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Gary Younge
Comrade Bob

"He did what Mandela does best," says one dignitary who attended. "He called the school- master over, had a few words with him and then shook each of the children by the hand. They loved it. It made their afternoon and it made the event."

Meanwhile Mugabe looked on, expressionless, from his seat, a spectator in a play in which he was billed as the co-star. His temper was frayed, his ego diminished and his face taut - desperately withholding any hint of emotion.

"He just sat there and if you knew him you could tell that he was mad," says one longstanding colleague within Mugabe's Zanu PF party. "But there was nothing he could do. He was being upstaged by the world's most popular politician on his home turf."

Mugabe holds an intense jealousy for Mandela. And it is not difficult to see why. Although it is difficult to imagine it now, Mugabe was once not only the pride of Africa but the toast of the liberal world. In the press he was hailed as "Southern Africa's Clem Attlee" and "The thinking man's guerrilla."

Bob Marley, one of the few artists to be invited to the Zimbabwe independence celebrations in 1980, named a song after the new nation and when he got there found that the guerrillas already knew the words.

"Natty Dread it ina Zimbabwe

Set it up ina Zimbabwe

Mash it up ina Zimbabwe

Africans a liberate a Zimbabwe."

Of course not all were happy. White Rhodesians and the British government, believing their own propaganda, were convinced Mugabe was a communist, white-hating psychopath who would lose the elections. Just to make sure, they used precisely the tactics of intimidation and petty harassment that they accuse him of today. In March 1980, the Guardian talked of "the delays in allowing [Joshua] Nkomo and Mugabe to import their election cars, and publicity material, the hold-ups in providing them with telephones, the dawn searches of hotel rooms and campaign offices, the confiscation of pamphlets and posters, the arrests of campaign workers and candidates". Twice, in the run-up to the first elections, Mugabe narrowly escaped death at the hands of pro-Rhodesian hardliners, courtesy of British-made landmines.

When he won a resounding victory the white Rhodesians had no idea what to do. The day after the election, recalls one, some white children were sent to school with bags packed for a flight, in case rumours of his victory were true.

It was 1980 - four years after the Soweto uprisings in neighbouring South Africa had seen hundreds of young black people killed by the apartheid regime; a year after Margaret Thatcher had come to power in Great Britain and a year before Ronald Reagan would be sworn in as US president. Not exactly a propitious time for a self-confessed Marxist to take over from a white minority in the mineral-rich, fertile soil of Southern Africa. And yet Comrade Bob, as he was affectionately known, had done it.

As reactionaries fled, idealists poured in to help build a new Jerusalem. "A third of my class, which graduated in 1980, came straight here," says one Zimbabwean who was studying in England at the time. "For anybody who cared about Africa there was just a huge optimism about the country."

Mugabe was then the embodiment of that optimism, giving hope to a generation born too young to be carried away by the idealism of the 60s, but too early to be moulded by the cynicism of the 80s.

Now he is the man whom Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop of Cape Town, once described as "almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do". So he accelerates up the league table of international pariahs, a lonely, desperate and ill man. Lonely, because many of those he counted among his friends, at home or abroad, have either retired or died. His first wife and intellectual, political and romantic partner, Sally, who had been with him since before his incarceration and right through to in dependence, died nine years ago. In her place came Grace, 40 years his junior and more dedicated to extravagant shopping than ascetic socialism.

"Sally was really the one he could talk to and more importantly one who could talk to him," says one person who knows him well. "She used to organise his social life too and do all the entertaining. I don't see his relationship with Grace as one of equals."

Lonely too - and far more worrying for the country - because his increasingly despotic tendencies have left him isolated. Those he once counted as comrades are now either alienated, cowered into sycophancy or effectively silenced. Not even the few who only have good things to say about him will speak on the record. "Bob is an intellectual and he used to love to just talk," says one former confidante. "He would talk about anything, particularly to do with the continent and was open to new ideas. But anything he considers a threat he just shuts out now. You are either with him or against him and the only people who want a relationship like that are those who need something from him and they, by definition, can't be trusted."

