AS I write this piece, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, is ninety years and one day old. Happy Birthday Mister President! No doubt the man has been around.
His eyes, so shyly hidden behind those dark glasses, have seen a lot, witnessed key moments in the slow-to-evolve history of this country and the continent. But he remains amazingly strong, yes occasionally complaining about his eyes and his knee.
That makes him human, even making him sound a bit rude and fastidious to his Maker, rude to so generous a Fate for any living mortal.
Not many have reached this ripe age, not many will reach it, let alone reach it with all their faculties still intact, still together.
His latest commemorative interview reveals vast intellect, all of it undiminished, a hugely sound mind defying the vast time lived, much of it in great endurance, privation and bodily agonies. It also revealed a fighter unbowed, revealed great fortitude and focus. The odds against him have been enormous, arguably throughout his whole life.
Newsy but not grand
Expectedly, the media, principally the Western media, are awash with pieces on him. Again expectedly, verdicts vary, as do areas of focus and stresses.
Many Western media remain morbidly fascinated with his many deaths, absurdly unbalanced by as many resurrections.
Others choose to focus, again derisively, on the yearly celebrations marking his birthday. An impression is created that these celebrations draw from the Fiscus.
Or that their halting will suddenly bring abundance to the poor who in western reckoning, only exist in Mugabe’s culpable world, and nowhere else! The image of profligacy is thus contrived to describe a man renowned for selfless parsimony.
Meanwhile his hitting ninety years of age is newsy enough to be written, but never rare and grand enough to be celebrated. In the West and Israel, time carves statesmen; here it moulds despots who won’t die.
Hero for the flotsam and jetsam
The portraiture of Robert Mugabe is microcosmic, typifying two clashing and contending world views, two asymmetrical histories, powers, classes and even peoples. However you want to look at media coverage of him, he comes across as a complex man wont to drawing powerful impulses, whether of like or of dislike.
And when you try to reconstruct the worlds populated by those who like or dislike him, you end up with two clashing cosmos. Those who like and admire him constitute a rich world of colour and flat noses.
They fill the lowest but very crowded rungs on the ladder of being. His admirers draw from the world’s flotsam and jetsam, which makes him a hero of the underdog. They own no media, dominate no great discourse.
But occasionally, they burst into history’s flow as spontaneous cheers in a packed stadium or auditorium, often offending against choreographed protocols of powerful states.
That type of heroism rarely brings fame or celebrity status, except where and when it is sponsored by the rich to condescend to the poor, or stage manage calculated care and compassion.
That type of recognition is rarely written about.
Versus hero for long noses
When you reconstruct the identities of people repelled by him, identities of those who find him odious, despicable even, the boundaries point to a world of white, a world with a long nose, long drooping hair, and five rich meals a day.
Of course it is a world of affluence, often accompanied by black sprinklings it has always needed for greater appeal, for greater legitimacy.
This world deeply resents Mugabe’s iconoclastic politics, through which a colonially ordained setup is challenged.
It is a world wedded to the idea of sanctity of private property, however ill-gotten, whatever the history.
In the eyes of the bird viewing things from above, no matter what or when, Mugabe is fated to be a man whose personality pits a small but relentless media that pushes and that represents a majoritarian view, against a big and powerful media that punches for the global white elite.
The one strokes him, the other strikes and sears him. But at ninety, he need not grieve.
His world, like the world inhabited by all native men and women of colour, has and shall always be a monochromatic one, a world of simple colour and moral absolutes.
The great monochrome
Lately I have been reading lots of colonial literature, much of it written during and soon after colonisation of this country.
I am talking about entries and reminiscences by colonisers put together by Cecil John Rhodes to occupy this country, colonisers who cared to write, thereby memorialising their experiences on the encounter and conquest.
As I do that, I am struck by the dominance of this black-white binary. I am not referring to the colonial white-black binary of clashing races.
No, I am talking about the depiction of all those blacks described in that vast literature, blacks who in terms of the colonial colour schema should have found themselves all lumped together on the inky side morally, in apposition to the other side full of glistening, morally upright whites.
I am referring to how blacks were described and depicted by early white observers in those colonial narratives. This is where the matter becomes at once interesting and despairing.
Interesting in that you get to understand the white eye, mind and hand that has always watched, processed and written on the black subject respectively.
Which has always written about you and me, first through our forbears, now through our contemporaries.
Despairing in that you are struck by how little has changed before and since 1890. More than a century after colonisation, and a good three-plus decades into Independence, the black man remains the vignette or flat character he was when the first white man set eyes on him.
From then till now, the native has remained essentially England’s handiwork. That, I am afraid, has shaped the way he is seen, viewed, perceived, described and painted.
