Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Robert Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s Downward Spiral

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Robert Mugabe.

Hailed as an anti-colonialist hero; despised as an autocrat and dictator.

At the time of this video production, Robert Mugabe has just recently died, aged 95, after

37 years as the Prime Minister, and then President, of Zimbabwe.

The news of his death had barely become public when many of you asked us to cover his life

story and career.

Here, weve obliged.

Robert Mugabes rise to power is a similar story to that of many rulers in the de-colonisation


A story of a struggle for independence, a quest for national unity and societal development.

And then: a gradual descent into autocratic rule, economic chaos and violence.

A Student and a Teacher Robert Mugabe was born on the February 21,

1924 in Kutama, not far from Harare, now the capital city of Zimbabwe, but formerly the

administrative centre of Southern Rhodesia, a recently constituted, self-governing British


At that time, political and economic power was firmly in the hands of the white minority,

some 270,000 citizens who controlled the most fertile land.

Conversely, six million locals were pushed into the colonys driest regions, making

a hard living from subsistence farming.

Young Robert was educated in a school run by catholic missionaries, and was by all accounts

a studious and hardworking child.

He later recalled that he enjoyed solitude, while looking after a herd of cattle in the

sole company of a book.

Roberts father, a carpenter, abandoned the family when the boy was only 10 years


That same year, Roberts elder brother died, allegedly from a poisoning, which plunged

his mother into a deep depression, interrupted only by violent mood swings.

In addition to looking after their farm and attending school, Robert had to look after

his mother.

He developed a strong bond with her, to the extent of being bullied for being amummys


Robert continued his studies into higher education: from 1950 to 1952, he attended Fort Hare Academy,

in South Africa, thanks to a scholarship.

In this period, he started to develop a political conscience, influenced by socialism and anti-colonialism,

inspired by a desire for independence from British rule and by a will to break down racial


Apartheid was becoming a tangible reality in Rhodesia and in neighbouring South Africa,

and Robert found inspiration in Gandhi, Nehru, and the struggle for Indian self-rule.

Robert eventually graduated as a teacher, the first of many academic achievements: in

later years, he would attain degrees in law, administration and economics.

The same year, 1953, saw Southern Rhodesia merge with the British protectorate of Northern


The resulting Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was still under British colonial administration.

Robert soon becameMr. Mugabeto his students, after taking a series of teaching

positions, first in the North of the federationa territory which later became Zambia

and then in Ghana.

Mr Mugabes experiences in Ghana were life changing.

On a personal level, he met and courted a colleague, Sally Hayfron.

The two married in 1958.

On a political level, Ghana was an eye opener for the young teacher: the West African country

was already independent, a first taste of life free from colonial rule.

He was deeply impressed by the policies of Ghanas first president, Kwame Nkrumah,

and his brand ofAfrican socialism’.

This ideology embraced established aspects of socialism such as communal land ownership

and planned economy, but fused them with private initiative, an acceptance of individualism,

and a revival of pre-colonial African culture.

Mugabe returned to Rhodesia in 1960.

Inspired by Krumah, and encouraged by Sally, he took his first steps into anti-colonial


He started campaigning against the discrimination of the black majority, which granted him an

invitation to speak at a rally of the National Democratic Party, or NDP.

The party leader, Joshua Nkomo, was impressed by the teacher and hired him as publicity

secretary for the NDP.

Unfortunately, this alliance of two strong personalities was doomed to failure.

A Slow Rise to the Top

The leadership and membership of the NDP mirrored the make-up of the black population in Rhodesia,

as it was divided into two main ethnicities: the Shona majority and the Ndebele minority.

Nkomo, and most of the leaders, belonged to the latter.

In 1963, the Shona clans rebelled against Nkomo, led by Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole

and by Mugabe himself.

The reverend and the teacher formed a breakaway faction, which became the Zimbabwe African

National Union, or ZANU.

The strong anti-colonial stance of the ZANU became a cause of concern for Rhodesian authorities.

In 1964, they cracked down on the party leadership.

