Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Saturday, 21 February 2009

Meeting Zimbabwe's 'Uncle Bob'


Panorama Archive: 1976 Robert Mugabe interview

President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's controversial ruler, has reached his 85th birthday.

To mark the occasion, the BBC's African Perspective programme asked his former friends, employees and interviewers to recall their most memorable encounters with "Uncle Bob", as he is known in Zimbabwe.


I remember very well how I first met Robert Mugabe.

In 1974, I did a series of profiles of nationalist leaders who had come out of jail.

We had not had pictures or heard of them for years.

I went round interviewing all of them. One man stood out. Robert Mugabe.

His supporters were engaged in a war with [Prime Minister] Ian Smith's army. And yet he was talking of forgiveness

He was the one without any hatred for the white man. He hated the system but he bore no grudges. He was like a breath of fresh air. My kind of man. He very quickly became my friend. And he would come to my house.

Most people found him very cold, but once he opened up, you saw another side of him - how relaxed he could be.

I remember we would have music on my gramophone. Sometimes we would sing along to Pat Boone and Jim Reeves and so on. He does have a funny side.

I haven't seen that lately, though.

Poisoned friendships

I first noticed a change in him soon after the referendum on our constitution in 2000, which was rejected by Zimbabweans.

He was now angry. He believed white Zimbabweans had influenced black Zimbabweans to reject his constitution.

Robert Mugabe

His language had changed.

He said, "The white man is our enemy." He was beside himself with anger.

That was a different Mugabe to the one I had met back in 1974.

Remember, back then, he had just come out of jail. His son had died while he was inside and he wasn't allowed to bury him.

His supporters were engaged in a war with [Prime Minister] Ian Smith's army. And yet he was talking of forgiveness.

You might remember the speech in 1980, at the end of the war, where he talked of reconciliation.

I remember listening with tears running down my cheeks, when he said, "Let's turn our swords into ploughshares. Let's forget the past. Let's look to the future.

"Even if yesterday you were my enemy," he said, "today you are my friend."

In 2000, they were no longer his friends.

It was now foreigners, whites, Americans, British who were "poisoning our people". We were at war. They wanted to "re-colonise our country".

In Africa, what he was saying found resonance. How come 250,000 whites own the majority of land in a black country? This was wrong.

And with one swing, one argument, everybody believed him.

But we were not told the real story. What he wanted was simply to stop the opposition.

Robert Mugabe
Watching opponent Morgan Tsvangirai become prime minister earlier this month


We did not read him right, in the beginning.

We were hungry for a hero.

A lot of us had never met a black person who was so eloquent. A man who appeared so intelligent, and so powerful.

He is a very hard task master. When you are working for him on a speech, he doesn't want to see a comma out of place.

By the mid 1980s, I started sensing he was losing interest in what the world said

Even if that speech is just for him, he wants to make sure that all the punctuation, the grammar, the spelling, everything is perfect.

My days started quite early. I was listening to international broadcasts - Voice of America, Radio Moscow, BBC World service - to find things that were relevant to Zimbabwe.

In the early years, Mr Mugabe showed quite a lot of interest.

He felt that he had been out of the loop and he wanted to catch up with what was happening in the world.

By the mid 1980s, I started sensing he was losing interest in what the world said or what was going on in the world.

He had already decided what his own kind of world was going to be like.

Robert Mugabe, at Lancaster House, London, 1979
Robert Mugabe (l) at Lancaster House, London, 1979, with his rival Joshua Nkomo


Robert Mugabe first came into my consciousness in the mid-1970s when the war against the white supremacist government was starting to take off.

At that particular time, Mugabe was very anxious to become the leader of Zanu and challenge the current leader Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.

Mugabe made a broadcast on [BBC] Focus on Africa in which he explicitly challenged his leadership. It was successful because he knew there would be those listening in the camps in Mozambique who would support him and move against Sithole.

And this was exactly what happened.

Born: 1924
Trained as a teacher
1961: Married Ghanaian Sally Hayfron
1964: Imprisoned by Rhodesian government
1980: Wins post-independence elections
1996: Marries Grace Marufu
2000: Loses referendum
2000: Land invasions start
2002: Wins presidential elections, dismissed by Western observers
2008: Disputed election results; agrees power-sharing deal with MDC

I got to know Mr Mugabe a lot better at the Lancaster House talks in 1979. This was a conference called by Britain inviting all the involved parties to try to resolve the conflict in Zimbabwe.

Mugabe headed his Zanu-delegation. He seemed like a very slight figure, always wearing a scarf to guard against the British cold.

A very ascetic, very intense individual; very focused; he was very much a contrast to his major political opponent Joshua Nkomo, who was a large man given to emotional outbursts.

Mugabe was very much the counterpoint to that, an intellectual who knew exactly what he wanted.

At that time he was portrayed in the British media as a terrorist. I think he was aware that that was the label.

But he knew exactly what he wanted and managed to get it all at Lancaster House.

Pent-up anger

During the conference, Mr Mugabe moved out of the London hotel provided for him by the British government.

Robert Mugabe, at Lancaster House, London, 1979
Mr Mugabe was convinced the British government was spying on him

He was convinced it had been bugged, so that any discussions he might have been having with members of his delegation were being listened to by the British government.

I and anyone who met him were impressed by what seemed to be his very spartan lifestyle. He wasn't given to overt luxury, certainly not to visitors.

That had probably come about as a result of the time he spent in prison and his early education which was at the hands of Catholic Jesuits.

In a way there was a sense of pent-up anger I think. He kept the lid on for the most part because he needed to at that time. Apparently he was a very different character when he was back in Mozambique.

From the experience of former guerrillas who opposed his leadership it was clear that he was capable of extreme ruthlessness.

I don't think Robert Mugabe has ever been a likable individual or cared much about being liked.

I think he wants to be respected and more latterly he wants to be feared.

'Gay mafia'

At one point I put it to him: "Do you ever get out? Do you ever see the appalling state of your schools and hospitals?"

He said to me, "Julian, that is a very homosexual question."

At that time, the [British] government of Tony Blair contained a couple of ministers who were homosexual.

Mr Mugabe referred to them as "the gay mafia". He thought homosexuals were out to get him.

And therefore anybody who criticised him became "homosexual".

All of these things became conflated in his mind. "If you are not for me, you are against me."

He wasn't the sort of person you could establish any sort of personal chemistry with. You were always aware of there being a certain distance.

But that doesn't mean to say he wasn't capable of greeting you in a familiar way.

He used to make a point of attending cricket matches. The white spectators were always very pleased to see him there.

He was referred to affectionately as "Uncle Bob".

For me, it has always been an enigma as to at what point he changed.

Tune into the BBC World Service to listen to African Perspective's: Meeting Bob on Saturday 21 February at 2106 GMT. The programme will be available for a week on the website.

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