While he has not managed to keep the fact that he is ill out of the public domain - he has fainted twice on official visits over the past 18 months - rumours vary as to the precise nature of the illness, ranging from cancer of the throat to the prostate. And this has left him grappling with his mortality and therefore his legacy. "This is the big thing for Bob," says one well-placed Zanu PF politician. "What he will leave the country when he goes. I believe the new constitution was going to be his parting gift, but when the voters rejected that he turned to land. He does not want to be remembered as the man who ruined the country but just couldn't go. But by staying he becomes precisely that."

And so he found himself with Mandela on the banks of the Limpopo, sitting where he thought the limelight should be, in a pool of resentment. "It was a really important moment that day," says one of Mugabe's former friends. "Mugabe had been in power 14 years and here was Mandela saying I'll only be around for one term. Mandela has retired and Bob is still there."

Mugabe was always different from most other African leaders of his generation in two respects. His experience was entirely in Africa, and he was an intellectual rather than a soldier. While others had been educated in exile and sometimes trained in either the east or the west, Mugabe had spent his entire time in Africa. Born in 1924 to a carpenter and domestic labourer in the village of Kutama, 60 miles north of Harare, he was educated at the local Jesuit-run school where he was remembered as a highly intelligent, industrious plodder. Says one of the fathers at the mission: "He was one of those quiet solid workers who used every minute of his time. He wasn't inclined to laugh much even then."

Back then the tentacles of Rhodesian racism reached into every crevice of civil society. His childhood friend, Edison Mpfumgo, recalls being invited to the mission superintendent's house for tea. "We sat on the sofas, and just as we were walking out, we actually saw his wife come down with a fumigator and fumigating the seats in which we had been sitting just a few moments ago. I went out and cried."

Mugabe finished his secondary education, and then started to teach before winning a scholarship to the University of Fort Hare, an all-black institution in South Africa's eastern Cape Province. Fort Hare was more than just a university - it was a vehicle for a new generation of black leadership that had been raised under racism but trained to overcome it. Among Mugabe's contemporaries there were Mandela, Mangosouthu Buthelezi and the late Oliver Tambo.

If anything, his education there was political as much as it was academic. "I came to Fort Hare," Mugabe has said, "from a country where most black people had accepted European rule as such. Most of us believed that all that should be done was to remove our grievances within the system. After Fort Hare there was a radical change in my views."

Shortly afterwards he headed to Ghana - a country recently liberated by Kwame Nkrumah, a leader from whom Mugabe later professed to have learned much, but clearly not enough. Nkrumah, who came to power on a tide of enthusiasm throughout the continent, became increasingly autocratic until he was finally ousted in a coup.

Mugabe was imprisoned in 1964, following his famous "cowboy" speech, in which he slammed Ian Smith and his entourage as cowboys both because of their wild behaviour and their penchant for wide-brimmed hats. During his 10 years in jail his only son by Sally died of cerebral malaria. His pleas for compassionate leave to be by his son's side during his final hours and his funeral were denied by the Rhodesian regime.

Mugabe was an intellectual. While others of his generation (such as Mozambique's Samora Machel or Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda) were essentially military men, Mugabe was never a fighter himself. One ex-combatant who knew him during the war of independence recalls that his principal contribution to the military struggle was strategic rather than practical.

"You never knew what he was thinking, but you knew he was always thinking," he says. "Then one day he would just decide on some form of action. He would explain - but only once - and then just move. But even in the field he always kept his distance."

Another recalls: "Militant he certainly was, but a military man, never. Mugabe's arsenal is in his mind. He is a revolutionary theorist, not a soldier."

During his 10-year stretch in prison courtesy of the Smith regime, he studied for three degrees by correspondence to add to the two he already had. "He knew exactly what he wanted to do," recalls one of his tutors at the London School of Economics, from which he obtained a postgraduate degree in international economic law. "So much so that it became quite a struggle to impress on him that for the purpose of this exercise, I - not he - was the boss . . . I got the very clear impression that he was equipping his intellect for the tasks that lay ahead." One speech writer recalled how drafts would always be re turned not only with changes for content, but pedantic corrections of grammar.

