& Roman
Christian Order
Read Christian Order
Main Page


March 2009

As many readers will be aware, our late founding editor, Father Paul Crane, S.J., had a passion for Africa. From regular wide-ranging visits over many years there was not much about the continent he did not know and few African leaders with whom he was not personally acquainted. For many years he also ran Claver House in central London, near Victoria Station, where students from Africa resided for twelve months while studying the Social Teachings of the Church, before returning home to establish Co-operatives or pursue other activities aimed at developing the self-sufficiency of their countries. A hugely successful venture until shut down by the Modernist Jesuits owing to its Catholic orthodoxy, some ex-students went on to achieve positions in high public office [see “The Closure of Claver House: A Third World Backstabbing,” CO, March 1998].

In this anniversary month of Father’s death twelve years ago, and with his beloved Christian Order now in its 50th year of publication, it seems appropriate to run the rare and remarkable interview which follows. Father Crane knew Robert Mugabe in his early days, having met him many times at Silveira House in Harare, a Jesuit centre which he helped establish with Father John Dove. He also knew some of Mugabe’s relatives. His sister Sabena used to stay at Claver House when visiting London in the late 70’s and early 80’s. While Leo Mugabe was a student at Claver House in the 1970’s.
Whatever Robert Mugabe’s attitude to his former Faith, for years in Southern African Catholic circles it was known that his late mother, a devoted adherent of the Old Mass, regularly attended a chapel of the Society of St Pius X in Harare. (A resident SSPX priest is still there conducting a lonely vigil amid the ruins. The Society recently raised some three hundred thousand rands worth of food supplies for poverty stricken Zimbabweans and trucked the vital commodities in from neighbouring South Africa.)

Like many others, Father Crane held high hopes for the Jesuit-educated Mugabe, believing he would make a great Catholic leader. Consequently, in his final years he struggled to reconcile the character he once knew with the despotic persona terrorising Zimbabwe. He would have read this fascinating account with the greatest personal interest, though doubtless with a heavy heart, especially in light of his own lifetime campaign against the dehumanising Marxism embraced by Mugabe and which has finally consumed him.

Please remember both Father Crane and the suffering Catholics of Zimbabwe in your prayers throughout this Lenten month.


Desperately Seeking Robert

An Exclusive Interview with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe


Harare, Zimbabwe

August 1993

Nelson Mandela’s walk to freedom from Pollsmoor prison in the Cape at around about four o’clock on February 11th 1990 was of course to change South Africa forever. A significant if little recognised move had been occurring in the coverage of TV public affairs and news by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Hitherto tight control had been exerted by the Nationalist appointed bosses. The continuing fear of an internal uprising, the border war, the country-wide violence between various factions which increased with the prospect of democracy, and the resultant States of Emergency, made censorship of the media easier to justify.

But with the release of Mandela, the un-banning of the revolutionary movements and the return of the exiles, some of us working in the SABC TV news services recognised that a window of opportunity had been opened. The period leading up to the first South African democratic election would obviously be a time when politicians of every stripe seeking office would be falling over themselves to be seen by the voting public as transparent, honest, worthy candidates devoted to the truth and free speech. So we went ahead and took advantage of the situation. We organised ‘no holds barred’ live television debates with controversy as the key word. Town meetings were televised with politicians having to field questions from a live audience. There were special reports with the cameras looking into previously forbidden territory. In short, opinions were aired and ideologies were encouraged to clash.

This change was driven by the TV journalists themselves with the welcome addition to the old guard of young reporters and trainee producers, black and white, who had either been in exile or had been part of the internal resistance to apartheid. We had, and we believe the audience had, a great time with such live studio features as ‘Capitalism vs Communism’, the main protagonists being Joe Slovo, then General Secretary of the South African Communist party recently returned from exile, and the fiery Ken Owen, Editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times.

We produced, as a live Sunday Night feature, an actual round table dinner party with waiters and food and drinks laid on. The guest list included black and white leaders of the main political movements. It was a memorable experience to see the Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), an extreme right wing group, uniformed and armed and still dreaming at that late hour of the total separation of the races, holding a conversation and chinking glasses with the recently un-banned South African Communist Party people. A morning English language newspaper devoted the whole front page to the show with a full picture of the ‘dinner’ and the ‘guests’ and the banner headline read: ‘Guess who came to dinner!’ Well, quite.

Some cynical TV critics in the South African English print media refused to be impressed. Unwilling to acknowledge the progress we were making in showing South Africa to South Africa they scribbled away on the lines of “too little, too late”.

However, the BBC correspondent for Southern Africa Graham Leach, who although still young was a veteran journalist who had covered foreign wars and ‘funny’ governments, was able, with a more dispassionate and seasoned eye, to spot the efforts which were being made even before the brief “golden age” of South African TV news broadcasting got under way.

As early as 1986 he phoned and asked if he could see me privately. Over a cup of tea at my home I explained that the emergence from the straight-jacket at the SABC was being driven from within by a group of jobbing journalists with the somewhat reluctant consent of the news controllers who had been persuaded to see the light as the new day was dawning. Even they had to take considerable flak from the politicians. On a hunting trip with then President PW Botha, a very senior TV news executive was asked if yours truly, moi, was a ‘Communist’ in view of the kind of questions I was asking of his various cabinet ministers. Apparently the President was somewhat mystified, if not mollified, by the reply that that was how modern TV worked!

