Robert Mugabe...what happened?
There is a deep fascination in the UK with Robert Mugabe. Once feted by the Queen, now almost universally reviled, what is it about this dramatic transition that so captivates us, but also blinds us to the complexities?
Robert Mugabe… What Happened?, a new, critically-acclaimed film about Zimbabwe's president, was recently screened to a packed audience at an IDS-hosted event at Sussex University.
The film's director, Simon Bright is a Zimbabwean exile living in the UK and says his film is a definitive account of the rise and what he believes will be the fall of Mr Mugabe. It is a powerful documentary, using archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe. It tells a sympathetic, historically-informed, but still highly critical, story about the man himself.
Panellists included Simon Bright (the film's director), Denis Norman (the first Minister of Agriculture in independent Zimbabwe in 1980 and former head of the Commercial Farmers Union), Peter Freeman (formerly the Overseas Development Agency representative in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and now responsible for the UK Department for International Development's Africa programmes), McDonald Lewanika (Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition coordinator) and Phillan Zamchiya (Oxford University and former President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union).
Panllists agreed that the film offered an insightful glimpse into the complex past of Zimbabwe. Yet, inevitably, the film has limitations: there are gaps, omissions and an underplaying of some important complexities. The panel and audience discussion highlighted a number of these.
The role of the British in Zimbabwe's transition to Independence
The role of the British was not fully explored, yet the British government's complicity in the Zimbabwean crisis (for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s) was significant. Also unexplored was the failure of the British to push a more complete settlement during the Lancaster House Agreement negotiations which brought independence to Rhodesia. And, while the film was critical of white Rhodesia, it did not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following independence.
Zimbabwe's land reform programme
The film portrays the 1980s land reform as a success, but the reasons why land reform effectively ceased in the 1990s and the inevitability tensions around land subsequently are rather papered over. The post 2000 land reform is, as usual, painted as a universal disaster, and the standard portrayals are repeated, without nuance or qualification. The panel tackled some of these issues in discussion. Phillan Zamchiya for example highlighted the importance of understanding land in the contemporary political context, as linked to a pattern of state-led violence, while also recognising the importance of land access for those who gained it. Ian Scoones pointed to the findings of research, showing how land reform has not been the unmitigated disaster portrayed by the film, and why a more integrated agricultural sector was necessary to break the the economic, geographic social and political separation of (white) large-scale and (black) small-scale farming to create a more sustainable and productive agriculture for the long term.
Zimbabwe's political history
A number of contributors to the discussion also pointed out the continuities in the way politics has been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been part of a consistent pattern, and stretch into a particular history of the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle (in particular the 'struggles within the struggle'). It is not so much a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000; while there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. And this, as McDonald Lewanika pointed out, is why now a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, is so critical, to shed once and for all this violent history.
Despite its inevitable limitations, the film raises powerful emotions and it is certainly offering a focus for important debates not only about 'what happened', but also about 'what next'.
For a more detailed discussion of the film and Zimbabwe Land Reform see Ian Scoones'Zimbabweland blog.
The film will be screened again in Brighton on 25 June 2012 and will be open to the public. Details are on the BMECP website.
Listen to the full panel discussion on Radio Free Brighton.
Related Content - News & Blogs
BLOG: Seeing the Unseen: Breaking the Logjam of Undernutrition in Pakistan
By Lawrence Haddad
BLOG: What does the rise of UKIP mean for UKAID (and development)?
By Lawrence Haddad
Related Content - Events
How Transaid has inspired the transport industry: Solutions for Africa
4 June 2013 13.00 to 14.30
IDS Convening Space
What can the UK do to help put an end to the current nutrition crisis?
4 June 2013 16:00 to 17:30
Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, Westminster
STEPS Centre and Future Agricultures Seminar: The politics of policy-making around pastoralism in Kenya
22 May 2013 13:00 to 14:30
IDS Room 221