1960 Publicity Secretary, NDP
1961 (Dec.) Publicity Secretary ZAPU
1963 Secretary-General ZANU
1974 (Dec.) Member Central Committee, ANC.
Robert Mugabe was born at the Kutama Mission in the Zvimba TTL in 1928. His father, who was a labourer, was a practicing Roman Catholic and Robert was brought up in the same faith.
He was educated to Standard VI at Kutama Mission and also qualified there as a primary school teacher. He taught during the 1940s at various schools throughout Southern Rhodesia, including Hope Fountain Mission and Dadaya Mission (Where he met Ndabaningi Sithole, at that time a teacher at the mission). During the same period he completed his secondary education and commenced studies for a degree with the University of South Africa. In 1949 he won a scholarship to Fort Hare, South Africa, where he graduated B.A. in 1951.
On his return to Rhodesia he taught for a year at Driefontein Mission near Umvuma, working during his spare time for a Diploma of Education. During 1953 he taught at Salisbury (Harare) South Primary School. In 1954 he was transferred to Gwelo (Gweru) where he obtained his B.Ed. degree by correspondence.
In 1955, dissatisfied at the meager financial rewards the obtainable by an African teacher in Southern Rhodesia, he accepted an appointment at Chalimbana Training College in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia). He remained there for three years, again using his spare time to obtain further degrees – this time a B.Sc. from the University of London.
In 1958 he was offered a post as a teacher at St Mary’s Training College in Takoradi, Ghana. In May 1960 he took advantage of expatriate leave conditions to return to Salisbury (Harare) and almost at once found himself involved in the political struggle.
Mugabe had first become interested in Politics when a student at Fort Hare and had joined the Youth League wing of S.A. African National Congress. From then until 1960, however, politics had taken a back seat while he accumulated experience and academic qualifications. His return to Rhodesia at a moment when the African intellectuals were, for the first time, showing a willingness to become involved in politics, was a perfect example of unconscious timing.
On 19 July 1960 the ‘march of the 7000’ from Highfield Township into Salisbury (Harare) took place. When the police called for a halt to any further advance the marchers camped near Stodart Hall in Harare. On the following morning they were addressed by George Silundika, Mark Nziramasanga and Mhariwa Gumbo. Robert Mugabe, as a distinguished visitor, was then asked to speak: he won the support of the crowd by stressing the need to blend together all classes of men in the nationalist movement and the importance of graduates and professional men accepting the chosen leaders “even if they may not be university men”.
The experience he had gained in Ghana was an advantage in the Rhodesian movement and he was strongly pressured to give up his teaching post and stay in Salisbury (Harare)1. This he agreed to do in November 1960 was elected Publicity Secretary of the NDP. He was soon in the limelight. When Joshua Nkomo at first accepted the proposed constitutional changes- creating 15 B Roll seats in Parliament – it was Robert Mugabe’s task on 8 February 1961 to read out the NDP’s official statement in support.2 He obviously ‘spoke from the text and not from the heart’, and it was no surprise when he at once set about mustering opposition to the scheme. This lead to a reversal in the party’s stance and a rejection of the proposals on 17 February.
As Publicity Secretary, Mugabe was well placed to organise a militant youth wing of the new party. Mass meetings, with ululating women in tribal costumes, thudding drums and ancestral prayers, served to rouse emotions and to create the impression of participation by the ordinary man in the building of a ‘new order’.
In December 1961 the NDP was banned but Mugabe at once found himself filling the same post of Publicity Secretary in the successor party ZAPU. When this new party was, in its turn, banned in September 1962 he was served with a three-month restriction order. In March of the following year he travelled to Northern Rhodesia to address a meeting of the United National Independence Party. As a result of remarks he made at this meeting he was arrested, but shortly afterwards managed to escape (while on bail) and made his way to Dar-es Salaam.
He had been given to understand that African heads of state favoured the policy of setting up a nationalist ‘government-in-exile’, but this soon proved to be false. In this environment strong criticism of Joshua Nkomo’s leadership of the movement began to emerge3 and Robert Mugabe was one of those denounced and suspended by Nkomo in August 1963. Almost at once (8th August 1963), ZANU was formed under the presidency of the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, and Robert Mugabe became the new party’s Secretary-General.
He was arrested in 1964 and sent to Wha Wha Detention Camp. In August he was tried under the Law and Order Maintenance Act for calling the proposed ‘hanging’ Bill “the legalisation of murder”4 and for other subversive comments, and sentenced to a year in prison. After serving his sentence he was returned to detention, where he remained until November 1974.
