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Book Review

“Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe”

Written by: Martin Meredith
Publisher: PublicAffairs 1st edition (2003)
Rodrick Mukumbira

In 1980, Zimbabwe was the great hope of Africa, a place where blacks were supposed to realise their postcolonial destinies under the enlightened leadership of Robert Mugabe. But now the country formerly known as Rhodesia is an international basket case with a wrecked economy and a dim future.

In this disturbing book by Martin Meredith, a British journalist with extensive experience in southern Africa, attempts to explain how Mugabe transforms from a darling of the West into a villain.

"Year by year, he acquired ever greater power, ruling the country through a vast system of patronage, favouring loyal aides and cronies with government positions and contracts and ignoring the spreading blight of corruption," writes Meredith. "Power for Mugabe was not a means to an end, but the end itself."

He writes about white farmers as the "most sympathetic people" in “Our Votes, Our Guns” as being former supporters of the apartheid-style government of Ian Smith but decided not to flee when Mugabe came to power.

The white farmers were promised multiracial harmony but "what they got instead was a racist dictator who thought nothing of using violence against them," writes Meredith.

Mugabe came to power in 1980 after a long civil war in Rhodesia. The white minority government had become an international outcast in refusing to give in to the inevitability of black majority rule.

Finally the defiant white prime minister Smith was forced to step down and Mugabe was elected president of a country now called Zimbabwe.

Initially, hopes were high that he had the intelligence, political savvy and idealistic vision to help repair the damage done by colonialism and the bitter civil war, and to lead his country's economic and social development.

Mugabe was admired throughout the world as one of the leaders of the emerging nations and as a model for a good transition from colonial leadership.

Meredith writes how month by month, year by year, Mugabe became increasingly autocratic; his methods increasingly violent. "In recent years he has unleashed a reign of terror and corruption in his country. Like the Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Zimbabwe has been on a steady slide to disaster."

But what happened in Zimbabwe? a reader might be forced to ask after reading “Our Votes, Our Guns”. Meredith clearly has an excellent understanding of events in Zimbabwe and is not deceived by the leftist propaganda engine.

Those who find themselves shocked by events in Zimbabwe should not be. The Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) never embraced democracy as it is envisioned in the West. Meredith argues that a populist majoritarian rule with no minority protection was to become the order of the day in the new Zimbabwe.

The world's attention has been focused on the forcible removal of white farmers from their land with the explicit support of the government. But as Meredith demonstrates, President Mugabe's racist policies toward whites is just one of many evils he has perpetrated on his country.

Meredith starts out by setting the historical stage, including telling about the horrific brutality of white rule in what was then Rhodesia before the 1979"revolution" that brought Mugabe to power.

Certainly, Zimbabwe's violent release from colonialism has a lot to do with the country's current situation. Meredith then goes on to show the early promise that Mugabe showed as the first black Prime Minister – so willing for reconciliation that he met with Smith on numerous occasions to ask advice in the early years.

Meredith then shows how as Mugabe "became increasingly paranoid and obsessed with power his cronies became more and more corrupt. He argues that the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe is not the doing of the financial imperialism of Britain and America as Mugabe argues. It is so because Mugabe and his associates bled the country dry.

"If anything, Western aid has helped serve as an enabler for Mugabe's destruction of Zimbabwe," writes Meredith.

He writes about Mugabe's recent "black Hitler ten-fold" political speech saying it marked the turning point in the country's political history. It heralded the launching of a purge against opposition politics whose comparison is similar to that of the early 1980's when instead of concentrating on the idea of a coalition government, Mugabe opted instead to a total consolidation of rule by his party.

Mugabe, through Machiavellian manipulations managed to scapegoat the political opposition in the public eye and this resulted in a purge that left over 20 000 Ndebele people, most of them supporters of the now defunct Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU, dead in the 80s.

Meredith writes that it is the 80-year-old president's tactic of justifying purges "ostensibly for the purposes of stifling his contrived threat of a coup d'état. Mugabe's violence obviously only served to foment political opposition-both white and black".

In his approach to counter-insurgency, Mugabe boldly proclaimed to his opposition, "We have to deal with this problem quite ruthlessly," with regards to resistance in Matebeland, so "Don't be surprised if your relatives get killed in the process..."

The book's main drawback is a lack of first hand reporting by Meredith. There is no indication in the narrative that the author has ever visited Zimbabwe and he seems to have relied mostly on second hand accounts. Nevertheless, he is an excellent researcher, and despite this flaw this is still a compelling read for those with an interest in current events beyond the headlines.

Many outside observers naïvely approach southern African politics and international relations with the idea that fighting is between blacks and whites. They ignore abuses by black revolutionaries against their own blood kin.

However, the book does an excellent job of providing a background into Zimbabwe's current economic crisis, from the land redistribution programme that is fraught with corruption to Mugabe's ill-fated intervention in the Congolese Civil War which was motivated primarily by Mugabe's desire to exploit Congo's natural resources.

The book also provides a glimpse into the psyche of Mugabe. The reader learns that Mugabe is, above all things, a master of political expediency. While paying lip service to Marxist ideology, he has used racism and abject violence as means to maintain his grip on power since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980.

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