Anyway, Leach told me he was writing a book about contemporary South Africa and asked if he could quote me concerning the background material I was able to give him. Tempted, I declined, thinking discretion would be the better part of valour. Nevertheless developments giving rise to the new liberated TV news coverage among other factors, found a place in his book.(1)

I was also  particularly pleased that, unlike many of his white South African counterparts, the legendary black South African  writer Z B Molefe, Deputy Editor of the widely read City Press of Johannesburg, noted the changes in TV news and current affairs coverage and took the time and trouble to interview me (“John’s Right to be Wrong,” Z B Molefe, City Press, Jan. 2, 1994, p.5).

During this “golden” time I had one foreign ambition: to interview Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. After all, he had been a mentor and an inspiration to many of the leading ANC/SACP notables who had been given sanctuary in his country and he was the leading revolutionary figure in Southern Africa, praised at home and lionised internationally until, on his release from detention in 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged as a world figure and stole Mugabe’s thunder.

I first saw Robert Mugabe in the flesh as he strolled across the foyer of Harare’s Hilton Hotel. It was October 1991. He was presiding over the ceremonies surrounding the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting attended by fifty Commonwealth supremos led by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second. The presence of South Africa as an observer marked a major breakthrough in international relations. Mr Nelson Mandela’s release from detention the year before and the consequent legitimisation of the ANC/SACP alliance was beginning to open all kinds of diplomatic doors. It also meant that the South African Broadcasting Corporation could join a hundred other media representatives from all over the world. I was selected to provide on the spot television coverage for the English language TV service.

In a way it was something of a homecoming. I had spent seventeen important years of my life in what was then Southern Rhodesia. From 1957-1962 I had served as a police officer in the former colony. They were five memorable years: we were three thousand black officers and one-and-a-half thousand white officers serving and protecting the people and not oppressing them, contrary to left-wing racist propaganda. For the remainder of my time in the country I was a broadcaster and then, after being banned from the airwaves by the Smith government, I was appointed Public Relations Officer at the University of Rhodesia.(2)

Very importantly, I had met and married my wife in the former colony and in 1974, in the face of the guerrilla war, we packed up our young family and headed south as early ‘refugees.’ When I left the Rhodesian Police in 1962, Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain was still three years away but black nationalist activity had already begun. Names such as Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo were prominent, but it was not until his detention by Ian Smith’s government and his subsequent escape to form the Zimbabwe African National Union that Robert Mugabe became synonymous with the ‘liberation struggle.’

The ten years he spent in detention (1964-74) saw Mugabe occupied in planning future moves and obtaining higher education. He had graduated from the prestigious Fort Hare University in South Africa and since 1942 he had been a teacher, so we can presume that correspondence education was not too burdensome for him. But not content with one degree he is said to have obtained a quiver full.

By 1974 he was out of the country and ensconced in neighbouring Mozambique directing the guerrilla war against the Smith regime and gathering international support for Zimbabwe’s independence under black majority rule. Ian Smith, undefeated in the field but with South Africa’s support withdrawn from him, eventually capitulated across the conference table at Lancaster House in London. Rhodesia was restored as a temporary ‘colony’ of Great Britain and the fifteen years of Rhodesia’s going it alone were over.

In 1980, after a stormy run up to elections, involving accusations of intimidation from all sides, the people went to the polls. Britain’s temporary “Governor” Sir Christopher Soames declared Mr Robert Mugabe the victor and the revolutionary leader found himself Prime Minister. In 1987 he persuaded parliament to combine the roles of head of state and head of government in himself and became the country’s first executive president. Three years later, with the merger of the two main political parties, Zimbabwe effectively became a one-party state under Mugabe’s leadership.

And that was the situation in 1991 when Zimbabwe was host to “Chogm’, the acronym which journalists inevitably gave to the Commonwealth Heads of  Government Meeting. “Chogm”, a pen- wielding wag from a foreign broadcasting station said, looking at some of the leaders of Commonwealth countries whose people had been reduced to penury by corruption and mismanagement, “is short for Commonwealth handouts to greedy mendicants”! He was probably annoyed by the shambles surrounding the arrangements made for the visiting journalists and by the fact that, with a very few exceptions, none of the leading lights were prepared to give an interview. All fifty heads of government seemed to have engaged in a conspiracy of silence. Hardly the way for “Chogm” to get good international coverage.

So I busied myself as best I could. At one stage I was reduced to interviewing a specialist in Commonwealth affairs and a couple of international journalists about the prospects for the ‘Meeting’. An interview which was syndicated by several of the international TV broadcasters so desperate was the need for some kind of “news”!

I had spotted Mugabe, however. I had corresponded with his staff and this was the chance for a scoop. But it was not to be. He had said what had to be said at the opening ceremony and that was that. But there sitting in a chair near the bar was the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki, not yet risen to the heights which he obtained. But certainly a coming man. He agreed. He would give me an interview. We gathered our camera team together, found a suitable room and did it. It was dispatched by line ready for playing into the next available news slot in Johannesburg. But the old regime at the SABC decided it was “not appropriate,” whatever that might mean, and only when I returned to Johannesburg did I hear that some bureaucrat had got cold feet about the content.  

I tried again for Mugabe without success. Then came a bit of a breakthrough. Over a drink I became friendly with, let’s just call her ‘someone acquainted with the British delegation’. Prime Minister John Major, the brand new successor to Mrs Thatcher, was leading the Brits so, ‘what about an interview with him?’ ‘Well’, she said, ‘he has turned down an interview with the BBC and other British outfits but he is going to give a news conference.’ I knew that. I was after an exclusive. What if I wrote a set of suitably deferential letters. Couldn’t she push them under his bedroom door and those of other leading figures? She would do what she could. It worked; well half worked. I interviewed the British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. That interview my nervous bosses in Johannesburg decided to broadcast.

