Dinner with Mugabe

The untold story of Mugabe the former freedom fighter becoming a tyrant
Holland, Heidi
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29,95 € *
Dinner with Mugabe

Author: Heidi Holland
Publisher: Penguin Books
Cape Town, 2008
ISBN 9780143025573
Hardback, dust cover, 16x24 cm, 250 pages, several bw-photos


"I don't make enemies. Others make me an enemy of theirs ... "We compromise a lot, but with principles, no. You don't, you don't, you don't, you don't sacrifice principles."
Robert Mugabe, exclusive interview

At a time when the world waits to see what will happen in a Zimbabwe where there is no food in the shops, no foreign currency available and a continuous stream of Zimbabweans entering South Africa, this is the book that sheds light on the man at the helm of a rotten regime – the man behind the monster.

This penetrating, timely portrait of Robert Mugabe is the psychobiography of a man whose once-brilliant career has ruined Zimbabwe and cast shame on the African continent.

Heidi Holland’s tireless investigation begins with her having dinner with Mugabe, the freedom fighter, and ends in a searching interview with Zimbabwe’s president more than 30 years later.

The author charts Mugabe’s gradual self-destruction, and uncovers the complicity of some of the most respectable international players in the Zimbabwe tragedy.

Probing the mystery of Africa’s loyalty to one of its worst dictators, Holland explores the contradictions that cloud the life of a man who had embodied the continent’s promise.

About the author:

Heidi Holland has been reporting from Africa for 30 years. As a freelance journalist, she has written extensively about the continent’s liberation movements as well as its people, cities and belief systems for international newspapers including the Guardian and the Sunday Times in London, and for television channels including the British Broadcasting Corporation and Nine Network, Australia.

Her books include The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress, published in the week Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years’ imprisonment in 1990, and a true crime investigation of racism and violence in South Africa, published in 2006, The Colour of Murder: One family’s horror exposes a nation’s anguish.

Media review:

Adam Roberts, 77ie Economist:
"The most intimate portrait yet produced of Zimbabwe's clever but brutal leader. Heidi Holland gets under the skin of a troubled man who turned from nationalist hero to international pariah, all but destroying his country in the process."

Mugabe biographer David Blair, Daily Telegraph
"By tracking down the key figures in Mugabe's life, Heidi Holland has come closer than anyone else to discovering what makes the old dictator tick."


Timeline: A chronology of key events in Robert Mugabe's life
Brother in the background
Mummy and Uncle Bob
The prisoner's friend
Comrades in arms
A surprise agreement
Tea with Lady Soames
I told you so
Britain's diplomatic blunder
A reluctant politician
The faithful priest
In the eyes of God's deputies
The man in the elegant suit
Two of a kind
As it was in the beginning
The good, the bad, and the reality
Selected bibliography


The identity of my dinner guest was to remain a secret until we met. A friend - a constitutional expert and fellow activist - had asked if he could hold a secret meeting at my house. My job was simply to provide a safe, private place and dinner. So I gave the nanny who helped take care of my toddler the day off and busied myself in the kitchen, preparing a chicken for the oven.

After dark, a taxi drew up outside my ranch-style home. I heard my friend's voice as he stepped out of the vehicle with another man, who was wearing a hat pulled down over his forehead. It wasn't until he stood under the veranda light and looked up as we greeted each other that I recognised him. It was Robert Mugabe.

He was swaggering awkwardly, as he does still. His shoulders were stooped a bit and he looked lean and agile, as if ready and able to sprint. It was 1975, a momentous year for Mugabe.

I did not know it then, but he was about to escape into neighbouring Mozambique, having been released from 11 years of political imprisonment but knowing he might be rearrested at any time. Across the border, he was to begin building his guerrilla power base just a few weeks after coming to dinner at my house.

I was more concerned about cooking than politics that night. Knowing too many of the details that might interest the security police was a dangerous burden so I asked no questions. Mugabe had arrived later than expected, announcing that he would soon be fetched to catch a 9pm train at Salisbury's Park Station.

