demanded that his ZAPU be permitted more than the four of the 23 cabinet seats that Mugabe had given them. In contrast, some ZANU-PF figures argued that ZAPU should not have any seats in government, suggesting that Zimbabwe be converted into a one-party state. Tekere and Enos Nkala were particularly adamant that there should be a crackdown on ZAPU. After Nkala called for ZAPU to be violently crushed during a rally in Entumbane, street clashes between the two parties broke out in the city. In January 1981 Nkomo was then demoted in a cabinet reshuffle; his warnings that this would generate unrest were ignored by Mugabe. In February, violence between ZAPU and ZANU-PF supporters broke out among the battalion stationed at Ntabazindune, soon spreading to other army bases, resulting in 300 deaths. An arms cache featuring land mines and anti-aircraft missiles were then discovered at Ascot Farm, which was part-owned by Nkomo. Mugabe cited this as evidence that ZAPU were plotting a coup, an allegation that Nkomo denied. Likening Nkomo to “a cobra in the house”, Mugabe sacked him from the government, and ZAPU-owned businesses, farms, and properties were seized.

Members of both ZANLA and ZIPRA had deserted their positions and engaged in banditry. In Matabeleland, ZIPRA deserters who came to be known as “dissenters” engaged in robbery, holding up buses, and attacking farm houses, creating an environment of growing lawlessness. These dissidents received support from South Africa through its Operation Mute, by which it hoped to further destabilise Zimbabwe. The government often conflated ZIPRA with the dissenters, although Nkomo denounced the dissidents and their South African supporters. Mugabe authorised the police and army to crack down on the Matabeleland dissenters, acknowledging that “extra-legal” actions would be necessary and that said state officers would therefore be granted immunity from prosecution for any of their actions. During 1982 he had overseen the creation of the Fifth Brigade, an elite armed force trained by the North Koreans; their membership was drawn largely from Shona-speaking members of ZANLA and were answerable directly to the Prime Minister. In January 1983, the Fifth Brigade were deployed in the region, overseeing a campaign of beatings, arson, public executions, and massacres of those accused of being sympathetic to the dissidents. The scale of the violence was greater than that witnessed in the Rhodesian War. Interrogation centres were established where people were tortured. Mugabe acknowledged that civilians would be persecuted in the violence, claiming that “we can’t tell who is a dissident and who is not”. The ensuing events became known as the “Gukurahundi”, a Shona word meaning “wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rains”.

The Gukurahundi took place in Zimbabwe’s western provinces of Matabeleland (pictured)

In 1984 the Gukurahundi spread to Matabelelend South, an area then in its third year of drought. The Fifth Brigade closed all stores, halted all deliveries, and imposed a curfew, exacerbating starvation for a period of two months. The Bishop of Bulawayo accused Mugabe of overseeing a project of systematic starvation. When a Roman Catholic delegation provided Mugabe with a dossier listing atrocities committed by the Fifth Brigade, Mugabe refuted all its allegations and accused the clergy of being disloyal to Zimbabwe. He had the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe’s suppressed. In 1985, an Amnesty International report on the Gukurahundi was dismissed by Mugabe as “a heap of lies”. According to a report by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, the Fifth Brigade killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Over the course of four years, approximately 10,000 civilians had been killed, and many others beaten and tortured. Genocide Watch later estimated that approximately 20,000 had been killed.

The UK government of Margaret Thatcher had been aware of the killings but had remained silent on the matter, fearing that if they spoke out it would anger Mugabe and threaten the safety of white Zimbabweans. The United States also did not raise strong objections, with President Ronald Reagan welcoming Mugabe to the White House in September 1983. In October 1983, Mugabe attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in New Delhi, where no participating states raised the question of the Gukurahundi. In 2000, Mugabe acknowledged that the mass killings had happened, stating that it was “an act of madness. We killed each other… it was wrong and both sides were to blame”. Meredith argued however that Mugabe and his ZANU-PF were solely to blame for the massacres. Various Mugabe biographers have seen the Gukurahundi as a deliberate attempt to eliminate ZAPU and its support base in order to advance his desire for a ZANU-PF one-party state.

There was further violence in the build-up to the 1985 election, with ZAPU supporters facing harassment from ZANU-PF Youth Brigades. Despite this intimidation, ZAPU won all 15 of the parliamentary seats in Matabeleland. Mugabe then appointed Nkala as the new police minister. Nkala subsequently detained over 100 ZAPU officials, including five of its MPs and the Mayor of Bulawayo, banned the party from holding rallies or meetings, closed all of their offices, and dissolved all of the district councils that they controlled. To avoid further violence, in December 1987 Nkomo signed a Unity Accord in which ZAPU was officially disbanded and its leadership merged into ZANU-PF. The merger between the two parties left ZANU-PF with 99 of the 100 seats in parliament, and established Zimbabwe as a de facto one-party state.


Constitutional and economic reform: 1987–95

Prime Minister Mugabe in 1982

In late 1987, Zimbabwe’s parliament rushed through a number of constitutional amendments, and on 30 December it declared Mugabe to be executive President, a new position that combined the roles of head of state, head of government, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This position gave him the power to dissolve parliament, declare martial law, and run for an unlimited number of terms. The constitutional amendments also abolished the twenty parliamentary seats reserved for white representatives. According to his biographer Martin Meredith, this new position granted Mugabe “a virtual stranglehold on government machinery and unlimited opportunities to exercise patronage”. With Mugabe’s powers increased, the place of parliament became less relevant and less independent.