But Robert Mugabe, he of the reputation for ruthlessness during the armed struggle; he, the exponent of doctrinaire Marxist economics who had not noticeably instituted them; he, who like me, had been touched by Jesuits in his youth, remained elusive.
Did he still attend Mass? What was he like close up? Those were some of the thoughts occupying my mind. But frustration was all I received. The Zimbabwean Trade Commissioner in Johannesburg, Stuart Comberbach was visiting Harare for the occasion and bumped into me near the bar of the Hilton. (Journalists can always be found near the bar.) I cried on his shoulder and told him my sad story. Yes he realised I had been trying to get ‘Robert’ and he promised to do what he could but not until Chogm was over.

I tried off and on for two years. Then came the breakthrough. President Mugabe said ‘Yes’. But he would not be interviewed ‘live’ from Harare via satellite into our Johannesburg current affairs studio. I had to travel back to Zimbabwe and record him there. That should be simple. No problem. Oh really?

The SABC bosses agreed that this was a major scoop. An exclusive. Mugabe rarely gave television interviews and had steadfastly refused to speak to the South African Broadcasting Corporation over the years. Although the SABC had made much of a filmed speech at a political rally in Harare some time back when Mugabe had uttered the chilling words, “A Boer ( White Afrikaner farmer) for a bullet. A bullet for a Boer,” to rapturous applause from his followers. Perhaps mindful of this the Nationalist appointed SABC “nomenklatura” were less than co-operative. I could go and do the interview, they said, but I could not take a camera team. ‘Why not?’ ‘Too expensive.’ But not to be outdone we arranged for the Harare based Reuters team to provide the technical crew. Reuters had been trying to get an exclusive with President Mugabe for years. They leapt at the opportunity and also did a neat deal with the SABC.

Reuters would provide my camera team free of charge, they would allow the SABC one screening of the exclusive interview and then all rights to the film would belong to Reuters. The SABC agreed and did a very bad business deal in the process because when I phoned Tim Leach of Reuters one week after the interview he told me that they had sold the film whole or in part to dozens of TV outlets and at present count had received fees of twenty-five thousand pounds sterling and rising! (This was1991 money.) Talk about penny wise, pound foolish.

I will now cut short the numerous stories of bureaucratic mess ups which we encountered inside Harare and present you with my much sought after interview with Robert Mugabe. This was carried out in his government offices in central Harare on what used to be Jameson Ave and now, if I am not mistaken, has been re-named Samora Machel Ave.(3)

The appointment was for 9 am. We got there early and watched Mugabe’s arrival which was at 8 am prompt. His official car was preceded and followed by military trucks bristling with soldiers and armaments. Entry to the building was a serious security matter. But at last the moment had arrived. We set up our equipment and he walked into the cabinet room, shook hands, sat opposite me, and as the crew busied themselves we chatted about this and that.

I took no notes of this exchange but I remember I felt compelled, seeking a reaction, to tell him that I had served in the Rhodesian police for five years from 1957 to 1962, noting that it was three years before Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence and so perhaps it made me rather ‘kosher’! That raised a smile. I was not compelled to tell him that I had been banned from TV and Radio by Ian Smith’s propaganda chief in 1969.(4)This I thought would be blatantly ingratiating. In any case, I guessed his security people had checked me out thoroughly before allowing me to get close to his vulnerable presence. What I did stress was that some of us in the SABC TV news service were now engaging in live current affairs programmes with the emphasis on free unrestricted exchange of views and that is how I proposed to conduct the interview with him. He had no objections.

Robert Mugabe was conservatively dressed in the western manner, no ‘Afro’ outfit for him, and he looked much younger than his then sixty-nine years. His clear, well modulated voice uttered standard English with hardly an accent. He exuded quiet confidence and a friendly demeanour. Ah, I thought, the Jesuit Fathers who had taught him when he was a lad at Kutama mission deep in the Rhodesian bush had done a very good job with some very good material.

The sound equipment was checked by the operator, the camera rolled, and the game was on. Remember, this was done in August 1993, nine months before South Africa’s first democratic election which brought Mr Mandela to power.

JOHN BISHOP: Your Excellency thanks very much for giving up your time.

JB: Let’s talk about South African/Zimbabwean relations first. The forthcoming elections and the violence there. You must be watching the situation closely.
Yes we  are. We are very delighted that things are what they are now in South Africa, that change has begun to take effect and in a positive direction. One hopes that the elections envisioned for April next year will take place in an atmosphere of peace and calm. One hopes that the majority of the people of South Africa will use this opportunity to determine the future of South Africa and that they will vote in a peaceful atmosphere that will produce a result that everyone will say was free and fair.

JB: Need I ask? Which side are you backing? Which of those parties would you like to see win?
RM: Naturally we would like to see a combination of progressive forces take place before the election. If it was possible for those forces to form a front, and that means naturally the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress together with other liberals and the progressives in South Africa, so that at this stage of the elections those who are against apartheid will win the day. This is what we want to see first and foremost. The parties will sort themselves out in due course but this first election should see a unity of the progressive forces in the first place.

JB: When you say progressive forces would you include the liberal democratic largely white supported party. The Democratic Party?
RM: Sure, sure. Why not? The anti-apartheid forces. All of them.  

