This week, Zimbabwe’s military appeared to place Robert Mugabe, the country’s longtime ruler, under house arrest. Mugabe, who is now 93, has run the country with an iron fist since 1980, the year that marked the end of white minority rule under Ian Smith, in what was then called Rhodesia. The military’s move seems to have been in response to Mugabe’s latest wife, Grace, undermining and firing the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. It remains to be seen whether Mnangagwa and opposition leaders—many of whom have been harshly repressed by the Mugabe regime—can reach some sort of power-sharing agreement.
To discuss the situation, I spoke by phone with Michelle Faul, who worked for the Associated Press for 35 years as a foreign correspondent. She started off in her native Zimbabwe in the 1980s, and later became a bureau chief in Nigeria. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what is likely to happen next in the country, whether Robert Mugabe changed over time, and what his real legacy is likely to be.
Isaac Chotiner: The events of the last 48 hours came as a shock to people who don’t follow the news from Zimbabwe closely. Did it come as a shock to you?
Michelle Faul: It came as a shock. It came as a shock to everybody, even though I was home for three weeks last month, and everyone was saying, “Something’s got to happen. It cannot continue. People are suffering so much.” People are starving in my country. It’s disgraceful. Mugabe inherited, when we finally got independent black rule in 1980, a country that was self-sufficient. Five thousand white farmers, whatever their politics—and I am black—produced enough food to feed more than 8 million people, and food for export. And he has reduced our nation to one in which one-third of the people need food aid. Another third of the nation has left. We are scattered all over the world.
You say that people were saying “something’s got to happen,” but what changed? People have been saying that for many years.
What changed was Emmerson Mnangagwa being fired. He is the key to this. When I was there, they were clearly making moves to push him out of the way, and I said at the time that it was a dangerous move. Emmerson Mnangagwa is a powerful and evil man, and as power-hungry as Mugabe is. At the same time, people were laughing, yes, but not in total disbelief at this idea that Mugabe’s wife, Grace—no one has ever called her the first lady; we call her the “First Shopper,” because that’s what she did, running around the world commandeering Air Zimbabwe flights and shopping—a woman who was in a government typing pool when she became Mugabe’s mistress as his Ghanaian wife Sally was dying of cancer, that this woman could have risen to the point where she thought she could rule Zimbabwe was so obnoxious, and so shocking, that everyone said something had to give. It was clear that it was Grace Mugabe who pushed her husband to fire Emmerson Mnangagwa to open the way for her to succeed him. And we are talking about a succession struggle within ZANU-PF, which is the ruling party.
You called the vice president “evil.” The reports have been that he might more open to the opposition having some power. Why do you call him “evil,” and do you believe he might be open to this?
I said Emmerson Mnangagwa is evil because he is considered the mastermind or what we called, or Mugabe called, Gukurahundi. This means the cleaning of the chaff—when you have wheat and clean it. That was a project to try and wipe out the minority Ndebele people. Nobody knows how many people were killed between 1984 and about 1988. I had to leave the country. I was forced to leave my country as a result of my reporting on Gukurahundi. Perhaps 20,000, perhaps 30,000 people were killed, and Emmerson Mnangagwa is considered the mastermind of those killings.
This was part of Mugabe’s war against another leader of the liberation movement, Joshua Nkomo, and his people.
Yes, the Ndebele people who supported Joshua Nkomo.
And what about the willingness of Emmerson Mnangagwa to take the opposition into a more formal role?
I think Mnangagwa realizes that for the country to have any kind of positive future it can’t continue in the way it has been ruled. Mnangagwa has indicated that he would be willing to allow white farmers to return to Zimbabwe and farm the land. What happened with that project was that Mugabe accused the white farmers of supporting the opposition MDC party, which we believe has won at least two out of three of the last elections. He said the white farmers were supporting his opponents, which is when he began his program of violently forcing them from the land. The real reason, we think, was that his moneybags—an Indian chap who had done all his laundering of money for him—had taken off with all the veterans’ pension money. Mugabe no longer had money to pay veterans; the veterans were getting angry. So instead he said, “I will give you land. You can go take the farms.”
What role do you see South Africa playing going forward?
South Africa has always played a major role in the future of Zimbabwe. We are a landlocked country, so all of our imports come from South Africa or Mozambique. B.J. Vorster [the former prime minister and state president of South Africa] was instrumental in ending white minority rule of Rhodesia and the whole transition to Zimbabwe. He basically called Ian Smith down to South Africa. They were at some rugby game and he told Smith that Smith had to talk, and these became the Lancaster House talks in London in 1979, which led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Because he told Smith that if Smith didn’t, he would close the border, and Smith realized he could not survive with those borders closed. And Botswana, for example, has suggested that all of the southern African nations close their borders to Zimbabwe to force Mugabe into having proper, free, and fair, and democratic elections.
And what about the current South African leader, Jacob Zuma?
Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeke, have both been extremely lenient with Mugabe, in part because they are fellow liberation strugglers who have won elections and want to keep on ruling their countries, and do not brook opposition.
Do you think Mugabe could have had a different, better legacy and changed, or was this the man he always was?
People always suggest that there was something that turned Mugabe. I don’t believe that. The man was always a killer. Mugabe killed colleagues in ZANU-PF to become the president. I don’t think Mugabe ever changed. There was a honeymoon period in the early 1980s when he was nice to white people and everybody else except the Ndebele. And there was this terrible purge and these killings that went on for years of the Ndebele people, which the rest of the world turned a blind eye to because Mugabe was being nice to the white farmers and the white Rhodesians, so let’s just hope that carries on. The international condemnation only came after a few white farmers got killed and white farmers were being thrown off their land. The queen of England actually knighted Mugabe after the killings of the Ndebeles, which everyone was well-aware of, and only withdrew that knighthood after he turned on white farmers.
There is this narrative that he became even worse once he married Grace, too.
I believe that is true, but I think that what you have to preface that with is that his first wife, Sally, was a huge influence on him, and although we suspect that she was corrupt, she had a good heart in other ways, and was certainly wiser politically. Mugabe has always been a survivor, but I don’t think there has ever been much heart involved. It has always been about him. And Grace just channeled all that with her selfishness, her greed. She channeled that and worked on him.
What is likely to happen to her?
I would suspect that they will be allowed to retire in disgrace. What I would like to see is someone like Mugabe being sent to the International Criminal Court to face trial for all the killings that occurred and other human rights abuses. Nobody knows how many people have died because of Mugabe’s destruction of everything he built up. He built up a fabulous education system. He was a teacher. He then destroyed it.