I fled to the kitchen to speed up the meal. A connecting door to the dining room remained open as the two men sat down with the glasses of water they had requested, but I didn't have time to eavesdrop.

Mugabe began questioning my friend, the constitutional expert Dr Ahrn Palley, in a quiet, urgent tone. I could hear that he was asking about the economy rather than legal matters. I could also feel the force of Mugabe's subdued but driven personality, particularly in Ahrn's deferential response.

As a man whose advice was sought at one time or other by all the country's nationalist leaders, Ahrn was surprisingly in awe of Mugabe. Like me, he openly despised Rhodesian premier lan Smith and privately pitied the pretenders who tried to cut moderate deals with the whites.

I had first met Ahrn Palley in 1965 when interviewing him for a story about the night he kept Parliament sitting until dawn while MPs were debating lan Smith's upcoming unilateral declaration of independence from Britain. He was much admired by black Rhodesians for having finally left the House waving the Union Jack in support of Britain after the record-long debate.

He was a contemporary of Mugabe's; I was 20 odd years younger. The reason I hung out with him was because none of the other white groups or individuals who were politically active in Salisbury - as Harare, the capital, was then known - quite reflected my own conviction that majority rule meant just that, given our terrible history, and not some wishful compromise between black and white aspirations.

Ahrn had met other nationalist politicians at my house, although it was only on occasions when my conservative husband was out of town on business that I could offer the refuge. I had never had a black man to dinner before.

Unlike most white Rhodesians, I already knew what Mugabe looked like before he came to my house because I had a picture of him tucked away in my desk at the offices of the magazine I edited. It had arrived unexpectedly in a pile of political profiles from a syndication agency in London.

Although it was impossible to publish the picture legally in Rhodesia in those repressive days, I often put it on the light box to examine the fine-boned face. One of my conservative colleagues sarcastically suggested I seek psychological help for what he claimed was my obsessive interest in a monster.

I was magnetised by Mugabe's look of pure steel; such a forbidding image for a man who wanted to win votes and influence people. What particularly interested me was the colour of his eyes, which seemed on the transparency as if, in defiance of genetics, they might have been blue rather than brown.

Everything about him spelt defiance in that mid-Cold War period. From his upstanding Maoist collar to the cold glint of certainty in his stare, he sent shivers up multiple spines. Ahrn once described him as the black Robespierre, an uncompromising, distilled man with no obvious charisma.

I was delighted to have his picture in my drawer, not only because it was a risky possession and I was young and radical, but because I had decided to publish it as soon as I got the chance. Intrigued by Robert Mugabe, I imagined in his detached gaze a vision of the country's future that nobody else could see. I felt I understood him in a way that few others outside the black community did, although I had never seen him in the flesh.

Five years later, again with Ahrn Palley, I watched him from 50 paces, the sole whites standing with an English priest in a large crowd that had gathered at a Catholic-run leadership training academy, Silveira House, to welcome Mugabe home from the bush war shortly before the elections that brought independence.

It was at Silveira House that I met and befriended Mugabe's sister Sabina. She taught dressmaking to aspiring entrepreneurs from the townships around Salisbury. She showed me a photograph of Robert and Sally Mugabe's wedding and allowed me to make a copy of it. He was wearing a dark suit and white gloves, while Sally was covered in lace in the frothy middle-class style of the Christian nuptials of the 50s.

He had an appropriately soft look in his eyes on that occasion. The picture provided a laughable contrast to his revolutionary image. I gave it to the London agency that had sent me the head shot of him, thinking it might help to portray Mugabe as human rather than the demon that many Westerners and virtually all white Africans saw.

Later, I ran the original photo of Mugabe's face life-size on the front cover of Illustrated Life Rhodesia, much to my boss's fury. Apart from almost costing me my job, it resulted in the magazine being served with a banning order by a uniformed policeman. He strode into my office one morning after the offending issue had been on sale for a day or two.

Explaining curtly that publication of Mugabe's image was in breach of censorship laws, he demanded that the magazine be withdrawn forthwith. When the distributors went to retrieve it, though, few copies remained unsold on the news-stands. It was our fastest-selling issue ever.

