Llewellyn King: How an increasingly brutal Mugabe destroyed my homeland

Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe’s former President Robert Mugabe, who stood head and shoulders above other awful African heads of state, has died aged 95. He may have directly killed more people, and caused more deaths through starvation, than even that other icon of African evil dictatorship, Uganda’s Idi Amin.

When Mugabe became the republic’s first president, in 1980, he was celebrated the world over as the face of the new Africa: a leader who would usher in a time of harmony, heal the wounds of war, and who was keen to assure the white minority he had overthrown that all would be well.

Mugabe spoke of the country that he inherited from Britain and the British settlers as kind of jeweled timepiece. He boasted of its sophisticated agriculture, its functional central bank and its vibrant stock exchange.

Initially, Mugabe’s partnership with the old, white-run regime appeared to be sincere. I met two white men who ran his security detail at that time who spoke well of him and said they had detected no bitterness. Early warnings, such as his takeover of the newspapers, were ignored. To miscreants, the media are always the problem.

I was born and grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, as was my father. (The country was first known as Southern Rhodesia.) I, like my family, wanted to ignore Mugabe’s downside. The period from the granting of independence to Zimbabwe — with the Lancaster House agreements in London — in 1980 to the mid-1990s was sometimes promising.

True, my brother was forced from his farm by squatters whom the police refused evict. But even so, he and his wife were remarkably optimistic, if a little apprehensive, when I visited from my perch in Washington in 1996.

Old friends were keen to believe, as were people around the world, that Mugabe was the new face of enlightened Africa. There were signs that pointed to a troubled future, but the people loved their country and were loath to believe the worst.

More people worried about the communism that Mugabe and his allies in the local university spouted than what was to become vicious and overt racism directed against all people of European descent.

For a few years, Zimbabwe remained what it had been before independence: a peaceful place with racial respect, a thriving commercial sector, and farms that were so productive that they represented the regional breadbasket, feeding Zambia and Malawi as well as exporting to South Africa.

Some trace Mugabe’s descent into dictatorial insanity to the release of Nelson Mandela from detention in South Africa and Mandela’s usurpation of Mugabe as the darling figure in the capitals of the world. There was a sexual overlay as well.

Both Mugabe and Mandela sought the hand of Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, in marriage. Mandela carried off the damsel, and Mugabe’s descent accelerated.

Mugabe seized the primarily white-owned farms, played games with the citizenship of people he didn’t like; rigged elections; used violence against political opponents; and ordered, or condoned, the security forces, in violation court orders, to beat and intimidate anyone who opposed him.

He began to espouse a kind of paranoid racism, where everything that was wrong was because of the colonialism and the evils of the white population. It was always someone else’s fault.

In the end, Mugabe smashed his jeweled-timepiece nation. The currency failed when inflation ran into the millions of percent and today, over two years since Mugabe fell, Zimbabwe still has no currency. Under the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, it continues to be beset with poverty and famine.

This is the message of Mugabe: Failure to stop the tendencies of those who get away with small constitutional infringements will lead to their getting away with massive wrongdoing.

Part of the dictator’s path is to buttress support by denigrating a particular group, and then persecuting that group.

Mugabe started by sending his dreaded Fifth Brigade into the south of the country, where he killed an estimated 25,000 of the Ndebele people who had supported the opposition party and fought colonialism separately under their leader, Joshua Nkomo.

Then it was on to seizing white property, white passports, and in the end driving out the commercial class. Hardly a white “Rhodesian” remains in what was Rhodesia.

There are those who shrug at governmental transgression in the belief that the pendulum will swing back. Maybe, but not if it has broken the clock and is on the floor. That is the lesson of Robert Mugabe and the tragedy of the land of my birth.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS. He’s based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

Llewellyn King: In the Trump reign, recall John Donne



When I arrived on these shores in 1963, I wrote to a friend in London from New York, “We had America wrong. It is not a melting pot but rather a fruit salad. Spanish-speaking youths sell pizza on Broadway. Italian and German men drive taxis. All the doormen -- they stand in front of the better blocks of flats -- seem to be Irish. Black men and women do menial work: They are less obvious and not prospering.”

Those were the days when integrating the South was being bitterly fought and I, for one, thought that the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr. could heal as well as inspire.

The most overt racism I saw in the North was not in New York or Washington but in Baltimore. At a bar beloved by the editorial staff of the Baltimore News American on Pratt Street, a major commercial thoroughfare at the time, an African-American man came in for a drink. The owner, a Polish-American, was on his feet in seconds, telling the man that the bar was in fact a private club, but he could sell him a bottle to go. The would-be patron took this clear lie quietly and left. My colleagues at the newspaper, including an African-American editor, were not interested in protesting the incident.

Race is probably baked into my consciousness, as I was born and raised in the British African colony of Southern Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe).  I grew up in a society in which some dreamed of a multi-racial future and others leaned toward white supremacy. In the end, after independence, Robert Mugabe made a mockery of democracy and civil rights for white and black citizens; his rule has been an equal-opportunity horror.

When King was shot in 1968, Washington and Baltimore erupted in riots. I would not call them race riots, but they were riots of protest, of angry people who felt they had had enough. I walked through some of the worst rioting in Washington, and later drove through burning sections of Baltimore.

