In spite of these highbrow tastes (and an unimposing physical presence), Mugabe became the political figure of choice for the Zimbabwean guerrillas who, during the years in the 1970s after his imprisonment, used Mozambican territory to conduct raids against the Rhodesian military. The Rhodesians hit back against civilian targets, and the black population of the borderlands suffered terribly. Aided by the Chinese, Mugabe prolonged and intensified that war, knowing that as it got worse, international support for regime change would improve. In time, no other moral conclusion was possible: The white-minority government needed to negotiate its own surrender.
The standard way of absolving Mugabe for his wartime tactics is to note the justice of his cause, and the unlikelihood that it would have prevailed without violence. History has long since granted that absolution, and indeed honored Mugabe for his courage. The sins he never even attempted to erase were against his comrades in liberation, whom he treated with brutality and suspicion.
He locked up, tortured, and assassinated members of his movement whom he suspected of loyalty to other guerrilla factions. Once in power, the maniacal power-lust of Mugabe the revolutionary became a state religion, a cult of personality that ensured Zimbabwe under Mugabe would never develop the institutions and goodwill that would allow it to flourish as an independent nation. His ultimate crimes were against his country, and his fellow citizens, whom he abused, starved, and robbed. From 1983 to 1987, Mugabe’s army—trained by North Korea—killed tens of thousands of civilians in the Matabele region of Zimbabwe, on the grounds that a rival revolutionary faction (Soviet- rather than Chinese-backed) still enjoyed support there, and threatened Mugabe’s rule.
Mugabe left his inaugural promise—that “yesterday I fought you as an enemy, [but] today you have become a friend and ally”—unfulfilled. Indeed, he made a mockery of that promise in his actions against anyone even remotely perceived as disloyal. After the genocide in Matabeleland, he turned against white Zimbabweans, sanctioning a grisly demagogue, Chenjerai Hunzvi, to whip up vigilante fervor against white farmers. (Hunzvi called himself “Hitler” and “Zimbabwe’s biggest terrorist.”) The Zimbabwean agricultural industry, the country’s largest earner of foreign currency, collapsed, and by the late 1990s Mugabe began resorting to mass-printing of currency to make budget.
I first visited Zimbabwe around that time, with about 300 U.S. dollars stuffed in my socks. That fragrant currency, so desperately coveted by Zimbabweans aware that their government was laser-printing their own money into worthlessness, lasted me nearly a month. For $2, I could get a clean bed and a full English breakfast; for $5, I could eat in the best restaurants in Mutare. Many Zimbabweans, by contrast, had nothing to eat at all. Stores sold their stock for outrageously low prices, with no hope of profit, just of slower immiseration. Dillons of Bloomsbury might have had the newest titles, but I once bought a hardback novel in Harare for three-quarters of one cent.