Robert Mugabe, the dictator who ruled Zimbabwe for more than three decades, had revolutionary beginnings. He was shaped by a tumultuous brew of pan-African nationalism, associated authoritarianism, and his own startling yet grossly under-discussed political rise.
Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean leader who was deposed in 2017 after 37 years in office and died two years later at the age of 95, was one of the few African politicians who might be considered a household name. Mugabe’s prominence did not simply emerge as a result of his lengthy tenure; rather, he became a lightning rod due to his racial policies (most notably the seizure of land from Zimbabwe’s White farmers) and outspoken criticism of the West.
As a result of his controversial and lengthy presidency, Mugabe’s early political career is comparatively underexplored. For example, a recent biography of Mugabe by historian, Sue Onslow, and journalist, Martin Plaut, fails to mention his first executive appointment in party politics in 1960. The historical component in much of the academic literature emphasizes Mugabe’s final ascent to the peak of the Zimbabwe liberation movement in the mid-1970s when armed guerrillas publicly backed his leadership. This perspective in the historiography minimizes the reality that from the early 1960s, almost as soon as he became active in party politics, Mugabe was one of the leading figures in Zimbabwe’s struggle against British colonialism and minority white rule.
Consequently, an examination of Mugabe’s early political years yields valuable insights on his political trajectory. While Mugabe’s more notorious political tactics only began to receive sustained international attention during the mid-point of his presidency, around 2000, their connections to his earlier political career are evident. In addition to the harsh lessons from repressive white rule, from the beginning of his formal political career in 1960, Mugabe was shaped by a tumultuous brew of pan-African nationalism, associated authoritarianism, and his own startling political rise.
A PAN-AFRICAN NATIONALIST
In 2015, Mugabe assumed the rotating Chair of the African Union (AU). This selection arguably marked the summit of Mugabe’s career as one of the continent’s most renowned pan-Africanists. While Mugabe’s late-career pursuit of pan-African acclaim has been assailed as self-serving, it drew on a lengthy heritage of transnationalism. Mugabe attended the founding summit of the Organization of African Unity, the AU predecessor, in 1963.
Mugabe himself described his undergraduate education at Fort Hare in South Africa as a ‘turning point’ in his life. When Southern Rhodesia’s (as colonial Zimbabwe was known) white settlers were on the eve of successfully expanding their power through the creation of a federation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today’s Zambia and Malawi, respectively) in 1953, Mugabe wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, the Bantu Mirror, condemning the move as ‘an instrument that will be wielded to suppress our self-determination and progress’.
However, Mugabe’s formal engagement in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle did not begin until 1960, when the political scene across Africa was much more favourable to African nationalism.
In that year, known as the ‘Year of Africa’ as 17 African nations attained independence in 1960, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia from Ghana, where he had worked as a schoolteacher since 1958. Mugabe’s teaching career since graduation from Fort Hare had been peripatetic, with multiple stops in Southern and Northern Rhodesia prior to his arrival in West Africa, where he sought greener pastures. Although Mugabe was removed from white settler racism in southern Africa, the time in Ghana was allegedly unhappy. According to notes of a 1966 interview of Eshmael Mlambo conducted by Larry Bowman, Mugabe was supposedly burned by his cook, on the orders of Mugabe’s school principal, who disliked the expatriate.
Upon his return to Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe overcame this harsh treatment with a meteoric rise to prominence. Ghana’s independence in 1957 and Kwame Nkrumah’s outspoken call for Africa’s ‘total liberation’ ignited a flame across sub-Saharan Africa. In the capital of neighbouring Northern Rhodesia, a fellow post-independence leader, Kenneth Kaunda, organized an all-night party to celebrate the independence of the West African state. Mugabe’s return from Ghana received coverage in the local press. Ghana’s independence was met with such enthusiasm by Black people in Southern Rhodesia that anyone with connections to Ghana was treated as something of a celebrity. In an interview with a local paper, the Central African Daily News, the day after his arrival, Mugabe praised Ghana’s education system and its democracy.
A little over a month later, it was announced that Mugabe had joined the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was then on its way to becoming the first national political movement with black membership throughout the colony. In his first political speech as a NDP representative in early July 1960, Mugabe displayed the pan-African orientation that endeared him to many intellectuals in his later political career.
Mugabe celebrated the recent independence of the Republic of Congo (today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Ghana’s attainment of Republic status (which removed lingering colonial ties to Britain). He simultaneously condemned an impending holiday in Rhodesia honouring the colony’s founder, Cecil Rhodes, the notorious South African mining magnate. Notably, both Ghana and the Congo exerted a sustained influence on Mugabe’s early political life.
