Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe: Failed Demonography

By Stephen Gowans

Journalist Heidi Holland’s biography of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, Dinner with Mugabe, begins with the assumption that Zimbabwe’s long-standing president is a monster. In addition, Mugabe, who recently struck a deal with factions of the opposition MDC to share power, is accused by his biographer of creating “a de facto one party state,” [1] and of “failings and excesses” that have left Zimbabweans “starving” [2] – standard fare from Western journalists.

The fact that Zimbabwe’s opposition now controls the legislature and is due to hold a majority of cabinet posts clashes violently with Holland’s depiction of the country as a de facto one party state. By comparison, no one, much less Holland, complains about South Africa, truly a de facto one party state, which suggests that whatever beefs she has with Zimbabwe have nothing to with it being a de facto one party state, (which it isn’t) otherwise we might expect South Africa, and not just Zimbabwe, to fall within her sights (which it hasn’t.)

As for the hunger of Zimbabweans being due to what Holland describes as Mugabe’s failings and excesses, this too clashes violently with reality. Western sanctions have blocked Zimbabwe’s access to balance of payment support, development aid and other lines of credit. Additionally, drought and electricity shortages have created food insecurity throughout southern Africa, including Zimbabwe. [3] Only if bad weather and standing up to Western bullying count as failings, have Holland’s charges substance.

Proving that Mugabe is a monster, as opposed to uncritically accepting his status as one, isn’t on Holland’s agenda, any more than proving any of her other charges is. All accusations are to be taken as given, starting points for exploring “the untold story of how a freedom fighter became a tyrant.” Holland’s quest, then, isn’t to challenge the received, though unsubstantiated, wisdom, but to affirm it, offering a “psychobiography of a man whose once-brilliant career has ruined Zimbabwe and cast shame on the African continent.”

This reveals much about Holland. Mugabe’s “once brilliant career”, happens to coincide with the period during which he played by the West’s rules, while his subsequent “ruining” of Zimbabwe, coincides with his breaking the rules to redress historical wrongs related to land ownership and to carry out other measures to invest Zimbabwe’s break with colonialism with substantive content. In other words, the view that says Mugabe was once a paragon who has become a tyrant equates his early “brilliance” to keeping former colonists in London and international lenders happy while chalking up as a “failure and excess” his measures to reverse Western domination. This is a curious view from the perspective of democracy, but perfectly understandable from the point of view of imperialism.

Dinner with Mugabe is a “psychobiography,” the standard form favored by authors who want to avoid substantive policy issues, in favor of dwelling in a comic-book world of heroes and villains. There is a shocking absence of policy mentioned in most discussions of politics, including – if not especially – among many on the left, who think the brilliance of any political analysis can be measured by the number of times the author uses the words “thug,” “brutal dictator” and “tyrant.” Holland’s biography is in this mold.

What of policies? It is worthwhile to quote Michael Parenti on this.

“One of the things I try to do is find out what leaders actually do when they’re in power. That’s one of the great hidden questions in history. You can read about six or seven different biographies of Stalin, and they never tell you what he actually did in terms of the programs of the country. You read about his purges of Bukharin and Zinoviev and his fight with Trotsky and this and that. But what were the socio-economic policies he actually pursued? The same with Hitler. I’ve read numerous biographies of Hitler. What did Hitler actually do? What was his political economic program? You find out it was a program in which he cut the taxes for the rich, he cut back wages, he destroyed unions and privatized everything.” [4]

Silence on the political and economic programs of leaders is particularly evident in the case of Zimbabwe, where Western political analyses almost invariably ignore the policies of Zimbabwe’s main political parties and the differences between them. In extreme cases, not only are the policies of the parties ignored, their differences are denied. For example, Shawn Hattingh, a research and education officer at the International Labor Research and Information Group, wrote an August 14, 2008 MRZine article, describing Zanu-PF and the MDC as two sides of the same neo-liberal coin.

There’s no question the MDC is neo-liberal. The party’s 2000 “Social and Economic Policies for a New Millennium,” makes a commitment to a program of privatization. Foreign direct investment, under a MDC government, would be courted by the appointment of a “fund manager to dispose of government-owned shares in publicly quoted companies.” [5]

Eddie Cross, then the MDC’s Secretary of Economic Affairs, explained the party’s economic plan.