Rather than being threatened as a white man in black communities that were gripped with looting and fire-setting, there was an almost eerie politeness, a concern among the rioters for my safety. John Harwood, father of the CNBC correspondent, wrote about this, these manners, in The Washington Post.

It struck me then that the United States could survive even in its worst struggles if it could keep its manners, its sense of the other fellow’s well-being.

Nelson Mandela said that hate has to be learned. What he did not say, as far as I know, is that people love to hate. When hate is sanctioned, as it was in Nazi Germany or in endless Russian pogroms against the Jews, it becomes a creed and a way of seeing everything.

The selection of Barack Obama not as an African-American but as the Democratic presidential candidate was a high point. It made me very proud to be an American, of having been accepted in an exemplary place. It told the world that the United States, for all of its history of slavery and prejudice, was an ascendant society; Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

In Dublin, I chastised an Irish journalist for criticizing a less-than-lovable newscaster as a “Protestant prick.” What had the man’s religion to do with it? In America, I said, we would not add religion to the epithet.

I was lunching with a Malaysian publisher at the National Press Club in Washington when he declared for all to hear, “The only straight thing about a Chinaman is his hair.” I was appalled and said so. We would not have said that, not in recent decades, because of the restraint of brotherhood, the sense of ascendance and the manners of a people from many places who live together.

Now an American president, Donald Trump, has whistled up tribalism, rationalized the unacceptable through false equivalence. And America, as an ascendant place, is in question, the delicate weave of its social fabric under stress.

John Donne, the metaphysical English poet, wrote nearly 400 years ago of “America” as hugely desirable place. He also warned, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Even more so in a diverse nation held together by the knowledge that any other course, any tribal hatred, diminishes the whole construct; or, to me, contaminates the fruit salad with rotten produce.

Llewellyn King (llewellynking1@gmail.com) is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a frequent contributor to New England Diary. This piece first appeared in Inside Sources. 


Llewellyn King: Motorcades display African values deficit

  Next week, Washington will seize up. Roads will be closed and traffic will be snarled in maybe the worst tie-ups the city has ever seen, except for those on Sept. 11, 2001.

This will not be because of a national security drill, but because 50 heads of state from Africa will be in town to meet with President Obama – and apparently every one of these leaders will have a motorcade. A motorcade?

The leaders of some of the poorest countries on Earth -- where starvation is common – will be riding around Washington in motorcades. This is not just appalling, it is symptomatic of the troubles of Africa.

The peoples of Africa are not monolithic: they are divided by culture, language and religion. But they are united by the throughgoing ineptitude of their leaders; those leaders' love of the trappings of power, including motorcades and grand homes; and a far-reaching sense that the wealth of the nationals they lead is  primarily their own wealth.

Whoever in the Obama administration thought that the visitors should have motorcades not only did a disservice to the workers and residents of Washington, but also to the kind of expectation he needs to instill in African leadership: service, rectitude and real care for their people.

The kleptocracy that has characterized so much post-colonial government in Africa is fed by delusional grandeur, insane egoism and a profound indifference to the people who suffer for want of food, shelter, sanitation, medicine, education and employment. The people of Africa cry out for real leadership in their need.

There is a kind of thinness that Africans suffer that one does not see in Europe or America. I am always struck by this cadaverous appearance of people in Africa; often they have had enough food to stay alive, but just.

Living as we do in a country where obesity is widespread, I shudder at what I see in Africa, which is diverse in so many ways but bound by the same awful bonds: bonds of hunger, bonds of joblessness. They are there to be seen in Senegal or Malawi, Kenya or Ghana, and even in rich South Africa.

Outside of bad government and relentless unemployment -- 80 percent, and more in some countries -- the other scourge is violence and the promiscuous spread of small arms.

To me this is the most perplexing because when I grew up roaming around what are now Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, violence was virtually unknown. The prime minister of those countries, which were linked for a decade by the British administration into a federation, Roy Wilensky, drove his own car every day and gave lifts to strangers thumbing a ride. I used to ride with him to school, and later to the newspaper office where I worked.

I can tell you that in giving rides, this prime-ministerial chauffeur was color-blind and security blind. Motorcades did not exist and the prime minister lived in a suburban house without so much as a policeman on duty, so much as I am aware. He lived up the street from us.

My youth colored my view of Africa. I see it not as the Dark Continent, but rather as the Light Continent -- a place of beauty and talented people.

Obama should tell his African colleagues to forget the trappings of leadership and try the real thing. He should  convince them that Africa’s wealth is in its people, but they will not be free if they grow up in a culture of corruption that is so inhibiting, so draining and so self-defeating.

The symbol of bad government in Africa is the Mercedes-Benz automobile. Dictators and plain incompetents love them. There are jokes in local languages about the “Mercedians,” meaning politicians.

So endemic is the political class in Africa's commitment to this luxury automobile, that Mercedes-Benz is building a plant in South Africa to manufacture the most extravagant of these vehicles, the 12-cylinder S600.

Sadly there is a market in the political hierarchy of Africa as, even sadder, there always is for military equipment. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” was the slogan of the African National Congress. It means “God Bless Africa.” Indeed.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com ) is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS and a long-time journalist, publisher and international businessman. He is a native of Zimbabwe.