In the build-up to the 1990 election, parliamentary reforms increased the number of seats to 120; of these, twenty were to be appointed by the President and ten by the Council of Chiefs. This measure made it more difficult for any opposition to Mugabe to gain a parliamentary majority. The main opposition party in that election were the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, launched by Tekere in April 1989. ZANU-PF propaganda made threats against those considering voting ZUM in the election; one television advert for instance featured images of a car crash with the statement “This is one way to die. Another is to vote ZUM. Don’t commit suicide, vote ZANU-PF and live.” In the election, Mugabe was re-elected President with nearly 80% of the vote, while ZANU-PF gained a parliamentary majority after securing 116 of the 119 available seats.

Mugabe and others in ZANU-PF had long hoped to convert Zimbabwe into a one-party state, however in 1990 Mozambique transitioned from a one-party state into a multi-party one and at the same time many of the one-party states in the Eastern Bloc were collapsing. Many in ZANU-PF began calling for their plans to be reassessed and after the 1990 elections Mugabe declared that any plans for a one-party state were being “postponed”. Following the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist regimes in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, in 1991 ZANU-PF removed any references to “Marxism-Leninism” and “scientific socialism” from its material, although Mugabe maintained that “socialism remains our sworn ideology”. That year, Mugabe pledged himself to free market economics and accepted a structural adjustment programme provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This economic reform package called for Zimbabwe to privatise state assets and reduce import tariffs; Mugabe’s government implemented some although not all of its recommendations. The reforms encouraged employers to cut their wages, generating growing opposition from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

By 1990, 52,000 black families had been settled on 6.5 million acres but this had not been enough to deal with the country’s overcrowding problem, which was being exacerbated by the growth in the black population. That year, Zimbabwe’s parliament passed an amendment which would allow the government to expropriate land at a fixed price while denying land-owners the right to appeal to the courts. The government hoped that by doing so it could settle 110,000 black families on 13 million acres, which would require the expropriation of approximately half of the total land owned by white Zimbabweans. Zimbabwe’s Commercial Farmers Union argued that the proposed measures would wreck the country’s economy, urging the government to settle landless blacks on the half-a-million acres of land owned by the state or on unproductive land rather than on expropriated farms. This proposed measure raised concerns, particularly for denying the right of legal appeal, which were voiced by the UK, US, and the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace. The US, UK, IMF, and World Bank warned that Zimbabwe would forfeit aid packages but Mugabe remained defiant. Responding to the criticisms, the government removed the ban on court appeals from the bill, which was then passed as law. Over the following few years, hundreds of thousands of acres of largely white-owned land were expropriated. In April 1994, a newspaper investigation found that not all of this was then redistributed to landless blacks; a 3000-acre farm in Hwedza had been leased to the minister Witness Mangwende, and further investigation found that much of the expropriated land had been leased to ministers and senior officials. As a result of the scandal, in 1994 the UK government—which had supplied £44 million to Zimbabwe for its land redistribution program—ceased the provision of further funds.

In January 1992, Mugabe’s wife died. In April 1995, Horizon magazine revealed that Mugabe had secretly been having an affair with his secretary Grace Marufu since 1987 and that she had borne him a son and a daughter. With this revealed, Mugabe decided to hold a much-publicised wedding. 12,000 people were invited to the August 1996 ceremony, which took place in Kutama and was orchestrated by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, Patrick Chakaipa. The ceremony caused controversy among the Catholic community because of the adulterous nature of Mugabe and Marufu’s relationship. To house his family, Mugabe then had a new mansion built at Borrowdale. In the 1995 parliamentary election—which saw a low turnout of 31.7%—ZANU-PF gained 147 out of 150 seats. Following the election, Mugabe expanded his cabinet from 29 to 42 ministers while the government adopted a 133% pay rise for MPs.

Economic decline: 1996–99

By the mid-1990s Mugabe had become an irascible and petulant dictator, brooking no opposition, contemptuous of the law and human rights, surrounded by sycophantic ministers and indifferent to the incompetence and corruption around him. His record of economic management was lamentable. He had failed to satisfy popular expectations in education, health, land reform, and employment. And he had alienated the entire white community. Yet all the while Mugabe continued to believe in his own greatness. Isolated and remote from ordinary reality, possessing no close friends and showing clear signs of paranoia, he listened only to an inner circle of conspiratorial aids and colleagues. Whatever difficulties occurred he attributed to old enemies—Britain, the West, the old Rhodesian network—all bent, he believed, on destroying his “revolution.”

— Mugabe biographer Martin Meredith

Over the course of the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s economy steadily deteriorated. By 2000, living standards had declined from 1980; life expectancy was reduced, average wages were lower, and unemployment had trebled. By 1998, unemployment was almost at 50%. As of 2009, three to four million Zimbabweans—the greater part of the nation’s skilled workforce—had left the country. In 1997 there were growing demands for pensions from those who had fought for the guerrilla armies in the revolutionary war, and in August 1997 Mugabe put together a pension package that would cost the county ZD 4.2 billion. To finance this pension scheme, Mugabe’s government proposed new taxes, but a general strike was called in protest in December 1997; amid protest from ZANU-PF itself, Mugabe’s government abandoned the taxes. In January 1998, riots about lack of access to food broke out in Harare; the army was deployed to restore order, with at least ten killed and hundreds injured.

Mugabe increasingly blamed the country’s economic problems on Western nations and the white Zimbabwean minority, who still controlled most of its commercial agriculture, mines, and manufacturing industry. He called on supporters “to strike fear in the hearts of the white man, our real enemy”, and accused his black opponents of being dupes of the whites. Amid growing internal opposition to his government, he remained determined to stay in power. He revived the regular use of revolutionary rhetoric and sought to reassert his credentials as an important revolutionary leader.