Mugabe, Sithole and other activists were convicted of acts of sedition and sentenced to harsh

prison terms that could extend up to 11 years.

The bitterness of incarceration was only made worse by news from outside: Mugabes only

child had died in Ghana in 1965, and he had been denied leave to attend the funeral.

During the same year, Rhodesia broke away from the British Empire, becoming an independent

country, albeit without international recognition.

Power remained firmly in the hands of the white minority.

The struggle of Mugabe, the ZANU and the NDP shifted in focus: the priority was no longer

independence from the British, but rather, an established government led by the black

majority in the country.

While in prison, Robert Mugabe made the most of this time by further advancing his education

and preparing for total leadership.

By the early 1970s, Mugabe was still playing second fiddle to Rev. Sithole, but trouble

was stirring.

Other party members, also incarcerated, accused the Reverend of cooperating too closely with

white authorities, in exchange for prison privileges.

Sithole was eventually ousted and Mugabe swooped in, becoming the head of ZANU.

In 1975, after the end of his prison term, Mugabe fled to Mozambique with the help of

a white nun.

There, he joined the ZANLA guerrilla force that had been harassing the Rhodesian government

since 1964.

This was part of the Rhodesian Bush War, also known as the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle.

Let me tell you, this was a very complicated war, so get your notepads out.

On one hand, you had the Rhodesian Government, hampered by UN sanctions because of the lack

of international recognition, but supplied in secret by the South African Government.

On the opposite corner: the ZANLA, force, or Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army,

affiliated with ZANU, the party of Sithole and Mugabe.

The ZANLA operated from Mozambique and was supported and supplied by China.

In the third corner, there stood ZIPRA, the Zimbabwe PeopleRevolutionary Army, operating

from Zambia.

Their backers were the Soviet Union and their political leader was Joshua Nkomo, who had

now founded his new partyZAPU.

[Caption: Zimbabwe African People's Union] Interesting to note: the ZANLA/ZIPRA dichotomy

reflected the larger Sino-Soviet split, a major turning point of the Cold War.

But lets stay grounded in Rhodesia.

Mugabe did not actively participate in the fighting; his role was more political.

He was the voice of the ideology who would motivate the fighters and swell their ranks

through propaganda and recruitment.

It is generally recognised that ZIPRA was in fact more of an active military force,

while Mugabes ZANLA was more interested in sowing dissent and disobedience inside


The complexity of the situation was thankfully reduced when Mugabe and Nkomo were forced

by their followers to accept an uneasy alliance, the Patriotic Front.

The two leaders did not actively cooperate, but simply accepted each others existence

and avoided infighting across their separate factions.

While the insurgency versus the Rhodesian government continued, the stage was being

set for a future conflict between the two rebel leaders.

A CIA analysis noted how the two tried to upstage each other: Mugabe visited Havana

in July 1977 to seek support from Fidel Castro, and possibly extend a hand to the Soviets.

This worried Nkomo, who also flew to Cuba in November of 1978 to prevent the rival from

snatching Soviet favors.

But the war was finally nearing its end.

In late 1979 the British government mediated a peace deal between the Patriotic Front and


This agreement put an end to the war, sanctioned the independence of Zimbabwe and pushed the

relatively obscure Mugabe front and centre on the International stage.

In early 1980 Mugabe returned from his exile to Harare and called for the first democratic

election of the newly independent State of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe was one of the candidates, of course, and he became Prime Minister with a 57% majority.

One step at a time, the former teacher had reached

the top.

The Rain and the Chaff Was Mugabes victory a fair and transparent

one, as ruled by British observers?

Well, Mugabe had certainly built a following as a liberation hero and he could rely on

the vote of the Shona majority.

But it is also claimed that Mugabes guerrilla fighters intimidated many voters into picking

the right candidate, by forcing them to attend indoctrination sessions, calledpungwes’.

Mugabes rule was marked by similar crafty methods.

His first rival, Joshua Nkomo, was invited to join the newly formed cabinet, as Home

Affairs minister.

Generous, right?

Well, yes, but actually, no.