“First of all, we believe in the free market. We do not support price control. We do not support government interfering in the way people manage their lives. We are in favor of reduced levels of taxation. We are going to fast track privatization. All fifty government (enterprises) will be privatized within a two-year frame, but we are going far beyond that. We are going to privatize many of the functions of government. We are going to privatize the Central Statistics Office. We are going to privatize virtually the entire school delivery system. And you know, we have looked at the numbers and we think we can get government employment down from about 300,000 at the present time to about 75,000 in five years.” [6]

Eight years later, the MDC’s fondness for neo-liberalism remains undiminished. The party set out its core beliefs and proposals in its 2008 election platform, declaring an unwavering commitment to the safety and security of individual and corporate property rights and the opening of industry to foreign direct investment. Expatriation of profits is favored, without restriction. The party promised to privatize postal services, telecom and electronic media and to remove the price controls the Mugabe government has introduced to protect Zimbabweans from the ravages of hyperinflation. The Zanu-PF government’s economic indigenization program, which seeks to place control of the country’s resources in the hands of Zimbabweans, would also be cut by an MDC government. Private enterprise would be the engine of economic growth in a new Zimbabwe – particularly private enterprise owned by foreign investors. [7]

Zanu-PF, contrary to Hattingh’s delusions, is not neo-liberal. If it were, there would be no public companies for the MDC to promise to privatize, no subsidies for basic goods the MDC could propose to eliminate, and no differential treatment of foreign investors for the MDC to pledge to abolish. Moreover, were Zanu-PF neo-liberal, it would be the first and only case of a neo-liberal party that has rejected, and has been rejected by, the IMF, and the only neo-liberal party that restricts foreign ownership levels in key sectors, pursues public policy goals through state ownership of key enterprises, provides subsidized food baskets, imposes price controls and rejects national treatment of foreign investors.

The fact of the matter is that it is precisely because the Zanu-PF government is not neo-liberal that the US, Britain and EU have campaigned vigorously to drive Mugabe – and his non-neo-liberal policies – out of Harare. No Third World government can generate the following record without running afoul of Washington, London and Brussels.

o “Total government expenditures, including consumption and transfer payments, are very high. In the most recent year, government spending equaled 50.3 percent of GDP. Privatization has stalled, and the government remains highly interventionist;

o “The government sets price ceilings for essential commodities such as agricultural seeds, bread, maize meal, sugar, beef, stock feeds, and fertilizer; controls the prices of basic goods and food staples; influences prices through subsidies and state-owned enterprises and utilities;

o “The government will consider foreign investment up to 100 percent in high-priority projects but applies pressure for eventual majority ownership by Zimbabweans;

o “Zimbabwe has burdensome tax rates. The top income tax rate is 47.5 percent, and the top corporate tax rate is 30 percent.” [8]

To be sure, the policies that have been pursued by the Zanu-PF government are not socialist, but they are, at the same time, deeply hostile to neo-liberalism, and lean more strongly in the direction of social democracy than the economic policies of many social democratic and socialist governments elsewhere.

At one point, in the 1990s, the Mugabe government did accept the neo-liberal economic structural adjustment program demanded by the IMF, with devastating consequences. From 1991 to 1995, Mugabe’s government implemented the IMF program as a condition of receiving balance of payment support and the restructuring of its debt. The program required the government to cut its spending deeply, fire tens of thousands of civil servants, and slash social programs. Zimbabwe’s efforts to nurture infant industries were to be abandoned. Instead, the country’s doors were to be opened to foreign investment. Harare would radically reduce taxes and forbear from any measure designed to give domestic investors a leg up on foreign competitors, even though the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea, as young developing countries, had become capitalist powerhouses by adopting the very same protectionist and import substitution policies the IMF was forbidding.