Mugabe also developed a growing preoccupation with homosexuality, lambasting it as an “un-African” import from Europe. He described gay people as being “guilty of sub-human behaviour”, and of being “worse than dogs and pigs”. This attitude may have stemmed in part from his strong conservative values but also from an awareness that militant homophobia would distract attention from the country’s problems. In August 1995, he was due to open a human rights-themed Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare but refused to do so until a stall run by the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe group was evicted.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, with whom Mugabe had a particularly antagonistic relationship

In 1996, Mugabe was appointed chair of the defence arm of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Without consulting parliament, in August 1998 he ordered Zimbabwean troops into the Congo to side with President Laurent Kabila in the Second Congo War. He initially committed 3000 troops to the operation, although this gradually rose to 11,000. He also persuaded Angola and Namibia to commit troops to the conflict. Involvement in the war cost Zimbabwe an approximate US $1 million a day, contributing to its economic problems. Opinion polls demonstrated that it was unpopular among the Zimbabwean population. However, a number of Zimbabwean businessmen found it to be a profitable venture, having been given mining and timber concessions and preferential trade terms in minerals from Kabila’s government.

In January 1999, 23 military officers were arrested for plotting a coup against Mugabe. The government sought to hide this, although it was reported on by journalists from The Standard. The military subsequently illegally arrested the journalists and tortured them. This brought international condemnation, with the EU and seven donor nations issuing protest notes. Lawyers and human rights activists protested outside parliament until being dispersed by riot police, and the country’s Supreme Court judges issued a letter condemning the military’s actions. In response, Mugabe publicly defended the use of extra-legal arrest and torture.

In 1997, Tony Blair was elected Prime Minister of the UK; his New Labour government expressed reticence toward restarting the land resettlement payments promised by the Lancaster House Agreement, with minister Clare Short rejecting the idea that the UK had any moral obligation to fund land redistribution. This attitude fuelled anti-imperialist sentiment across Africa. In October 1999 Mugabe visited Britain; in London, the human rights activist Peter Tatchell attempted to place him under citizen’s arrest. Mugabe believed that the British government had stunt deliberately engineered the incident to embarrass him. It further damaged Anglo-Zimbabwean relations, with Mugabe expressing scorn for what he called “Blair and company”. In May 2000, the UK froze all development aid to Zimbabwe. In December 1999, the IMF ended all support for Zimbabwe, citing economic mismanagement and widespread corruption as impediments to reform.

Land seizures and growing condemnation: 2000–08

To meet growing demand for constitutional reform, in April 1999 Mugabe’s government appointed a 400-member Constitutional Commission to draft a new constitution which could be put to a referendum. The National Constitutional Assembly—a pro-reform pressure group established in 1997—expressed concern that this commission was not independent of the government, noting that Mugabe had the power to amend or reject the draft. The NCA called for the draft constitution to be rejected, and in a February 2000 referendum it was, with 53% against to 44% in favour; turnout was under 25%. It was ZANU-PF’s first major electoral defeat in twenty years. Mugabe was furious, and blamed the white minority for orchestrating his defeat, referring to them as “enemies of Zimbabwe”.

Morgan Tsvangirai led the MDC to growing success in opposing Mugabe’s regime in the 2000 parliamentary election

The June 2000 parliamentary elections attracted international attention and were considered the most important in Zimbabwean history since 1980. Sixteen parties took part, although the new Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, was particularly successful. During the election campaign, MDC activists were regularly harassed and in some cases killed; in May 2000, the Amani Trust recorded 5,070 incidents of political violence and 15 killings of MDC supporters. Over the course of the election, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum documented 27 murders, 27 rapes, 2466 assaults, and 617 abductions, with 10,000 people displaced by violence; although some of this was perpetrated by those endorsing the MDC, the majority was carried out by ZANU-PF supporters. Observers from the European Union (EU) ruled that the election was neither free nor fair. The final result gave 48% of the vote to ZANU-PF and 47% to the MDC; the former attained 62 parliamentary seats and the latter 57. For the first time, ZANU-PF were denied the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to push through constitutional change. ZANU-PF had relied heavily on their support base in rural Shona-speaking areas, and retained only one urban constituency. Once in parliament, the MDC MPs attempted to impeach Mugabe in October 2000, although were thwarted by the Speaker of the House, Mugabe-loyalist Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mugabe claimed that the build-up to the 2002 presidential election represented “the third Chimurenga” and that it would set Zimbabwe free from its colonial heritage. In the build-up to the election, the government changed the electoral rules and regulations in order to improve Mugabe’s chances of victory. New security legislation was introduced making it illegal to criticise the President. The defence force commander, General Zvinavashe, stated that the military would not recognise any election result other than a Mugabe victory. The EU withdrew its observers from the country, stating that the vote was neither free nor fair. The election resulted in Mugabe securing 56% of the vote to Tsvangerai’s 42%. In the aftermath of the election Mugabe declared that the state-owned Grain Marketing Board had the sole right to import and distribute grain, with the state distributors giving food to ZANU-PF supporters while withholding it from those suspected of backing the MDC.

Farm invasions

“The courts can do whatever they want, but no judicial decision will stand in our way… My own position is that we should not even be defending our position in the courts. This country is our country and this land is our land… They think because they are white they have a divine right to our resources. Not here. The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans, Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans.”

— Mugabe on the land seizures

In February 2000, the land invasions began as armed gangs attacked and occupied white-owned farms. The government referred to the attackers as “war veterans” although the majority were unemployed youth too young to have fought in the Rhodesian War. Mugabe initially claimed that the attacks were a spontaneous uprising against white land owners, although the government had paid Z$20 million to Chenjerai Hunzvi’s War Veterans Association to lead the land invasion campaign and ZANU-PF officials, police, and military figures were all involved in facilitating it. Some of Mugabe’s colleagues described the invasions as retribution for the white community’s alleged involvement in securing the success of the ‘no’ vote in the recent referendum.