The dinner was barely served when Mugabe, having rearranged roast chicken and green beans on his plate but hardly eaten any of it, glanced for the third time at the carriage clock on the mantelpiece. His lift had not arrived. Seeing it was close to 9pm and that Ahrn could not drive, I realised Mugabe would miss his train if I did not take him downtown immediately.

With my toddler son asleep in his cot and no time to bundle him into the car, I drove the 20-minute journey frantically fast. Mugabe sat beside me in my battered, beige Renault 4, clasping the dashboard as he continued his conversation with Ahrn in the back seat and I careered around corners, explaining that I was in a rush because I had left my child at home alone. The next afternoon, to my surprise, a man calling from a public phone rang me at home to thank me for dinner and enquire after my baby. It was Robert Mugabe.

After the night he came for dinner, I had no further personal contact with the tense man whose audacious ideas were to become synonymous with Zimbabwe. Over the next five years, Robert Mugabe waged a bitter war between blacks seeking liberation and white Rhodesians who believed they were combating terrorism.

Peace came unexpectedly. With the greatest reluctance and in their view generosity, Rhodesians conceded power to Zimbabwe in 1980 in the hope that black rule would be moderate and deferential to white interests. lan Smith had been warning for years that they would lose everything to a Marxist state if the terrorists took control so some whites headed straight for the South African border on Tuesday, 4 March 1980, on hearing that Robert Mugabe had won an absolute majority in the British-supervised elections.

Some talked recklessly of reprisals and sabotage. Others wandered around their immaculate suburbs in bewilderment, blaming intimidation at the polls and British treachery for the uncertain future they faced.

I went into my office unusually early that morning. The streets outside were jammed with Africans singing, dancing, ululating and waving branches or in some cases their fists. Expectations were ludicrously high. I surprised our office messenger, who was sitting at the secretary's desk practising the boss's signature. I guessed aloud that he was hoping to take over the company before long. He begged me not to tell and rushed away to make me a cup of coffee.

In the evening. Comrade Robert Mugabe strolled into white living rooms countrywide. Promising reconciliation rather than revenge, he told television viewers that he would honour the British-brokered Lancaster House agreement, thus guaranteeing white pensions and property rights. He also revealed that he had invited the existing commander of the security forces to head a new integrated army. The monster of the morning had begun to morph into a responsible leader by the third beer that night.

Everyone wanted to believe in Robert Mugabe. White Rhodesians longed to retain the agreeable lifestyle to which black Zimbabweans aspired. Britain saw democratic Zimbabwe as a Foreign Office trophy. Conflicting hopes survived for 15 years after independence despite the slaughter by Mugabe's personal militia of thousands of people loyal to the opposition leader Joshua Nkomo in the early 80s.

Virtually everyone who should have cried foul looked the other way; whites because they were grateful to be out of the range of fire; the British government because it had to stand by its man up north while trying to bring majority rule to apartheid South Africa; and the international media because it had backed Mugabe to the hilt and could not contemplate its flawed judgement.

As a freelance journalist by then, I went along with the prevailing line, even when my family was forced to flee the country ahead of Mugabe's security police. My husband, a surgeon, had enraged the new government by going behind prison walls in 1982 to obtain medical evidence of the torture of white airmen whom Mugabe had accused of attempting to blow up Zimbabwe Air Force planes, a capital offence.

Nobody knew for sure if the airmen had indeed plotted against the state, certainly a possibility in those days. So Mugabe was given the benefit of the doubt, despite the airmen's pledges of innocence. Looking back ever since, I realise that I and many other well-intentioned individuals may have helped Robert Mugabe to become the man he is today.

If we had reacted differently to the early signs of his paranoia, could Zimbabwe have been saved from its current abyss? If whites in the country had been more realistic and acknowledged the impossibility of shifting smoothly from a police state of their creation to the democracy of their self-serving dreams, would they have been more respectful, less provocative? Or is Robert Mugabe simply an example of how power corrupts?