The effect of the IMF program was devastating. Manufacturing employment tumbled nine percent between 1991 and 1996, while wages dropped 26 percent. Public sector employment plunged 23 percent and public sector wages plummeted 40 percent. [9] In contrast to the frequent news stories today on Zimbabwe’s fragile economy, the Western press barely noticed the devastation the IMF’s disastrous economic policies brought to Zimbabwe. By 1996, the Mugabe government was starting to back away from the IMF prescriptions. By 1998, it was in open revolt, imposing new tariffs to protect infant industries and providing incentives to black Zimbabwean investors as part of an affirmative action program to encourage African ownership of the economy. These policies were diametrically opposed, not only to the IMF’s program of structural adjustment, but to the open door goals of US foreign policy. By 1999, the break was complete. The IMF refused to extend loans to Zimbabwe. By February, 2001, Zimbabwe was in arrears to the Bretton Woods institution. Ten months later, the US introduced the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, a dagger through the heart of Zimbabwe’s economy, which denied the country lines of credit from international lending institutions and pushed the economy into a tailspin. “Zimbabwe,” says Mugabe, “is not a friend of the IMF and is unlikely to be its friend in the future.” [10]

While Holland’s goal in writing Dinner with Mugabe is to reinforce the campaign of vilifying Mugabe begun in London, Washington, and Brussels, her biography only accomplishes its aim if the starting assumption of the book – that Mugabe is a monster – is accepted. If you don’t accept it, the book does quite the opposite of what it sets out to do. Through a series of interviews with people who have played significant roles in Mugabe’s life, texture, context and understanding, deeply at odds with the comic-book caricature of the man, emerge. If you read only the transcripts of the interviews Holland builds her book around, and not her interpretation of the transcripts, you come away with an entirely different impression than the one Holland intends. In this, Holland has utterly failed as a demonographer.

Through the lens of people who have known him, Mugabe is portrayed as a revolutionary forced to make concessions and compromises to deal with the world as it is, not as he would like it to be. Britain often plays the role of spoiling, blocking and undermining the revolutionary aims of Zimbabwe’s national liberation struggle. “Mugabe,” explains Holland, “was not just a political leader, but a revolutionary one, pledged to righting the wrongs of the past.” [11] Britain, however, has made the journey a difficult one.

To balance her sensationalist and demonical caricature of her subject, Holland details the social gains Zimbabwe has achieved under Mugabe’s leadership.

“His administration guaranteed educational opportunities for Zimbabwe’s black population where few had existed before. High school enrollment, which had been about two percent at the time of independence, grew to 70 percent by 1990, and Zimbabwe’s literacy rate rose from 45 percent to nearly 80 percent in the same period.” [12] He “did more to educate his people during his early years in office than any other leader in Africa.’ [13]

She notes, too, that “Mugabe also developed public health facilities to the point where rural dwellers were able to receive medical attention within walking distance of their villages.” [14]

While Mugabe is sometimes portrayed as an anti-white racist, Holland sets the record straight, pointing out that Mugabe “did his best to persuade the country’s 200,000 whites, including its 45,000 commercial farmers, to remain in Zimbabwe.” [15] She cites Mac McGuiness, the former leader of the notorious anti-insurgency unit of the Rhodesian army, the Selous Scouts. Mugabe

“undertook at independence to let bygones be bygones and he never lifted a finger against his former enemies, including Ian Smith, who was allowed to live in Zimbabwe as long as he pleased and to criticize Mugabe whenever he chose for the rest of his life. He was more generous to Smith than Smith was to him, that’s for sure.” [16]

Lady Soames, whose husband Lord Soames was the British governor of Zimbabwe until the first elections in 1980, told Holland that Mugabe was a “Marxist utopian…determined to promote state socialism even if he knew he couldn’t practice it.” [17]

On this score, Lord Carrington, the former British foreign minister who represented Britain at the Lancaster House talks which led to Zimbabwe’s independence, noted in conversation with Mugabe’s psychobiographer that Mugabe was forced to rein in his Marxist aspirations after witnessing the experiences of revolutionary governments in neighboring countries. During his exile in Tanzania and Mozambique, Carrington explained that,

“Mugabe had seen exactly what had happened to the economies of those two countries as a result of kicking out the whites and generally introducing pan-African socialism…So I thought, what with him being a Marxist…he was going to be very different indeed in office (but) once in office he became a capitalist, didn’t he?” [18]

This wasn’t Mugabe’s first encounter with compromise. Lord Carrington explained to Holland that,

“Everyone wanted some sort of solution (at Lancaster House) except Mugabe, who didn’t think it was necessary. And he was probably right. There is no doubt that Mugabe would not have signed the Lancaster House Agreement if presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Samora Machel of Mozambique hadn’t prompted him to. [19]

They more than prompted him to. The two leaders told Mugabe that the guerilla forces fighting for the principle of one-man-one-vote and return of land confiscated by British settlers could no longer use their countries as bases from which to launch attacks against the Smith regime, forcing Mugabe to the negotiating table just when a military victory was in view. Had the liberation forces been allowed their military victory, much would have been different.

