This essay is about stamps, I promise you. Or at least it includes stamps. When you set to writing about Zimbabwe, however, you have to start with Robert Mugabe.
Before he finally was swept out of power after more than 35 years of misrule, Mugabe was one of the last remaining Big Men of Africa. Not big in stature, but a big dictator. Mugabe grew into one of the most ruthless, wily power-mongers in Africa, rivaling Bokassa and Amin in his cruelty and malice, and Mobutu in his greed and megalomania — cloaking his crimes all the while in the language of liberation and anti-imperialism.
He came to power in 1980, soon after the collapse of Ian Smith’s segregationist government. Mugabe had the right credentials (educated, veteran political organizer, nationalist, freedom fighter), said the right words, and seemed to get off to a good start. He had a lot going for him: Zimbabwe was one of the most economically viable states in Africa, with rich mineral resources, fertile soil, an expanding education system and a well-established and growing black middle class.
He wrecked it all. By 1982, things already had changed for the worse. Mugabe seized power by terrorizing his opponents and critics. He went on to create a de facto one-party state, at the expense of his main rival, Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe was not subtle. “Some of the measures we shall take are measures that will be extra-legal,” he told parliament. “An eye for an eye and an ear for an ear may not be adequate in our circumstances. We might very well demand two ears for one ear and two eyes for one eye.” When it came to Mugabe, it probably was wise to take him literally.
His band of killers, dubbed 5 Brigade, went their murderous way under the chiShona slogan Gukurahundi — “rain that blows away chaff before spring rains.” How many died? Hundreds? Thousands?
Mugabe’s venality and penchant for violence were so obvious that he seemed to be able to speak with impunity. Here’s how he explained his version of democracy at gunpoint: “Our votes must go together with our guns … the people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
How could it be that Mugabe could amass one of the world’s great fortunes on the salary of a head of state? Because he and his gang systematically plundered the national treasury. The ministry budgets were drained. When even the state fund for war victims went bust, that outrage at least warranted an official inquiry, which named cabinet ministers among the culprits. But nothing was done about it. Phillip Chiyangwa, a millionaire cohort of Mugabe, explained his good fortune this way: “I am rich because I belong to ZANU-PF.”
By the end of the 1990s, with the disruption and chaos caused by Mugabe’s policies, aggravated by rampant corruption and mismanagement, Zimbabwe was an economic basket case. Mugabe held on to power by co-opting or otherwise neutralizing his rivals, stacking the judiciary, manipulating elections and muzzling the press — though voters very nearly turned him out every chance they got. His threats would sound colorful if they did not carry such a chill: “Those who try to cause disunity among our people must watch out because death will befall them.”
After Zimbabwe’s agriculture system collapsed, Mugabe and his cohorts seemed not at all perturbed about mass starvation and death. Mugabe aide Didymus Mutasa was quoted as saying: “We would be better off with only 6 million people, our own people who support the liberation struggle.” Since Zimbabwe was now dependent on food imports, Mugabe and his clique had a new racket: food distribution. “Vote for ZANU-PF,” crowed Mugabe crony Abednico Ncube, “before (the) government starts rethinking your entitlement to this food.”
By 2004, 3 million people had left Zimbabwe, mostly whites and the black middle class. The economy kept shrinking. Unemployment reached 80 percent. The government launched a crackdown on shantytowns where thousands of destitute workers lived. Said police commissioner Augustine Chihuri: “We must clean the country of the crawling mass of maggots bent on destroying the economy.” Mugabe grew ever more vicious as he clung to power. His campaign slogan became: “Vote Mugabe next time or you will die.” Hundreds apparently didn’t get the message, because they died. As inflation soared to heights unseen in human history — a 5 sextillion inflation rate at one point produced a $100 billion bank note, which was not enough to buy a loaf of bread, so six months later came a $100 trillion bank note, The currency soon collapsed; so too the health system and just about everything else. The jobless rate reached 90 percent. A recent statistic is equally breathtaking: 95 percent of whatever work force there is makes up an “informal economy” — people scrambling to make do whatever way they can. Shockingly, in many respects Africans lived better in Rhodesia, and Southern Rhodesia before independence. The year Zimbabwe’s per capita gross national income peaked was 1980 — the start of Robert Mugabe’s rule. In recent years, Mugabe made his position abundantly clear: “Zimbabwe is mine. I will never, never, never, never surrender.”
Sources put Mugabe’s fortune at $1 billion. There are rumors of Swiss bank accounts and castles in Scotland. The Mugabe’s own a
$5 million mansion in Hong Kong, and there are reports of real estate purchases in the Mugabe name in Malaysia, Singapore and possibly Dubai.
The Mugabes have six properties In Zimbabwe, according to cables released by Wikileaks. In addition to commercial and industrial interests, the couple acquired farms around the country, as white farmers were driven off.
Reports of the Mugabes’ life of luxury turn my stomach, but in case you can’t resist being fascinated/horrified, I’ll share a little of it:
One presidential mansion is valued at $9 million and known as The Blue Roof. According to one report, it has“25 bedrooms, a large outdoor pool, two lakes, a massive dining room that can seat more than 30 guests, a large master bedroom with super king-size bed and a multimillion-dollar radar system.”
A published list of Mugabe goodies includes:
- A custom-made Mercedes “able to withstand AK-47 bullets, landmines and grenades. It also features a CD and DVD player, internet access and anti-bugging devices.”
- A Rolls Royce Phantom edition that is so exclusive, “only 18 were ever manufactured.”