The questions are endless. What, if anything, could the former colonial power and the international community have done to curtail Mugabe's economic mismanagement before its effects spiralled into disaster? Can we legitimately heap all the blame for Zimbabwe's demise on Mugabe, or did he have some respectable accomplices? Were we who supported Robert Mugabe wrong about him all along?

In my case, the recurring question is a personal one: What happened to the man who was kind enough to phone a young mother and enquire about her child after a brief dinner in 1975? How on earth did he become the cruel dictator who rules Zimbabwe by decree and corrupt patronage more than 30 years later?

They are questions that might never be answered adequately, although the people who have known Mugabe personally and participated in his life may be able to shed some light on his mindset and motives. Many crucial witnesses, like Robert Mugabe himself, are nearing the end of their lives. It is important to speak to them because it is possible that the one-dimensional, demonised character of 'Mad Bob' Mugabe is concealing significant secrets and lessons for history.

Humanising the monster, finding the three-dimensional Mugabe instead of a cartoon villain, is a process of understanding rather than exoneration. According to British actor Sir lan McKellen, who over a career spanning 40 years has brought to life monsters of every epoch from lago to Rasputin:

'One of the few lessons I have learnt from studying people who do terrible things is that they are all too human. And that we are all capable of doing almost anything.'

Discovering that Robert Mugabe is a real person making hideous decisions is not to let him off the hook but is to observe how and why he lost his way. It might alert us to similarly dangerous propensities in other leaders.

What happened to the gifted scholar who used his time in Rhodesian jails to acquire a long list of degrees; whose only frivolity was a passion for Elvis Presley? Is the story of Robert Mugabe a tragedy - greatness brought low - or is the tragedy entirely Zimbabwe's?

How can Robert Mugabe be framed in terms of other despots? He is certainly no buffoon like Uganda's Idi Amin. And he is far too detached to have blood on his own hands like Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti or Mobutu Sese Seko of the then Zaire. Accumulating personal wealth, like Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, is not Mugabe's motive for tyranny either.

The story of Robert Mugabe is a microcosm of what bedevils African democracy and economic recovery at the beginning of the 21st century. It is a classic case of a genuine hero - the guerrilla idol who conquered the country's former leader and his white supremacist regime - turning into a peevish autocrat whose standard response to those suggesting he steps down is to tell them to get lost. It is also the story of activists who try to make a better society but bear the indelible scars of the old system. Mugabe's political education came from the autocrat lan Smith, who had learnt his formative lessons from imperious British colonisers.

Above all, it is the story of one man who lost his moral compass, with dire consequences for many others. Robert Mugabe had the world at his feet in 1980. Slowly but inexorably, he squandered his life's work, betraying the people who trusted him. Why? What drove his self-destruction?

I put these and many other questions to dozens of people. Some are British and some are Zimbabwean refugees now living in Britain or South Africa. Others have had no choice but to hang on anxiously in bankrupt Zimbabwe, waiting for better days. A cast of historically relevant characters - all of whom have known Mugabe personally and influenced him significantly - they offer a range of insights into how power corrupts.

Through first-hand observation of Mugabe's descent into tyranny, they illuminate some of the overarching constraints to progress on a continent noted for chaos. Their collective opinion gives the first nuanced and complex biography of a man whose decline and fall from grace has been witnessed by the world.

My mission is to tell the story of 84-year-old Robert Mugabe's life in order to understand how a man who once favoured simplicity became a greedy potentate with a wife half his age and a weakness for luxury. If today he is too cynical to notice that his countrymen are starving because of his failings and excesses, where did his pessimism originate? Was he always a ruthless person or did he gradually become power-crazed?

Most of the research in this book is original; now recorded for posterity. But what is truly unique about Dinner with Mugabe is the analysis it brings to his state of mind. I enlisted the help of Shayleen Peeke, a psychologist with 15 years' clinical experience, in exploring the psychology of Robert Mugabe.

Familiar with the southern African political perspectives that shaped Zimbabwe's president, Shayleen has worked over the years with a number of civil society human rights initiatives in the region.