JB: What about the other side? You know the history as well as anyone.
RM: Well the other side has been for apartheid. And now you have de Klerk having rejected apartheid. One is not able at this juncture to gauge what ideological thrust his party, the National Party, now espouses. But we are very glad that the National Party has moved away from its racist policies but it remains to be seen how much of the support is still with President de Klerk within the National Party.

JB: Now you know there is a movement in South Africa among some Afrikaans-speaking people to have their own homeland. An “Afrikanerland”. On one of the maps it is projected that one of the proposed homelands might abut the Messina/Beit Bridge border.(5)What do you think about that?
RM: Well I think it is nonsensical, going back to the old days of the Boer republics. That is what they really want to do. Everyone must now think in terms of a greater South Africa. A South Africa that encompasses the Bantustans and creates a completely new environment. An environment, political and socio-economic, that accommodates all the races in South Africa and the various ideologies. It is a difficult task but it is a task nevertheless that the people of South Africa are called upon to undertake.

JB: But to press you. What if there is this group that says, ‘We feel threatened. We will be overcome by numbers. We have to have our own small area.’
RM: I think it is a prescription for a war in the future because the bulk of the people will not accept it. The majority will not be just blacks. The majority will be blacks and whites who will not entertain that primitive concept. If the separatists were to have their way now they could not hope to survive as a little entity.

JB: Now can I ask you about three prominent visitors. Nelson Mandela, Clarence Makwetu(6)and Chief Buthelezi.
RM: Yes sure.

JB: At your invitation? 
RM: Yes sometimes. At other times at their own insistence. When they wanted to come. Mandela and Makwetu were always people we accommodated and we wanted to assist as best we could within the context of the OAU Frontline states. So they always really had an open route but Chief Buthelezi well… because we now wanted to see a unity of forces within South Africa… and we also wanted to help bring down the level of violence in South Africa... we and the Frontline states decided we should start some dialogue with him.

JB: Well what did you say to Chief Buthelezi?
RM: Ah, that they should unite in South Africa. We wanted to see Mandela and Chief Buthelezi, Makwetu and Chief Buthelezi, talking to each other and working out ways of stopping the violence that is continuing to occur in South Africa.

JB: But you will be aware that Chief Buthelezi has stated several times that he visualizes a sovereign Zulu kingdom. Would your remarks concerning an ‘Afrikanerland’ apply to that idea?
RM: Yes that applies really to that kind of concept. It is divisionist and I don’t think he expressed it here. I think he would want to see the Zulus afforded a place within South Africa and not as a separate state. They can’t survive as a separate state.

JB: So why not apply the same criteria to an “Afrikaans” area?
RM: Well the Afrikaners could have it by virtue of being a ‘constituency.’ Which is what I had in mind. A Zulu constituency. If you have the bulk of the Afrikaners say in the Orange Free State and they vote for a party of their choice well and good. And therefore they remain an entity as constituents in that particular environment.

JB: President de Klerk has been visiting President Chiluba in Zambia. What about reciprocal visits between Mr de Klerk and you?
RM: Yes. Well….

JB: Is it planned?
RM: Well... not planned as such. I know President de Klerk has wanted to meet with me but I judged that the time was not right. I was going really by our decision both within the Commonwealth and also in the Organisation of African Unity that we should interact with South Africa more effectively at a time when political negotiations had reached a stage we regarded irreversible in terms of the process of peace that is being worked out by the South Africans just now. We believe that this moment will soon arrive.

JB: It hasn’t arrived yet?
RM: Well part of it might have arrived. We have started ministerial talks. For example my Minister of Industry and Commerce has been to South Africa to interact with his counterpart there. This is quite a development. We never allowed this in the past. I think things have opened up now. Elections in South Africa are now planned for April… many other developments…including Walvis Bay.
 …We are very delighted that Walvis Bay is now going to go to Namibia.(7)There is this amount of progress that has taken place in South Africa and we judge that the state of irreversibility will soon be reached. That will then offer us the opportunity for President de Klerk and myself to interact.

JB: Now can we come to internal Zimbabwean affairs. The big story of the last few weeks. The Land Acquisition……
RM: (interrupts) Why should it be the big news story of the last few weeks?

JB: Well it ………
RM: It is an issue that has been with us all this time. What we have said and we have emphasised, in the light of machinations taking place now to prevent us from proceeding with land acquisition in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act, is that the right of the people of Zimbabwe to acquire land should never be questioned. We have not said that the land would be acquired without compensation. We will pay the necessary compensation for any land that is acquired. But our right to acquire that land cannot be questioned.

JB: But I think you have said that if you got thwarted in this, you might do that, take land without compensation.
RM: Well we can never get thwarted as a government anyway. We always have the machinery. But I just want to remind people, especially those who occupy this commercial land, because yesterday there were supporters of UDI here, that they should not think that UDI is the monopoly of one  side.(8) We are also capable of it.

JB: What does that mean?
RM: Well that we could acquire the land without the necessary legal procedures. But we are not doing that because we already have the Land Acquisition Act as an instrument to enable us to acquire land and therefore it will not be necessary to have to resort to any ‘UDI’. We have proceeded all along in an orderly manner but I have to remind them from time to time that their own tactics in the past can also be our tactics. 

JB: Now your political opponents inside Zimbabwe have said that you are using the land question as a political gimmick. That you are going back on an undertaking that you would only take unproductive land and that you will seriously endanger the economy of the country if white productive farm land is taken.
RM: Political gimmick?