Mugabe was also forced into a compromise over the IMF’s economic structural adjustment program, Esap. Father Fidelis Mukonori, leader of Zimbabwe’s Jesuits, and a friend of Mugabe’s, told Holland that,

“Mugabe accepted Esap, saying he had little choice because it was imposed by northern hemisphere big-wings who never questioned its wisdom or side effects and who would refuse to work with you – if you didn’t…it caused a lot of suffering and Mugabe believed it marked the beginning of Zimbabwe’s dissatisfaction with Zanu-PF.” [20]

On the MDC, whose founding in 2000 was largely directed by Britain, Holland concedes what Mugabe has complained about for years: that the MDC is a vehicle of Britain and the white commercial farmers. She writes:

“It appears that Mugabe was correct in his belief that the former colonist was aiding and abetting the forces that opposed him, namely the MDC, in cahoots with the predominantly white Zimbabweans who had colonized and financed the party.” [21]

And further:

“Some European countries, including Britain, had given financial and other forms of support to the MDC. White farmers gave cheques to Morgan Tsvangirai on television during the 2000 election campaign.” [22]

If Holland’s book is largely unintentionally sympathetic to Mugabe in the reflections of those she interviews, it is most sympathetic in its consideration of land reform. Blame for the crises that have attended the Mugabe government’s efforts to democratize patterns of land ownership is laid squarely at the feet of the British government.

Holland begins by eliciting a favorable assessment of Mugabe by Clare Short, Tony Blair’s secretary of state for international development, who earned notoriety in Zimbabwe for backing away from the commitment made by the Thatcher government to help Harare defray the costs of land redistribution. In a letter to the Zimbabwe government, she wrote, “I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchases in Zimbabwe.” She closed by expressing concern that Mugabe’s land reform policies would impair foreign investor confidence. Interviewed by Holland, Short noted that, “Land was the point of colonialism and all the ugly power issues that went with it. Mugabe was a giant of history who liberated his country from oppression.” [23]

One of the most revealing parts of Holland’s book concerns the experience of Rajan Soni, hired by the British government as a land reform consultant. Once New Labour was in charge, Soni discovered that,

“It was absolutely clear from the attitude of (Clare Short’s) staff towards his recommendations that Labour’s strategy was to accelerate Mugabe’s unpopularity by failing to provide him with funding for land redistribution…They thought that if they didn’t give him money for land reform his people in the rural areas would start to turn against him. That was their position. They wanted him out, and they were going to do whatever they could to hasten his demise.” [24]

Land reform was a pressing issue in Zimbabwe that could not be ignored. Father Mukonori told Holland that,

“Everywhere…from town to town and village to village, the cry was the same as it had been during the war and throughout our history: ‘The soil is ours. The land question was never resolved. We want it resolved. The constitution was declared in London. We did not vote for it.’” [25]

While Holland attributes Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown to Mugabe’s excesses, her interview with the Selous Scout’s Mac McGuiness reveals a different view. “I think,” McGuiness told Holland, “that had the promises made to Mugabe been kept by the…British and others, Zimbabwe would not be in the state it is in today.” (26) Dennis Norman, a white farmer who became Zimbabwe’s first agriculture minister, agrees. “Mugabe couldn’t solve the land issue without money and he didn’t have money. I do blame Britain for that.” [27]

The texture, context and understanding offered by McGuiness, Norman and others are nowhere evident in Holland’s own depiction of Mugabe post-1999. While she portrays the early Mugabe as a hero of national liberation keen on righting historical wrongs, she turns sour on him at the point Mugabe takes the first bold post-independence steps to establish a substantive independence by expropriating the land of white commercial farmers for redistribution to black Zimbabweans. Liberation heroes can be feted so long as their actions leave the basic structure of Western economic domination in place. Encroach on capitalist property rights, impose conditions on foreign investment, wall off parts of the economy to foreign investors, favor domestic investors over Western ones, and reclaim stolen land, and honors and admiration soon turn to execration.