For Mugabe, the seizure of white-owned farms was justified by the fact that this land had been seized by white settlers from the indigenous African population in the 1890s. He portrayed the invasions as a struggle against colonialism and alleged that the UK was trying to overthrow his government, erroneously claiming that the British Royal Navy was intercepting oil tankers bringing fuel to Zimbabwe and that the UK had amassed an invasion force in neighbouring Botswana. In May 2000 he issued a decree under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act which empowered the government to seize farms without providing compensation, insisting that it was the British government that should make these payments.

In March 2000, Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the land invasions were illegal but this ruling was ignored. After the courts ruled these actions illegal, Mugabe began vilifying Zimbabwe’s judiciary. After the Supreme Court also backed this decision, the government called on the Supreme Court judges to resign, successfully pressuring chief justice Anthony Gubbay to do so. The government then appointed ZANU-PF member Godfrey Chidyausiku to replace him, and expanded the number of Supreme Court judges from five to eight, giving the three additional seats to pro-Mugabe figures. The first act of the new Supreme Court was to reverse the previous declaration that the land seizures were illegal. In November 2001 Mugabe then issued a presidential decree permitting the expropriation of virtually all white-owned farms in Zimbabwe without compensation.

The farm seizures were often violent, and by 2006 a reported sixty white farmers had been killed, with many of their employees having been intimidated and tortured. A large number of the seized farms remained empty, while many of those redistributed to black peasant-farmers were unable to engage in production for the market because of their lack of access to fertiliser.

The farm invasions severely impacted agricultural development. Whereas Zimbabwe had produced over two million tons of maize in 2000, by 2008 this had declined to approximately 450,000 tons. By October 2003, Human Rights Watch reported that half of the country’s population were food insecure, lacking enough food to meet basic needs. By 2009, 75% of Zimbabwe’s population were relying on food aid, the highest proportion of any country at that time. There were reports that Mugabe was diverting state food supplies to his own supporters and away from those of his opponents. Inflation ensued and created an economic crisis in Zimbabwe. By October 2008, the rate of inflation was at an estimated 231 million per year. In early 2009, Mugabe’s government declared that it would recognise U.S. dollars as legal tender and would pay government employmees in this currency. This helped to stabilise prices. Increasing numbers of Zimbabweans relied on remittances from relatives abroad. Other sectors of society were negatively affected too. By 2005, an estimated 80% of Zimbabwe’s population were unemployed, and by 2008 only 20% of children were in schooling. The breakdown of water supplies and sewage systems resulted in a cholera outbreak in late 2008, with over 98,000 cholera cases in Zimbabwe between August 2008 and mid-July 2009. The ruined economy also impacted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country; by 2008 the HIV/AIDS rate for individuals aged between 15 and 49 was 15.3%.

In November 2010 the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in England released a comprehensive study on the effects of Zimbabwean land reform. The study suggested that the consequences were mixed but that previous claims that the reform was a failure, that its primary recipients were political “cronies” or that it caused rural collapse were unfounded. One of the study’s authors, Professor Ian Scoones, stated: “What comes through from our research is the complexity, the differences in experience, almost farm by farm; there is no single, simple story of the Zimbabwe land reform as sometimes assumed by press reports, political commentators, or indeed much academic study”. In 2015 he announced a proposal to return some land to white farmers.

In March 2008, Mugabe signed the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Bill into law. The Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Bill was passed through parliament in September 2007 by President Mugabe’s party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), Emmerson Mnangagwa was in charge of representing the Bill. In spite of resistance by the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Mugabe said that giving black Zimbabweans control of the business sector is the next step and said the election result had given him a “resounding mandate” to do so. “We will do everything in our power to ensure our objective of total indigenisation, empowerment, development and employment is realised,” he told a public rally to mark the annual Defence Forces Day. He said the policy was the “final phase of the liberation struggle” and “final phase of total independence”.

ZANU-PF increasingly equated itself with Zimbabwean patriotism, with MDC supporters being portrayed as traitors and enemies of Zimbabwe. The party presented itself as being on the progressive side of history, with the MDC representing a counter-revolutionary force that seeks to undermine the achievements of the ZANU-PF revolution and of decolonisation itself.

Mugabe in 2011

Growing condemnation

Mugabe’s actions in the land reform issue brought strong criticism. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches accused him of plunging the country into “a de facto state of warfare” in order to stay in power. A number of Southern African states remonstrated with him at a summit in Harare in September 2001. In 2002, the British Commonwealth expelled Zimbabwe from among its ranks, something Mugabe blamed on anti-black racism. Similarly, South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed that attempts by the British Commonwealth to ostracise Mugabe were “inspired by notions of white supremacy”. In December 2003, Mugabe officially withdrew his country from the Commonwealth. In 2004, the European Union imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Mugabe and 94 other Zimbabweans, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for tougher sanctions. The EU travel ban did not apply to Vatican City, and in April 2005 Mugabe attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The Africa-Europe Summit, scheduled to take place in Lisbon in April 2003, was deferred repeatedly because African leaders refused to attend while Mugabe was banned. It eventually took place in 2007 with Mugabe in attendance, although British Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotted it as a result.

Responding to intimidation of MDC activists and supporters, in 2005, South African President Thabo Mbeki embarked on a project of “quiet diplomacy”. Mbeki prevented the African Union (AU) from introduction any sanctions against Mugabe. Mugabe’s regime was criticised by a number of African states, among them Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania. In 2005 Mugabe instituted Operation Murambatsvina (“Operation Drive Out the Rubbish”), a project of forced slum clearance. In this, the homes and businesses of around 700,000 urban Zimbabweans were destroyed according to a United Nations report. Since the inhabitants of the shantytowns overwhelmingly supported the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party in the previous election, many alleged that the mass bulldozing was politically motivated.