- A 100-carat anniversary ring ordered by Grace Mugabe worth $1.35 million.
Grace Mugabe, whom the Guardian says is known locally as “the First Shopper” or “Gucci Grace,” may have once gone on a $75,000 shopping spree in Paris, the paper says.
Mugabe’s 91st birthday menu, according to Zimbabwe’s Chronicle newspaper, featured elephant, buffalo, sable antelope, impala, and a lion.
“The couple’s home in Harare is said to be extraordinarily opulent, so much so that when their daughter Bona was married there, photographers were said to have been ordered not to take any pictures that showed the property in the background,” The Guardian reported.
The Mugabe children have been less discreet. One has been seen on Snapchat pouring champagne over an expensive watch, eliciting outcry on social media.
Earlier this year, according to Australian site news.com.au, the couple’s youngest son, Bellarmine Chatunga Mugabe, posted on Instagram a photograph of his watch captioned: “$60,000 on the wrist when your daddy run the whole country ya know!!!”
New diamond fields discovered in 2006 were a godsend to Zimbabwe — or should I say, to Mugabe and his corrupt cabal. His ruthless rule continued, somehow prevailing over the best interests of his people by holding them in thrall through a combination of bribes, handouts, terror, black nationalist rhetoric and … don’t ask me to explain how he did it, becoming by far the oldest and longest-serving leader in the world. (Well, not quite — Britain’s Queen Elizabeth has worn the crown since 1953). I’m just thankful he’s out of power — though I’m sorry he’s not being hauled into court and tried for murder and thievery, among his many other offenses. I’d like to see all his loot confiscated, too. And no pensions for Robert or Grace or their retinue. Put them in a home for old dictators. Sorry to say, I have little confidence that his successor and former cohort Emmerson Mnanbagwe. (pronounced … hmmm, I’d say … something like this: start with the mouth closed and say Nan-BAG-we) will be much of an improvement. Poor Zimbabwe.
What does this have to do with stamps? Let’s get to it right now.
When I saw a series of stamps issued by Zimbabwe under the general heading, “national heroes,” I was intrigued. My expectation, knowing Mugabe, is that anyone who genuinely stood for the best interests of Zimbabweans and showed ability and dynamism, inevitably would come up against the corrupt regime and be crushed. So who are these guys being honored on stamps as “heroes,” whose remains are interred at Zimbabwe’s “heroes’ acre” in Harare? Are they “heroes’ because they are safely dead, perhaps done in by Mugabe himself? Is the stamp honoring this or that prominent (and dead) Zimbabwean the equivalent of the Godfather’s wreath sent to the funeral of the guy he just bumped off?
Alternatively, if these “heroes” lived long and prosperous lives under Mugabe, there must be a distressing tale of moral compromise and venality behind their rise and endurance that deserves to be told. I decided to take a closer look.
Don’t look here for a detailed sketch of Robert Mugabe or his former rival, Joshua Nkomo. Their stories are well-known. In Mugabe’s case, the story is one that will leave a mark of infamy for the ages. Nkomo, the hapless representative of the Ndebele minority tribe, plays only a minor role in the drama. He gave up his opposition role and joined Mugabe’s corrupt regime as a minor partner. I don’t know if he managed to siphon off any of the millions flowing into Mugabe’s accounts over the years. He made his pact, sold his soul, and probably should have cashed in. In which case, he ended up being just another rascal.
Instead of focusing on the Big Men, let’s look at some of the second- and
third-tier players featured on the “hero” stamps. As I delved into the stories, there were some common traits. Like many bright young Southern Rhodesians, many if not most of these “heroes” started out in a rural city or village. They got an education or sorts in the 1940s or even earlier, most likely in a mission school. Teaching was a way out of the village and out of poverty, so many of them may have started as teachers. Christian ministry was another option, as was low-level civil service. Some of the brightest or well-connected students managed to wangle invitations to study in South Africa or England. Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) was unusual in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite rigid segregation and colonial exploitation, black Africans in Zimbabwe earned academic degrees and professional advancement. By the 1950s there was a well-established and growing black middle class.
You may find true heroes of Zimbabwe buried in Hero’s Acre. If so, it is because they died before they could be corrupted, coerced or killed by Mugabe and his henchmen. People like Charles Mizingeli, the quirky journalist who fought against tribalism, and Benjamin Burombo, the charismatic and bombastic pioneer for independence; Amon Jiriria, the technocrat whose vision encompassed a prosperous, multiracial state of 20 million people living in harmony; Rev. Esau Nemapare, who created a model for a new Africa in the 1940s. Other early leaders of promise include Ndabaninge Sithole, Stanlake Samkange and Masotha Mike Hove. How much better for Zimbabwe if one of them — or others with their skills, dedication and integrity — had been able to take the place of Mugabe. These leaders’ names are missing from the roster of national heroes at Heroes Acre, Mugabe’s monument to national heroes outside Harare.
The ones we consider here are not in the first ranks of Zimbabwe’s heroes. Their heroism diminishes exponentially with any association to Mugabe. To read the stories of these men (they are nearly always men) is to wonder what happened to such bright young prospects. Did they learn the wrong lessons from their colonial rulers, so that many of them became oppressors in their own right? Did they forget about everything else, when they saw the glittering baubles and felt the thrill of power? Was the peer pressure irresistible? How was it that so few of them were able to cling to their values, their integrity, their training and discipline, their sense of shared purpose and public service? And why do I have so many questions and so few answers? Enough of this! On to the stamps and the stories …
END OF PART ONE