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Biographer Tracks Mugabe's Decline


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Tomorrow, Robert Mugabe, faces his strongest challenge as president of Zimbabwe, a country that he has ruled or misruled since independence 28 years ago. His opponents say that he'll try to rig the vote. He says they're lying.

Mugabe's story is much more complicated than, say, that of Idi Amin. As an independence fighter, he was made of much more substantial stuff than mere bluster. He was a fiercely intelligent spokesman for his cause. In prison, he had earned a string of degrees by correspondence courses.

When this country, which used to be Southern Rhodesia, won its independence, Mugabe was celebrated as an African liberation hero; a character who foreshadowed the role that Nelson Mandela would play in neighboring South Africa. But Mugabe's rule has been ruinous for his country's economy, thuggish(ph) at times, and it has been above all, seemingly endless.

Heidi Holland has written a book that's been published in South Africa, not here yet. A book that explores what makes this man tick and it's called "Dinner with Mugabe."

And Heidi Holland, you should explain the title since the book is really framed by two meetings with Mr. Mugabe.

Ms. HEIDI HOLLAND (Author, "Dinner with Mugabe"): Yes, I met him first in 1975 when I was a journalist, but also an activist. He came to meet somebody else at my house. He didn't come to see me. I was just there providing a safe place and a dinner. He came late and then he kept looking at the clock because he had to be at the station at nine o'clock. And eventually, I suddenly realized that I would have to drive him to the station. My friend, the constitutional expert he'd come to see - couldn't drive. I had a baby asleep in his crib, so I drove him at break-neck speed to the station and said to him look, I'm sorry, I'm driving so fast but I left my baby at home alone and he clacked a bit and carried on talking with on in the back seat, this friend of mine.

And then, to my astonishment, he rang the next afternoon from a public call box and said, thanks for dinner and was your baby all right? So, over the years, I always had this - a rather different perception of Robert Mugabe than a lot of people around me. And that I knew he was a decent guy.

And then, recently, just three months ago, actually, just before Christmas, I finally met him again, and had a long interview with him. Certainly, long by the normal standards because he doesn't actually go to any interviews at all. Two and a half hours I spent with him. For the book that I had meanwhile been researching, to try and find out what happened to this man and that what I discussed with him in the meeting just before Christmas.

SIEGEL: Your inquiry was as much or even more psychological than political merely. What in the end do you conclude? What is it about Robert Mugabe that could have the clay of his feet rise well up his stature?

Ms. HOLLAND: He is a weak guy. I worked with three psychologists to interpret the fresh material I was getting from the interviewees, people who had dealings with him. And the conclusion was really very interesting. First of all, he came from a very, very deprived background. And he was a very shy little boy. He's still shy actually, quite noticeably so even though the film clips you see of him waving his fist in the air is obviously his public face and he is really friendless. As a child even, he didn't play with other kids. In the interview with him a few months ago, he agreed that he lived mainly in his head as he always had done. He always had a book; he said he liked to talk to himself to recite little poems, he said. A very lonely figure, really. I don't think I've ever met anybody who comes across as such a lonely figure. And as a result, he's really also quite aloof, cold. And I think over the years, because he lived in a bit of a fantasy world as a child being such a loner, he's had a very impractical take on his role as head of state in Zimbabwe.

SIEGEL: You're saying that that bookish childhood that resort to fantasy early on in life, paved the ground for an adult capacity for denial about what's been going on in Zimbabwe in recent years.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, well, certainly, he's in denial now, but in the meantime, he also lacked the capacity to cope with disillusionment. There were various moments when he was sorely challenged as one would be in politics, you know, sooner or later. One was in the white Rhodesians as they were voted against him after five years. They were guaranteed 20 seats by the British at Lancaster House…

SIEGEL: That was the independence conference that ended the war in Rhodesia.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, exactly. After five years, they were invited to vote. And that time Robert Mugabe had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the whites happy because they control the economy to a large extent. And then to his astonishment, they vote for Ian Smith, his arch-enemy and he's foreigner. That was I think one of the pivotal moments. He was very disillusioned. He was hurt actually, but more than that, he was angry.

SIEGEL: And felt terribly rebuffed then by Britain unable to adapt creatively or to that challenge. I recently asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu what he made of Mugabe's career and he suggested that, and I perhaps I had mentioned the comparison with Nelson Mandela as I remembered Mugabe when he first was a president of Zimbabwe. And then, Tutu suggested perhaps Mugabe had felt terribly upstaged by Mandela and if that experience could have been very embittering for him. Do you buy that?

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, I do. I think he was being jealous of Mandela because he had been the darling of Africa up to that point. Mugabe is very, very well developed intellectually but not emotionally. Mandela was so much more relaxed. You know, Mandela had charisma or rather a real warm kind, and I think Mugabe deeply resented this. I think it was probably a sort of sibling rivalry that he perceived.

SIEGEL: There's just one exchange from your lengthy interview with Mugabe that I'd like you to recount. It's when he's actually telling you, and you're being pretty challenging with him, and he's telling you that actually, the economy of Zimbabwe is excellent and it's better than other countries in Africa. He's talking about the minds, he's talking about - the only thing missing is the products in the stores where people to buy. It's an extraordinary comment.

Ms. HOLLAND: Yes, well, that's when I knew that he was completely deluded. I mean, it was just so obvious, then it had been obvious earlier on when he made comments like he doesn't make enemies other people make him an enemy of theirs and so on. But once he made light of the fact that there were no goods to buy on the shelves, it was completely clear that he was deluded. And yet when I said that to the priest who would organize the interview for me, I said to him, the president is very deluded about the economy, and he said, yes, well, that's because people don't tell him the truth, which is just not the right answer. He answer is you can't tell Mugabe the truth. He's deluded now to such an extent and he's positioned himself in such a way in a bubble where nobody can tell him the truth. You know, he can't be wrong, he can only be right. So, he really does live a very detached life now.

SIEGEL: It's Heidi Holland whose book "Dinner with Mugabe" has been published in South Africa. She's talking with us from Johannesburg and I gather the book is available online but not in book stores in the U.S.

Ms. HOLLAND: It's available on www.dinnerwithmugabe.com

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Ms. HOLLAND: Thank you. Good-bye.

SIEGEL: This is NPR. National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.