Pre-Hyperinflation Zimbabwe: Mugabe, A Love Story

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 7/20/2008 08:50:00 AM
Where do I begin to tell the story of how great a love can be? In the not-so-distant past, Robert Mugabe was regarded as a hero of the global independence movement from the shackles of colonial rule and its offshoots. His struggles against white minority rule in what was then known as Rhodesia under Ian Smith, who unilaterally declared independence from British rule, are well-known and need little recounting here. At the current time, however, sympathies for Mugabe have largely disappeared in light of his attempts to establish a stranglehold on Zimbabwe. In particular, the severity of Zimbabwe's current bout of hyperinflation has attracted much discussion. While official figures peg it at a "conservative" 2,200,000%, others place the figure somewhere between 10-15 million percent. The BBC reports that a Z$100,000,000,000 note is on the way that can barely buy a loaf of bread. I suspect even that won't buy you a loaf of bread for long:

Zimbabwe is to introduce a bank-note worth Z$100bn in response to rampant inflation - but the note will barely cover the cost of a loaf of bread.

Some Zimbabweans are already calling for higher denominations in a country where the official annual inflation rate has exceeded 2,200,000%. Independent economists believe the real rate is many times higher. Zimbabwe's meltdown has left at least 80% of the population in poverty, facing mass shortages of basic goods.

The country's central bank has introduced several new notes already this year in response to the hyperinflation. In January, a Z$10 million note was issued, followed by a Z$50 million. By June the denominations had reached tens of billions.

In a notice in the state-controlled Herald newspaper, central bank governor Gideon Gono said the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would introduce the new notes - known as special agro-cheques - to help consumers. "This new $100 billion special agro-cheque will go into circulation on Monday," the notice said.

But Zimbabwe residents say the latest note is already worthless, and does not even cover their daily lunch. "Nowadays, for my expenses a day, I need about Z$500 billion," one resident said. "So Z$100 billion can't do anything because for me to go home I need Z$250 billion, so this [note] is worthless."

Zimbabwean hyperinflation has become the butt of Internet jokes, but the lives of Zimbabweans affected by these shenanigans are a gravely serious matter. This latest feat of economic history in the making jogged my memory of an article I read earlier in the Independent which potentially ties up some loose threads. First, why does Mugabe have such an intense hatred of all things British? Second, how did the "good" Mugabe of the independence movement turn into the "bad" Mugabe we know today? It is often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and the newspaper offers an explanation as good as any I've heard: like Darth Vader, the man has been love.

The late wife of Robert Mugabe, Sally, is known as the mother of Zimbabwe. The Independent highlights the Home Office's threatened expulsion of Sally Mugabe due to a lapsed visa while she was in Britain to escape political persecution in Rhodesia. Then, as now, immigration was very much a political hot potato in Britain. The flip-flopping of the British government during an obviously trying time for Robert and Sally Mugabe is blamed for ultimately turning him against Britain:

The political climate made it too dangerous for [Sally Mugabe] to stay in Salisbury [today's Harare] and so, in 1963, she escaped the security services by fleeing first to Ghana with her son and then, in 1967, to self-imposed exile in London, where she found work as a secretary at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. From the safety of Britain, she campaigned tirelessly for the release of her husband and other Rhodesian dissidents. She also supported her husband's studies by researching documents that the Salisbury Prison authorities had banned. Sometimes this meant transcribing very dry texts line by line and then posting them to her husband in prison.

There is no doubt that Sally Mugabe's support for her husband helped sustain him during his time as a prisoner in Salisbury. But, in 1970, while still locked up, Mugabe discovered his wife's immigration status was at risk and that the British government was planning to throw her out of the country because her visa had expired.

Now, documents released at the National Archives show that Mugabe was so enraged by the decision that he went to extraordinary lengths to help her. In March of that year, he wrote to James Callaghan, the then-Home Secretary [later PM], about his wife's situation. This letter went unanswered, prompting Mugabe to send a telegram to Harold Wilson on 8 June, asking the Prime Minister to grant his wife British citizenship. Again, there was no official response.