Mugabe in Ethiopia, 2009

In 2008 the EU extended its sanctions against Zimbabwe, while the G8 expressed “grave concern” about the situation in the country. That year the U.S. government of President George W. Bush tightened a travel ban of 250 senior Zimbabwean figures and banned Americans from doing business with them. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, refused to lift those sanctions and although pledging $73 million of aid for the country, insisted that it go through aid organisations and UN agencies rather than through the government. In 2008, the US and UK had introduced a resolution at the United Nations Security Council calling for an arms embargo of Zimbabwe alongside an asset freeze and travel ban of Mugabe and other government figures. It was vetoed by Russia and China, who argued that UNSC could only take measures against a state if it was a threat to peace and stability, which Zimbabwe was not. In 2009, the SADC demanded that Western states lift their targeted sanctions against Mugabe and his government. ZANU-PF presented the sanctions as a form of Western neo-colonialism and were accused of being responsible for Zimbabwe’s economic problems.

Power-sharing with the MDC: 2008–13

In March 2008, presidential and parliamentary elections were held. The latter were won by the MDC, which had gained the majority of seats. According to unofficial polling, ZANU-PF took 94 seats, and the MDC took 96 seats. On 3 April 2008 Zimbabwean government forces began cracking down on the main opposition party and arrested at least two foreign journalists, who were covering the disputed presidential election, including a correspondent for the New York Times.

Mugabe in 2008

On 30 March 2008, Mugabe convened a meeting with his top security officials to discuss his defeat in the elections. According to the Washington Post, he was prepared to concede, but was advised by Zimbabwe’s military chief Gen. Constantine Chiwenga to remain in the race, with the senior military officers “supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition”. The first phase of the plan started a week later, involving the building of 2,000 party compounds across Zimbabwe, to serve as bases for the party militias. On an 8 April 2008 meeting, the military plan was given the code name of “CIBD”, which stood for: “Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.”

The official results for the presidential elections would be delayed for five weeks. When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown attempted to intervene into the election controversy, Mugabe dismissed him as “a little tiny dot on this planet”.

When the official results for the presidential elections were finally published by the Zimbabwe election commission on 2 May 2008, they showed that Mugabe had lost in the first round, getting 1,079,730 votes (43.2%) against 1,195,562 (47.9%) collected by Mr. Tsvangirai. Therefore, no candidate secured the final win in the first round, and a presidential run-off will be needed. The opposition called the results “scandalous daylight robbery”, claiming an outright victory in the first round with 50.3% of the votes. However, closer analysis of the opposition MDC’s own figures, as published on the party’s website at time, showed they had secured 49.1% of the vote and not the claimed requisite of more than 50% to avoid a run-off election. Mugabe saw his 2008 defeat as an unacceptable personal humiliation. He saw it as a victory for his Western, and in particular British, detractors, whom he believed were working with Tsvangirai to end his political career.

Between March and June 2008, at least 153 MDC supporters were killed. There were reports of women affiliated with the MDC being subjected to gang rape by Mugabe supporters. Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans were internally displaced by the violence. In addition, at least 100 officials and polling officers of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission were arrested after the first round election.

Mugabe in 2009

Mugabe’s run-off campaign was managed by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former security chief of the conflict of Gukurahundi. The Washington Post asserts that the campaign of violence was bringing results to the ruling party, by crushing the opposition party MDC and coercion of its supporters. By 20 June 2008, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights had “recorded 85 deaths in political violence since the first round of voting”.

Tsvangirai initially agreed to a presidential run-off against Mugabe, but lwithdrew in June 2008, citing the violence, and claiming that Mugabe would not let him win.

The run-off election was held on 27 June 2008, and Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission released the results two days later. The official results showed that Mugabe had managed to double his votes since the first round, to 2,150,269 votes (85.5%), while his opponent Tsvangirai obtained only 233,000 (9.3%). However Tsvangirai had pulled out previously because of widespread violence from the ZANU-PF’s forces. The violence includes beating, rape and others. Many voted because if they did not they could face violence against them. Although witnesses and election monitors had reported a low turnout in many areas of the country, the official tally showed that the total vote had increased, from 2,497,265 votes in the first round to 2,514,750 votes in the second round. None of his fellow African heads of state were present at his inauguration; there were only family members, ministers, and security chiefs in the guests’ tent.

In September 2008, the leaders of the SADC witnessed the signing of the power-sharing agreement, brokered by Mbeki. Mugabe, Mutambara and Tsvangirai signed the deal to end the violent political crisis; Mugabe was recognised as president, and Tsvangirai as prime minister. The MDC would control the police, the ZANU-PF the Army, and Arthur Mutambara became deputy prime minister. ZANU-PF were anxious to prevent any sweeping political changes. Under the power-sharing agreement, a number of limited reforms were passed. ZANU-PF blogged many of the proposed reforms although a new constitution was passed in March 2013.

Later years: 2013–present

Mugabe and his wife in 2013

Declaring that he would “fight like a wounded animal” for re-election, Mugabe approached the 2013 elections believing that it would be his last. He hoped that a decisive electoral victory would help to secure his legacy and signal his triumph over his Western critics while causing irreparable damage to Tsangirai’s political credibility. The opposition parties believed that this election was their best chance for ousting Mugabe. His opponents, among them Tsvangerai, portrayed him as a feeble old man who was being told what to do by the military, although at least one academic observer argued that this was untrue.

In contrast to 2008, there was no organised dissent against Mugabe within ZANU-PF. The party elite decided to avoid the violence that had marred 2008’s election so as not to undermine its credibility, particularly in the eyes of the SADC, for this would remove Zimbabwe from the organisation’s political crisis agenda, thus allowing Zimbabwe’s government to consolidate its rule without interference. Mugabe called upon supporters to avoid violence, and attended far fewer rallies than in past elections, in part because of his advanced age and in part to ensure that those rallies he did attend were larger. The ZANU-PF offered gifts, including food and clothing, to many members of the electorate to encourage them to vote for the party.

