Op-Ed: Robert Mugabe – the power of lies, and the lies of power

Op-Ed: Robert Mugabe – the power of lies, and the lies of power

In his pursuit of personal power and ideological objectives, Robert Mugabe cynically manipulated both ally and adversary, friend and foe. Previously unpublished documents from his first five years in office reveal a skilled deceiver – a man who wore masks as often as others believed he could be taken at face value. By STUART DORAN.

In the years before Mugabe took power, perceptions of him were more cardboard cut-out than reality – ranging from Marxist fanatic at one end of the spectrum to selfless liberation icon at the other. So it is of little wonder that these views were radically altered when occasional glimpses were replaced by regular acquaintance after he became prime minister of the new Zimbabwe in 1980. His Rhodesian political nemesis, Ian Smith, was typical, writing of their first meeting that Mugabe was “the antithesis of the communist gangster I had expected”.

Yet, in many cases, the new perceptions of Mugabe were as flawed as the old. Stale illusions were replaced by fresh ones. In part, this was a psychological phenomenon: out-sized fears – when shown to be false – tended to be replaced by rose-tinted enthusiasm. It is for this reason that key members of the Rhodesian security apparatus, who had expected the imposition of a communist dictatorship, became as dedicated to Mugabe’s cause as they had previously been to killing him. Likewise, the British, who had colluded with the Rhodesians to keep Mugabe from power, now became strong supporters and tenaciously clung to the notion that he was a “moderate”.

But there was more to these misconceptions than emotional factors. Mugabe consciously set out to mislead others in order to manoeuvre them – and he was highly proficient at it. Behind every statement or action there was, almost invariably, a hidden agenda. Ironically, it is other deceivers – among them, agents of apartheid South Africa in his inner circle – who lay some of this bare through their records of private encounters with Mugabe.

In November 1980, for example, reports appeared in the press that Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) government intended to take white farmland without compensation because Britain had allegedly failed to fulfil promises to provide finance for the purchase of land. A South African source reported to Pretoria that Mugabe had “discussed this matter (with him) before he made it public” and had “intentionally made these statements to try and prod the Brits into making funds available”. When the source “pointed out to Mugabe the danger of the effect that it would have on … the (confidence of) white farmers … Mugabe’s reaction to this was that he would repudiate it after he had said it. This is exactly what happened”.

Indeed, on this issue, Mugabe went as far as delivering flatly contradictory messages to different audiences on the same day. On one occasion, he told white farmers that they should “stay on in Zimbabwe and reassured them that the government recognised their role as the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy”, only to tell a black audience shortly afterwards that the government would “take over” white-owned farms and “redistribute them to peasant farmers”.

Attempting to make sense of such contradictions, the British concluded that Mugabe was politicking in order to manage expectations among his black constituency. A year later, a British diplomat wrote to London of another instance when Mugabe had claimed “we were denying his government funds to purchase land for resettlement and said that we must buy land from ‘our kith and kin’”. If the British failed to provide funds, “the government would not hesitate to take over this land and give it to the peasants”. The author lamented that it was “disheartening that Mugabe should have spoken in this way when he knows full well that there is no lack of money for land purchase and that delays in the scheme are largely caused by the inefficiency of the Zimbabwe bureaucracy and physical restraints”. Still, the British were persuaded that the government’s “real policies” were different to “such talk” and that they would have to live with the prime minister’s posturing from time to time. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they were being played by Mugabe.

It was not just the “imperialist”, white West that was the target and victim of Mugabe’s dissembling. He took an equally cynical approach to Zanu (PF)’s ostensible ideological fellow travellers and closest wartime allies. Remarking on a visit he made to China and North Korea at the end of 1980, he told a colleague – who was also a South African spy – that it had been necessary to go because of the assistance these countries had provided during the war, but added that the trip was a “lot of bull”. The Chinese and Koreans wanted to assist Zimbabwe only “by supplying a few tractors and many technicians”. He was “personally … not at all impressed with the idea of the technicians” because they were little more than a fifth column – a posse of “Marxists who will start a process of undermining” and who would “only contribute to more friction within the party”.

Rather than be exploited by his allies, Mugabe turned the tables and used them for his own ends. On the same trip, blowing hard on the horn of Kim Il-sung and the language of socialist brotherhood so beloved by the “Great Leader”, he negotiated a deal for the Koreans to train and equip a brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army. This Fifth Brigade was to operate separately from the units being trained by the British and was to become what amounted to a private army of ruling party. Two years later, it was used to smash the grassroots structures of Zanu’s nationalist rival, Zapu, and to massacre its supporters.

Not that Mugabe was any more grateful to the Koreans for their assistance in “consolidating” Zimbabwe’s independence (as the bilateral verbiage described it) than he had been for their help during the liberation struggle. Contrary to the appearance of intimacy with the Koreans that was created by the notoriety of the Fifth Brigade, Mugabe remained as distrustful of them as he had been before. Using West German technology and white Cold War warriors from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) – a Rhodesian institution previously much maligned by the nationalists but now appropriated by Zanu (PF) – Mugabe tracked every move of the Koreans in the country.

A case in point is found in the transcript of a wiretap of October 1983, not long after the first Fifth Brigade military operation during which thousands of Zapu supporters were butchered in Matabeleland North – an operation (as new evidence shows) that was furthered by on-the-ground assistance from Korean officers. Taken in its broader context, it is difficult to conceive of a document that exudes greater irony or speaks more eloquently of the mindset that Mugabe brought to the task of ruling Zimbabwe:

P (Korean party secretary, Dar es Salaam): What’s wrong with this line? Something’s wrong.

