Politics & Policy

A Rhodesian Correction

Robert Mugabe is not "the gentlest of contenders," as earlier reported. The Times forgets the error.

I guess the cat’s out of the bag and hanging on your face if you’re one of the many people living and dead who insisted in 1979 that only Robert Mugabe could possibly rule Zimbabwe. I mean, what normal, Times-reading person wasn’t just aghast at the way Ian Smith, the wicked white leader of Rhodesia, had engineered an end to the conflict that had decimated his country, the one we now call Zimbabwe.

Here, for the benefit of those too young to remember — or so old they forget — is how Mugabe was invented by clever officeworkers on West 43rd Street in New York City:  After a long and ugly guerrilla war fought to preserve white rule, and desperate to end the sanctions that had devastated his country’s economy, Smith convinced the white population that Britain would live up to its pledge, made in 1971, to end its financial strangulation of Rhodesia in return for an end to white rule. So, after lots of shooting — and the en-route destruction of a couple of commercial airliners — Smith called an election, which was held in January 1979. Mugabe, leader of a particularly violent faction of the Marxist-Maoists, refused to renounce violence and so he didn’t participate.

Nearly two-thirds of Zimbabweans — including many former terrorist leaders — did, however, and when a moderate named Abel Muzorewa won handily on a pledge to make an orderly transition to majority rule, then-U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and his boss, Jimmy Carter — supported avidly by The New York Times, along with every other left-leaning paper on the planet — flipped. Furious at the prospect of a less-than-immediate transition, they insisted that the election results not be recognized. Democrats and their allies in the press mounted a stiff effort to keep sanctions in place until Muzorewa’s government collapsed, and a new, improved election could be held, one that guaranteed Mugabe victory. That solution, the Times calmly editorialized in June 1979, “preserves a hope for ending the civil war and keeping the Russians out.” Well, yes. Mugabe, of course, was more a client of China’s.

The manner in which power has been given to a generation of African tyrants is the subject of a wobbly New Statesman item this week. Generally, when the colonial power wanted out, they gave the keys to whoever had the most guns pointed at the most people, made up an excuse, and ducked out the back before the firing started. Think of it as a job search for heavily armed applicants, and you’ll get the idea. Or just watch your TV:  You’ll see a remake in Iraq, if the Times has its way.

The “liberation” of Zimbabwe, following more than a decade of bad examples elsewhere in Africa, was certainly no different. The Times, like anyone else paying attention, knew perfectly well that Mugabe was a killer when they insisted power be taken from Muzorewa and given to him, ostensibly to gain “peace” — which certainly wasn’t what Mugabe’s opponents got. (Today, according to Michael Wines in the IHT, Muzorewa’s government never existed at all.) On assuming power, Mugabe continued a bloodbath he had been waging against his rivals for years, including one genocidal rampage (a report from NewZimbabwe.com is here) that so far has resulted in the murder of tens of thousands of civilians in Ndebele tribal areas, the source of much opposition to Mugabe’s rival Shona-led government. Nevertheless, R.W. Apple, Tom Wicker, Anthony Lewis, Gregory Jaynes and John Burns all produced glowing profiles of the statesman they had helped create. The headline above a March 1980 profile by Jaynes reads:

Rhodesia’s Resolute Leader;

Robert Gabriel Mugabe Man in the News

Holder of 5 Degrees Teaches in Mission Schools

Force Recruited Secretly

A month before, John Burns (now reporting more carefully, one hopes, from Iraq) had met Mugabe and discovered a kind of Yoda:

Mugabe Up Close:

Shy and Brainy Guerrilla Leader;

20 Armed Security Guards

The Gentlest of Contenders

Redistribution of Land

Holding of Power in Doubt

Muzorewa’s plan, if supported by Carter et al., would have taken as long as ten years, and no doubt some injustices would still remain, just as they remain everywhere for everyone in Africa. But that transition would have been completed 18 years ago — and that’s a lot of saved lives if Mugabe’s the selected alternative. He delivered an almost instant transition, all right, but with it came vast corruption, massive deaths, a soaring AIDS epidemic, the world’s shortest life-expectancy, and an inflation rate that now stands at 1700 percent. Over the years, Mugabe has stayed in office by relying on an electoral tactic that might be called “superior firepower” — described colorfully here in 2005 by R.W. Johnson in the London Review of Books:

Mugabe’s forces have bulldozed and burned his political opponents’ shacks and makeshift shops in Zimbabwe’s cities, rounding up terrified men, women and children, and piling them onto open lorries. ‘They are not being told where they are being taken,’ says Trudy Stevenson, an opposition MP, ‘but they have the impression that it is far away.’

Quite right, especially if heaven is not of this earth.

I remember visiting with Ian Smith several dozen months into Mugabe’s bloody reign. As a perpetrator of some pretty bloody outrages himself, I thought Smith might be able to shed some light on why more people were dying under Mugabe than did under his regime. I recall him telling me that his side had been fighting for their lives and the lives of other Rhodesians, black and white — even if, I thought, mostly white. “We couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see what would happen,” he said, segueing into his one-man-one-vote-one-time cautionary mantra. (A full account of that interview is in African Lives.)

Well, it’s been 27 years now and, as Arthur Herman pointed out yesterday in Opinion Journal, and as the Daily Telegraph’s Peta Thornycroft has been bravely noting for years, those who see only what they want to see continue to lead the rest of us off cliffs. We only know what hit us after we land. Example:  The Guardian, one of Mugabe’s earliest, most eager boosters, apparently now thinks maybe enough’s enough for their chap. And just last week (March 21, to be exact), I saw a New York Times editorial in the International Herald Tribune under the most shocking headline:

The Disastrous Mr. Mugabe

Really. Who knew?

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


The Latest