In her op-ed on Robert Mugabe, Heidi Holland portrays him partially as a wayward child of Western civilization who has his nose pressed against the glass, hoping to be invited back in from the cold from whence his “heathen granny” came. In her interview with him, Holland writes, Mugabe “expressed almost tearful regret at his inability to socialize with the Queen of England”.
It’s easy to laugh this portrait off as a product of Holland’s own naivete. I know that I no longer accept the view that Mugabe was once committed to national reconciliation after 1980 and somehow lost that commitment along the way, a trope that Holland recycles in her essay. Looking back, what I see instead is Mugabe’s typically hard-nosed assessment of the power available to him at the time. He and the core of his party needed time to gain control of the mechanisms of the state they had inherited, to consolidate national power. I do not think it was an accident that he turned on rival nationalists before dealing with other potential opponents, including the white farmers, trade unionists and the tattered remnants of a liberal civil society that the Rhodesians had done their best to destroy before Mugabe ever took power. I think the Mugabe who ruthlessly took control of his own party before independence, stalled with reconciliation tactics after independence, and flushed his nation’s economy down the toilet are pretty much the same person, acting with similar underlying impulses in all those situations.
That said, I think Holland is also right that he wants the respect of the West and inclusion within the contours of what colonial society in Africa defined as “civilization”. Mugabe has put his personal stamp on this desire: the steely Jesuitical temperment, the fastidiousness and relative minimalism of his public presentation, the building of a strong state apparatus that centers on his personal authority but is not reducible to a cult of personality. (Whatever else its problems might be, Zimbabwe does not suffer from a failure of state capacity or a weak sovereignty: the state has real, persistent power throughout most of its territory, very much including a monopoly on violence.) He doesn’t exhibit the romantic Europhilia of Leopold Senghor, or the eccentric Homburg-wearing hippiephobia of Hastings Banda. Mugabe doesn’t indulge in the kid-in-the-candy-store splurges of the most vulgar of postcolonial African leaders (though he has plenty of ill-gotten gains from his time in power), or hanker to build a reputation for being a reliable subscriber to the Washington Consensus like Museveni or Rowlings, so as to get an invitation or two to Davos from time to time.
One of the basic problems in studying modern African history is that African experience is most copiously represented back to knowledge-making by people who were the most transformed by colonial rule and the most conflicted about that transformation. In some ways, this is the same reason that identity politics within Western societies often finds its most tenacious adherents not among the most marginal or excluded subjects but among middle classes and aspirants who are both trying to preserve fragile and hard-won access to professional or bourgeois life and secure further pathways for aspiration through arguments about identity, history and social justice.
Just observing that African nationalist politics came into being out of frustration and rage by nationalist elites or evolues at their racially-based exclusion from the ranks of “civilized men” is not a critique. It’s boring and simple-minded to write this history off as hypocrisy or contradiction. However, African nationalism has tended to regard such an analysis as an attack precisely because its usual mythological reinventions after post-independence consolidations of power describe African nation-states as the product of the massification of nationalism in the march to independence. Calling attention to the social history of African nationalism, its historical particularism, is a rebuke to African nationalism’s ideology whether we wish to make that rebuke or not.
Scorning or mocking the nationalist’s earnest desire for inclusion in some aspect of the “civilizing mission” is just another kind of hating the hybrid, the cosmopolitan, the miscegenated, the “man of two worlds”. Mugabe is not distinguished from other African elites, or modern political classes in general, in his desire to be taken seriously by Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair, to be authenticated not just as a been-to but a have-become. When Chief Munhuwepayi Mangwende was deposed by the Rhodesian government in 1960, at least one of the reasons was the bitter jealousy of a local white district officer who resented that the chief had access to high British society while the white bureaucrat did not.
One of the most interesting things I’ve ever read in an archive is a letter from David Gurupira to the Chief Native Commissioner of Southern Rhodesia in 1938. As I read it, Gurupira isn’t a simple collaborator, motivated by calculating self-interest. Instead, I think he’s someone who has assessed and imagined aspects of the colonizer’s world and power and wants to selectively include himself within some of what he envisions it to be. He hasn’t lost himself, or forgotten his history. His mind hasn’t been colonized. He isn’t slavish or empty. The officials who received his letter were not the imperial buffoons that we often see in stereotypical accounts, either. They understood what Gurupira was saying: “his facts are substantially correct”. The tragedy of colonialism is that they could only offer to him the right to bear arms, rather than acknowledge his claims or open up their own power to his gentle demands.
This might sound as if I’m agreeing with Holland that the West need only embrace Mugabe and give him his due, invite him into the social apparatus of global power, grant him the cultural capital to which he is entitled. By no means. When we condemn Mugabe harshly, when we make of him a pariah, we are including him. The most condescending, exclusionary option would be to pat him on the head like a good little non-Westerner and say, “Well, he doesn’t know any better, the little tyke. He can’t help being an authoritarian. Besides, isn’t it our own fault anyway that he is? We did promise to help out with land reform, chaps.” As long as we’re even-handed in demanding liberty everywhere always, as long as we don’t hold Mugabe accountable for actions that are forgiven of reliable authoritarian clients, as long as we don’t excuse fraud, corruption, cronyism and the concentration of unaccountable executive power when it is expedient for our own purposes, then the harshest attacks on Mugabe’s conduct as a political leader are just as welcoming as a royal reception with Queen Elizabeth II.