Mugabe (centre) attending the Third India-Africa Forum in 2015

ZANU-PF won a landslide victory, with 61% of the presidential vote and over two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The elections were not considered free and fair; there were widespread stories of vote rigging and many voters may have been fearful of the violence that had surrounded the 2008 election. During the campaign, many MDC supporters had remained quiet about their views out of fear of reprisals. The MDC was also negatively impacted by its time in coalition government, with perceptions that it had been just as corrupt as ZANU-PF and that it had failed to make any difference. ZANU-PF had also capitalised on its appeals to African race, land, and liberation, while the MDC was often associated with white farmers, Western nations, and perceived Western values such as LGBT rights.

In February 2014, Mugabe underwent a cataract operation in Singapore; on return he celebrated his ninetieth birthday at a Marondera football stadium. In December 2014, Mugabe fired his Vice President, Joice Mujuru, accusing her of plotting his overthrow. In January 2015, Mugabe was elected as the Chairperson of the African Union (AU). In November 2015, he announced his intention to run for re-election as Zimbabwe’s President in 2018, at the age of 94, and has been accepted as the ZANU-PF candidate. In February 2016, Mugabe said he had no plans for retirement and would remain in power “until God says ‘come'”. In February 2017, right after his 93rd birthday, Mugabe stated he would not retire nor pick a successor, even though he said he would let his party choose a successor if it saw fit.


Mugabe has stated that “socialism has to be much more Christian than capitalism”. The English academic Claire Palley met Mugabe in 1962, later noting that “he struck me as not so much a doctrinaire Marxist but an old-fashioned African nationalist”, while Tekere claimed that for Mugabe, Marxism-Leninism was “just rhetoric” with “no genuine vision or belief behind it”. Carington noted that while Mugabe used Marxist rhetoric during the Lancaster House negotiations, “of course he didn’t actually practice what he preached, did he? Once in office he became a capitalist”. Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni argued that since the mid-1990s, Mugabe’s rhetoric and speeches came to be dominated by three main themes: an obsession with a perceived British threat to re-colonise Zimbabwe, to transfer the land controlled by white farmers to the black population, and issues of belonging and patriotism.

David Blair stated that “Mugabe’s collected writings amount to nothing more than crude Marxism, couched in the ponderous English of the mission school”, remarking that they were heavily informed by Marx, Mao Zedong, and Frantz Fanon, and displayed little originality. Blair noted that Mugabe’s writings called for “command economics in a peasant society, mixed with anti-colonial nationalism”, and that in this he held “the same opinions as almost every other African guerrilla leader” of that period. Mugabe argued that following the overthrow of European colonial regimes, Western countries continued to keep African countries in a state of subservience because they desired the continent’s natural resources while preventing it from industrialising.

“Mugabeism as form of populist reason is a multifaceted phenomenon requiring a multi-pronged approach to decipher its various meanings. At one level it represents pan-African memory and patriotism and at another level it manifests itself as a form of radical left-nationalism dedicated to resolving intractable national and agrarian questions. Yet, to others, it is nothing but a symbol of crisis, chaos and tyranny emanating from the exhaustion of nationalism.”

— Ndlovu-Gatsheni

Ndlovu-Gatsheni characterised “Mugabeism” as a populist movement that was “marked by ideological simplicity, emptiness, vagueness, imprecision, and multi-class character”, further noting that it was “a broad church”. He also characterised it as a form of “left-nationalism”, which consistently railed against imperialism and colonialism. He also argued that it was a form of nativism, and was permeated by a strong “cult of victimisation” by which a binary view was propagated of Africa as a “victim” and the West as its “tormentor”. He suggested that it had been influenced by a wide range of ideologies, among them forms of Marxism like Stalinism and Maoism, as well as African nationalist ideologies like Nkrumahism, Nyereirism, Garveyism, Negritude, Pan-Africanism, and African neo-traditionalism. Mugabism sought to deal with the problem of white settler racism by engaging in a project of reverse racism that sought to deny white Zimbabweans citizenship by constantly referring to them as “amabhunu/Boers”, thus enabling the removal of their land.

The Zimbabwean scholar George Shire described Mugabe’s policies as being “broadly-speaking” social-democratic. ZANU-PF claim to be influenced by Marxism-Leninism although Onslow and Redding stated that it “owes more to a philosophy that sees peasant-based agrarian revolutions as engines of social and economic change.” As a result of this pro-rural view, they argued, Mugabe and the ZANU-PF demonstrated an anti-urban bias.

During the 1980s, Mugabe indicated his desire to transform Zimbabwe from a multi-party state into a one-party state. In 1984 he stated that “the one-party state is more in keeping with African tradition. It makes for greater unity for the people. It puts all opinions under one umbrella, whether these opinions are radical or reactionary”. The political scientist Sue Onslow and historian Sean Redding stated that Zimbabwe’s situation was “more complex than pure venial dictatorship”, but that it was an “ideo-dictatorship”.

In February 2017, Mugabe stated his admiration and support for United States President Donald Trump’s America First policy, stating that “When it comes to Donald Trump, on the one hand talking of American nationalism, well, America for America, America for Americans — on that we agree. Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”

The scholar of African studies Abiodun Alao noted that Mugabe was determined to “take advantage of the past in order to secure a firm grip on national security”. References to the Zimbabwean liberation struggle featured prominently in Mugabe’s speeches.


Mugabe meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015

Mugabe is a short man, measuring a little over 5 feet 7 inches, and exhibits what his biographer David Blair described as “curious, effeminate mannerisms”. Mugabe took great care with his appearance, typically wearing a three-piece suit, and insisting that members of his cabinet dressed in a similar Anglophile fashion. On taking power in 1980, Mugabe’s hallmark was his wide-rimmed glasses, and he was also known for his tiny moustache. Unlike a number of other African leaders, Mugabe did not seek to mythologise his childhood. He avoided smoking and drinking, and—according to his first biographers, David Smith and Colin Simpson—had “enormous affection for children”. During his early life he had an operation on his genitals which generated rumours that he had only one testicle or half a penis; such rumours were used by opponents to ridicule him and by supporters to bolster the claim that he was willing to make severe sacrifices for the revolutionary cause.