JB: Uh-huh.
RM: I wish it was because of course it would not be something real. Because if it was a gimmick then why should they fear it? But it isn’t that. If anyone can recall the history of the country and especially the history of the struggle, they will remember that land constituted the greatest grievance of all. We organised the liberation struggle around the land and it is land we must have and we must deliver to the people. And we mean it. It cannot be a mere gimmick. It is a reality, this question. Go into the rural areas and see the desperate situation in which the people are. They need land and we must deliver it to them.

JB: But it is said that you took millions of hectares and it was badly worked and…it is just lying there.
RM: No… uh... part  was... uh... resettled… well I think most of the resettlement programme that was carried out on it was carried out in an efficient way. There is some land which did not receive a good form of resettlement. We have realised that. We have looked at resettlement programmes in countries that pursued this kind of policy in the past. We have been to Malaysia, we have also studied what the Kenyans did, what Ireland did. I was in Ireland last year and we are quite satisfied that our present mode of resettlement will be a success. We must have inputs. We must be able to assist people upon resettlement. We shouldn’t leave it to the people to find their own means of tilling the land when in the first place they never had the means. That is why we gave them land to utilise because they couldn’t acquire it on their own.

JB: The question is whether you went back on an undertaking.
RM: No. No undertaking. The Land Acquisition Act is the undertaking. That says that we shall acquire land but we shall pay adequate compensation for it. That is the undertaking. We have said that we will look first at under-utilised land but that does not mean that only under-utilised land will be acquired. It would make nonsense of the resettlement programme if we had to restrict ourselves to only under-utilised land, because it is not enough.

JB: But you wouldn’t want to upset the very good agricultural economy of the country?
RM: We have said also that whatever is agro-industrial will not be tampered with. We will not tamper with sugar estates, with tea estates, with plantations, that have been ongoing for a long time. But we expect some of these concerns, concerns like Triangle and Hippo Valley, to bring into their own systems smallholders who will… well… if skills are acquired by them, also add on to the production of either sugar or coffee. This has been happening. Triangle has developed a small group of sugar farmers on plantations well prepared by Triangle. This is the kind of resettlement we want. We are very happy with that kind of exercise. We won’t tamper with those ones. But the tobacco grower, the maize grower, the soya bean grower, well that is the land we will acquire, we need it. Otherwise if we don’t acquire that kind of land we won’t acquire any land at all.
We would want to see that the modes of production which were being carried out or which were adopted by the previous farmer would also be the modes of production which we would recommend for the small farmer. Mind you we are not just thinking of the peasants. We are also thinking of Chibero trained people.(9) Those who have been through our agricultural colleges and who can be given smallholdings of two hundred or five hundred acres. Therefore people with real knowledge and skills to do the agriculture.(10)

JB: Arising out of that, what are you running here? Is this a mixture of the social and the free market? Have you moved away from the Marxist-Leninist idea of the state?
RM: When we began of course we had a political ideology in the Zimbabwe African National Union and the Zimbabwean African Peoples Union parties which we acquired during the war. We imbibed the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism from both China and the Soviet Union. We believed that these ideologies were correct ideologies but we never accepted the regimentation aspects.

JB: The command economy, the…
RM:  Well the command economy… I think that we accepted. But not the regimentation of society, forcing people in one direction and therefore at the time of independence, even before independence, if you read our manifesto, we made it very clear we were not going to impose these ideologies but we were going to cultivate consciousness on the  part of the people to accept them.
But we also said we had to recognise the realities of our socio-economic system. The history of our people, the culture and so on. We said the reality of the system that we were inheriting was basically capitalist and that it would take us some time to change that system. In due course we examined our ideology and also looked at what was happening in the Soviet Union, China, and other socialist countries and decided that perhaps the best way was to leave out very strict Marxist-Leninist elements and …. 

JB: To leave them out?
RM: To leave them out and then... uh...

JB: Make one of your own?
RM: Make our own socialism, but a socialism that would take into account of course the realities of our own environment. Then therefore what we have is a mixed economy. We are still concerned about the general welfare of the people. In a developing country like our own you cannot expect that individualistic systems will necessarily bring prosperity to the bulk of our people. Especially in the absence of industries that can absorb employment on a large scale. It will be some time before we have the greater part of the people industrialised. 

JB: Now that is Zimbabwe. Harking back to South Africa…
RM: Yes?

JB: Do you think that South Africa’s new government should be urged to form the kind of system you have here?
RM: I think they necessarily will have to do so. They have to do so. How will they provide for the education of the poor? How will they ensure that the unemployed are employed in the immediate future? That is not possible and therefore the state has to carry out a welfare programme. That is just socialism.

JB: A lot of people will say that you are somewhat behind the times now. Marxism has collapsed in Eastern Europe, that the system has failed…even this mixed economy and socialism that you are talking about. That this is the time for the free market and capitalism again.
RM: Free market means only for those with capital. How many will be having capital in a developing economy?

JB: Well the argument is that eventually everyone will have some capital
RM: Eventually yes. And what about the interim period? What about the interim period? If everybody will have capital it is really a socialist state you will have reached because if everyone has some capital then some measure of equality will have been achieved and this is what you aim at when you preach a socialist philosophy.
But what I want to emphasise is that it is necessary to develop some talents in the people. That means of course educating them and having institutions that go beyond the mere academic system. A system that will ensure that skills of various kinds are developed among the people. You need them in agriculture, you need them in mining, you need them in industry and in the various developmental infrastructures you have embarked on. Whether it is in the making of roads, electrification and so on. Those have to be developed. In the long run you will depend upon those skills and so one would want to see a South Africa which also lays emphasis there, but we find ourselves lagging behind our own objectives.

