Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe by Martin Meredith

Through history, literature and general colonising shenanigans, Africa always embodied a tinge of the romantic. It was painted in the west as something wild, unrestrained, a little terrifying, and spontaneous, punctuated by the weird rituals of the locals which had no real meaning, but were charming in their exoticism. This type of rather racist and outdated mythology served its cultural purposes in the west, but in doing so helped to contradict the structures and values inherent in the African cosmologies.

These days, Africa has become a part of the rest of the world, in political- and socio-economic terms. British author Martin Meredith has a history of focusing on the African continent, with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams. In Our Votes, Our Guns, he offers an intense extrapolation of the crises that have sullied Zimbabwe over the last three decades, in a manner which emulates a novel in its readability, but a terrifying one, at that.

The book opens around the time leading up to Zimbabwe’s independence from British rule in 1980. It presents a well-rounded insight into the machinations behind Zimbabwe’s emergence as a black-run country, and the sunshine and roses of a destiny that this was supposed to represent for Zimbabwe’s inhabitants, both black and white, as well as the world at large. White minority rule was being recognised for the unfairness that it represented for an African country’s growth in a democratic existence, and the set of contradictory values that it manifest. Synonymous with Zimbabwe from that period is Robert Mugabe, the central protagonist of this book. When first elected, he promised hope and harmony between all people of Zimbabwe, as one of his speeches outlined:

Racism, whether practiced by whites or blacks, is anathema to the humanitarian philosophy of Zanu [Mugabe’s political party]. It is as primitive a dogma as tribalism or regionalism. Zimbabwe cannot just be a country of blacks. It is and should remain our country, all of us together.

But Mugabe’s belief in his own ego and his sense of power was insatiable, and this tune changed so quickly that it made many happy Zimbabweans’ heads spin. The picture isn’t a pretty one.

This picture is presented as a broad account, drawn from empirical material as well as opinion, hearsay and gossip. And from this geographical side of Zimbabwe, it feels a fair and intelligent development of a complex yet fairly subtle cultural volte face which reveals racial hatred as the disturbing malignancy that it is. Mugabe was an intelligent and disciplined individual with a desire to learn, but an overriding lust for power. “Whatever good intentions he started out with … soon diminished in importance”.

Beginning in the early 1980s, after gaining power, Mugabe equipped himself and his ruling party to annihilate all of his political opposition. This was the birth place of an elite fighting force known as 5 Brigade, trained by North Korean agents to ruthlessly carry out acts of terror on the civilian populations. Corruption and economic mismanagement raged unchecked; government positions were rotten with nepotism and patronage. The country’s white community was hard hit by Mugabe’s xenophobia and racism, causing many, including the farmers who had competently maintained the country’s economic back bone by keeping the lands fertile and productive for generations, to flee, literally empty-handed and for their lives. These farmers may, in the early days, have supported Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front, which condoned a pro-apartheid system of rule, but proved, after independence to be staunch supporters for the status quo and the change of hands. It didn’t help, though.

Culminating in the shutting of all mouths that could deride him, from the press to the judiciary, Mugabe is recorded as saying:

They think because they are white they have a divine right to our resources. Not here. The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans, Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans.

Citizenship became valueless in the face of the colour of one’s skin, and the perambulations of the country continue to spiral back into the racist mythologies with which it began. The AIDS pandemic has deeply affected the workforce, as has the infiltration of the war veterans onto areas previously farmed by whites. Corruption and neglect have become par for the course, and the acrimonious tragedy continues unabated.

In fourteen racy chapters packed with information and written in an unacademic and readable manner, Meredith exposes the history of this story in entirety. With the shaky victory of Zimbabwe’s last election stained by corruption and open intimidation fresh in the press’s memory, the bigger image of the Zimbabwean crisis often remains fairly murky.

Of necessity, though, the story remains open-ended, and this, I daresay, writing from South Africa, is the scariest of all. The title quote that describes Mugabe’s understanding of the parallelism between a gun and a vote in a nation, rings eerily in the light of things like organized crime and violence which plays a very clear role in South Africa’s underbelly as well as subliminally in her economy. We are, after all, neighbours. Given that the whole picture of Mugabe’s rule hasn’t yet played itself to the bitter end, the projection is a horrible one. Meredith doesn’t stand on a soapbox with this one, but he needn’t. He has created a succinct and intelligent overview of the transition of a man with the future of his country wrapped around him; a man who transformed himself from an educated an intelligent individual into a caricature, as frightening as Alfred Jarry’s Ubu, as destructive as Hitler and as ridiculous as the colonialist cartoon that cannibalistically boils his white victims in a cooking pot. It’s potent reading for anyone wanting to know what Zimbabwe came from and why it is such an appalling mess these days.