Shayleen listened to the tapes of my interviews with people who had dealt personally with Robert Mugabe. Some of them had a profound influence on him before and during his presidency. She and I then discussed what those who had known Mugabe said about him. We talked at length about his world view - judging by what others thought of him and what he said about himself - reflecting on him as a man rather than a monster.

London-based psychologist Ben Manyika, who is Zimbabwean, read and adjusted the manuscript. Eva Hurley, an Irish-trained emotional intelligence consultant living in Dubai but contracted to corporate clients internationally, reviewed all the chapters. The result is a psycho-biography of one of the world's most puzzling and destructive leaders.

In trying to understand a career like Mugabe's, we were careful not to explain away the behaviour of a murderer. By locating some of the causes of his tyranny in society, we were wary of making violence implicitly more acceptable. While some of our explanations invite empathy for the tyrant, partly because we know that someone like Mugabe is a human being like us, we remain acutely aware that recent efforts to understand Hitler, for example, have been described by French philosopher and film-maker Claude Lanzmann as 'the obscenity of understanding'.

Can we not counter his argument, though, by asking how we will ever learn from the cruellest chapters of history if attempts to understand tyrants are not allowed?


African National Congress (ANC) 36,
Amin, Idi xiv,228
Amnesty International 100
Annan, Kofi 216
Beira Corridor Group 115,116
Bekele, Patricia 12-25,173
Bhagat, Bhula 162-165,172
Blair, Tonyxviii,71,95,96,97,100,
Breakfast with Mugabe 173-174
British Foreign Office xiii.60,64,95,
Bush war xi,xx,33,83,87,89,90,114,
Bute, Kazito 154-156,157
Carrington, Peter Alexander Rupert
Carter, Jimmy 132,229-230
Catholic Commission for Justice and
Peace (CCJP) 127,130,147
Central Intelligence Organisation
(CIO) 34,124,168,169,170,175,
Chakaipa, Patrick 148
Chapman, Sue 166
Charamba, George 218-221,233
Chidzero, Bernard 136n
Chikerema, James 7,51,112,154
Chitepo, Herbert xvii,43,49,52,178,
Chitepo, Victoria 52,193
CIO. See Central Intelligence
Clutton-Brock, Guy 200-201
Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU)
Constitutional Commission 137,138,
Cook, Robin 236-237
Department for International
Development (DFID) 97,105
Dove, John 156-158
Fifth Brigade xviii,39n,148,186-187,
First Chimurenga (1896) 40
Flower, Ken 34,36
Gono, Gideon 200
Government House 70,72,76
Grace, Fraser 173,174
Gukurahundi xiii, 15,39,39n,66,104,
Gumbo, Rugare 49-50
Hain, Peter 102,103,131
Heroes Acre 23,79,173,192-194,200-
Hitler, Adolf 71,158,182,205
Hunzvi, Chenjerai 'Hitler' 123,207
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
Invasions of white-owned farms 53,
Iraq, war in 97,103,105
Kahari, George 6-7
Kangai, Kumbirai 95,97
Kaunda, Kenneth 43,49,86,132,133,
Kutamaxvii,xviii, 1-8,11,13,32,62,147,
Lancaster House (1979) xiii,xvii,48,
Land issue 99,100,103,121,123,131,
Land redistribution 95,96,96n,97,98,
Laub, Angelika 148-150,153
Lobengula, King 83,133
Machel, Samora 50,60,132,133,178,
Major, John 230,233
Malianga, Moton 41