Within days of those remarks, the Congo became a Cold War battleground. Mugabe was perceived by a Rhodesian journalist, AJ Levin, as a ‘darling’ of the American diplomatic mission in Salisbury, the Rhodesian capital. However, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the deposed Congolese premier, in early 1961, spurred Mugabe to deliver an anti-American speech. African nationalists widely believed that the killing was sanctioned by the US.
Despite his physical departure from Ghana in May 1960, Mugabe’s personal ties to the country increased. In April 1961 he married his Ghanaian sweetheart, Sarah ‘Sally’ Hayfron, who later became Zimbabwe’s first lady until her death in 1992. As reported in the Central African Daily News of 1 May 1961, a fellow nationalist, Enos Nkala, declared at the wedding reception that the NDP was now ‘married’ to Ghana. Mugabe also made return trips to pan-African conferences in Ghana before he was imprisoned by the Rhodesian authorities in 1964.
Sally became a political force in her own right, attending pan-African conclaves in her capacity as a branch chair of the NDP Women’s League. Although Mugabe’s sustained anti-Western sentiments emerged after his wife’s death, she may have been an influence. The Central Africa People’s True News reported a speech by Sally in 1962, in which she attacked the British monarchy and declared, ‘Britain is our greatest enemy [and] now America has joined.’ She received a two-year suspended jail sentence for her comments.
MUGABE’S METEORIC RISE
The NDP held its first party congress in October 1960. Mugabe had been back in the country for only a matter of months, but he was named the party’s publicity chief. In that capacity, he co-edited the party newsletter, Democratic Voice, issued a stream of press releases and served as the principal party liaison to the local media as Joshua Nkomo, the party president, was often abroad.
This public-facing position made him one of the NDP’s leading spokespeople, probably only second to Nkomo. By that December, Levin described him as one of the three leading figures in the party.
The white settler government banned the NDP in December 1961 in a bid to stem the ‘wind of change’ and reverse the gains of African nationalism. The NPD was quickly reconstituted as the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Mugabe remained publicity secretary.
It has been widely observed that Mugabe benefitted from a number of questionable political accidents, but this legacy potentially goes back further than is generally acknowledged.
Levin reported that a zealous Mugabe quickly feuded with the ZAPU vice-president, Tichafa Samuel Parirenyatwa, who embraced party politics later than Mugabe due to his employment as a government doctor. When Parirenyatwa died in a suspicious car accident in August 1962, it was expected that Mugabe would be tapped to replace him, solidifying the ambitious nationalist as the clear number two behind Nkomo. This was never realized however as ZAPU was itself banned a month later, before Parirenyatwa’s replacement was named.
As NDP and ZAPU publicity secretary, Mugabe was initially a diligent deputy to his president, Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe’s many press releases, op-eds, and media statements greatly contributed to building up Nkomo’s stature. Under Mugabe’s editorial gaze, the Democratic Voice repeatedly praised the ‘Great Nkomo’ and devoted far greater attention to the NDP president than any other nationalist figure.
However, the relationship between the president and his chief publicist soon soured. Mugabe played a prominent role in an attempt to overthrow Nkomo’s authority in 1963. Thereafter, Mugabe’s role as a devoted deputy dissipated.
For a decade, Mugabe was positioned uneasily behind Ndabaningi Sithole in the hierarchy of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which was formed when Mugabe and his fellow dissidents failed to depose Nkomo within ZAPU’s structures. At ZANU’s first congress in 1964, Mugabe mounted a brief challenge against Sithole for leadership of the party before withdrawing. Nkomo had been named life president of ZAPU the previous year. Conversely, ZANU, at least at this time, was at pains to portray a more democratic ethos and rejected the idea of permanent fixed leadership.
Mugabe’s quick ascent in the party hierarchy meant that he never experienced a period of political seasoning as a lower-level cadre. Entering party politics and almost immediately being within a hair’s breadth of ultimate control (and then becoming independent Zimbabwe’s first leader) likely contributed to Mugabe’s inability to brook political opposition.
Mugabe’s own autocratic tendencies were on display almost immediately upon his return from Ghana, which became a one-party state in 1964. Just weeks after arriving from Ghana, in his first political speech in June 1960, Mugabe stressed the importance of party discipline. It was reported in the Central African Daily News of 13 June 1960 that the then-holidaying schoolteacher announced, ‘Whoever you may be and whatever may be your station in life, you must pray and respect the leaders you choose.’
FIRST DEGREE IN VIOLENCE
Although Mugabe’s ascent to power followed negotiations that concluded an armed revolutionary struggle, his penchant for violence only really emerged internationally around 2000. At this time, his government faced a serious challenge from a revitalized opposition. Increased international attention on the plight of the opposition and the displacement of the country’s White farmers spurred renewed interest in the Gukurahundi atrocities committed by state security forces in the 1980s against civilians perceived as supporting ZAPU.
