Review of Documentary: Robert Mugabe … What Happened? by Simon Bright Cinema Guild

“Robert Mugabe…What Happened?” a film by Simon Bright, Cinema Guild, 2011.  ISBN: 0781514029. See also:

This powerful documentary is really two films in one.  It’s a political history of Zimbabwe from its formation in 1980 on the ashes of Rhodesia, Britain’s breakaway former colony.  This history is told through the rise of Robert Mugabe, the country’s first and only elected political leader.

But, the film also is a psychological study of Mugabe the man, giving us glimpses of key events in his life before he assumed political power but mostly tracing his apparent metamorphosis from a democrat and freedom-fighter to a brutal tyrant who would stop at nothing – including mass murder – to keep his hold on power.

The film gives a nod toward historical and cultural context by reminding viewers that today’s Zimbabwe occupies the site of a civilization that was the seat of great political and economic power before the arrival of Europeans.  But, from there we jump to the modern era where the rest of the film is presented as the story of one man – Mugabe — gaining and maintaining control of the levers of political and economic power.

We follow Mugabe through his struggle against the white rule of Rhodesia’s Ian Smith and through his rivalry with fellow insurgent Joshua Nkomo.  There is archival footage of the British turning over power to Mugabe as the new state of Zimbabwe is created and of Mugabe’s struggles with other black leaders for control. We see the promise of a new more just society being created.  The economy begins to take off, initial efforts at land reform are successful and strides are made in health care and education.

This hopeful start is interrupted by efforts by the apartheid regime of South Africa to destabilize Zimbabwe and by hostilities in nearby Mozambique. This period is marked by Mugabe’s violent repression of his political rivals and orchestrated propaganda efforts to support his regime, efforts that include increased pressure on the mass media and the arts to sing his praises, demonize his political rivals and promote his policies.

In his years as a guerilla fighter against the Smith regime in Rhodesia, Mugabe was influenced by Maoist thought, and he came into power promising a progressive society based on land reform and equitable redistribution of the country’s wealth. After 1989, however, he tilts toward capitalism, imposing austerity measures in order to qualify for IMF loans.  As a result, according to the film, white farmers and elite blacks grow rich, and the old repressive colonial system of Rhodesia takes on new life.

In 1998, Mugabe orders an invasion of the Republic of Congo in support of Laurent-Desire Kabila’s struggle against a rebellion.  The film suggests Mugabe was motivated, in part, to get his hands on the mineral wealth of the Congo.  What’s more, we are told, the war served to deflect attention away from an increasingly desperate domestic situation and unite the country around a common enemy.  In any case, the war contributed to more hardships at home, not the least of which was runaway inflation, a significant decline in living standards and the eventual collapse of public health.

Then – after voters turn down a new constitution that would guarantee Mugabe’s hold on power –he responds with a “farm invasion” that seizes land from white farmers and turns it over to his black supporters.  This is accompanied by increased use of the state machinery to intimidate rivals and to keep the people cowed and compliant.

This policy builds to “Operation Murambatsvina” (“drive out the rubbish”, also officially known as “Operation Restore Order”) in which slums are forcibly cleared across the country.    The campaign started in 2005 and, according to United Nations estimates, affected at least 700,000 people directly through loss of their homes or livelihoods.  The film claims that some 2.5 million were affected, and it strongly suggests that the victims of this policy were being punished for not supporting Mugabe at the polls.

The final scenes of Mugabe feature him at a political rally in 2008 at the Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare.  Mugabe is introduced to viewers at the beginning of the film at that rally, and viewers hear from him again from the same podium as the documentary comes to a close.  His words bracket his many appearances on the screen:  “Democracy in Africa, it’s a difficult proposition because always the opposition will want much more than what it deserves.”  And finally:  “The gun is mightier than the pen… We’ll push back.”

So much for the political history of the country.  What of Mugabe the man?  In other words, “What happened?”   That’s the question that haunts the film.  It seems there might two Mugabes, one raised in poverty as a Roman Catholic who studied in Marist Brothers and Jesuit schools and who could not tolerate injustice.  And the second Mugabe, a brutal dictator who will stop at nothing to maintain power.

