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Persuading Robert Mugabe to write his memoirs



Book Excerpt from: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream, Volume III (Ideas & Solutions)

By Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara

DESPITE my discomfort about Mugabe’s inhuman lack of concern about Mujuru’s demise, he and I have a great trip from Harare to Luanda. We talk about anything and everything as we always do at State House.

More specifically, I share with him Wilfred Mhanda’s book. He gleefully takes the book and slowly leafs through some sections. He says:

“Umm, he writes well.”

He does not venture to comment on the toxic substance of the book. That Mugabe would be impressed by Wilfred Mhanda’s writing style is not surprising. In his memoirs, Mhanda himself has this to say:

“While in Geneva [at the Geneva Conference in 1976], Rugare Gumbo, ZANU’s Secretary for Publicity and Information, drafted me into the Patriotic Front’s joint publicity and information team …

“I was also to write speeches for Mugabe and other ZANU leaders for their addresses to European audiences. Some of the articles I wrote during that time continued to grace the pages of ZANU’s publication, the Zimbabwe News, for months after Mugabe had subsequently removed ZIPA from the scene and I had been arrested.

The revolutionary style of the speeches set the tone for Mugabe’s subsequent speeches, which appealed to both the fighters and progressive forces the world over.”

We continue with our animated discussions about other matters as we cruise to Luanda.

One chap who is always around when I travel with Mugabe is his Spokesperson and Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information and Publicity – George Charamba.

He is a former schoolmate of mine from Hartzell High School. He was my senior by far, being in Form 6 while I was in Form 1 in 1981.

I am now the Deputy Prime Minister of the country and one of the three GNU Principals, while he is one of Mugabe’s runners and sycophants.

The seniority has been reversed.

So, when he passes through where we are chatting with Mugabe, I pull him to us and say to Mugabe:

“This man was in Form 6 while I was in Form 1 at Hartzell High School. He seems to think nothing has changed in that pecking order.”

Mugabe bursts into uncontrollable laughter.

I am not sure whether George thinks this is humorous at all.

On our flight back from Angola, we are joined by Emmerson Mnangagwa – Minister of Defence – who (as explained earlier) is conveniently away in Luanda when Mujuru is killed.

Mugabe is sitting between Emmerson and me. For the whole journey from Luanda, there is no conversation between Mugabe and Emmerson.

Absolutely no discussion.

Not a single word between them!

These two are not peers at all.

There is neither warmth nor camaraderie between them.

In fact, Mugabe has disdain and scorn for his unsophisticated and eager-to-please underling. In turn, the unimaginative enforcer seems petrified by his master.

Watching the dynamics is quite something else.

A treat indeed.

On the other hand, Mugabe and I are in full, unrestrained and animated conversation all the way from Luanda to Harare, just like we did on the way in from Harare.

We are clearly peers with mutual respect for each other. Our discussions are in full flight.

We are on a roll.

On this return leg of the journey, once again, I try to entice Mugabe to write his memoirs. It has been my mission since we started working together in government to get him to put pen to paper.

However, it has been an unsuccessful battle.

This time, I give Robert Mugabe an elaborate justification and rationale:

“From 1960, when you joined the NDP as Publicity Secretary, to now, you have been at the front edge of Zimbabwean and African history. We want to know your reflections and insights about these eventful 51 years.

“Even before 1960, we want to know about your experiences at Kutama Mission, studies at Fort Hare from 1949 to 1951, teaching escapades in Zimbabwe – 1951 to 1954 – and Zambia from 1955 to 1957, and of course, your sojourn in Nkrumah’s Ghana from 1957 to 1959.”

Mugabe is impressed that I can churn out an outline of his resumé with dates and all, just like that.

I further give him illustrative examples of how Steve Jobs and Fidel Castro got their biographies out.

On Castro, I proceed as follows:

“At the end of his career, when Fidel Castro was not feeling well, he realised he had no memoirs. For decades, people had tried to persuade the leader of the Cuban Revolution to tell his own life story.

He had been non-committal.

However, as he faced the inevitability of death, he commissioned Ignacio Ramonet, the celebrated academic and Editor-in-Chief of Le Monde diplomatique, to work with him on his life story.

Ignacio researched and studied Fidel Castro from his early life, the Cuban Revolution in 1959, through the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, right up to the then present.

He gathered all the documents including newspaper cuttings, and drafted questions for the entire period to get Castro to discuss his life.

Ignacio then sat down with Fidel Castro and spoke (on and off) for six months by presenting the gathered documents to Castro and having him respond to probing questions.

In a series of extensive and penetrating interviews, Fidel Castro describes his life from the 1950s to the present day.

