The personality of Robert Mugabe

I have remarked before that Robert Mugabe was one of the best orators I have ever heard. I am not alone in having been impressed. Below is an assessment of Mugabe’s oratory and personality, by Zimbabwean journalist Jan Raath, published in The Times (London), 12 November 2017, under the headline, “Forty years ago, I too was beguiled by Robert Mugabe, the young guerrilla leader”.

I will treasure the events of yesterday afternoon for the rest of my life. I had driven to the Harare international conference centre to hear a rather dry debate on the impeachment of Robert Mugabe, the man I have been covering for this newspaper since 1975.

I did not realise that I was about to witness history; a history that has been entwined with my own life for more than 40 years.

As Mr Mugabe’s resignation letter was read out I was stunned and filled with a sense of wonder. Outside, it was even more surreal. Countless black men came up to me to say: “Mr White Man, you can have your farm back!”

My relationship with Mr Mugabe changed the course of my adult life. I was 38 when I first met him at a press conference in 1979, after Zanla, his guerrilla army, had crossed into what was then Rhodesia from its bases in neighbouring Mozambique at the end of the five-year war.

The country was under the tentative, provisional British control of the governor, Lord Soames. There was an exultant joy among black people and a mixture of anxiety and relief among the minority white population.

I was intrigued by his diminutive stature — about 5ft 4in, and wiry. There was an alertness in his movements. His eyes were sharp and piercing. He had a curious accent when he spoke English, over-emphasising his vowels, a manner referred to as “over-corrected”.

He had a moustache the likes of which I have never seen before; a small patch of black whiskers grew only in the indentation on his upper lip. He squeezed his legs tightly under his chair, possibly a sign of nervousness. He still does, and the moustache is still there.

Highly articulate and sharp-tongued, his condemnation of the British administration was withering. His talent for vituperation is breathtaking. He can also speak with consideration and concern for others but that has not been heard for a long time. Neither I nor the other journalists with me had come across a local politician of his like. Anyone, in fact.

Like many, I was beguiled by Mr Mugabe and believed that he was a very good thing for Zimbabwe. He had been viciously anti-white in Mozambique but I was wowed by his talk of racial reconciliation and his generosity of spirit. However, within four years he and Emmerson Mnangagwa oversaw a programme of ethnic cleansing against his opponents and the scales fell from my eyes.

Having observed him closely, attended countless press conferences since and listened to him speaking publicly and privately, I feel I know him intimately. I admire him in many ways but have no doubt that he is motivated solely by a deep-seated determination for political power, irrespective of the cost to others. It is enhanced by an innate cruelty.

He is protective of his family but I’m sure that if they obstructed his ambitions they would get the short end of the deal.

He has an ability to manipulate others and a cunning and articulacy that has left the smartest British politicians and officials floundering. I have shaken his hand a few times; his grip is limp, proffered not as a manual embrace but as an afterthought. He is physically stiff with others.

He cracks jokes, which are laboured. Of course, everyone laughs uproariously so he is assured that he is a great wit.

His appearance is of great importance to him. His suits — I’ve never seen him in casual clothes — are expensively tailored, dark and conservative. He uses a tailor in Harare’s predominantly Indian trading district. If you ask the tailor for any inside information of their relationship, he just chuckles.

In 2002 I was expelled from Zimbabwe, no reasons given. I lived in London for four months while my lawyer and some politically connected friends tried to work on my return (I was married with two young children). It turned out I had offended a senior party official with a record of emotional instability with a less-than-complimentary paragraph in The Times about Mr Mugabe.

The British embassy in Harare and friends made indirect overtures to his office. After three months, the ban was rescinded and I returned home to my wife and children.

I have no doubt that it was on Mr Mugabe’s instructions; the official that imposed the ban would not have listened to anyone else.

I have not forgotten that, despite my vehement criticism of his conduct.”

Raath says that he first met Mugabe in late 1979 after Mugabe had returned to Salisbury from exile in Mozambique. At that time, Mugabe was already 55 years old, so the headline writer is stretching the truth calling him “young”.

Update (2023-10-02): I have just learnt that Jan Raath passed away in August 2023. He was a brave Zimbabwean journalist, whom I knew briefly in the early 1980s. May he rest in peace.

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