“The Mugabe of 1980 and the one of 2008 are worlds apart,” recalls Simba Makoni, one of his early political supporters.

The film contrasts the repressive side of the man with footage of him as a young activist offering freedom, equality, justice and democracy as an alternative to the authoritarian and racist regime of Ian Smith.  And there is a particularly moving clip of Mugabe speaking to the nation shortly after he assumed power in 1980 in which he calls for reconciliation and love among his countrymen.

Mugabe’s first government included all stakeholders in the country (including whites).  He anticipated the rhetoric, wisdom and sensitivity of a Nelson Mandela forming a new government in South Africa.  And his public persona was a charming man of culture and discriminating tastes.

Indeed, Mugabe cast an inspiring and impressive shadow on the world in his early years as the leader of Zimbabwe.  He was elected president of the Non-Aligned Movement and subsequently knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

The film presents Mugabe as an inspirational figure with considerable charisma and rhetorical skill.  And, because he was a father figure for many, newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube asks “What do you do to the father who has gone wayward?  Can you discipline your hero-father?”

Whatever the case, we are shown some of the techniques Mugabe uses to maintain control.  Elinor Sisulu, a political activist, points out that he would use the threat of a return of Western Imperialism or apartheid to justify many of his undemocratic moves.  She argues that he was simply borrowing a technique that Ian Smith used during his years clinging to power in Rhodesia.  Smith would scare people with the threat of communism taking over their country and their lives.

So, the film shows a Mugabe who effectively took over the repressive aspects of the former colonial state machinery to work for his own purposes.

And – like so many other repressive leaders in history – Mugabe was skilled at marginalizing his political rivals and rewarding those who are loyal to his cause.

So are there two Mugabes?  How do we explain two seemingly different personalities in the same man?  Lawrence Vambre, a newspaper editor who knew Mugabe from childhood, remembers him as a loner who is still marked by a difficult childhood and personal struggles.  (His father abandoned the family when Mugabe was young, and he was imprisoned for more than a decade by Ian Smith years later during which time he was not even allowed to attend the funeral of his three-year old son.)

Wilfred Mhanda, who served in Mugabe’s army, likewise suggests that Mugabe hasn’t changed at all, that he has always been preoccupied with power and that when circumstances changed he “had to take the gloves off.”

Newspaper editor Geoffrey Nyarota weighs in by arguing that the real issue is the many victims of Mugabe’s cruelty, not whether Mugabe underwent some sort of personality change after he took office.

And that seems to be the important point for Sisulu as well, who argues that – unfortunately – many in the African diaspora still see Mugabe through the prism of Western colonialism, that they overlook his human rights violations and the enormous harm he has done to the economy as he has enriched himself and his followers.

The film is professionally done and, at only 84 minutes running time, covers a good deal of ground.  Of necessity it does little to explore what shaped contemporary Zimbabwean history other than the heavy hand of Robert Mugabe.   Nor does the film qualify as an in-depth character study.  We get just a few scenes from Mugabe’s life and some superficial speculation about his psychology.

Still, with appropriate supporting materials this film might fit nicely into courses on African studies, peace studies or political science. Of course, like any documentary, it has a clear point of view.

While it may not give a the definitive answer the question it asks (“What happened?”), it clearly presents today’s Robert Mugabe as the face of evil, a man who has virtually destroyed the country that he has ruled for more than three decades.  And that case is made persuasively with interviews of people who were witnesses to the collapse of Zimbabwe.

“I am still the Hitler of the time,” Mugabe intones in response to criticism from the British press.  To be sure, he is being quoted out of context here.  But, viewers are not left with much ambiguity about what filmmaker Simon Bright thinks about Mugabe the man.

Reviewed by Thomas Morgan, The College of St. Scholastica
Edited by Andrae M. Marak

(c) 2012 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]