Mandela, Nelson xviii,87,104,122,
Mariam, Mengistu Haile 160
Mbeki, Thabo 103,171
McGuiness, Mac 28-36,38-39,207
McNamara, Father 130
MDC (1999) xviii, xix,87,105,129,
Mehta, Veejay 181
Mhanda, Wilfred 179-180
Mnangagwa, Emmerson 35,36,187n,
Movement for Democratic Change.
Moyo, Jonathan 177-191,209
Mugabe, Albeit 8,9
Mugabe, Bona 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,13,19,
Mugabe, Bridget 4,156
Mugabe, Chatunga 170-172,218
Mugabe, Donate 1-10,210,223
Mugabe, Evelyn 1,2,9,10
Mugabe, Gabriel 3,28,182,206,216,
Mugabe, Grace (nee Marufu) xviii,xxi,
Mugabe, Michael 3,224-225
Mugabe, Nhamo xvii,9,14,15,16,27-
Mugabe, Raphael 3
Mugabe, Robert Junior 169
Mugabe, Sabina xi,13,27,52,156
Mugabe, Sally (nee Hayfron) xi,xvii,
Mujuru, Joice (aka Teurai Ropa) 193,
Mujuru, Solomon (aka Rex Nhongo)
Mukonori, Fidelis 96n,126-144,150,
Mutasa, Didymus 146-147,187,200,
Muzenda, Simon 50
Muzorewa, Abel 43,46,58,62,63-64,
National Democratic Party (NDP) xvii,
Ncube, Pius 147,150
Nhongo, Rex. See Solomon Mujuru
Niesewand, Peter 89
Nkala, Enos 41,42,52
Nkomo, Joshua xiii,xvii,13,29,35,39,
Nkrumah, Kwame 11,180,181
Norman, Denis 93,107-125,182,208,
Nyagumbo, Maurice 41,42,52,120
Nyerere, Julius 60,68-69,86,94,132,
Obasanjo, Olusegun 236-237
Operation Murambatsvina (2005)
Overseas Development Administration
(ODA) 98,105
O'Hea, Jerome 4,5,6,25,40,188,212,
Palley, Ahrn x,xi,xii,221
Parbhoo, Khalil 'Solly' 159-162
Patrikios, George 37,38
Patriotic Front xviii,58,61,62,63,127,
Queen Elizabeth II 18-19,65,78,109,
Ranger, Terence 193
Rhodes, Cecil John 71,83,119,133
Ribeiro, Emmanuel 150-154,157,213
Rodwell, Cecil 212
Ropa, Teurai. See Joice Mujuru
Royal Family 167,235
Second Chimurenga. See bush war
Sekeramayi, Sydney 56,87
Selous Scouts 29,33,36
Sese Seko, Mobutu xiv,97
Shamuyarira, Nathan 99
Sher, Anthony 173-174
Shiri, Perence 186
Short, Clare 95-106,121,131,210,231,
Silveira House xi.127,155,156,221
Sithole, Ndabaningi 29,41-43,48,52,
Slatter, Hugh 37,38
Smith, David 109,114,229
Smith, lan x,xii,xv,8,14,18,28,29,36,
Soames, Christopher 63,68,69,70-78,
Soames, Mary 70-81,160,208,235-236
Soni, Rajan 105
Southern African Development
Community (SADC) 119,122,197
Special Branch 27,30,34,196,201
St Francis Xavier College xvii,3,4,5,6,
Stannard, Dan 34,175,176,196,199,
State House 12,17,19,20,23,24,25,
Takawira, Leopold 162
Tangwena, Mbuya 44-45
Tangwena, Reyaki 44-45,175
Tekere, Edgar xvii,xviii,28,40-57,152,
Thatcher, Margaret 38,58,61,65,77,
Third Chimurenga 142,145
Tholet, Clem 87
Tholet, Jean 84,87
Tongogara, Evelyn 201-202
Tongogara, Josiah xvii,43,48,55,56,
Tsvangirai, Morgan xviii,137,139,195,
Unilateral declaration of indepen-
dence (1965) x,128,135
United African National Conference
(UANC) 43,46
United Nations 99,100,103,128,198,
Unity Accord xviii,142
University College of Fort Hare xvii,
Vambe, Lawrence 4,6,68,209,211-212
Vorster, John 85,193
Wales, Prince Charles 34,67,77-78,235
Wales, Princess Diana 77-78
Walls, Peter 63-65
War veterans xviii,xx-xxi,53,100,123-
Wermter, Oskar 145-148
Willowgate xviii.24,120
World Bank 95,136,140,151;
Economic Structural Adjustment
Programme (Esap) xviii,136,184
York Lodge 169,218,220

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