Nkomos powers were purposefully reduced: he was denied any authority over rural local

government and, very importantly, over the Special Branches of the Police.

Nkomo was a minister with no muscle.

This move was however in line with Mugabes public face: the face of reconciliation.

The young State was rife with divisions.

Mugabe vs Nkomo.

Shona vs Ndebele.

Black vs White.

And yet the Prime Minister invited everybody toRemain calm.

Respect your opponents and do nothing that will disturb the peace.

We must now all of us work for unity, whether you have won the election or not”.

Speaking of Unity, Mugabe was steering Zimbabwe into becoming a one-party state, under the

ZANU-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF.

And a one-party state could not tolerate opposition.

So, despite all the grand talk and overtures to former rivals, Mugabe was preparing to

crack down hard on Nkomo and his followers in the Ndebele minority.

In August 1981, Mugabe invited military instructors from North Korea to train his crack troops,

the Fifth Brigade.

They would be known as Gukurahundi, a Shona phrase meaning:

the rain which washes away the chaffThis phrase would become the name of their

more infamous operation, as well hear in a minute.

In February 1982, a police inspection discovered a cache of arms hidden in a farm, owned by

one of Nkomos companies.

This was the perfect pretext to accuse Nkomo of plotting a coup, and to remove him from

the cabinet.

Next, in January 1983, Mugabe unleashed his full-scale offensive against Nkomos followers,

the Ndebeles living in Matabeleland, or western Zimbabwe.

The Fifth Brigade, the Rain, swept through the region and washed away what Mugabe considered

to be the chaff.

According to a report from Zimbabwes Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Brigade

was responsible for mass murders, beatings and property burnings in the areas where Nkomos

supporters lived.

Within six weeks more than 2000 civilians had died, hundreds of homesteads had been

burnt and many more thousands of civilians had been beaten.

Most of the dead were killed in public executions involving between one and 12 people at a time.

Villagers frequently report being forced to sing songs praising ZANU-PF while dancing

on the mass graves of their families and fellow villagers, killed and buried minutes earlier.”

The operation in the west escalated into a full genocidal massacre: the atrocities continued

until December 1987, when Mugabe and Nkomo reached another tentative reconciliation.

By then, it is estimated that between 20 and 80 thousand Ndebele civilians had been murdered.

Executive President While the atrocities went on in Matabeleland,

Mugabe was consolidating his grip on power in Harare.

In 1985 Zimbabweans had been called to vote for a new Parliament.

The white minority was constitutionally granted 20 seats in the Chambers and in that year,

Ian D. Smiths party won all 20 of them.

Mr Smith had been the last white Prime Minister of Rhodesia, one who had vowed that the black

majority would never rule his country.

Perceiving this as a threat, Mugabe sought to reinforce his power base as much as possible:

so, he dissolved what little remained of Nkomos party and merged it with his own ZANU-PF.

With an unbeatable majority in Parliament, Mugabe in 1987 moved to legitimise his lone


He managed to win a majority vote ratifying a change to the Constitution: this amendment

eliminated the largely ceremonial Presidents office, and created a new, much more powerful

position for himselfExecutive President.

A title which combined the roles of Head of State, Head of the Government and Commander-in-chief

of the Armed Forces.

In case some have not realized yet, Mugabe had just legitimised his own dictatorship

over Zimbabwe.

And yet, this was also his period of maximum popularity, both at home and abroad.

Mugabe dedicated enormous slices of budget to education and healthcare, his policies

managed to revive the economy and develop urbanisation in the Country.

He even introduced anti-corruption laws, known asleadership code’: this limited ZANU-PF

cadres from owning more than 50 acres of land.

Zimbabwe was rapidly developing and Mugabe has also private affairs to take care of.

In January 1992 his wife Sally died of kidney failure.

In 1996 Robert Mugabe married his second wife, Grace Marufu, a former secretary in the presidential

office and 41 years his junior.

Mugabe and Grace had had an affair since at least 1990: their first child, a girl called

Bona was in fact born on that year.

According to him, Mugabe had asked Sallys approval.

