17 October 2007

Robert Mugabe

When I met Robert Mugabe, in 1994 in Harare, I didn’t know I was standing face to face with evil. He was a small man, quiet and thoughtful, and in every visible way entirely gentle.

We came to Zimbabwe as part of our advance coverage of the South African elections for CBS News, and although it seems incredible today, we held up Zimbabwe as a model. Here was a nation that had emerged from colonial rule and white-minority domination to become a viable, multiracial democracy. Even Ian Smith, the country’s last white ruler, had to concede Mugabe’s success, while he continued to bitch about everything else: when I met him at his estate, Smith seemed a ridiculous, even pathetic figure, railing against the present and striving for a discredited past. (At one point — I kid you not — he referred to “Darkest Africa.”) You just wanted to shake the guy: Snap out of it. Mugabe, by contrast, seemed the paragon of pure reason, the philosopher president of one’s fondest dreams.

In those days, Zimbabwe was still brimming with hope and possibility. It is a beautiful country. On our way to Harare, our crew stopped off at Victoria Falls, one of the great natural wonders of the world; it impressed even Dan Rather, who has seen everything twice. The climate is sublime, the people loving. The land would be fertile, if anybody were free to farm it. In those days, foreign investment hadn’t been chased out, and though the economy was faltering, people seemed confident in the promise of prosperity. Even the shantytowns of Harare seemed cheerful and expectant. Since then, Mugabe had those shanties bulldozed, and their inhabitants are now homeless.

Mugabe demurred when we asked him about seizing white property, which Smith warned against so vehemently. Later, Mugabe would pursue precisely that policy with a vengeance both literal and figurative, scaring away most foreign investors and placing the best land in the hands of his cronies, backed up by armies, official and improvised, of brutes and thugs.

But at the time, Mugabe still spoke to foreign journalists of peace and harmony and equality. He lived modestly, for a president, in a low white bungalow, likely the one in the background of the photo posted above. He was polite, but chilly in his reserve. He served us tea, which I have since learned is all he drinks: no alcohol, no extravagance. He looked forward to Nelson Mandela’s election in South Africa, and to a close collaboration with his neighbor. He enjoyed the prospect of setting an example, playing the big brother, showing Mandela the way.

Happily, Mandela chose other role models, and he’s among the few African leaders who criticize Mugabe today.

I’d taken a more than usual interest in Zimbabwe’s fortunes since the visit to my high school of Ndabaningi Sithole, a Methodist minister who was the third member of the triumvirate (with Mugabe and Smith) that ruled the country in its brief transitional period from white-minority rule. Nobody will ever be able to explain to me what Sithole was doing addressing a high-school assembly in Richardson, Texas, but he was my first interview with a world leader. The interview consisted of a single question. Kevin Pask and I accosted Sithole backstage and asked, “Why are you here?” Sithole spoke of his desire to communicate with young Americans, but that didn’t explain much. Surely he had better things to do with his time than talk to us. (Even the local Rotarians and Elks didn’t talk to us. We were — rightly — negligible.)

Sithole’s experience might have served as a warning to me, and indeed to the rest of the world: Mugabe seized and radicalized the Zimbabwe African National Union party (which Sithole founded); fearing for his life, Sithole went into self-imposed exile in America shortly after Mugabe was elected president, in 1980. Eventually Sithole returned to Zimbabwe and was elected to parliament, but he was accused and convicted of trying to assassinate Mugabe, who confiscated his property. Whether or not Sithole was guilty (he appealed the verdict), his fate has become usual for any political leader who opposes the president. Sithole died in exile seven years ago.

When I met him, Mugabe was already persecuting homosexuals, and that, too, might have been a warning: after anti-Semitism and censorship, there’s no better barometer of a leader’s tyrannical aspirations. Mugabe is among the many African leaders who claim that homosexuality was merely a tool whereby whites oppressed blacks, and that it doesn’t occur otherwise among African people: therefore homosexuality must be stamped out. We didn’t ask him about that. I wish we had. We didn’t ask him anything about sex or health care, and that’s a shame, particularly now that a vast percentage of his people are infected with AIDS, and now that Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, has made sophistry on the subject his practical policy.

Thus there were clues already that Mugabe would become a tyrant, and that his country would find itself sick, impoverished, and desperate. Yet it’s impossible to reconcile the soft-spoken man I met with the man I read about in the newspapers today. Did he change? Or did he fool me?

Today Mugabe’s gangs beat anyone who speaks against him, and his kangaroo courts jail anyone who opposes him in the press or at the polls. The economy is a shambles. It will be generations before Zimbabwe climbs out of the hole Mugabe has dug, and yet Zimbabwe doesn’t have generations to spare: its children are orphaned already and infected themselves. At this rate, they will die of starvation before they die of illness: as the New York Times reports again today, the people of this nation of rich farmland have no food, and no fire to cook it. And Mugabe has said he will run again in the next presidential election.

I don’t possess an assassin’s character, and most days I’m glad of that. But I’ll always wonder what might have been if I’d murdered Mugabe on the spot. Yes, his bodyguards would have killed me (if I was lucky), and mayhem would have rained on Zimbabwe in the aftermath. Yet I might have rescued a nation from unspeakable suffering.