JB: Just about five minutes left to go your Excellency.
RM: Thank you.

JB: Zimbabwe and you. You are seen in some quarters as running a tight ship here. You are the captain. It is a totalitarian system. You have no free media. You have party placemen and women around you…
RM: (Laughs )

JB: And while there is not exactly fear…
RM: Yes.

JB: …you have the total state. So what price democracy?
RM: Goodness me! But who is unfree in this country? I want to ask that question.

JB: Well the media. What about television?
RM: Television? It is what it is was…

JB: Can they do what I am doing to you here?
RM: Television. Well it is up to them to do so. They are free to ask me those questions but… we have just this Zimbabwe Television Service and we are content that is doing good work. Of course they need... uh...

JB: Education?
RM: No, no. They need to be supported financially because it is a facility that is inadequate at the moment. We want to spread it throughout the country. There are areas that do not get television pictures at all. We want to develop it. But they report everybody. They report leaders of the so-called “opposition.”

JB: Aren’t they the opposition?
RM: I say ‘so-called’ because they have no effect at all on the masses.

JB: Well they might when you try them out at the next election.
RM: If I?

JB: When you try them out at the next election.
RM: No, no. They must try themselves out. I don’t have to try them. They have already tried themselves. Don’t forget from the very onset in 1980 we had multi-party elections.

JB: But strong opposition is good for democracy is it not?
RM: Well I don’t know. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not.

JB: Would you favour it?
RM: I favour a harmony and a unity among the people. I would want to see that the people unite. But they can never be compelled into a totalitarian situation where, willy-nilly, they belong to one school of thought.

JB: You don’t mind personal criticism. Well argued criticism is alright for you?
RM: Oh, yes. I don’t mind at all. I am an intellectual and I think it is good to subject your own thoughts to scrutiny by others. In my own party there is real democracy. The leader doesn’t carry the day necessarily.

JB: Let me ask you about your personal philosophy. Somewhere you described yourself as a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. Is that still so today? 
RM: (Laughs) I believe in the basic elements of socialism. Namely that we all live unto each other. That we cannot avoid each other in society. That the resources were inherited. In a global context the whole universe belongs to us. Looking at Zimbabwe as only a small part of that universe, the people of Zimbabwe should be one. The resources that they have they should have together. They should not be exploited to the disadvantage of a greater number. There should therefore be built into our political system a matrix of political principles. Principles that have to do with the interests of the majority of the people and these should be catered for by society.

JB: But you reject the excesses of Stalin and Lenin and Mao?
RM: We never accepted that. We never accepted the excesses, the regimentation. Back from the very beginning whether it was ZAPU or ZANU when we were still separated, we never accepted those excesses at all. That is why when we came back we pronounced ourselves as socialists. Yes, directed by Marxist-Leninist views but who believed in the culture of our people, in the realities of our environment and therefore in the system of persuasion. We pronounced ourselves on those principles very early on.

JB: President Mugabe how can you make compatible your Catholic faith with Marxism-Leninism at a theoretical level bearing in mind that at least three prominent popes in the twentieth century have said that Marxism-Leninism preaches atheism and the class struggle. How do you react to that?
RM: Well to the extent that Marx preached atheism I never agreed with him. I believe that the people must be left to adopt the faith of their own choice. I don’t believe that people must be regimented into adopting Christianity, Hinduism or Mohammedanism They should be left free to make their own choice. Don’t forget even our own Church made mistakes in the past. They wanted to regiment society into just believing in Christianity. But there are the basic principles. Like what should be our life on this earth? How should we be regulated? What should the interest of society be? How should we relate one to another? Marx preached a doctrine of oneness, except to him it was more the unity of the workers here and there with the peasants supporting the workers, but we rejected that philosophy. We said it must be all people in society who must work together to build that society. There should not be exploiters. In capitalism that is what you tend to get. That is what profit is all about. Those who invest really want to maximise their margins of profit and in so doing they underrate the demands of workers and the needs of the workers. So if you can work out a system where profits will be paid to those who have invested, but where also workers will be rewarded generously and not just in terms of wages, but also in terms of participation in the economy by investing part of their wages in the enterprises in which they work, well that system would be good enough.(11)

JB: Do you not find an incompatibility with your faith and your politics?
RM: There is no incompatibility. Because Catholicism believes in that. May I say that Catholics are the greatest socialists if you look at the denominations. The way Catholics live. There is quite some regimentation there. If you belong to the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) you must follow what Ignatius of Loyola has prescribed.(12)

JB: But some of those Jesuits are not doing that. They have deviated from the tenets of the Society somewhat have they not?
RM: Only a few, only a few perhaps. But I think they still prescribe.

JB: Mr President I seek impressions because that is part of my job. Some say, “Robert Mugabe is an austere man. Very clever. But difficult to know. He keeps his own counsel.” True or false?
RM: False... I... adhere to the principles of the party. Those are my guidelines… I am quite democratic. I consult quite a lot. I don’t want to adopt a measure without consultation. I consult members of the party at politburo level, at the central committee level and in government we are consulting all the time. Today is cabinet day and it is a day of consultations. I do not want to act on matters of concern to the nation and the party without consultations. Whilst I steer, and I must necessarily be the helmsman, I steer on the basis of agreed courses and adopt the course that is generally accepted by both the party and government.

JB: Is your health good?
RM: Yes I think very good. I exercise every morning for one hour. I get up at five o’clock as I did this morning. I did my exercises and came to my office.