If he is punctilious about his language then he is no less particular about other aspects of his life. He drinks neither alcohol, tea, nor coffee and when he is on tour often insists on bringing cooks who can prepare simple African dishes. He is also incredibly fastidious about clothing. Men may not enter a Zimbabwe court or the public gallery of parliament without a shirt, tie and jacket. When some argued that African country MPs and spectators should at least be allowed to wear African clothes, such as robes and jellabahs, a minor concession was made - safari suits are now allowed. "There is no mix and match around Bob," says one former colleague. "Everything has to be ironed flat, sharp, coordinated and very conservative."

His recent conversion to a far more lavish lifestyle is said to have arrived shortly after his marriage to Grace. Before, he was fiercely critical of the kind of wanton ostentation that had plundered the public purses of so many other countries on the continent. Back in 1983 he slammed those ministers who "under one guise or another, proceeded to acquire huge properties by way of commercial farms and other business concerns".

It is one of the more intriguing facets of British coverage and understanding of Africa that it concentrates not on the needs, experiences and aspirations of the vast majority of those who have always lived there but on the comparatively small number of whites who have settled on the continent over the past 400 years.

And so it is that rivers, towns and mountains do not exist until they have been "discovered" by white explorers; leaders are judged not by their ability to deliver their election promises to the majority but by their willingness to preserve the privileges of the minority; and that events simply do not happen unless they happen to white people. This warped perspective deprives black Africans not only of their wealth, citizenship and dignity, but of their history as well.

Not that whites in Africa are not important. As the racial group which until relatively recently held a monopoly on both political power, and in much of the continent, still holds a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth, it would be foolish to ignore it. Moreover, as an ethnic minority, they have basic human rights which should be secured and defended.

But the determination to dwell on the needs and priorities of a privileged few at the expense of the impoverished many continues to distort the continent beyond all recognition. And in few places more so than Zimbabwe, where white people make up less than 0.5% of the population, own 70% of the best land and employ 65% of the people. One of the more bizarre upshots of the current spate of trouble in Zimbabwe is that it should take place against a backdrop of the racism conference in Durban, where Britain's strident tone against Mugabe's regime contrasts unfavourably with its weasel words over colonialism and slavery, as though the two situations were not linked.

As the leader of first the liberation and then the country, Mugabe has therefore been through many incarnations, depending on the anxieties and hopes of the white Zimabweans and the British establishment.

In 1978, according to the News of the World's front page, he was the "Black Hitler" - an analogy which presumably cast the racist white minority enforcing their own version of apartheid as Jews. After he won the election and urged reconciliation, the Daily Mail's front page illustrated a changed tone. "Mugabe - So meek and mild," it read. As long as he preaches "reconciliation" to, and forgiveness for, whites, he is liked. As long as he expresses rage at their racism and privilege, he is loathed. Nothing else counts. "Satan or Saviour?" asked the Sunday Times in 1980. There is, it seems, nothing in between.

Throughout the years of the mkuruhundu - the massacres in the Matabeleland in the mid-80s - we heard precious little, since the thousands that he murdered, with the assistance of the North Koreans, were black. Rarely did we hear news of the reasonably successful battles against illiteracy, disease and impoverishment which he led that empowered so many Zimbabweans through the 80s and early 90s.

But now he is back. The supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change whom he is intimidating, torturing and murdering are his true target, but sadly, not the stuff that inflammatory headlines are made of here. Nor, sadly, are the lesbians and gays he has been harassing and incriminating. Instead the spotlight shines on him and his country only when it turns its ire on whites. And we have an impressive candidate for what Gore Vidal calls "the enemy of the month club" - the farm-seizing, land-grabbing, white-hating, lunatic of the new millennium.

Ask those who know or support him where it all went wrong and they will shrug. There were signs, particularly during the Matabeleland massacres, which no one wanted to heed. Liberals concede that when reports started to surface of the mass murder of the N'debele in the area, they would not or could not believe it. "It wasn't just that we didn't want to believe it," says one London-based expert. "But his explanation for it - that South African forces were trying to destabilise the country - were completely plausible. The apartheid regime was killing people all over the frontline states during the 80s so why not in Zimbabwe?"

