DEVAKI JAIN | 12 SEPTEMBER, 2019
Remembering Robert Mugabe
The incarceration of African peoples by colonialism was much worse than of Asians or Latin Americans
Yes - there will be no widespread grief at the death of Robert Mugabe - seen as a corrupt, violent undemocratic dictator, with a corrupt wife. His ruthless treatment of the white planters and then the ruin of the economy while he and his wife made money - all sharp in our memories.
What with his neighbour Idi Amin’s corruption and the not so exemplary behaviour of other neighbours - east Africa did not present a pretty picture. In fact in many minds it only endorsed the old colonial image of Africa “uncivilised.”
The incarceration of African peoples by colonialism was much worse than of Asian and Latin Americans.
But as I witnessed and learnt, Africa gave birth to some of the most intelligent creative leaders from these “black” colonies. I had a close up of these leaders during my work with Julius Nyerere and the South Commission
How many of us remember that it was Robert Mugabe as Chairman of the NAM - the non aligned movement, who initiated the idea of a South commission - to lead to a build up of a collective economic response to the North? The old colonial powers whose grip over our economies and our minds endured, and still do, even after their official departure. Mugabe wanted to bring that down intellectually.
I met Robert Mugabe along with Julius Nyerere and three other African heads of state at a meeting where Nyerere was briefing them about the need for the former colonies to form their own economic club - like the EU. In fact as a counter to the US -EU combine. We did not succeed - the depth at which our minds are colonised could not be dug out.
Even after the colonial masters left their countries their economic tentacles prevailed, and I would suggest even now prevails. Mugabe got his bad name because of the trail the masters left behind. Nyerere lost out on his vision for Tanzania and Africa because of the SAP -- the structural adjustment formula. His dream of an educated Tanzania (he had put down a program where every Tanzanian could get free education right upto the university degree) was dismissed as totally reckless by the financiers of those days - and is now being recommended as building human capital!
Yet each of these African freedom leaders were intellectually endowed, knew their country and its people and had ideas for their revival. Tom Mboya of Kenya - who was my class fellow at Oxford in the 1950s - had a clear detailed program for Kenya, at that time being haunted by the Kikuyu warfare.
It was often unbearable to hear their stories. The president of Mozambique related how the Portuguese , when they left, deliberately destroyed all the structures - the big buildings right down to destroying the basements and the pipes supplying water. When they left there was only one person educated up to the 10 th standard who could read - and was retained to manage the train signals!
Colonial fingers are digging into African nations - in unbelievable ways even now.
One time Nyerere sent me to the former French colony of Benin in 1988 - to represent him in some conference . Everything - both raw materials as well as trade was being controlled directly and indirectly by the French; their former masters. While the population was plagued with the most wretched diseases. I visited one of the homes on stilts in a dirty rivulet full of mosquitoes... Terrible site to see children - and of course infant mortality of the highest kind.
Many of the leaders of these former colonies have not been exemplary either. But for many who tried, including Robert Mugabe, the odds against them were perhaps too high. I remember the big smile on Nelson Mandela’s face when my husband Lakshmi Jain recalled his short speech during the ceremony where Ambassadors and high commissioners have to present their credentials to the head of State - “Africa the continent of hope. “ We felt that way; as African newly liberated countries were throwing up such interesting leaders - very different from Asian , coming from an inheritance such as slavery and its stigma.
At one time Robert Mugabe illustrated that hope.
Devaki Jain is member of the erstwhile South Commission as well as wife of the late L.C.Jain, former Indian High Commissioner to South Africa.