JB: Would you have changed anything during that rise to power? That terrible guerrilla war, all that blood. Do you regret that deeply?
RM: No, no, I don’t at all. You mean having engaged in the guerrilla war?

JB: Yes.
RM: Why? Why? We had to do that. Don’t forget we had to do that as a last resort. We started by organising people politically with demonstrations and strikes in the country to bring about change but the British government, whom we expected to heed our concerns, did not do so and they allowed UDI(13)to take root and it was in that context that we embarked on guerrilla warfare. Mind you the way we fought was… yes rough, but principled. We never, as Ian Smith’s forces did, recklessly went out to kill for example children at schools. We said, ‘No. These institutions must be left alone.’ So some innocent people died, but really the way we fought was a principled way I believe. But as I say as far as those who were caught between the crossfire are concerned, I really regret that they died.(14)

JB: Mr President thank you very much.
RM: Thank you. Now I want you to find out from Ian Smith whether he feels oppressed in this country. That is the greatest measure of whether we are oppressive and whether he feels oppressed in this country. That is the greatest measure of whether we are oppressive or not! (Laughter)

JB: He certainly disagrees with you enormously.
RM: But he is a free man. We have never harassed him in any way. He disagrees with me on political policies and so forth. He would, that is why he is Ian Smith.

* * *

I grabbed the next plane to Johannesburg to make the deadline for the evening show. But it was a whole week before a mere portion of the interview was broadcast! The frightened bosses were at it again! You have the advantage of the unexpurgated edition.

Looking back on that conversation in the light of what the President of Zimbabwe said then and what has occurred in the intervening sixteen years, several questions spring to mind. What happened to Robert Mugabe? Why did he decide to change his image from benign, pragmatic, revolutionary leader with a modified Marxian philosophy, to destroyer of his country? Destruction is not too strong a word for the state in which Zimbabwe finds itself in 2009. And why did he embark on the disastrous land grab escapade turning the ‘breadbasket of central Africa’ into a nationwide bread queue?

As a lifelong student of the Bolshevik and Maoist Revolutions and with full knowledge of Stalin’s notorious land collectivisation policy of the 1930’s, why on earth did he think the imposition of such a failed  policy in Zimbabwe, an emerging country in Africa in the early twenty-first century which had a thriving agricultural and mining industry, could lead to anything but catastrophe?
Was it done to try to garner more support from the masses in the face of a growing discontent and political opposition inside Zimbabwe?  Was he trying to demonstrate to Africa and the world that Robert Mugabe had not been eclipsed by the new South African democracy and that he was still a force to be reckoned with?

If this was so, by what fearful lengths he went to prove it. The parliamentary elections in March 2008 - when the starving people of Zimbabwe, despite frightful intimidation including beatings and killings by government forces, voted against Mugabe - were disregarded. By June of that year, in the face of worldwide condemnation, the wily octogenarian went ahead with a widely criticised Presidential election in which the opposition Movement for a Democratic Change refused to take part. Mugabe declared himself the winner and thus extended his power for another five years.

A UN Security Council resolution deploring his actions threatened to levy sanctions against Mugabe and his henchmen. But this was vetoed by his new found trading partners - Communist China and Russia. South Africa under its then President Thabo Mbeki supported the veto but not without much opposition from within his party and the South African trade union movement.

By July 2008 it looked as if a deal was being cobbled together by regional and international  vested interests under the chairmanship of Thabo Mbeki. An arrangement by which Robert Mugabe would remain President and share power with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Something Mugabe had sworn publicly that he would not do. However, on 11 September 2008 it was announced that a deal had been struck whereby Mugabe and his arch-enemy Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, had reached a power-sharing settlement. Was this the beginning of the end of Robert Mugabe’s autocratic rule and the dawning of a new era for Zimbabwe’s downtrodden people? Time would tell.

Perhaps in years to come some post-graduate student of African Studies will research the subject of Robert Mugabe’s metamorphosis, from benign and well-loved leader of his people to a feared and hated dictator, and present us with an absorbing paper.


This interview is one of eighteen engrossing dialogues recorded in John Bishop’s latest (unpublished) book, South African Voices and Visions: Reflections on the Revolution of 1994 and Prospects for the Future.

Covering the period 1990 to 2008, other South African personalities interviewed include: Nelson Mandela; former Foreign Minister ‘Pik’ Botha; Economist and independent Political Analyst Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of President Thabo Mbeki); internationally acclaimed Islamic scholar Professor Ali Mazrui; Ninety-year-old veteran anti-apartheid opponent and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Helen Suzman; independent Political Analyst and veteran of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Professor Sipho Seepe; internationally sought authority on the South African economy, Dr Azar Jammine; advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa, Dr Anthea Jeffery; US investigative reporter Steve Emerson in a TV linkup with South African Muslims. These and other luminaries speak truth to African power with unprecedented candour (not to say career/life-threatening courage!) from their various fields of experience and expertise.

The first 30,000 words of South African Voices and Visions may be viewed online at - which extracts have drawn high praise from browsers. Sadly, however, it is only available in its entirety by downloading via Kindle Books at ($7.99), for which one must own a “kindle” (an electronic ‘book’). Yet this unique and truthful record deserves the widest possible readership. Anyone able to assist in its mainstream publication, therefore, should contact CO in the first instance:



(1) South Africa. No easy path to peace, G. Leach. Methuen,1986.

(2) cf. More Conversations by John Bishop, Viking/Penguin, 1993, “Broadcasting in Southern Africa,” pp. 233-266.