K (Kim Won-Kyu, North Korean embassy official, Harare): Nothing. It’s Okay.

P: Isn’t somebody wire-tapping our telephone?

K: No way. It is quite alright.

P: Could someone be listening to our conversation?

K: No. There is nobody to listen to us here …

P: It seems like some section of the Zimbabwean Government wire-taps our telephone.

K: No way. We are the only ones here (who can speak Korean). Unless there is somebody at your side.

P: There is nobody over here who would listen to our talk.”

Commenting on the conversation, the CIO’s counter-intelligence division noted with satisfaction that “this serves to illustrate … that the Harare-based Koreans have no idea of our operations against them”.

CIO counter-intelligence, undoubtedly with Mugabe’s approval, also placed other professed friends under surveillance. One of those was South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC). Thabo Mbeki has since claimed that Mugabe agreed to allow the ANC to use Zimbabwe as a base from which to conduct covert military operations in apartheid South Africa – a claim that seems to have more to do with Mbeki’s latter-day dalliance with Mugabe than the historical reality of the antagonistic relationship between Zanu and the ANC. But if Mugabe did give the ANC such assurances, he lied.

Counter-intelligence watched the ANC – and Mbeki himself – as intensively as those Mugabe loathed the most, all with a view to preventing ANC operations of the kind that Mbeki says were authorised. In what is another conspicuous irony, the voluminous nature of CIO intelligence on the ANC, much of which was photocopied by apartheid agents and sent south, provided Pretoria with a detailed manual on how to attack ANC targets in Zimbabwe. While Mugabe was concerned about the threat posed by South African agents to his own security, it is not clear that he was particularly bothered by collateral damage to the ANC. Given his antipathy towards Zapu and the Russians, two ANC allies that attracted the deepest of his not inconsiderable hatreds, it is reasonable to suspect that he was not.

Certainly, Mugabe’s Machiavellian bent extended well beyond superficial liberation partners such as the ANC to his own party colleagues and even his closest confidants. Mugabe used the CIO to watch the activities of troublesome party leaders such as Eddison Zvobgo, and there were other times when Zanu (PF) ministers agreed to report on their counterparts directly. Joice Mujuru – along with her husband, Solomon, then army chief – served as Mugabe’s moles in 1980 when two of Mugabe’s most disruptive internal rivals, Edgar Tekere and Enos Nkala, met to discuss the formation of a rebel faction dubbed “Super Zanu”. Thirty years later, the wheel had seemingly turned, with Joice tracing Solomon’s mysterious death in a 2011 house fire to his participation in a committee that had been established to discuss a successor to Mugabe.

Throughout the 1980s, there was no one more deeply immersed in Mugabe’s machinations than the minister of state security, Emmerson Mnangagwa. He was, more often than not, the day-to-day link between the schemes in the prime minister’s head and their implementation. It was Mnangagwa who oversaw the CIO’s surveillance operations – and much more besides. And it was because of this dangerous proximity that he knew, better than anyone else, that Mugabe had no friends, only interests – most of which had a clandestine element. As early as 1981, there were reports from South African sources that Mugabe was determined to “keep an eye on Mnangagwa”, with some accounts suggesting he wanted to “get rid of” his intelligence sidekick. While the more dramatic stories were probably little more than makuhwa, or rumour, Mnangagwa himself was clearly watching his back. In 1982, when minister of home affairs Herbert Ushewokunze set up a rival intelligence agency that began to cause the CIO considerable problems, Mnangagwa sent Mugabe a minute registering his “concern”, but heard nothing back. He confided to another minister that he “wondered if this was not evidence of covert backing for Ushewokunze by Mugabe”. Evidently, Mnangagwa shared South African suspicions that “Mugabe, a cunning politician, is playing off Ushewokunze and Mnangagwa against each other”.

Unlike Solomon Mujuru, Mnangagwa has – so far – successfully navigated the murky waters around Mugabe for decades and, as a current vice president of Zimbabwe, is a potential successor to his ailing boss. Whether that will continue to be the case remains to be seen, although, to the extent that Mugabe influences the outcome, Mnangagwa is still well ahead of other pretenders in terms of understanding what makes the old conniver tick.

Yet what precisely are those common threads, the driving forces, that explain how Mugabe thinks – not least of which are his predilection for duplicity and conspiracy? Two suggest themselves, based on the evidence from the 1980s when he was at the height of his powers. At one level, there were the objectives and attitudes that informed his ideology – a philosophy that was common to the Zimbabwean nationalists of his generation, and one that elevated realpolitik and the ruthless pursuit of supremacy. But that alone is insufficient to explain the degree to which Mugabe was able and prepared to deploy deceptions against those who were his comrades. Personality and personal ambition were the ultimate determinants here. Many others in the party were animated by material gods, but for Mugabe it was always the accumulation of power and its exercise that held him in thrall. He was not the only one. He simply lusted for control more intensely – and had more effective tools for achieving it. His capacities were exceptional; his instincts, less so. Perhaps that is why we prefer to caricature those who are little loved and long remembered. They tell us more about ourselves than we would care to know. DM

Dr Stuart Doran is a historian and the author of a newly published book on Zimbabwe’s formative years, Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–1987, which is available in major bookstores and online at

Photo: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (L) inspects a guard of honour before officially opening the 107th edition of the Harare Agricultural Show in Harare, Zimbabwe, 25 August 2017. EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI


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