We are all seen in relation to the white man: his person, colour, world-view, beliefs, needs, pursuits, civilisation, values and standards.
And whenever there was need to compare any two Africans — and that was the dominant methodology of those narratives — this would always be done in relation to how well the compared Africans served or appealed to the white man, never by how well they related to each other, or to their own communities or needs.
This has been a baneful legacy which endures to this day. Yes, this is how Robert Mugabe and other African leaders are viewed and depicted. Indeed this is how you and me, how our children and grand-children shall continue to be depicted for as long as the hunter, not the lion, continues to draw!
Back in the late 1880s, just before colonisation of this country, white missionaries, traders, hunters and gold-seekers roamed this world they regarded as empty and wild. Sooner, agents of empire-builders followed, among them one J. Cooper-Chadwick.
He was an associate of Cecil John Rhodes, the empire builder responsible for colonising Zimbabwe. To reach Zimbabwe from South Africa, these agents of imperialism needed to go through Botswana, later dubbed “the Suez Canal” to the North.
It had to be secured as springboard to British expansionism north of the Limpopo. The Boers threatened this northern hinterland, as did the Germans and the Portuguese, all in equal measure.
Menaced by the marauding Ndebeles, the Tswanas under Khama, did accept British protectorate status without hesitation.
In any case, Khama and his people had largely converted to Christianity, thanks to Robert Moffat’s efforts, in the process predisposing them towards the white man’s views, values and pursuits.
By the time Rhodes marches against Zimbabwe, Khama is already an ally of the surrogate British occupying force, and actually dispatches an assisting force under one of his own brothers to help with the conquest of Zimbabwe.
It is one of African history’s great ironies, seemingly hitting back with recurring vengeance.
But that is matter for another day. My interest is in how the white man viewed the African.
Here is how Cooper-Chadwick describes Khama: “Khama is a true Christian, and an honourable man, as well as being the most intelligent and educated chief in South Africa (read as Southern Africa). He is about sixty years of age, standing over six feet high, with a slight, well-knit figure and pleasing features.
“A good many of his people have been converted by the missionaries, and taught to read and write. The chief supports them on every way, and subscribes liberally for building school houses and churches.
“He is very strict against liquor being sold to his people, or any white men keeping it for sale in his country. Horses are his great delight; he owns several valuable animals, and is very fond of writing. He often rides out to see us, and sent presents of sheep, etc.
“The tribe are completely under his control, and he rules them firmly and justly. He is always seen neatly dressed in European clothes, and is most friendly and kindly-disposed towards whites.”
All for the king’s horses
Cooper-Chadwick proceeds to record an illustration of Khama’s kindness to whites: “Water was a great drawback in the station — and it had a brackish taste, and the supply was limited.
“The natives obtained theirs from the little shallow pools in the mountains, where it would take them hours to scoop up a calabash full. This was where our horses were watered once daily.
“Khama had a large tub placed for their use, and stationed two of his men there to compel the women as they passed to empty their vessels into the tub until the horses had had enough.
“Any who did not at once do this would receive a sharp cut on the shoulders from the men, who were armed with rawhide whips. In this manner our horses were watered once daily during our first short stay in Shoshong (Khama’s capital)”.
Of course in Botswana, water has always been precious, which is why it counts so much as a statement of goodwill.
In due course, Cooper-Chadwick’s team reaches Zimbabwe, specifically Bulawayo, which headquarters the Ndebele Kingdom under Lobengula.
Like his father Mzilikazi, Lobengula jealously guards his country’s sovereignty and values, making it well-nigh impossible for missionaries to encroach his land, or to convert his people to Christianity.
Equally, he maintains a strict regime of access to visiting whites, including making them grovel on goat dung when approaching his presence. They obviously resent such obsequies.
Here is how Lobengula is described by the same hand: “Lobengula was simply dressed in a kilt of monkey skins and a pair of socks, and wore a wide-awake hat with an ostrich feather in it.
“He stands over six feet in height, but is so enormously fat that it makes him look smaller, though his proud bearing and stately walk give him all the appearance of a savage king.
“His features are coarse, and exhibit great cunning and cruelty; but when he smiles, the expression completely changes, and makes his face appear pleasant and good-tempered.
“Generally speaking, he is not cruel by nature, and always treats white man fairly, after his manner; but in order to maintain control over his people, he has to rule them by fire and blood, and does not err on the side of mercy.
“Death is ordinary punishment for crime, and were it not so, it would be impossible for white men to live in a country where prisons and police are unknown.”
Gentle reader, there is no mistaking that in this white narrative, the two African leaders are rendered as mutual foils.