In 1985, Zimbabwe, which this year will be forced to import maize to stave off a food crisis, was one of the few African countries in a position to send drought relief to Ethiopia. In 1990, Mandela gave Mugabe and his party a clean bill of health, when he arrived during an election campaign. "Robert Mugabe and Zanu have made Zimbabwe an example for us," Mandela said shortly after his release on a visit to Harare.

One of Mugabe's sternest critics, Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition MDC, who will challenge him for the presidency in March, says that if Mugabe had gone before the last presidential election things would have been different: "If Mugabe had left government in 1995, he would have gone with his reputation intact, but the past five years have been a disaster."

Some within Zanu date his degradation to his defeat in the referendum for a new constitution early last year. "That was a real shock to him because he always thought he had the people with him," says one. "When they voted no he decided he would carry on the transformation without them because it was in their interests."

But perhaps the most plausible explanation is that Mugabe hasn't changed - the rest of the world has."You cannot understand what is happening now without taking into account that violence in Zimbabwe's political culture stretches a long way back," says a professor at the university of Zimbabwe. "The Smith regime was violent and the resistance to it was violent as well. What Mugabe is doing is continuing and entrenching a tradition."

The battle for independence in Zimbabwe was indeed a bloody and bitter one, not only between the state and the guerrillas but also between the various factions of guerrillas themselves. Like other freedom fighters in the area Mugabe declared himself a Marxist; but unlike them he was closer to China - home of Mao's mantra "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" - than to the Soviet Union - that had long adopted a policy of "peaceful coexistence" with the west. When it came to alliances with other organisations Zanu was closer to the Pan-Africanist Congress, which preached revenge with the slogan "One settler, one bullet", than with Mandela's African National Congress, which advocated multiracial democracy.

His relationship with white Zimbabweans has been volatile and informed by mutual suspicion. For if he is unreconstructed, then so are many of them. When 15 out of 20 seats reserved for whites went to Smith's Rhodesian Front in 1985, Mugabe lashed out. "The whites are still the racists of the past," he said. "We showed them love, they showed us hatred; we forgave them, they thought we were stupid; we regarded them as friends but they were wicked witches."

As a liberation leader Mugabe was at home in the world of vanguardism, tight security and summary justice. Comfortable at a time when those who were not with you were against you and politics meant not coalition-building but action. He assumed control of Zanu in a coup carried out while he was still in prison. During the mid-80s he turned on his former mentor and comrade in arms, Joshua Nkomo, and forced him into exile. Mugabe's party always had to be nudged to the negotiating table by other Southern African leaders and, like their Rhodesian opponents, always kept a finger on the trigger. When Mugabe was released from jail in 1974 amid calls for detente, he called for his army: "To intensify the war and ignore persistent calls for a ceasefire. An intensified recruitment campaign [has] to be mounted to build up the army."

This he managed to sustain for a considerable time after independence. His advocacy of a one-party state in the interests of nation-building made sense in a continent where other countries were disintegrating and his was making great economic and social strides.

Like his old foe Thatcher, he had captured a national mood in the early 80s that had alienated many but enthused most; and, like her, he entered a new millennium clutching to certainties that had long gone. But while Thatcher operated in a longstanding democratic tradition that could get rid of her, Mugabe does not. It is a sign of how steeped Zanu is in a bygone culture that its principal decision-making body is still called the Politburo.

His old friends, such as Kaunda, were forced out. New allies, such as Mandela, outshone him with a new and brighter message for the future. Mugabe still talks to and of the past. One of the principal constituencies of the MDC is the young - the so-called Born Frees, who knew not the war he fought, but the freedom it brought.

By diverting attention away from his democratic deficiencies to the issue of land, he hoped to rekindle the spirit of independence and provide himself with a legacy. Concentrating his ire on a privileged minority and a former colonial power he hoped he could reinvigorate his flagging popularity. But the more he tries the worse it gets. The country has moved on.

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