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Genesis of a tyrant

Robert MugabeMore than 100 people have been killed. Many have been abducted, some probably never to be found again. Hundreds, thousands have been severely beaten, now in hospitals recovering from horrible wounds and fractures. Hunger is rampant, the monetary system destroyed, at least a quarter of the population sheltering in South Africa, Botswana and overseas countries as economic or political refugees.

One man is responsible for this national catastrophe, though his supporters share in his guilt: Robert Mugabe.

He told his police and party supporters, 'Bash them!' This is on record, it cannot be denied. The excuse that these atrocities are being committed by 'overenthusiastic' supporters without his knowledge and approval is demonstrably false. He does know and he approves.

Who is this man? Was he born such a fiend?

He grew up on a Catholic mission, Kutama, 90 km from Harare, where his father was employed as a carpenter. His mother was devoted to the Church and the bright young boy got a Catholic education in the family, from the French-Canadian Marist Brothers of Kutama College and his Jesuit parish priest, Fr Jerome O'Hea SJ.

He was very keen on his school work and was always seen with a book in his hand even when herding cattle. Father O'Hea thought highly of him and, like his stern mother, expected great things from him. He was a loner and reacted with anger to the other children making fun of him.

According to Heidi Holland, his recent biographer (Dinner with Mugabe, Penguin Books SA, 2008), he suffered a deep trauma when his father left wife and family to work in a faraway city where he married another woman. Suddenly the young boy was head of the family. Bright and ambitious, but essentially angry, lonely and insecure — that about seems to sum up young Robert.

Apparently he has never really changed. Just as he reacted with anger to this rejection by his father so he has reacted to any other rejection he had to endure in later life. The Rhodesians put him into detention without trial for 11 years, and when his only child, a little boy called Nhamo ('Suffering') born him by his beloved first wife Sally died in Ghana, they denied him permission to go and bury him. He has never forgotten.

After Independence he tried to reach out to the whites, even Ian Smith. They were happy enough that he did not touch them then, but, not really trusting him, they gave him the cold shoulder, another rejection for which he did not forgive them. When they supported the opposition he saw this as another treachery. He took his revenge. In the process he destroyed agriculture.

He took a string of degrees while in detention. He studied law and economics, but he never practiced law and was never in business. And studying in the loneliness of his prison cell, he was never exposed to the cut and thrust of intellectual debate.

He learnt his politics in the fratricidal infighting of the liberation movements. His personal experience was: you must be tough, uncompromising, aggressive, and use violence to get anywhere. The other leaders who agreed to negotiate fell by the wayside. He came out tops holding out until the end. He does not believe in dialogue. You can only lose.

This is his greatest weakness: he cannot accept criticism, being called into question, meeting opposition of any kind. He responds with anger and aggression. The whole of Africa is learning that now, to its cost.

His inability to face opposition and deal with criticism has destroyed him intellectually. He has produced a false ideology for himself which serves his political purposes but does not stand any reality test.

He is stuck in the past and keeps fighting the whites, the British, the western colonial powers. Since he never has to face critics nobody tells him the world has moved on. And he gets uncontrollably angry when somebody tries to do so, like those unfortunate journalists in Egypt recently.

Some years back, before another election, he met church people. He was very friendly, even charming, and praised the Church for its great work. When some leaders got up and asked for dialogue between church and government to continue after the elections, he promised that would be no problem.

But when the Catholic Bishops wanted to talk to him over the report 'Breaking the Silence' on the civil war in Matabeleland 1983–87, in which his troops slaughtered maybe 15,000 civilians, he refused to meet them.

Even as far back as 1983 when the Bishops for the first time had to denounce his government's action in the Matabeleland conflict, he hit back fiercely and ridiculed the Bishops as those 'sanctimonious prelates', despite the fact that he was being celebrated as hero and liberator by many church people.

This was the time when his admirers first allowed him to address congregations in church, an opportunity he has been exploiting to his political advantage ever since.

Maybe the Church should have retained a little bit more self-respect and dignity in dealing with him. While showing courtesy and respect, the Church might have done better to retain a certain distance and independence, while keeping lines of communication open for critical dialogue.

It is probably too late now. What went wrong? There will have to be one big post-mortem once he is gone, and this will be one of the questions to ask.

Oskar Wermter's personal account of life under Mugabe

Oskar WermterFr Oskar Wermter SJ is Parish Priest of Mbare, Harare, and Director of Jesuit Communications in Zimbabwe.


Topic tags: Oskar Wermter, robert mugabe, zimbabwe, catholic church, dialogue



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Existing comments

Fr Oskar has given a excellent account of Mugabe's personality and life. While one feels great sorrow for the plight of Zimbabweans right now this article goes along way to explaining why this has come about.

One can only hope and pray that the plight of Zimbabwe is resolved quickly and peacefully. Meanwhile people like Fr Oskar show great courage and dignity in staying to help the people of Zimbabwe.

Dermot Hanafin | 08 July 2008  

Mugabe's life story is becoming a bit of a myth. He has always been quoted up until now as being educated by the jesuits and the Marist Brothers. Now it is a Jesuit parish priest and not the Jesuits by which we thought, one of the mission school. Then it was his grandmother who died when he was at school and the Fathers/Brothers wouldn't let him go home for her funeral. Now it is his son's funeral that he wasn't allowed to attend by the Rhodesian government. This letter seems to excuse the Jesuits and blame Ian Smith for all Mugabe's future troubles. When does myth end and truth begin? Do you remember what he said when his troops slaughtered the priests and nuns of the Jesuit run Musame Mission..the White Selous Scouts did it to their own. Can someone get the correct version of the Catholic life of Robert Mugabe please ?

philip herringer | 08 July 2008  

Thanks Eureka Street for the best account of Mugabe I have seen. I hope Mugabe doesn't find out that Oskar Wermter has written it. We need to put pressure onto Rudd to announce Australia's refusal to recognise his Presidency.

Joe Castley | 09 July 2008  

When we create a monster we then have to live with it.

Claude Rigney | 09 July 2008  

I found this essay most interesting. It helps in understanding why Zimbabwe remains in the appalling state that it is in.

There will be no real change until Mugabe is ousted.

Sometimes you have to wonder if Africa is all downhill, even in those states where there appears at present to be prosperity. One of the world's continuing tragedies, I think. And in large part due to the general uselessness of the United Nations as well as the countries that make up Africa itself.

Richard Flynn | 17 February 2009  

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