Mugabe spoke English fluently with an adopted English accent when pronouncing certain words. He was also a fan of the English game of cricket, stating that “cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen”. David Blair noted that this cultivation of British traits suggested that Mugabe respected and perhaps admired Britain while at the same time resenting and loathing the country. Holland suggested that these Anglophile traits arose in early life, as Mugabe—who had long experienced the anti-black racism of Rhodesian society—”grasped Englishness as an antidote to his self-loathing”.

The academic Blessing-Miles Tendi stated that Mugabe was “an extremely complex figure, not easily captured by conventional categories”. Similarly, David Blair described him as an “exceptionally complex personality”. Smith and Simpson noted that the Zimbabwean leader had been “a serious young man, something of a loner, diligent, hard-working, a voracious reader who used every minute of his time, not much given to laughter: but above all, single-minded.” Blair commented that Mugabe’s “self-discipline, intelligence and appetite for hard work were remarkable”, adding that his “prime characteristics” were “ruthlessness and resilience”. Blair argued that Mugabe shared many character traits with Ian Smith, stating that they were both “proud, brave, stubborn, charismatic, deluded fantasists”.

“With his poor childhood development record, even minor criticism would be experienced as a wound by Mugabe. He is a person who cannot tolerate difference. Being profoundly doubtful about himself, he is oversensitive to the idea that he is not as good as everyone else. People are either with him or against him. Differences of opinion are provocative and hurtful to Mugabe, who may think that compromise reduces him.”

— Heidi Holland

Meredith described Mugabe as having a “soft-spoken demeanour,… broad intellect, and… articulate manner”, all of which disguised his “hardened and single-minded ambition”. Ndlovu-Gatsheni characterised him as “one of the most charismatic African leaders”, highlighting that he was “very eloquent” and was able to make “fine speeches”. Jonathan Moyo, who briefly served as Mugabe’s information minister before falling out with him, stated that the President could “express himself well, that is his great strength”. Tendi stated that although he had a natural wittiness, Mugabe often hid this behind “an outwardly pensive and austere manner and his penchant for ceremony and tradition”. Heidi Holland suggested that due to his “dysfunctional” upbringing, Mugabe had a “fragile self-image”, describing him as “a man cut off from his feelings, devoid of ordinary warmth and humanity”. According to her, Mugabe had a “marked emotional immaturity”, and was homophobic, as well as racist and xenophobic. Colin Legum, a journalist with The Observer, argued that Mugabe had a “paranoidal personality”, in that while he did not suffer from clinical paranoia, he did behave in a paranoid fashion when placed under severe and sustained pressure.

According to Meredith, Mugabe presented himself as “articulate, thoughtful, and conciliatory” after his 1980 election victory. Blair noted that at this period of his career, Mugabe displayed “genuine magnanimity and moral courage” despite his “intense personal reasons for feeling bitterness and hatred” toward the members of the former regime. Following his dealing with Mugabe during the 1979 negotiations, Michael Pallister, head of the British Foreign Office, described Mugabe as having “a very sharp, sometimes rather aggressive, and unpleasant manner”. The British diplomat Peter Longworth stated that in private, Mugabe was “very charming and very articulate and he’s not devoid of humour. It’s very difficult to relate the man you meet with the man ranting on television”. Norman stated that “I always found him personable and honourable in his dealings. He also had a warm side to him which I saw quite clearly sometimes”.

Several Mugabe biographers have observed that he had an obsession with accruing power. According to Meredith, “power for Mugabe was not a means to an end, but the end itself.” Conversely, Onslow and Redding suggested that Mugabe’s craving for power stemmed from “ideological and personal reasons” and his belief in the illegitimacy of his political opposition. Denis Norman, a white politician who served in Mugabe’s cabinet for many years, commented that “Mugabe isn’t a flashy man driven by wealth but he does enjoy power. That’s always been his motivation”.

Marriages and children

Mugabe’s first wife, First Lady Sally Hayfron, in 1983

According to Holland, Mugabe’s first wife, Sally Hayfron, was Mugabe’s “confidante and only real friend”, being “one of the few people who could challenge Mugabe’s ideas without offending him”. Their only son, Michael Nhamodzenyika Mugabe, born 27 September 1963, died on 26 December 1966 from cerebral malaria in Ghana where Sally was working while Mugabe was in prison. Sally Mugabe was a trained teacher who asserted her position as an independent political activist and campaigner. Mugabe called on Zimbabwe’s media to refer to his wife as “Amai” (“Mother of the Nation”), although many Zimbabweans resented the fact that she was a foreigner. She was appointed as the head of ZANU-PF’s women’s league, and was involved in a number of charitable operations, although was widely regarded as corrupt in these dealings. During Mugabe’s premiership she suffered from renal failure, and initially had to travel to Britain for dialysis until Soames arranged for a dialysis machine to be sent to Zimbabwe.

While married to Hayfron, in 1987 Mugabe began an extra-marital affair with his secretary, Grace Marufu; she was 41 years his junior and at the time was married to Stanley Goreraza. In 1988 she bore Mugabe a daughter, Bona, and in 1990 a son, Robert. The relationship was kept secret from the Zimbabwean public, although Hayfron was aware of it. According to her niece Patricia Bekele, with whom she was particularly close, Hayfron was not happy that Mugabe had an affair with Marufu but “she did what she used to tell me to do: ‘Talk to your pillow if you have problems in your marriage. Never, ever, humiliate your husband.’ Her motto was to carry on in gracious style”. Hayfron died in 1992 from a chronic kidney ailment. Following Hayfron’s death in 1992, Mugabe and Marufu were married in a big Catholic wedding ceremony in August 1996.