(3) President Samora Machel was the revolutionary Marxist leader in Mozambique whose guerrilla forces overthrew the Portuguese colonial government in 1974. Robert Mugabe had been given safe haven by Machel and a place to plan the Zimbabwean revolution. Samora Machel died in a plane crash near the South African border on 19th October 1986. Suspicion was raised at the time that South African authorities had been complicit in the death of Machel and his companions, despite the fact that they had recently signed a non-aggression pact known as the ‘Nkomati Accords’  with Mozambique which set out to guarantee the safety of the borders of the two countries. A subsequent commission of inquiry found that the Tupolev aircraft and its Soviet pilot went off course and crashed. That it was simply a tragic accident, But this explanation has never been fully accepted and in February 2006 Mr Mbeki’s South African government announced that an enquiry would be re-opened into the mysterious death of Samora Machel. Meanwhile, see my interview with ‘Pik” Botha, the last white South African Foreign Minister, in my book South African Voices and Visions

(4) Full story appears in More Conversations, op.cit., pp. 233.

(5) Zimbabwe’s southern border with South Africa.          

(6) Mr Makwetu was then leader of the Pan Africanist Congress Party which broke away from the ANC and went its own way. As its name implies it was a revolutionary party much more “Africanist” than the racially inclusive African National Congress Party. Mr Makwetu resigned from office and was replaced in December 1997 by Rev Stanley Mogoba who was regarded as more moderate. The PAC are very much a minority party and made a poor showing in the South African elections of 2004.

(7) Walvis Bay is a natural deep water harbour on the north west coast of  what was South West Africa, now the independent state of  Namibia. Quarrelled over for centuries by the colonial powers, it was integrated into SW Africa  by South  Africa when the latter received both territories as a Mandate from the League of  Nations after the First World War. But the status of Walvis Bay remained in limbo until the date for the democratic elections in South Africa had been set. Sovereignty over Walfis Bay was transferred to Namibia in February 1994.

(8) President Mugabe was presumably referring to a delegation of farmers who previously supported Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. 

(9) Chibero Agricultural College was the leading and long established agricultural training institution with a high reputation.

(10) The Zimbabwe land question was still in the news in December 1996 when Sapa-Reuters news agency carried reports that President Mugabe’s government had formally rejected conditions attached to a British offer in October 1996  - that Whitehall would resume its stalled programme of providing cash to buy up white-owned farms but only if the farms were acquired with the full respect for the owners’ rights and that the land was not seized. Ziana, the Zimbabwe news agency, made it clear that, “Zimbabwe will not acquire land on a willing-seller, willing-buyer principle…but only on the basis of the need and in accordance with the country’s laws.”

The land question festered on and in February 2000 a referendum was held on a new Constitution for Zimbabwe. Among the proposed changes was a clause permitting the government to confiscate white-owned farms for redistribution to black farmers without payment of compensation. But Mr Mugabe was in for a shock. In the intervening years an opposition to his party had grown within Zimbabwe despite the many restrictions placed in its way. Young black intellectuals, some of them beneficiaries ironically of Mr Mugabe’s excellent mass education programme, with some  support from a growing number of discontented black voters and the small white indigenous group still in the country, managed to attract sufficient votes to overthrow the proposed draft constitution.

No to be outdone, Mr Mugabe pushed an amendment through parliament taken word for word from the rejected draft constitution. He ordered his lieutenant, a certain Chenjerai Hunzvi, to lead hundreds of self-styled “war veterans” on to the white-owned farms and take them over forcibly. The dispossession was carried out brutally in the full glare of the world’s TV cameras. Some deaths occurred, there was much bloodshed and destruction of land, buildings and vehicles. The formerly productive land stopped producing, the white owners had their property confiscated without recompense and thousands of their black workers were left unemployed and destitute.

(11) Ironically, share participation by workers in Britain was part of the platform of Thatcherism. The Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher often spoke of the scheme as “workers’ capitalism.” The Tory Mrs Thatcher and the Marxist President Mugabe were in agreement on this point if on nothing else!

(12) While it is quite true that Catholic clergy take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and that enclosed orders live a life in common, those who do so are professed clerics who undertake to live a life of prayer, service and sacrifice. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity, including Catholics, live in the secular world, making a living in a capitalist milieu and by financial contributions make it possible for the clerical system to exist. I should have put this to President Mugabe but I was not quick enough on the uptake. 

(13) The Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom taken by the Ian Smith government on 11 November 1965.

(14) The Rhodesian guerrilla war was a bloody conflict stretching over some sixteen years and fought largely in the shadows. Atrocities against civilians, and who did what to whom, remain a hotly disputed issue. The true extent of culpability will probably never be established.

A feature of the war which is not generally known is that the Rhodesian government forces were largely composed of professional black soldiers and police fighting side by side with their white compatriots. There was no mass defection to the guerrilla forces of Mr Mugabe from the defence force. Although of course he and Joshua Nkomo had armies numbering thousands with arms equipment and bases in the Frontline States launching raids and infiltration across a very long border, stretching the security forces to the limit.

At the handover during the run up to the first election which had Mr Mugabe declared the victor, the Rhodesian security forces together with Mr Mugabe’s returned fighters recently emerged from the bush and, rather ludicrously, London bobbies complete with helmets, supervised, albeit in a tension filled manner, the voting procedures. When I attended the aforementioned ‘Chogm’ meeting, I was most interested to see senior black officers of my old regiment, the Rhodesian police, on guard duty wearing medal ribbons issued by the British government, by Ian Smith and by Robert Mugabe. Very shrewd of the President not to take away old soldiers ‘toys’!



Back to Top | Features 2009