Page last updated at 08:39 GMT, Monday, 30 June 2008 09:39 UK

A glimpse inside Mugabe's world

South African writer Heidi Holland is one of the last non-Zimbabwean journalists to have interviewed Robert Mugabe. She spent two hours with him last December after pursuing the Zimbabwean president for months. This is her description of that encounter.

Robert Mugabe (right) talks to Heidi Holland (centre)
Robert Mugabe speaking to Heidi Holland during the interview

While I waited outside Robert Mugabe's office in the foyer of State House, his spokesman hissed at me to get to my feet.

Jumping up, I followed the frozen gaze of a dozen officials who stood to attention suddenly.

Behind my chair, Zimbabwe's president had appeared in a doorway, motionless and staring straight at me.

I smiled but he stared passively back. His eyes never left my face.

I felt he was trying to get the measure of me. I had heard from his niece how he used silence as a weapon to unnerve his enemies and ensure that nobody knew what he was thinking.

Once I faced Mr Mugabe across his big desk, he apologised for keeping me waiting in a Harare hotel for five weeks.

His face remained expressionless, which is presumably why, having neither frown nor laughter lines, he looks so much younger than his 84 years.

The British spoilt things for the whites
Robert Mugabe

As one of the world's most reviled leaders continued to study his visitor silently, I realised Mr Mugabe was almost as wary of me as I was of him. The six officials in attendance did not move a muscle.

The tension in the room remained suffocating until I was invited by his spokesman to describe the book I was writing.

Mr Mugabe laughed uproariously when I related an anecdote from my interview with Lady Mary Soames, widow of Britain's last governor in Rhodesia.

She told me how her English friends had urged her to send a disapproving letter to Mr Mugabe, with whom she once socialised, and how she explained to them that, having taken Zimbabwe's president off her Christmas card list, she could do no more.

Lonely child

Earlier, I had spotted a massive banner inside the presidency on which the words 'Mugabe is right' were emblazoned.

His staff's obsequious laughter each time he made a sarcastic remark confirmed that their conditions of service included internalising the idea that he can do no wrong.

empty shop shelves
What is lacking now are goods on the shelves - that is all
Robert Mugabe
Mr Mugabe admitted having no lifelong friends and, as a lonely, bookish child, he recalled "talking to myself, reciting little poems and reading things aloud to myself."

Tears gleamed in his eyes when he recalled the cordial relations he once enjoyed with Britain's Royal Family.

He talked a lot about his "sacrifice and suffering", words reminiscent of the Christian concepts he imbibed as a child in a Catholic mission school.

He told me that his granny was regarded as a heathen, explaining that he could only visit her when the European priests allowed it.

One of them became a surrogate parent after his own father abandoned the family.

I first met Mr Mugabe in 1975, shortly before he crossed the border from what was then Rhodesia into Mozambique to wage war against white minority rule.

He came to dinner at my house, not to meet me but to talk to a constitutional expert, who was my friend.

He was quiet and pleasant, though he became agitated when his lift did not arrive and he thought he would miss his train at 2100.

Seeing my friend could not drive, I decided to take Mr Mugabe to the station myself, leaving my baby at home alone.

Driving fast and in a panic, I told him that I had left my son unattended.

The next day, he phoned from a public call box to thank me for dinner and to ask if my baby was okay.

In contrast to his vitriolic public speeches, underneath there is a shy, softly-spoken man.

When I met him again last year, he remained the same, albeit more severe and distilled.

Bubble of denial

When discussing his infamous land grab, he referred pointedly to the country's dispossessed land owners as "British farmers" and made it clear that he held Britain responsible for the bloody 15-year-long war with his predecessor Ian Smith.

Mr Mugabe is obsessed with his sense of betrayal by the British. "It was the British who spoilt things for the whites," he told me.

On his reasoning behind the land invasions, he said: "We had hoped that the British would take notice of it and that they would say: 'Let's meet and discuss this'"

It became clear that Mr Mugabe has arranged himself in a bubble of denial to avoid facing what he has done in Zimbabwe.

When I suggested that his policies had caused the economy to collapse, he sat up straight, his eyes flashing.

"Our economy is a hundred times better, than the average African economy. Outside South Africa, what country is [as good as] Zimbabwe?...What is lacking now are goods on the shelves - that is all."

It seemed to me that Mr Mugabe was showing he was completely out of touch with reality.

Heidi Holland is the author of Dinner with Mugabe

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