Dinner With Mugabe goes too Freudian

Heidi Kriz is a Sacramento-based writer who has frequently written about Africa.

Not so long ago, the country of Zimbabwe was considered the “jewel” of southern Africa. Robert Mugabe, who led its liberation from British colonialism to become Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected president, was a respected leader on a continent already littered with the ghosts and skeletons of a parade of abusers, both white and black.

But Mugabe’s legacy will not be that of revolutionary liberator.

What happened to the Catholic schoolboy who earned seven degrees while jailed as a political prisoner for a decade? How did he become a dictator, capable of massacring thousands of his tribal political rivals in Matabeleland in the ’80s? Why did he gut his country’s economy with cronyism and plunder the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo like a pirate? And, most recently, why did Mugabe turn against the white farmers he’d once courted to stabilize his country’s powerful agrarian economy, instead sanctioning the illegal reclamation of their farms by black war veterans and ignoring brazen violence and murders?

In Dinner With Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant, veteran southern African journalist Heidi Holland tries to parse the reasons behind the transformation. She might as well have asked why the sky is blue.

Holland strains to prove her hypothesis that Mugabe became a tyrant because of his childhood: an absent father and a depressed, obsessed mother who believed he was destined for greatness. She interviews dozens of people in his life, as well as Freudian psychologists. Then she crammed these fragments into a picture of Mugabe that I believe is incomplete and unsophisticated.

I interviewed Mugabe in 1995. My goal was not just to figure out why the once-great man had, even then, morphed into a dictator, but also to unearth why there seemed to be such a propensity for this phenomenon in Africa. Why, on one continent, had men who had freed their countries from the brutal oppression of colonialism begun to rival their predecessors in the abuse of power?

My plan was to interview and photograph every living “Big Man” of Africa. Ultimately, I met with five: Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia; Malawi’s former self-appointed president-for-life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda; the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga; and Joaquim Chissano, a genuine socialist who stepped into the presidency of Mozambique when the liberator of his country, Samora Machel, died in a mysterious plane crash.

The goal was to see if they acknowledged, at some level, that they had abused their power and to discover if there were any commonalities in the forces that shaped their tyranny.

My final interview was with Mugabe.

Based on those interviews, I formed a conclusion about the “Big Men” I met: They share traits that are spun from the single circumstance of the time into which they were born. They could not escape history and history could not escape them.

Often classed together as “dictators,” not all of them are; the label can be a butterfingered attempt to encompass a larger-than-life quality, a charisma that has been mostly absent in our recent Western political leaders. Instead, as Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote, these “dictators” are “the children of storms and pressures, born of the longings and desires not only of their own countries, but of the whole continent.”

Africa was shattered by colonialism, made borderless and fractious. Every newborn African country, lacking an identity, hung one on these men. They became icons; living, earthbound gods—or at least they behaved as if they thought they were.

These men, including Mugabe, acted out the myth. They displayed the extreme, emotional archetypes of mythical gods: by turns paternal, tyrannical, judgmental, apocalyptic or merciful, with the variance and proportion dependent on their personalities.

Mugabe is vain, self-involved and emotionally stunted. He has become a monstrous dictator. But he cannot be explained away by pointing to a difficult childhood.