While in detention his lust for academic advancement returned, and he sat successfully for three more degrees – including LL.B. (London) and B. Admin (London). He also became involved in the struggle for the leadership of ZANU. A group of six leading ZANU personalities, including Edgar Tekere, Moton Malianga, Maurice Nyagumbo, Ndabiningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe – decided that the presidency of the party should be put to a fresh vote. Since a proper congress was impossible under the prevailing conditions, the six agreed that approval by the majority of their own small group should decide. In the ensuring ballot Robert Mugabe gained the most votes, and the Rev. Ndabiningi Sithole was ‘deposed’.5
Shortly after his release from detention in November 1974 Robert Mugabe travelled to Lusaka and tested his credentials as the new head of ZANU. However, he met with a frosty reception from both President Kaunda and President Nyerere and was forced – for the time being – to abandon his pretensions and accept the leadership of the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole. It was thus with Mugabe in a somewhat equivocal position that ZANU ‘submerged’ its identity in the detente exercise.6
When Ndabaningi Sithole was detained and brought before a special tribunal in Salisbury (Harare) in March 1975 Mugabe slipped out of Rhodesia, presumably to make a further bid for leadership. The sudden release of Sithole (to enable him to attend the OAU Foreign Minister’s conference in Dar-es Salaam in April) changed the situation and Mugabe, who was in Mozambique, was placed in protective custody by the FRELIMO leaders. He was not, however, rendered incommunicado, and it was widely believed that he was playing an active part in the recruitment and training of guerrillas for further incursions into Rhodesia. 7 Certainly documents smuggled out of the training camps described him as the only political leader in whom the guerrillas still had trust and through whom they were prepared to communicate with the outside world. 8
Towards the end of January 1976 he travelled to London where he made a verbal attack on President Kaunda, saying that he had “arrested our men, locked them up within his prisons and restriction areas”. On the question of whether there was a rift between him and Bishop Muzorewa and the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, he was equivocal, playing down the allegation but certainly not denying that there was truth in it. 9
It seems probable, with the eclipse of Sithole in early 1976, Mugabe made yet a further attempt to secure leadership of ZANU. 10 Certainly this was the view of Dr Gordon Chavunduka who met Mugabe in London at this time and (according to his own report) told him “that if he tried to organise along the ZANU lines he would be lost”.11
In early August it was reported that Mugabe had re-named ZANU the ‘Reformed ANC’ with himself as its leader. The report was received with some skepticism in ZANU circles in London but was, however, repeated later in the month.12
Although the validity of Mugabe’s claim to have political control over the bulk of the guerrillas has been queried in certain recent newspaper reports, there is little doubt that his power in this quarter is greater that that of any other top nationalist. On 9th October Mugabe joined with Joshua Nkomo in issuing a statement in Dar-es-Salaam ‘rejecting the proposals by Dr. Henry Kissinger, (the U.S. Secretary of State) as a basis for any discussion’ and setting themselves up as a ‘Patriotic Front’ to carry on ‘the armed liberation struggle until the achievement of victory’. The statement demanded that a number of changes be effected in Rhodesia before the Geneva Conference took place, but Mugabe subsequently made it clear that acceptance of these demands was not a prerequisite for his attendance and the conference.13 He did, however, protest that the chosen date of 25 October did not allow him sufficient time to prepare – and argument that was accepted by the British Government which agreed to a postponement until 28th October.
In mid-March 1977 Mugabe said in Lusaka that insufficient material assistance was being given to the Patriotic Front by ‘the Frontline States, OAU members and friendly socialist countries’. He claimed that the Patriotic Front ‘had a well-planned strategy that would bear immediate results if more aid was forthcoming’. He also referred to the ‘grave danger’ of civil war if there were two separate ‘liberation armies’ in an ‘independent Zimbabwe’.14
Robert Mugabe married Sarah Hayfron (a teacher who is reputed to have been a vigorous activists) during his stay in Ghana. They had one son who died in 1966. Robert Mugabe enjoys most forms of sport, traditional Shona music and the singing of such veteran stars as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. He also listens, whenever possible to classical music.
1 See Crisis in Rhodesia (N. Shamuyarira. p.68)
2 See footnote to entry on Joshua Nkomo for text.
3 See entries on Joshua Nkomo and the Rev. N. Sithole.
4 In terms of this Bill the death sentence was mandatory for any person found guilty of throwing an explosive object at a building, whether such a building was occupied at the time or not.
5 All the participants in the ballot confirmed this account during interviews with Diana Mitchell. It is interesting to note that in December 1970 James Chikerema is quoted as saying in Lusaka that, if Sithole and Nkomo agreed, he would be prepared to follow Mugabe as leader (The Guardian, 12th January 1971)
6 See the ‘Mugabe Diary’ (The Rhodesia Herald, 25 February 1975) for a confused by nevertheless valuable account of the struggles within the nationalist groups in November-December 1974. Also see Revolutionary Zimbabwe No.3. p.2: “When ZANU decided to go under the umbrella of the ANC, the circumstances were such that if ZANU had refused, then the Presidents would have combined in bringing about a situation in which ZANU would no longer be able to operate.” (R.Mugabe, 21st January 1976).
7 See Revolutionary Zimbabwe No.3 for strong evidence that Mugabe was in fact intensively engaged in the promotion of an armed struggle as a ZANU initiative.
8 Africa Confidential, 27th August 1976
9 The Rhodesia Herald, 27th January 1976
10 Africa Confidential, 27th August 1976
11 The Rhodesia Herald, 14th February 1976
12 Africa Confidential, 27th August 1976
13 The Observer, 10th October 1976
14 The Rhodesia Herald, 17th March 1977