Ten days later, he pursued this request with a three-page, handwritten letter to Wilson setting out the case for reconsideration on the grounds of exceptional circumstances, pleading with the Prime Minister to understand his wife's predicament: shortly before Sally had come to England in 1967, tragedy struck the Mugabes when [their son] Nhamodzenyika died after succumbing to a severe attack of malaria. He was just three years old. With her husband in prison, Sally was left to bear the emotional burden of the loss alone. The confidential papers show that she later suffered a mental breakdown while living in London.

One of her supporters, Tony Hughes, secretary of the African rights group Ariel Foundation, wrote at the time that the strain of the bereavement, combined with the stress of her imminent deportation, had taken a great toll on Sally's mental state, and in a letter to the government, he wrote of the proposed deportation: "It is certainly unfair for the British government to add to the misery of her already broken life."

In his letter, Mugabe had told Wilson of the effect the death of his son had had on his wife, explaining that: "My wife, whose health has never been satisfactory since the loss of our son in 1966, is at present suffering serious emotional upset as a result of the decision by the Home Office. Surely then, the fact of my detention is enough suffering for her already. As I stated in my letter to Mr Callaghan, the reason my wife decided to work for the year (September 1969-June 1970) was to enable her to earn a little money for herself until October when she should enter university to do a degree in Household Science. The Home Office decision wrecks even this wholesome plan."

The Mugabes were caught up in domestic political football:

A confidential memo written by a Foreign Office diplomat set out the situation in plain terms: "We know very little about Mr Mugabe except that he is in detention and is the former founder and secretary general of Zanu." Nevertheless, the Foreign Office urged the Home Office to adopt a sympathetic approach on the grounds that they could ill-afford to alienate a potential ally in the road to black independence in Rhodesia: "If Mrs Mugabe has to leave Britain this would have a bad effect on her husband and could be politically embarrassing"...

Despite mounting pressure, the new Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, refused to budge, and it was not until after a high-profile media campaign, and a petition signed by more than 400 parliamentarians, that the government finally relented and allowed Sally Mugabe to stay.

Yet, Robert Mugabe would never forget the attempts by the British to deport his wife at a time when she was at her most vulnerable. When his personal entreaties to Britain went unacknowledged for almost a year, the suspicion that neither a Labour nor Conservative government would be prepared to help him topple the Smith government, and install black-majority rule in Zimbabwe, must have hardened. (Indeed, [Tory PM Harold] Wilson later famously recounted that he knew the British public would never have countenanced an armed conflict with its "kith and kin" in Rhodesia.)

Although it is not mentioned at all in the article, I suspect that Mugabe's Marxist leanings did little to endear him to the British at the height of the Cold War. The handwritten correspondence of Robert Mugabe with the Home Office has been collated by the Independent and can be viewed online. As a piece of history, it is priceless.

As for the second question as to why Mugabe's more extreme, tyrannical instincts got the better of him in his later years, Sally Mugabe is portrayed as a counterbalance to Comrade Bob's excesses. With her passing away in 1992, the stage was set for him turning Zimbabwe into the basket case of a country that we know today. Love means never having to say you're sorry, indeed:

In the early years of Mugabe's rule, it was his wife who was credited with helping to temper his excesses. She could lighten his mood, said one of his former colleagues, just by entering the room. But the relationship began to falter when they discovered they were unable to have any more children and, as Sally's health failed, Mugabe began to have affairs.

Sally Mugabe died on 27 January 1992 from kidney failure and four years later Mugabe married his South African mistress, Grace Marufu. Without his first wife there to caution him against his extreme politics, Mugabe began to emerge as a tyrant. But that has not stopped Sally Hayfron from still being remembered affectionately, as the founding mother of the nation of Zimbabwe.