Their marriage was childless and he wanted to sire a child before his own mother died.

Baby Bona could be counted among the so-calledBorn-Frees’.

These were the new generation of Zimbabweans born after the dissolution of Rhodesia.

Many of them were ready to enter the labour market at the end of the 1990s.

Having benefited from Mugabes increased spending on education, they were now realising

that the country could not offer them the quantity and quality of jobs they were trained


The Born-Frees lent their support to a new party, the Movement for Democratic Change,

led by former labour leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe was about to face a new decade of turmoil.

Land grab In February 2000 Mugabe called for a referendum

to ratify a new Constitution, which would have solidified even more his grip on power.

The President was expecting an easy victory, but the Movement for Democratic Change, more

and more popular, gave him defeat in the polling stations.

Mugabe could not accept this and accused the MDC members of being lackeys of the white

farmers, who had in fact openly financed the party.

The white minority of farmers and entrepreneurs made an easy target for the leader, who had

always ruled on a platform of anti-colonialism and anti-capitalism.

This minority was so small that it could hardly pose a threatabout 70,000 citizens over

a total of 13 million.

And yet Mugabe accused them of being dangerous agents of British colonialism.

Things got even worse for Mugabe when the June 2000 Parliamentary elections marked a

relative victory for the opposition: the MDC did not win the majority of seats, but with

a good 57 out of 150 they could leave a mark on legislation.

It seems like 2000 was the year in which the President could not catch a break.

Another group raised their voices in dissent: the veterans of the war of independence, theoretically

great supporters of Mugabe, but now disgruntled as their pension funds had been embezzled

by corrupt officials.

The veterans sought compensation by forcibly occupying farms, most of them operated by

the white minority.

Mugabe went with the flow, encouraging the vets to claim the lands as their own.

From his perspective, this must have been an easy alternative to actually having to

sort out an alternative pension fund!

Ironically, redistribution of land had been one of the priorities of Mugabes government

after independence.

And yet the issue had just sat there for decades.

Neither Mugabe, nor the white farmers, not even the British mediators, apparently were

interested in sorting it out.

In 2000, a full twenty years after independence, 4,500 white farmers still owned more than

50% of Zimbabwean farmland.

It seems like the uprising of the veterans finally gave Mugabe the motivation to complete

the land reformin the worst possible way.

Mugabes tacit consent to occupy the farms soon turned into active complicity.

His supporters organised armed squads to invade the farms and chase away their white owners.

Over the following two years, almost all the white-owned farmland had been redistributed

to 300,000 black families.

Many of these farms were assigned to competent commercial farmers, but many others went to

reward Mugabe loyalists, who had no experience nor interest in working the land.

To use a Maoist analogy, this great agricultural leap forward eventually caused more problems

than benefits.

Many farms fell into disuse due to lack of modern equipment, fertilizers, efficient irrigation

or just plain incompetence.

Food shortages became common in the country, although the Government painted them as a

consequence of drought.

Other leaders of the African Union started to pressure Mugabe into revising his policies

or even retiring.

But Mugabe would cling like a barnacle to his Presidential seat

I am not retiring, I will never, never go into exile.

I fought for Zimbabwe, and when I die, I will be buried in Zimbabwe, nowhere else.”

In 2008 a new season of elections proved to the world how tough could this barnacle be.

In March, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed victory in a presidential vote.

But Mugabe claimed that there had not been an official vote count yet.

This was delayed for weeks, until Mugabes officials announced that there hadnt been

a clear victor.

The authorities scheduled a further round of voting.

But in the lead up to the vote Mugabes security forces launched a campaign of intimidation

against the opposition party, the MDC.

This went as far as beating and killing opposition supporters.

Tsvangirai had no choice but to seek refuge in the Dutch Embassy in Harare, from where

he announced his withdrawal from the election.

In the subsequent round of voting, Mugabe was the only candidate.

Unsurprisingly, he won with 85% of the vote.

As he had done in the past, Mugabe sought to neutralise his opponent by absorbing him

into the cabinet: Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Prime Minister, although it was clear

that the executive and military power was fully concentrated in Mugabes hands.