Both are handsome or otherwise, democratic or otherwise, just or otherwise, civilised or otherwise, depending on their disposition or helpfulness to the white man, his cause, values and pursuits. Tong lashes on tender skins of Tswana women is no cruelty for as long as the thrashings yield water for the white man’s horses.
Lobengula cannot be cruel “by nature” as long as he “treats white man fairly”. In other words both leaders are assessed by how well they serve as the white man’s handiwork.
And the pattern is the same throughout this encounter in history. For Selous, all other Africans are nameless savages except a Hottentot significantly named “Cigar” who teaches him to shoot elephants.
And as Selous gains experience, Cigar shares the fate of all cigarettes: he burns out slowly but inexorably in the estimate of the white man.
Plumer and Sykes of the so-called Matabeleland Relief Force in the Ist Chimurenga War summarily refer to natives as “savages”, except Cape Boys Corps who fight alongside whites against Ndebele patriots.
And the only Cape boy to merit delineation is one John Grootboom — a Zulu — who infiltrates the Ndebele fighters ahead of the storming of “Thabas Amambo”. And the laudatory description of Grootboom is illustrative: “His assistance to the white man throughout the Campaign was invaluable, and his exploits . . . are amongst the most exciting incidents of the war.”
Enter Guardian’s David Smith
This last Thursday I read a piece in the British Guardian by one David Smith. Titled “Robert Mugabe celebrates 90th Birthday as Zimbabwe’s International Pariah”, the piece is a drawn out comparison between the late Nelson Mandela and one Robert Mugabe. That need not be odd, as both are Southern African leaders associated with the struggles of their respective peoples. And Smith is very clear in his verdict: one is “a unifier and a hero”, the other a “divisive despot and a fallen angel”. Of course Mandela is the former, Mugabe the latter, in David Smith’s reckoning.
Of course Smith is entitled to his views and judgment, and that need not necessarily bother anyone but those described or maligned, however one sees it. What an African reader might find it rather difficult to fathom is why the character and standing of these two Africans have to be read strictly by how well or badly they served the white man and his world. Mugabe, David tells us, becomes “a darling of the west” for “avowing racial reconciliations”. David Smith goes out of his way to recall Mugabe’s reconciliation speech to whites.
There is no record of his efforts at uniting blacks here or on the continent. Of course there is reference to the disturbances in the 1980s, but all to damn him against the west’s complicit silence.
Meeting white standards
Equally, Mandela’s 90th Birthday “was celebrated around the world” because “he spoke to rapturous applause at a concert in London’s Hyde Park”.
London’s Hyde Park is “the world”, the same way that Marondera is a non-place. And then again, Mugabe and Lord Carrington, the British foreign secretary, were nominated for the Nobel peace prize, “but unlike Mandela and F.W. De Klerk just over a decade later, did not win”.
And the Nobel Prize is the standard of measuring an African’s worth. Mugabe is knighted by the Queen, and then “stripped of the honour”, leaving him angry and unforgiving. The focus is on white honours, never mind how they are received by the native who must be grateful.
Land reforms by which white farmers were evicted destroyed “the jewel of Africa” the whites had left behind. Land reforms can never be reckoned in terms of blacks who succeeded the white farmers, who benefit from that exercise today.
Still our fallen angel
Again quoting the late Rhodesian writer, Heidi Holland, Smith claims Mugabe tearfully recounted his attachment to the British Royal Family.
The sense is very clear: he feels disinherited, and is bitter and tearful about it. He also quotes Tendai Biti who describes Mugabe as a “British gentleman in a proper Victorian sense”, adding that Mugabe still measures distances in miles, not kilometers like most Zimbabweans.
The locus and referent is whites, Britain and the West. The comparison is between two blacks in relation to what they did for or to the white world.
The judgment is firmly western: “Today Mandela is revered as the greatest statesman Africa has produced; Mugabe is seen, by the west at least, as its fallen angels.” Note that even when he “falls”, he is the West’s fallen angel! That means both in glory and in damnation, he is western.
Reverberations from Hyde Park
All told, there is not much difference between Cooper-Chadwick and his generation of writers on the one hand, and David Smith and his contemporary western writers on the other.
Or the obverse: the white view on Mugabe is the same as white views on the nineteenth century Khama and Lobengula. All of them have to be judged by how useful they are to the white man, his world, his values and pursuits.
“They will praise you only if you are doing things that please them”, Mugabe is quoted as saying, even criticising Mandela for going “a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of blacks . . . ” Quite a radically different locus, but one sure to deny Mugabe world reverberations from London’s Hyde Park. How the world froze in Victorian England.