Since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has been, to a diminishing degree, dominated by the West. Its economy, natural resources and land have historically been controlled by outsiders and settlers who came from outside and took what they wanted. Over the years, the Mugabe government has gradually asserted Zimbabwe’s independence, resisting US and British imperialist intrigues in southern Africa, ultimately rejecting the economic prescriptions of the Bretton Woods institutions (though accepting them at first), promoting black ownership of Zimbabwe’s resources and economy, and democratizing patterns of land ownership. Western governments, representing corporations and investors with interests in open door access to Zimbabwe, and white commercial farmers seeking to recover privileges established under racist Rhodesian rule, have used their considerable resources to thwart the Zanu-PF government’s efforts to build a truly independent Zimbabwe. An important part of the campaign has been to vilify Mugabe, to portray him as liberation hero turned tyrant. In its goals, Heidi Holland’s, Dinner with Mugabe, is part of this campaign. However, anyone who reads the book critically will discover there is much in it to challenge the comic-book caricature the author sets out to reinforce.

1. Heidi Holland, Dinner with Mugabe, Penguin Books, 2008. p. xx.
2. Holland, p. xv.
3. Stephen Gowans, “The real cause of Zimbabwe’s food crisis,” Race & History, June 4, 2005. http://www.raceandhistory.com/selfnews/viewnews.cgi?newsid1117908112,43270,.shtml
4. Michael Parenti in Joel Wendland, “Interview with Michael Parenti,” Political Affairs, December, 2004. http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/387/
5. Social and Economic Policies for a New Millennium,” MDC policy paper, May 26, 2000.
6. Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya, Zimbabwe’s Plunge – Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice, Merlin Press, 2002.
7. Noah Tucker, “In the Shadow of Empire,” 21st Century Socialism, August 3, 2008, http://21stcenturysocialism.com/article/in_the_shadow_of_empire_01694.html
8. http://www.heritage.org/Index/country.cfm?id=Zimbabwe
9. Antonia Juhasz, “The Tragic Tale of the IMF in Zimbabwe,” Daily Mirror of Zimbabwe, March 7, 2004.
10. Herald (Zimbabwe) September 13, 2005.
11. Holland, p. 73.
12. Holland, p. xx.
13. Holland, p. 71.
14. Holland, p. xx.
15. Ibid.
16. Holland, p. 36.
17. Holland, p. 74.
18. Holland, p. 65.
19. Holland, p. 60.
20. Holland, p. 136.
21. Holland, p. 104.
22. Holland, p. 139.
23. Holland, p. 102.
24. Holland, p. 105.
25. Holland, p. 138.
26. Holland, p. 36.
27. Holland, p. 121.

5 thoughts on “Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe: Failed Demonography

  1. M Mukanya is playing the African Authenticity card.

    Notice that he/she does not actually address the any of Gowans’ many detailed arguments–most likely because he/she wouldn’t have a counter-response.

    As such, Mukanya has to resort to identity politics instead. That’s pathetic.

    Another thing, Mukanya conflates Zimbabwe with Africa.

    Gowans is speaking about the former, but Mukanya wants to invoke some homogenizing “African” authentity to discredit Gowans’ comments about Zimbabwe in particular.

  2. m Mukanya: what ever are u on about? Gowans is in no way comparable to Holland. Where does he show contempt for africans? You seem to want Gowans to stop: which is what the imperialists would also like. The better that people have only the voice of Holland to listen to.


  3. Steve,

    You try to hard to be more radical, more earnest than the natives. A white man writing all the way from Canada, playing the role of being ostensibly more pro-native than the native themselves, doesn’t quite wash.

    Heidi is certainly shallow and contemptuous of the natives, but no more than in how both of you presume to enter their brains and understand what is good for them better than they do.

    Whether one one of you is’rightist’ and the other ‘leftist,’ both you and Heidi show similar contempt for the Africans.

    Steve, both you and Heidi are trying too hard, get off it.

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