Heidi Holland's biography of Robert Mugabe does something deeply unsettling—it makes me feel the dictator's painby Tom De Castella / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article here
Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland (Penguin, £17.99)
The aim of Heidi Holland’s biography of Robert Mugabe is to humanise the monster so that we can understand the “three-dimensional Mugabe instead of a cartoon villain.” That doesn’t look like such a bright idea in the context of another brutal election campaign in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been murdered, raped and tortured into submission.
Mugabe claims he has been appointed by God and can only be removed by God. In reality, the people preventing Mugabe’s exit are a junta of security chiefs implicated in past atrocities. In this light, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to pull out of the presidential run-off looks like a tactical mistake that played into Mugabe’s hands by allowing him the luxury of not having to rig the poll. But for those on the ground, the price of staying in may have become too high. In mid-June, Abigail Chiroto, the wife of the MDC mayor of Harare, was murdered by Zanu-PF thugs, the most high profile in a wave of killing that has taken the lives of 80 opposition supporters. Now Tsvangirai, as he has done with previous instances of electoral fraud, is asking the international community to step in to resolve the crisis. But with Thabo Mbeki in South Africa still blocking any serious regional or international intervention, it is hard to see where this crippled society goes from here.
Heidi Holland’s detailed excavation of Mugabe’s past unearths a more multifaceted narrative than that found in western media—a man who is both victim and villain. Reading it, I found myself sympathising with the diffident intellectual who was ill suited to a life of political struggle and leadership, but who gradually came to relish the Machiavellian modes of power. Holland’s gripping biography provides us with an opportunity to empathise with one of the world’s last great dictators—something that makes it deeply unsettling.
Holland was born in Johannesburg but grew up in Rhodesia, becoming an activist against Ian Smith’s white minority rule. The title of the book and the subject of the preface draws on an episode in 1975 when she allowed her home to be used as a safe house for the liberation struggle, and ended up cooking dinner for a young Robert Mugabe. In a nice…