Robert Gabriel Mugabe (born 1924) was in the forefront of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia) for nearly two decades. Despite detention and harassment from the white settler regime, Mugabe resisted attempts to break him and maintained a fierce commitment to the principles of racial equality and democracy. In 1980 he was rewarded by becoming Zimbabwe's first elected black prime minister.
Robert Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission in Zvimba, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) four months after it became a British Crown colony. Mugabe was the son of a peasant farmer and carpenter. He began his education at a nearby Jesuit mission and soon proved an able student under the guidance of Father O'Hea. For nine years he taught in various schools while also continuing to study privately for his matriculation certificate before going on to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, where he received a bachelor of arts in English and history in 1951. He returned to teach in Southern Rhodesia, obtaining his bachelor of education by correspondence in 1953. Two years later he moved to Chalimbana Training College in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), where he taught for nearly four years while also studying for a bachelor of science in economics by correspondence from the University of London. In 1958 he completed that degree in Ghana, where he taught at St. Mary's Teacher Training College and also met his future wife, Sarah "Sally" Heyfron. In Ghana he found a society that was recently independent and proudly Marxist, with a government intent on bringing universal education and opportunity to even those formerly on the lowest levels of society. The Ghanaians cheerful public spirit and their wholehearted way of seizing the chance to better themselves made a profound impression on Mugabe.
In 1960 Mugabe returned to Zimbabwe on home leave and became caught up in the African nationalist struggle against Great Britain and the settler regime. He resigned his job in Ghana, remained in Zimbabwe, and joined the National Democratic party (NDP) as secretary for publicity. Mugabe proved a capable organizer, and he quickly built the youth wing of the party into a powerful force. His determination to achieve racial and social justice in Zimbabwe soon made him a respected and important voice in the party. He was one of the principal opponents of the 1961 constitutional compromise offering black Africans token representation in a still white-dominated government. This document offered no specific target date for adopting majority rule and it proposed a two tier electoral system whose upper level was available only to voters who had completed secondary school, thereby eliminating a majority of the black African population, giving blacks only half the voting power of whites. Such was the vociferous opposition of the 450,000 blacks that the United Nations called upon Britain to suspend the new constitution and begin discussions about true majority rule.
That same year the government banned NDP, but Mugabe retained his position in the successor party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). When ZAPU was banned in 1962, Mugabe was restricted for three months, but he eluded imprisonment and fled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which had become the party's operational headquarters in exile. He organized regular broadcasts to Zimbabwe from Radio Tanzania.
Dissension over tactics split the ZAPU leadership, and Mugabe and other ZAPU dissidents returned home to form a new nationalist party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), in August 1963. This party opposed another group led by Joshua Nkomo, who was preoccupied with gaining external support against the Rhodesian government. The ZANU called for a firmer policy of confrontation with the settlers. Ndabaningi Sithole became president and Mugabe the secretary-general. In response, ZAPU established the People's Caretaker Council (PCC) to act for the banned ZAPU.
Clashes between the two parties weakened the movement, and white conservative settlers gained power through the election of the Rhodesian Front's Ian Smith in 1964. Smith quickly banned the two parties and a year later declared unilateral independence from Britain. The United Nations imposed sanctions that severely damaged the economy and left Smith to struggle without support of his long-time ally Mozambique. The former Portuguese colony had become a Marxist state, and as such, no longer a staunch friend to Rhodesia.
Meanwhile, Mugabe, Nkomo, and other nationalist leaders spent the next ten years in prison, during which time various lieutenants directed the still weak armed struggle. Mugabe used his imprisonment to further his studies, obtaining a bachelor of law and a bachelor of administration from the University of London. He also tutored fellow inmates, and at the time of his escape he was studying for a master of law degree. In 1974 Smith allowed Mugabe out of prison to attend a conference in Lusaka. Mugabe seized this opportunity to escape across the border to Mozambique, gathering young troops of guerrillas along the way.
The guerrilla war intensified during this period as ZANU's military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), gained experience in the field and training abroad (especially in China). On April 28, 1968, ZANLA guerrillas clashed with Rhodesian forces—since commemorated as Chimurenga Day, the start of the armed struggle. The war expanded dramatically in 1972 when the Mozambique border became available as a base for guerrilla forces.
In response to the escalating guerrilla war, the Rhodesian government began extending its military call-up, while also searching for an acceptable compromise with moderate African leaders. Following long talks with representatives from Zambia, South Africa, and elsewhere, a detente scenario was drafted in Lusaka in October 1974. Smith released detained nationalist leaders for preliminary talks. Several of these leaders signed a declaration of unity in Lusaka, and Smith declared a ceasefire. Mugabe and ZANU refused to sign and ignored the ceasefire, which consequently failed to take place.
