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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 21:32 GMT 22:32 UK
Mugabe: Freedom fighter turned autocrat
Robert Mugabe
Mugabe learnt his skills as an independence fighter
By the BBC's Joseph Winter

The key to understanding Robert Mugabe is the 1970s guerrilla war where he made his name. World opinion saw him as a revolutionary hero, fighting racist white minority rule for the freedom of his people.

Nkomo and Mugabe
With Joshua Nkomo at Zimbabwe's independence talks
Since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 the world has moved on, but his outlook remains the same. The heroic socialist forces of his party, Zanu-PF, are still fighting the evils of capitalism and colonialism.

His opponents, in particular the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are labelled as "sell-outs" to white interests and, as during the war, this tag has been a death warrant for several MDC supporters.

Click here to watch Jane Standley's video profile of Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe's critics - and these days they are many in a country where he was once an untouchable figure - say that despite his socialist rhetoric, his rule has been one of state capitalism which has not materially benefited ordinary Zimbabweans.


Mugabe with Castro
Mugabe still asserts his socialist credentials
The president's political cronies have meanwhile been given lucrative state contracts irrespective of how they perform, and the economy as a whole has suffered.

At 76, the only leader Zimbabwe has known, still has amazing stamina. He jets around the world on various diplomatic jaunts and on his return, rarely takes a rest before launching himself into the latest political intrigues at home.

Whenever economics gets in the way of politics, politics wins every time

Professor Tony Hawkins
Journalists and officials less than half his age have a tough job keeping up with his pace. His second wife, Grace, 35, says that he wakes up at 0400 for his daily exercises. In 1997, she gave birth to their third child, Chatunga.


Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in 1924 in Kutama Mission in Zvimba, 60 km west of Harare. The surrounding areas of Trelawney and Darwendale boast some of Zimbabwe's best farm-land, mostly owned by white commercial farmers who have become rich by growing tobacco - Zimbabwe's major cash crop.

While growing up, Robert Mugabe witnessed at first hand the unequal distribution of land in the then Rhodesia.

Mugabe and Grace
His second marriage was a public relations disaster
He professes to be a staunch Catholic, and worshippers at Harare's Catholic Cathedral are occasionally swamped by security guards as he turns up for Sunday Mass.

However, Mugabe's beliefs did not prevent him from having two children by his young secretary, Grace, while his popular Ghanaian first wife, Sally, was dying from cancer.

His marriage to Grace in 1996 was a public relations disaster. Since then, the economy has steadily declined, along with Mugabe's popularity.


One of the undoubted achievements of Robert Mugabe's 20 years in power is the expansion of education. Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in Africa at 85% of the population.

Mugabe under Zanu banner
Mugabe maintains support by blaming problems on the West
Mr Mugabe was a teacher for 20 years before entering politics in 1960 and strongly believes that education is the best investment a country can make.

Political scientist Masipula Sithole says that, ironically, by expanding education, Mugabe is "digging his own grave". The young beneficiaries are now able to analyse Zimbabwe's problems for themselves and most blame government corruption and mismanagement for the lack of jobs and rising prices.

Robert Mugabe instead talks about economic sabotage by the West, and in particular by the International Monetary Fund, which forced Zimbabwe to adopt free-market reforms in 1991, when the state could no longer finance the huge programme of social spending started at independence. Only his party stalwarts now agree.

Living standards fall

MDC rally
The MDC is the first serious challenge to Mugabe's rule
As many others have found, it is far easier to find ways of sharing the national cake than to make it grow bigger. Professor Tony Hawkins of the University of Zimbabwe sums it up by saying that "whenever economics gets in the way of politics, politics wins every time".

After 20 years, living standards are falling by the day and Zimbabweans are blaming the man at the top.

But Mugabe is a proud man and, in his own way, a clever politician. As his fortunes decline, he is trying to resurrect the nationalist agenda of the 1970s - land and anti-colonialism.

Desperate measures

Land invaders
Land invasions are Mugabe's latest political ploy
Never a strong believer in multi-party politics - he has borrowed much of his politics from Mao Zedong's China - in 1990 Mugabe tried to establish a one-party state. Surprisingly, his own Zanu-PF party rejected the idea.

Now, with the MDC rapidly gaining ground, he has unleashed the self-styled war veterans who are using violence and murder as an electoral strategy. It may not be playing by the rules but it may work in the short-term as opposition sympathisers stay at home, unwilling to risk their lives.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Mugabe is becoming a cartoon figure of the archetypal Africa dictator. Like many of Africa's independence heroes, he is demonstrating that it takes very different skills to direct a guerrilla war or independence struggle and to successfully manage a national economy or pluralist democracy in the globalised 21st century.

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See also:

09 May 00 | Africa
06 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
02 May 00 | Africa
28 Jan 00 | Africa
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