As First Lady of Zimbabwe, Grace gained a reputation for indulging her love of luxury, with a particular interest in shopping, clothes, and jewellery. These lavish shopping sprees have led to her receiving the nickname “Gucci Grace”. She too developed a reputation for corruption.


“The story of Robert Mugabe is a microcosm of what bedevils African democracy and economic recovery at the beginning of the 21st century. It is a classic case of a genuine hero—the guerrilla idol who conquered the country’s former leader and his white supremacist regime—turning into a peevish autocrat whose standard response to those suggesting he steps down is to tell them to get lost. It is also the story of activists who try to make a better society but bear the indelible scars of the old system. Mugabe’s political education came from the autocrat Ian Smith, who had learnt his formative lessons from imperious British colonisers.”

— Heidi Holland

From the year 2000 onward, Mugabe became one of the world’s most controversial political leaders. According to The Black Scholar journal, “depending on who you listen to… Mugabe is either one of the world’s great tyrants or a fearless nationalist who has incurred the wrath of the West.” He has been referred to as a “dictator”, a “tyrant”, and a “threat” by many, widely being referred to as one of Africa’s “most brutal” leaders. Conversely, in the 21st century Mugabe continued to be regarded as a hero in many Third World countries, and he received a warm reception when he travelled throughout Africa. For many in Southern Africa, he remained one of the “grand old men” of the African liberation movement.

Mugabe had a considerable following within Zimbabwe, with David Blair noting that “it would be wrong to imply that he lacked genuine popularity” in the country. Holland believed that the “great majority” of Zimbabwe’s population supported him “enthusiastically” during the first twenty years of his regime. His strongholds of support were Zimbabwe’s Shona-dominated regions of Mashonaland, Manicaland, and Masvingo, while he remained far less popular in the non-Shona areas of Matabeleland and Bulawayo. Most of the Zimbabwean diaspora are anti-Mugabe.

At the time of his 1980 election victory, Mugabe was internationally acclaimed as a revolutionary hero who was embracing racial reconciliation, and for the first decade of his governance he was widely regarded as “one of post-colonial Africa’s most progressive leaders”. David Blair argued that while Mugabe did exhibit a “conciliatory phase” between March 1980 and February 1982, his rule was otherwise “dominated by a ruthless quest to crush his opponents and remain in office at whatever cost”. In 2011, the scholar Blessing-Miles Tendi stated that “Mugabe is often presented in the international media as the epitome of the popular leader gone awry: the independence struggle hero who seemed initially a progressive egalitarian, but has gradually been corrupted through his attachment to power during a long and increasingly repressive spell in office.” Tendi argued that this was a misleading assessment, because Mugabe had displayed repressive tendencies from his early years in office, namely through the repression of ZAPU in Matabeleland. Abiodun Alao concurred, suggesting that Mugabe’s approach had not changed over the course of his leadership, but merely that international attention had intensified in the 21st century. For many Africans, Mugabe exposed the double standards of Western countries; the latter had turned a blind eye to the massacre of over 10,000 black Ndebele civilians in the Gukarakundi but strongly censured the Zimbabwean government when a small number of white farmers were killed during the land seizures.

Example of foreign criticism: a demonstration against Mugabe’s regime next to the Zimbabwe embassy in London (mid-2006).

During the guerrilla war, Ian Smith referred to Mugabe as “the apostle of Satan”. George Shire expressed the view that there was “a strong racist animus” against Mugabe within Zimbabwe, and that this had typically been overlooked by Western media representations of the country. Mugabe has himself been accused of racism; John Sentamu, the Uganda-born Archbishop of York in the United Kingdom, called Mugabe “the worst kind of racist dictator,” for having “targeted the whites for their apparent riches”. They have been denounced as racist against Zimbabwe’s white minority.

Writing for the Human Rights Quarterly, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann claimed that there was “clear evidence that Mugabe was guilty of crimes against humanity”. In 2009, Gregory Stanton, then President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, and Helen Fein, then Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Genocide, published a letter in The New York Times stating that there was sufficient evidence of crimes against humanity to bring Mugabe to trial in front of the International Criminal Court. Australia and New Zealand had previously called for this in 2005, and a number of Zimbabwean NGOs had done so in 2006.

In 1994, Mugabe was appointed an honorary Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Bath by Queen Elizabeth II. This entitled him to use the postnominal letters GCB, but not to use the title “Sir.” In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee called for the removal of this honour in 2003, and on 25 June 2008, the Queen cancelled and annulled the honorary knighthood after advice from the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. “This action has been taken as a mark of revulsion at the abuse of human rights and abject disregard for the democratic process in Zimbabwe over which President Mugabe has presided.”

Mugabe holds several honorary degrees and doctorates from international universities, awarded to him in the 1980s; at least three of these have since been revoked. In June 2007, he became the first international figure ever to be stripped of an honorary degree by a British university, when the University of Edinburgh withdrew the degree awarded to him in 1984. On 12 June 2008, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Board of Trustees voted to revoke the law degree awarded to Mugabe in 1986; this is the first time one of its honorary degrees has been revoked. He has been appointed as a UN “leader of Tourism”.

In reaction to human rights violations in Zimbabwe, students at universities from which Mugabe has honorary doctorates have sought to get the degrees revoked. So far, the University of Edinburgh and University of Massachusetts Amherst have stripped Mugabe of his honorary degree after two years of campaigning from Edinburgh University Students’ Association. In addition, the student body at Michigan State University (ASMSU) unanimously passed a resolution calling for this, resulting in the trustees revoking his honorary law degree in 2008.

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