In the following 2013 elections, Mugabe, no surprise, was the clear winner again.

They may as well printed polling cards sayingWho do you want as President?

A) Robert Mugabe in a grey suit?

Or B)

Robert Mugabe in a blue suit?”.

It is clearly both, as a blue suit is not appropriate for evening social engagements.

But the point is mootby this time Mugabe had famously ditched formal suits for colourful

outfits and loud headgear.

Whatever he wore after his victory, President Mugabe decided to end his arrangement with

Tsvangirai, which returned to the opposition.

How to Ruin a Country I am going to backtrack for a moment now to

take a close look at Zimbabwes economy under Mugabe in the early 2000s.

He had always been an autocrat, but at least in the 1980s and 1990s some of his reforms

had ensured better standards of living for Zimbabweans.

But after the ousting of the white farmers, Mugabes economic policies became farcically


The collapse of Zimbabwes farming system had a negative impact on the rest of the economy.

As food became scarce, its price increased, while farmers had less cash to spend on goods.

Moreover, Mugabe had involved his military in Congos Civil Wara conflict so complex

I will not even try to explain it.

As the government got deeper and deeper into debt, Mugabes central bank reacted in the

worst possible way: quantitative easy.

That is, printing moneyto pay off debts and compensate the war veterans who had not

benefited from land distribution.

As any citizen of the Weimar Republic could tell you, this can only create catastrophic

inflation, which hit the rate of 231,000,000 percent.

The currency had to be issued in notes as large as the 100 trillion Zimbabwe-dollar


In US dollars?

Thats 40 cents!

The increase in prices had also affected housing.

Many citizens in urban areas were unable to pay rent and so were forced to live in improvised


Mugabes solution was simply to get rid of these shanty towns across Zimbabwes

major cities.

This was calledOperation Murambatsvina’, orDrive out the rubbish” – a large

scale Police operation which harassed, bullied and coerced 700,000 residents into moving

to the countryside.

From 2008 to 2013, the coalition with Tsvangirai had some positive effects in curbing inflation.

But since Mugabe reasserted complete control in 2013, he returned to his former inflation-inducing


How long could it last?

A Bloodless Correction In the second half of the 2010s unemployment

in Zimbabwe rose to 80 percent.

The public health system, once the best in Africa, had collapsed.

And yet Mugabe, Grace and their family appeared to spend lavishly on luxury goods and travel

frequently to the Far Eastboth for shopping sprees and to seek treatment in expensive

private clinics.

In 2014, apparently inspired by Grace, Mugabe removed his vice-president Joice Majuru and

replaced her with staunch loyalist Emmerson Mnangagwa.

This move coincided with the elevation of Grace to a leadership post in ZANU-PF, the

ruling party.

It appeared as though Mugabe was setting the stage for Grace to succeed him as the new

Executive President.

The first lady was not a popular candidate, especially not amongst the military.

On the 7th of November 2017, shortly before new presidential elections, Mugabe fired his


The military saw this a sign of Graces impending appointment to the vice-presidency.

One week later, the Generals occupied Harare, arrested the Mugabes and placed them under

house arrest.

It was clearly a coup, although military spokesmen described it as abloodless correction’.

Vice-President Mnangagwa was sworn in as President in the same month.

Robert and Grace were allowed to live in relative calm inside their 24-bedroom home in Harare

and even to travel frequently to Singapore.

Mugabe was being treated there for a long-term illness, apparently cancer.

Back in August 2019, President Mnangawa revealed that Robert Mugabe had been hospitalised in

Singapore for the past few months.

Then, on Friday the 6th of September Mnangawa announced that former President Mugabe, now

aged 95, had died in Singapore.

It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwes founding father

and former President, Comrade Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation

and empowerment of his people.

His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten.”

On that we can agree: his contribution of political violence, ethnic cleansing, corruption,

and mismanagement will certainly

not be forgotten.

The Description of Robert Mugabe: Zimbabwe’s Downward Spiral