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Robert Mugabe… what happened?

On Friday last week, 32 years and 2 days after Zimbabwe’s independence, we hosted a  screening of the widely-acclaimed film of “Robert Mugabe… What Happened?” to a packed house of about 160 at the University of Sussex. The panel which discussed the film afterwards, included Simon Bright (the film’s director), Denis Norman (the first Minister of Agriculture in independent Zimbabwe in 1980 and former head of the Commercial Farmers Union), Peter Freeman (the Overseas Development Agency – now DFID – representative in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and subsequently within DFID responsible for Africa programmes), McDonald Lewanika (Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition coordinator) and Phillan Zamchiya (Oxford  University and former President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union).

It was an extraordinarily powerful and effective film, and it was a great panel discussion – with participants ranging from those intimately engaged in the post-Independence transition in 1980 to those who were not even born then, but heavily involved in contemporary struggles over Zimbabwe’s future.  In due course, I will post some links to a podcast/video of the panel discussion, but for now, here are a few reflections on the film and follow-on debate.

Everyone agreed that the film offered an insightful glimpse into the complex past of Zimbabwe. It used fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe – intellectuals, politicians, media figures and others. It deployed music of different styles, eras and genres to keep a pace and flavour of time and location. And it told a sympathetic, if critical, story about the man himself. As Simon Bright explained, this was a very personal project. As a Zimbabwean from a white, liberal background who had been imprisoned and then fled, he felt moved to tell the bigger story. Like others who asked ‘what do you do with a respected father figure who goes wayward?’, Simon wanted to explore what happened to his hero, and why he felt despair and disgust at his actions today.  As he explained it was not a ‘balanced presentation in the way of the BBC’ (as if the BBC is balanced about Zimbabwe!), but a personal, political exploration. In this sense it is highly effective. And indeed far superior to the film, ‘Mugabe and the White African’, which portrays such a one-sided, simplistic picture, without any attention to complex and contested histories.

Of course, as the film’s title suggests, the story is told around one man – Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:

“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.

Mugabe has thus become such of a focus for the Zimbabwe crisis that sometimes these wider issues are not addressed. As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni points out in a recent review of a series of books on Zimbabwe in African Affairs, (April 2012 issue) a ‘big man’ political analysis can undermine our understanding of the multi-layered issues at play:

“The concept of ‘struggles within the struggle’ not only captures the crucial issue of continuity and change that traverses the nationalist liberation struggle and the post-colonial period. It also encapsulate issues of personal clashes, ethnic clashes, generational clashes, ideological schisms, power struggles, strategic and tactical differences informed by exigencies of the liberation struggle – all this as a broad historical and discursive terrain within which Zimbabwe was born and leadership styles were honed. It is also the terrain within which political identities of patriots, puppets, sell-outs, revolutionaries, and counter-revolutionaries were formed. Analysis of ‘struggles within the struggle’ and ‘struggles after the struggle’ reveals the failure of nationalists to nurture and build democratic traditions, and the absence of peaceful coexistence of races, ethnicities, genders, and generations that invites the rule of violence and coercion. It exposes the nationalist struggle as a school of violence, intolerance, and commandism. Mugabe is a graduate of this school.”

It was these more complex issues that the panel and audience picked up in discussion. Inevitably the film has limitations: it is after all a 85 minute documentary which must sustain a strong storyline. There are gaps, omissions and an underplaying of some important complexities. The panel and audience discussion highlighted a number of these.

The role of the British, for example, was not really explored, yet the British government’s complicity (for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s) was significant. The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House – the ‘fudges’ that Peter Freeman talked of in discussion – and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ were all part of the picture. And while the film was critical of white Rhodesia, although pointing out liberal traditions in white society, it did not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following independence. This was a question posed to Denis Norman who served in Mugabe’s cabinet at that time, and came from being the head of the white commercial farmers’ union. He conceded that more could have been done. But the unwritten political contract between white farmers and the new state that whites could farm and make money, but not be involved in politics (or at least oppositional politics), was not explored in the film.

And of course the big elephant in every room when Zimbabwe is discussed is land. In the film land is of course there as part of the narrative, but the implications and consequences of land reform are not discussed fully. The 1980s land reform is identified as a success, but the reasons why land reform effectively ceased in the 1990s and the inevitability tensions around land subsequently are rather papered over. The post 2000 land reform is, as usual, painted as a universal disaster, and the standard portrayals are repeated, without sufficient nuance or qualification. The panel tackled some of these issues in discussion. Phillan Zamchiya for example highlighted the importance of understanding land in the contemporary political context, as linked to a pattern of state-led violence, while also recognising the importance of land access for those who gained it. I pointed to the findings of our research, showing how land reform has not been the unmitigated disaster portrayed by the film, and why a more integrated agricultural sector was necessary to break the the economic, geographic social and political separation of (white) large-scale and (black) small-scale farming to create a more sustainable and productive agriculture for the long term.

A number of contributors to the discussion also pointed out the continuities in the way politics has been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been part of a consistent pattern, and stretch into a particular history of the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle. It is not so much a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000; while there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. And this, as McDonald Lewanika pointed out, is why now a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, is so critical, to shed once and for all this violent history.

In a documentary film, such issues are impossible to portray in full. This is the job of academic analysis and wider debate. For now, Simon Bright and his team have done a great service in producing this film for a more public audience. With its inevitable limitations, it still offers a more rounded, historically-informed account of ‘what happened’. But it of course does not provide any clear answers, as to ‘what next?’, although it does show that it is not going to be straightforward.


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