(Photo by ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images)

Mugabe and Me

From bonding over jokes about Jesuit teachers to becoming a persona non grata, David Smith recalls his relationship with Robert Mugabe

Artillery Row

So here’s a question for any journalist with a few years in the business. Especially in an age when facts, let alone the truth, can be an issue of dispute. On what event, story, moment did you misread? I hesitate to say it, fail perhaps?

For many, there’s bound to be a narrative that it would be easier to bury, forget about, look the other way, make your apologies and leave. As so often, I hear my Irish grandmother, this time saying: there’s none so deaf as he, or she, who doesn’t want to hear. Or in her inimitable words, someone who cocks a deaf ear.

This February brings to mind Keats, and “seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” Yes, I know he wrote of autumn. But the mists are of time. And some fruitfulness, mellow for me, lies in remembering a fairly monumental February for Africa and the British Empire.

February 1980, and the old Rhodesia of one Ian Smith became the new Zimbabwe of one Robert Mugabe. A relatively peaceful transition, given the war that preceded it, and the fear of bloody violence that accompanied the bold plan to bring Mugabe’s fighters in from the bush and hold free elections that month. A triumph for diplomacy and democracy, so we hoped. And so we reported. Given the bloody, dictatorial nightmare that followed in Zimbabwe, you’d have to be tone-deaf not to note the shortfall between our depiction of Mugabe in 1980, and the man the world buried with relief almost a couple of years back.

He’d invite me to sit with him, the two of us joking some days about our Jesuit teachers

And I, lucky fellow, had been afforded the window to come to know Robert, the man at the epicentre of the narrative. In the final three months of 1979 ITN had sent me to cover the Rhodesia peace talks at Lancaster House, a splendid mansion tucked between Pall Mall and Buckingham Palace, notionally for News at Ten. Except, wait for it, there was no ITV on the air due to a technicians’ strike, such was our world in the winters of discontent. For weeks I had the odd privilege of attending the talks, with buckets of time to nurture contacts with all the players, chief among them Mugabe.

He’d invite me to sit with him, first in the tea-room at the talks, then at the apartment in Bayswater Road where he was living with his wife Sally, the two of us joking some days about our Jesuit teachers. He’d regale us with off-the-record tales of Ian Smith’s machinations, or threats made by Smith’s top General, Peter Walls, even his admiration for Peter Carrington, Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, the conference chair. And, questioned by me, he’d let us glimpse his dark side. “General Walls says he can crush us if these talks fail,” he told me one night over a plate of Sally’s favourite, veggie stew. “Let me tell you, David, we will exterminate Walls and his like if need be.” Sally, as ever his mentor, stopped him. “Robert, don’t talk that way. We’re being given the chance to take power peacefully, right?”

But yes. I was David to Mugabe. I called him Robert. Sally used to give me a hug when I left, telling me to come back often.

By the time News at Ten returned in November, the peace talks had reached crisis-point, and this young correspondent was able to score a small scoop or two, featuring all sides. General Walls went on our air, to say loudly that he would indeed “crush” Mugabe’s army if the talks failed. Mugabe responded with a blistering interview, warning he could leave imminently and return to war. When he made a bizarre weekend dash to east Africa, to see friendly leaders in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, and seek their backing, I went with him for ITN. “Good you understand, David, how strong we are,” he told me. “Be under no illusion who will crush whom.” Again, a glimpse of the real Robert. Still, Lord Carrington assured me, “Mugabe’s the future of Africa.” Madam Thatcher concurred loudly.

And so to Southern Africa for the endgame, first waiting with the British army for Mugabe’s men to arrive and de-mob, in a TV ‘pool’ that joined ITN and BBC, blessed to have the BBC’s John Humphrys alongside me, teaching me so much. Then to Maputo, Mozambique, to see Mugabe as he prepared to fly home, another exclusive full of bile for all those who stood in his way. Afternoons at his house in Maputo, where he discussed his agenda over tea, voicing big-picture thoughts about farming, mining, the tobacco industry, the need to keep the whites on board when he took power. He harboured no doubt he would win. But now, more clearly, you saw that other face of the man. He talked of how his military cadres would ensure their voters came out. “We will do whatever it takes.” Unprompted, he remembered condemning insubordinates to death when necessary. “Victory demands, sometimes, executions.”

Back in Harare, aka Salisbury, the tell-tale signs of Mugabe’s strategy, became abundantly clear. His opponents came to Government House, now the home of Governor Christopher Soames, to call out Mugabe’s men for brutalising, torturing, even murdering candidates running for other parties. One case stuck in the memory bank. Mugabe’s fighters, some of the estimated 3,000 who had not turned themselves in, abducted a candidate in a tribal area near Fort Victoria, one Francis Makombe. They paraded him in front of peasants ordered to assemble, then informed the crowd that all those who did not vote for Mugabe would have their heads cut off. They poured burning coals down the candidate’s throat. We reported that.

At Government House, Lord Soames agonized some days over whether to allow the election to go ahead, with his own military reporting such violations in more than half the country. “In this particular race, all the horses are going to get to the starting line,” he told us one evening over a stiff drink. “We may have to pull a jockey or two, even hold an enquiry. But they all start.” Equestrian language was a feature of the Governor’s cocktail hour. Camilla Parker-Bowles, then married to Major Andrew Parker-Bowles, a military adviser to Soames, could on occasion be heard complaining about the “quality of horses” thereabouts.

On the eve of the election, at their newly-acquired home on leafy Quorn Avenue in the white suburb of Mount Pleasant, white policemen at the gate, Robert told me how many seats he would win. “You will see, David, 56 seats.”

In the event, he was one out. He won 57. And so began his absolute domination of the new Zimbabwe. Yes, he made conciliatory moves, appointing a white, one David Smith (no relation) to be his first Finance minister. Yes, he said he “loved” Camilla’s beau, Prince Charles, who attended Zimbabwe’s independence. Yes, he even kept General Walls as military commander for a while.

I co-wrote the first biography of the man; let’s just say it reflected the popular judgement 40 years ago

But the years teach much which the days never know, so wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. From sending in North Korean thugs to kill his opponents, to dispatching his own thugs to murder white farmers and seize their land, to inflicting dire poverty and starvation on his own people. The years taught all of us who gave Robert the benefit of the doubt, and for every journo like me, think Thatcher, Carrington, even Ronald Reagan…well, the years highlighted what Archbishop Desmond Tutu concluded: “Mugabe has really turned into a kind of Frankenstein for his people.”

I co-wrote the first biography of the man, “behind the myth” they said, and while it detailed the hidden Mugabe, let’s just say it reflected the popular judgement 40 years ago. “He represents the long sought-after reconciliation of a nation,” said the sleeve notes, “the black leader who holds the key to the future of Southern Africa.” Yes, Lord Carrington.

But I should have known what was coming to the country. Within weeks of publication, I was declared persona non grata by his Government. Apparently his information minister was furious that we identified violent intimidation as a key to victory. Equally, that minister wanted to be the first to write the book.

Years later, I sought Mugabe out at a diplomatic reception during the UN General Assembly in New York, wondering if I was still banned. “Don’t you remember,” he remarked, wagging his finger, “our Jesuit teachers always told us: actions have consequences.” The irony of Mugabe the dictator saying that was not lost on me. But I was relieved he didn’t call me by my first name. And relieved that, whatever my failings at signposting the man behind the myth years before, I was still non grata.


David Smith was an award-winning foreign correspondent for ITN/C4News, then worked as an adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Now based in Latin America, he writes for The Economist.

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