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Book Review
Last Updated: 06/09/2003
The Lost Jewel

President Robert Mugabe shows no sign of retiring or surrendering power to the growing opposition party in Zimbabwe. Martin Meredith's Our Votes Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe published by Public Affairs, June 2003, provides the background to one of this week's crises in Africa.


The late Samora Machel, President of Mozambique and close ally of Robert Mugabe, said when Mugabe won power in Southern Rhodesia: “You have a jewel. Take good care of it.” Zimbabwe at this moment has lost its precious qualities. To Martin Meredith, the main culprit is Mugabe.  In “Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe”, Meredith wants the reader to know that despite being able to lay blame at the door of the former colonial powers, of apartheid South Africa, of the intransigent white Rhodesian regime, and successive British governments, the current president has steadily ruined the economy and destroyed hopes for democracy in Zimbabwe.

 

This readable book, now re-issued in paperback and updated since its original publication in 2000, tells a tale of extraordinary brave men and women and of extraordinarily corrupt ones, too. On balance the bravery is dwarfed by the lust for power and wealth. It is a story, too, of the new African politics, of the universals of power in its most corrupt form (exercised both by whites and blacks alike) of human frailty and tragedy, as the title suggests. The careful detail in the book demonstrates how regimes are built from initial compromises that lead increasingly to intimidation, fear and distribution of favours and opportunities to acquire wealth.

 

Looking for explanations, causes, and key elements in the process of losing the jewel, the following stand out from the narrative:

 

  1. Mugabe won political power but not economic power, which meant there would have to be serious tensions in due course.
  2. In the absence of gold or cobalt or uranium or copper or oil or any of the other minerals in demand in world markets, economic power consisted of landownership. Overwhelmingly the best land remained owned by a relatively small number of whites. Land would have to be the focus of struggle.
  3. Zimbabwe does not exist in a vacuum, and the relationship with Mozambique, South Africa, other countries in Africa such as DR Congo were and are of great importance. Mugabe’s intervention in the Congo, not even a neighbour, was designed to supply rich pickings for Mugabe’s generals and supporters.
  4. The role of Britain as the former colonial power and the relationship of the British Government with so-called kith and kin were of great importance in setting up a compromise situation that was inherently unstable. Meredith shows how during the early stages of independence the British were naïve and casual.
  5. Ideology plays its part but really as a justificatory element. While Mugabe always claimed to be a Marxist, he was no socialist. He aimed always to become another totalitarian. In the event he was aided by the regime of N. Korea, which trained the armed Brigade that acted as his main enforcer.
  6. Mugabe never hesitated to use violence, and violence played an integral part in getting him into power and holding on to it. As threats to Mugabe’s power increased, so violence increased.  He has removed all constitutional guarantees for the exercise of a just judicial process, the Supreme Court. The police refuse to intervene to provide security for ordinary people, black or white, who fall foul of the war veterans or the army or other paid agents of the regime.

 

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of a varied coalition, accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe, waits to hear his fate in prison. The MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) promises more strikes and mass action. The 79 year old President plays for time. Martin Meredith has supplied the narrative. History will supply the ending. At the moment, it does not look like a happy one.

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