However, Mugabe’s rejection of political pluralism was evident in his earliest political engagement. In June 1961, the NDP faced its first major intra-nationalist threat when a breakaway party, the Zimbabwe National Party (ZNP), emerged.
As the NDP publicity secretary, Mugabe played a leading role in defending his party against the challenge. The ZNP was forced to call off its launch event when its president and secretary-general were assaulted by NDP partisans. Mugabe then issued a hard-hitting press release that refused to acknowledge the ZNP as a legitimate competitor. In his words, as reported by the Central African Daily News of 12 June 1961, ‘The NDP is a PEOPLE’S movement. Its will is the PEOPLE’S will. Whoever opposes it opposes the WILL of the people.’
As the repression of the ZNP indicated, Mugabe’s aggression against the opposition enjoyed significant backing and quickly became an accepted nationalist response to political competition. However, it is difficult to assess the extent to which Mugabe was responsible for inculcating this environment or whether he was merely appealing to prevailing sentiments that welcomed this charged discourse.
Both Mugabe and ZNP representatives were invited by Nkrumah to a pan-African conference in Ghana. Mugabe could not countenance the prospect of each delegation participating. He announced, as reported in the Central African Daily News of 29 June 1961, ‘either the ZNP delegation [is in] and we are out, or we are in and they are out. There is no question of the two groups being in at the same time.’
Mugabe’s confrontational rhetoric became progressively more direct. In 1962, ZAPU faced a brief challenge from another new party, the Pan-African Socialist Union, a successor of sorts to the ZNP. As reported by the Central African Daily News of 20 September 1962, Mugabe rubbished it as a group of ‘mere political rejects and undesirables’ that would ‘be swallowed’ by ZAPU.
President Mugabe’s zero-sum attitude to politics was clearly evident from the early 1960s. As the Nigerian intellectual, Claude Ake, noted in his book, Democracy and Development in Africa, this thinking was a general characteristic of anti-colonial nationalist politics:
As the prospects for political independence improved, the solidarity of the movement grew weaker and competition between its component units became more intense…so while agitating to overthrow the colonial regime, the constituent elements of the coalition were also trying to block one another from appropriating it.
Mugabe’s role as the NDP’s key attack dog against the ZNP in 1961, and then from 1963 as one of the leading figures challenging ZAPU, denotes that he was firmly grounded in this authoritarian milieu.
This struggle had significant costs for Mugabe personally.
He faced attacks from ZNP and ZAPU partisans; his house was stoned multiple times. After ZAPU was banned in 1962, Mugabe was temporarily banished to a rural area. His urban residence, where his wife and sister remained, was repeatedly raided by the police. Simple domestic articles, like cutlery, were confiscated.
Mugabe was regularly ensnared by the Rhodesian judicial system. One of his first appearances in court, just over a month after his marriage, as reported by the Central African Daily News of 17 June 1961, concerned a charge of defamation over criticism of a civil servant in the Democratic Voice. As Zimbabwe’s leader, Mugabe became infamous for attacks against the freedom of the press. This conduct was not so much ironic, rather it reflected lessons learned from the tactics prevalent in the political environment in which Mugabe was schooled.
MUGABE’S LONG-STANDING INFLUENCE
When he was removed from office after nearly four decades in power, Mugabe was one of Africa’s most controversial leaders. Europe and the US generally reviled him for his blunt denunciations of Western hypocrisy. Pan-Africanists split, debating whether his post-2000 rhetoric and abrasive economic policies were a self-serving gimmick or a genuine commitment to deconstruct an unjust colonial system.
Much of the interest in Mugabe’s political career has been segmented and compartmentalized. Zimbabwe’s post-2000 descent, when White farmers and opposition activists were more blatantly targeted, is by far the most litigated aspect of Mugabe’s legacy. Mugabe’s first decade in office, the 1980s, is infrequently considered beyond the Gukurahundi massacres. The narrative of his role in the liberation movement generally revolves around his unconditional adherence to the armed struggle in the late 1970s.
However, Mugabe arrived at each of these stages shaped by previous experiences. The early 1960s were the formative stage of Mugabe’s political career and the backdrop to his subsequent statecraft. Although the broader struggle made few concrete advances against settler rule at this time, Mugabe’s personal political stature bloomed exponentially. Simultaneously, Mugabe was placed under significant strain, from both the White ruling class and erstwhile nationalist comrades.
Perhaps the most important component of Mugabe’s political longevity is that it consolidated the pull of the pugnacious political environment of the early 1960s over the politics of post-independence Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s 2017 succession by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-serving Mugabe acolyte whose political schooling also came in the 1960s, only sustains this influence⎈
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