In frank and compelling detail, he discusses his parents and his childhood, his earliest influences, the beginnings of the revolution, his relationship with Che Guevara, the drama of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Jimmy Carter years, the Cuban migration to the United States, his dealings with successive American presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, and his relationship with such revolutionary leaders as Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez.

Along the way, Ramonet challenges Castro to discuss his views on several controversial questions, from human rights and freedom of the press to the repression of homosexuality and the survival of the death penalty in Cuba.

It is an elaborate and highly productive exercise between Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet.

The result is the iconic memoir published in February 2008:

Fidel Castro: My Life, co-authored with Ignacio Ramonet.

Surely, President Mugabe, you can find your own Ignacio – an academic, a professor or a distinguished journalist – with the correct ideological and intellectual orientation.”

Mugabe is overly impressed by the methodology and approach, clasps his hands and says:

“Ah, is that how Fidel Castro did it? Good show! That is fascinating, indeed.”

However, he does not follow through and commit to a similar process for the documentation of his life story.

I then move on to Steve Jobs.

I give Mugabe a detailed narration of how he gets his biography done:

“When he was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, Steve Jobs desperately wanted to document his life comprehensively.

He approached Walter Isaacson, a US presidential biographer and a former executive at CNN and TIME who has written best-selling biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

Unaware of Jobs’s health situation, Isaacson just laughed off the idea and told Jobs:

‘You are too young to be doing a biography. Come back to me after 50 years!’

A calm and sombre Steve Jobs shot back:

‘No, I cannot do that. I have stage four pancreatic cancer. I am dying.’

Walter Isaacson is shocked and dramatically reconsiders.

The two started to work feverishly on the biography, where Jobs would avail himself for extensive discussions and, contact critical people and facilitate their interviews with Isaacson.

More than 40 interviews with Jobs are conducted over two years, in addition to interviews with more than 100 family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues.

Isaacson was given unprecedented access to Jobs’s life. Jobs encouraged the people interviewed to speak honestly.

Although Jobs cooperated with the book, he asked for no control over its content except its cover. He waived the right to read it before publication.

Again, the Steve Jobs and Walter Isaacson collaboration was massively productive.

The outcome was the authorised self-titled biography:

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.

It was released on 24 October 2011 by Simon & Schuster in the United States, 19 days after Jobs’s death.

There we go, President Mugabe; this is another illustrative example of how to get your memoirs done.

So, who will be your Walter Isaacson?”

Well, well, well.

An attentively listening Robert Mugabe seems to be deep in thought.

He smiles and says:

“I did not know that is what Steve Jobs did. Where do you get all this information?

Nevertheless, that is wonderful.

I wouldn’t mind reading that book. It is quite an attractive strategy for getting a memoir out.

Anyway, we will see!”

Again, Robert Mugabe is non-committal to the grand exercise of producing his biography.

I am thoroughly disillusioned.

I am getting exasperated.

I decide to rudely tease him:

“Well, Mr President, if you produce your memoir, you will become a proper millionaire.”

“What do you mean, ‘a proper millionaire’,” he angrily retorts.

I dutifully explain:

“Your enemies will buy two copies each as they relish the opportunity to know how and what you think, while your admirers will buy their single copies.

Hence, you will make real money as opposed to the extensive resources you have dubiously accumulated as President of Zimbabwe.”

The crassness of my analysis does not exactly amuse Mugabe. In fact, he looks furious!

However, he cannot fault my logic and seems to like the bit about his enemies buying two copies.

So, he lets it slide.

Anyway, he has no choice.

He now knows that I give as much as I get. More importantly, I am not given to inappropriate politeness or taking prisoners.

I say it like it is.

Damn the consequences.

Mugabe knows and respects that.

So much for my efforts to get Robert Mugabe to document his life story! We continue with other topics of discussion as we come to the end of our eventful flight from Angola.

Still no conversation at all between Mugabe and Emmerson for the entire four-hour journey!

Indeed, my elaborate attempts to persuade Robert Mugabe to write his memoirs are totally unsuccessful.

I fail miserably.

When he dies on 6 September 2019, he has not done even a pamphlet on his life.

In fact (as discussed elsewhere in this book),

after the coup d’état, he is despondent, angry and dysfunctional. Mugabe completely loses interest in life. He has to be persuaded to eat!

Indeed, that 2017 coup d’état killed Robert Mugabe.

Slowly but surely.

Of course, from 2017 to 2019, he could not write even a paragraph about his life.

Robert Mugabe’s history-making 57 years of public life from 1960 to 2017 and his fascinating 95-year personal story from 1924 to 2019 are left for others to engage and document.

No direct insights, perspectives or reflections from him.

What a shame!

This is an excerpt from the book: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream, Volume III (Ideas & Solutions) By Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara

Aboutbthe writer: Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara is the director and full professor of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK) at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

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