Robert Mugabe… What Happened? A rejoinder to Tendi

Posted on May 10, 2012 | Category: Politics; Business, Sport

BLESSING-Miles Tendi begins his review of my film ‘Robert Mugabe…What Happened?’ by criticising the choice of Mugabe as an African villain when there are worse African villains to  be found. Of course he is right, but I chose the subject that interests me.

There are already films on some who led Africa badly (Mobutu; Leopold II), but Mugabe is a fascinating subject who, as a fellow Zimbabwean, means something to me. I agree with Tendi that there is a special market for the film in Britain because of its former colonisation of Rhodesia. I even agree with his assertion that Britain has made Mugabe a ‘bogeyman for everything that is wrong with Africa’.

However, to reduce this to misplaced sympathy for white farmers rather than to an interest in what has actually happened in Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s leadership, is to misjudge the complexity of both Britain and Zimbabwe.

Despite sell-out screenings around Britain, there is no British money in this production, whereas French, German and South African funds have been forthcoming. A tour of German cinemas has been requested and cinemas showing the film have sold out in Amsterdam, Brussels, Cape Town and Johannesburg and currently New York. It seems to be selling out wherever it goes.

In fact, the film spends very little time lamenting the fate of white farmers and a great deal more describing the fate of black opposition voters and the mechanisms of government. If Tendi’s opinion that the film fills cinemas with British people whose sympathies lie with dispossessed white farmers is correct (this has never actually been reflected by any of my audiences) – this is one of the audiences whom I want to enlighten about the real facts.

I took an early decision that this would be a film about what had happened under Mugabe’s leadership rather than a psychological portrait of the man – which could never have been more than guesswork. Mugabe has made it his business to stand for Zimbabwe. He said in 2008 (echoing Louis XIV) that Zimbabwe is his and that only God can remove him from power. So the choices he has made during his life have defined the country’s history.

Interviewees who had experienced Mugabe’s reign were asked about this history and answered in different ways. Tendi finds fault with many of them. Some, like Elinor Sisulu, John Makumbe and Lovemore Madhuku, he claims are too distant from Mugabe to have a useful view. Is closeness a vital qualification to be allowed to speak? These three have been victims of Mugabe’s repressive machinery and have observed him closely. Add to these other names Tendi omits from his list: Geoff Nyarota whose Daily News newspaper was bombed, Paul Temba Nyati, a ZAPU central committee member and founder member of the MDC, and more particularly the deliberately nameless Ndebele victims of Gukurahundi violence, and later the female victim of Zanu PF youth violence. Distant or not, they have a right to speak about their experience.

Where I’ve interviewed those whom Tendi feels were sufficiently close, he accuses me of inadequate probing. He rubbishes Dennis Norman’s anecdote about Mugabe’s demand for cabinet ministers to wear appropriate clothing. I included this anecdote because it is in fact very telling: Mugabe had high ideals, he placed a value on authoritarian looks that served him well and he wanted to be taken seriously by the Western world – unlike, for example, the military uniforms of other African leaders or the traditional clothing of the Burmese leader we see in the CHOGM archive.

Tendi also chooses to overlook Norman’s comments on the success of Zimbabwe’s first decade and in particular on the success of the first resettlement programme. Where Tendi claims that despite his closeness to Mugabe, Edgar Tekere adds nothing of substance, for most viewers he perfectly illustrates the arc of the film, from his idolisation of Mugabe when he first knew him in the 1960’s to his later disillusionment with Mugabe’s one party state and corruption twenty odd years later.

Tendi also ignores the testimony of the man who perhaps was closest of all to Mugabe, Lawrence Vambe, a family relative who attended the same school as Mugabe, who knew him all his life and worked for him through the 1980’s.

Lastly, he completely fails to notice Mike Auret’s trenchant comments about Mugabe’s early success followed by precise details of the genocide in Matabeleland and his cutting comments on the Congo expedition, some of the most telling in the whole film.

This is a film about Mugabe, but instead of looking at the charges the film makes about his leadership, Tendi ducks them by rubbishing the witnesses. Tendi’s list of the bad points about certain of the witnesses does not necessarily make them unreliable, and I would answer ‘two wrongs do not make a right’. In any case, there are large sections of the film where Mugabe speaks for himself – an audience does not have to rely solely on witnesses. Tendi seizes on only one of these – where a quote is used out of context. He is right, as I agreed at the panel, but had the sound quality permitted me to use the quote in its entirety, it would have been even more damning.

Tendi relates the actual quote thus: ‘If redistributing land from whites to blacks makes him a Hitler in Western eyes, then let it be.’ In fact, the whole quote runs: ‘I am still the Hitler of the time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for.’

Tendi contends that ‘in asking what happened to Mugabe, we are asking the wrong question. What we ought to ask is what happened to Zimbabwe’s political culture? … Zimbabwe’s problems are much bigger than Mugabe. By focusing on him, we miss the crux of the matter’. It is precisely the political culture led by Mugabe on which the film focuses that has caused the problems Miles does nothing to elucidate.

At the screening, Miles referred vaguely to the mess of political culture in a strange echo of Mugabe’s words in the film, where he says of political violence ‘that’s how it is in Africa’ as if, like some neo-colonial commentator, there is something ineluctable in the African air that drives African leaders to political violence.

There is nothing mysterious about the process. Political violence worldwide is ordered by politicians bent on staying in power: Milosevic, Hitler, the generals in Argentina. The film shows Mugabe directly threatening and carrying out violence against his population, creating a political culture where violence rules, yet Tendi disputes my use of the word ‘genocide’ by claiming that whilst Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina and the March to June 2008 violence all violated human rights, ‘to label them genocide is to banalise the term into a validation of every kind of victim hood’.

Finally, he raises some questions about Rex Nhongo, Tekere and Enos Nkala, on the grounds that ‘understanding these men, their relationships with Mugabe and the structures out of which they arose will tell us much more about Mugabe’s leadership, where Zimbabwe has come from and where it is headed’. They’re good questions and we wait for Miles theories on these points, and for someone to make a film about them. Meanwhile, go and see the ‘Robert Mugabe… What Happened?’ Judge for yourself!

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