Mugabe and Nkomo left Zimbabwe in order to direct their respective military forces. ZANU leaders had become disenchanted with Sithole's willingness to compromise with Smith and in 1975 appointed Mugabe the leader of ZANU. That same year a ZANU leader, Herbert Chitepo, was assassinated in the Zambian capital of Lusaka and the Zambian government arrested most of the Zambian-based ZANU leaders. As a result, Mugabe moved to Mozambique, which became ZANU's main headquarters and staging ground for guerrilla attacks. B.J. Vorster of South Africa and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia tried to get Smith to negotiate with the nationalists, but talks broke off within a few hours. The war resumed on three fronts: Tete, Manica, and Gaza. In 1976 ZANU and ZAPU formed the Patriot Front to establish a united front to better prosecute the war. The new army was called the Zimbabwe People's Army (ZIPA), which included cadres from ZANLA and ZAPU's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).
Military and political pressures gradually pushed Smith towards an internal settlement. In 1977 Smith rejected peace proposals put forward by the United States and Britain, and instead opened negotiations with three moderate African leaders: Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Chief Chirau, and Sithole. In 1978 these leaders agreed to form a transitional government which would proceed to majority rule, and a year later a white referendum approved the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesia constitution. Muzorewa won the subsequent national election.
Both the international community and the Patriotic Front rejected this compromise, and guerrilla activity continued despite amnesty proposals. Britain, the United States, and the Front-Line States (the African countries bordering Zimbabwe) stepped up pressure on Smith and Muzorewa to hold another constitutional conference which included the Patriotic Front. In 1979 at the Commonwealth summit in Lusaka, Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to convene a constitutional conference. The resulting Lancaster House conference established a new constitution, and a ceasefire took effect. In 1980 Mugabe won British-supervised elections in an independent Zimbabwe and became the first black prime minister and minister of defense in Zimbabwe. After the election Mugabe presided over Zimbabwe's difficult transition from a racialist settler regime to a multi-racial socialist government. He brought his moral force, personal discipline, and commitment to social justice to this difficult task, although not always receiving full cooperation from Nkomo's Matebele people.
Mugabe ignored the departure of the white population, concetrating his efforts on improving the lot of the black African peoples. By Jan 1, 1981, Zimbabwe boasted free primary education for all students, guaranteed admission to secondary school for all who qualified, free medical care for those with low incomes and a new housing law granting freehold ownership to home renters of 30 year's standing.
Many problems remained between Mugabe's forces and those of Nkomo's. Resentment smoldered when Mugabe was once again reelected over Nkomo, spilling over into fighting and murder until finally the two leaders agreed to settle their differences. In December 1987 the two rival factions merged with Mugabe as President and Nkomo as a senior minister. With the friction eased, attention could be turned to bettering the economy.
By 1989 a five year plan was created to restructure the government, relaxing price controls and giving farmers the right to set their own prices. By 1994 the structural adjustment had produced some improvements with slight growth showing in agriculture, manufacturing, and mining. In 1996 Mugabe took the controversial stance of supporting the seizure of white-owned land without compensation in order to reverse the economic imbalances that disadvantaged the majority blacks. He also refused to revise the constitution that is tailored to a one party state, or release his hold on the media.
In 1991 Mugabe's wife Sally died. He then married his long-time mistress (and mother of his two children) Grace Marufu. While the wedding was lavish and almost regal (Marufu invited 20,000 guests to attend the ceremony), it sparked anger among the Zimbabwean people, causing them a disillusionment with the president who led them to independence. Other signs of unrest were that 60,000 civil servants went on strike over a 6 percent pay raise when inflation was at 22 percent. Moreover, the government revoked their traditional Christmas bonus, while awarding themselves a 130 percent pay increase. Although the Mugabe government negotiated a settlement to the strike, it signaled a breakdown of the relationship between Mugabe and his people.
Further Reading on Robert Gabriel Mugabe
Mugabe's Our War of Liberation (1983) discusses his part in the armed struggle in Zimbabwe. His career is discussed in David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, The Struggle for Zimbabwe (1981) and in Diana Mitchell, African Nationalist Leaders in Zimbabwe: Who's Who 1980 (1980, revised 1983). Also see: Zimbabwe: A Country Study (1983), "End of the affair: Zimbabwe," Economist, August 31, 1996.