No Necktie for a Dictator

Former first lady Sally Mugabe and president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe; (r) Mugabe addressing his people, 1990

It was January 1990 and here I was at a conference center in Harare, the capital city of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, sniffing around for some kind of a good story I might report at a high-level, ministerial meeting of British Commonwealth nations. It was a gathering of sovereign countries, like Zimbabwe, that still bowed down and answered to their former colonial master, the United Kingdom, mostly out of economic necessity and survival. Nothing much happening here, I thought, and I was just about ready to leave the boring governmental event empty-handed.

Then, luck of all luck, I spied over in an isolated corner of the lobby of the conference center a VIP greeting the occasional straggling guest. But it was not just any old VIP. It was Robert Gabriel Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, who had just delivered the welcoming speech. I walked over as nonchalantly as I could, and found him just standing there alone with his first wife, the first lady Sally Mugabe. And what a handsome couple they made: he in his finely tailored western-style suit and she in her traditional African dress and headdress. The sight of them together literally took my breath away.

You see, aside from Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the time in South Africa, a country located just to the south of Zimbabwe, Robert and Sally Mugabe were probably the most respected First Couple on all of the African continent. And for very good reason. They both had strong liberation credentials, having fought and sacrificed for their country’s freedom. Now they were leading the African continent’s newest independent state, Zimbabwe.

Destination: South Africa

And what was I doing in Zimbabwe in the first place, you ask? Good question. Actually, it was South Africa I was aiming to get into, with the hope of reporting on the explosive situation in the country under its brutal system of racial segregation known the world over as apartheid. And since Zimbabwe was located right next door to South Africa, and since Zimbabwe had at the time fairly liberal press-freedom laws, I decided to use that as my base from which to report on southern Africa in general and South Africa in particular.

Nelson Mandela was still in prison around this time and South Africa was on fire with the rage of the black majority of the country. States of emergency proclaimed over the years by the white minority government of South Africa had only stoked those flames of rage even higher.

I had been plugged into the anti-apartheid movement in Japan, where I was living for a few years, and the information we were getting directly from black and white South Africans themselves was that the country was reaching a breaking point. Something drastic, even explosive, was going to happen one way or another in South Africa — either a full-scale race war that would make the Israel-Palestine conflict look tame by comparison or a coming to its senses by the South African apartheid government. The latter route seemed highly unlikely, almost ensuring that South Africa as a nation would go up in flames, and soon.

I wanted to be there. Journalists from established news companies around the world were being expelled from South Africa right and left by the apartheid regime for daring to report the truth of what was happening there. Freelance journalists from various countries, then, were filling the void of that lost reporting, taking even bigger risks to get into the country and document the truth to the outside world without the protection of a major news organization behind them.

And if the truth be known, there was also some sense of personal outrage on my part that the government of my own country, the United States — a country with its own history of apartheid, Yankee-style — had been fully supporting the South African apartheid government for decades. I wanted to do my part, as seemingly insignificant as it was, to help get the truth out there to the people of the world. So, off from Japan and on to Zimbabwe it was for me, understanding with eyes wide open just what I was getting into at that moment.

And now here I was, standing not far from president Robert Mugabe, who, a mere 10 years before, had led his nation through its own liberation struggle against colonial Britain and won. In many ways Zimbabwe, as Africa’s newest democracy, was a shining beacon of what South Africa might become someday — if South Africa didn’t destroy itself in the process, that is. You have to understand that at that time, Mugabe was to Zimbabwe what Mandela was to South Africa: a highly respected and beloved African political figure in the fight for liberation from European and western colonial powers.

It amazed me, as I watched the scene at the conference center in Harare, how few white guests from British Commonwealth nations would come over to president Mugabe to exchange formal greetings. It was clear Mugabe was being snubbed by them. But he and the first lady stood there, looking as dignified as could be. And since nobody was coming forward to extend respects to Zimbabwe’s head of state, I thought I would do it myself.

As casually as possible, I started sidling up to them. When I got within a few feet of the couple, I looked around, saw the coast was clear, mustered up some courage, and strode with purpose straight up to president Robert Mugabe and first lady Sally Mugabe.

Dressed Down

Before I could reach my target, however, I was stopped in my tracks by two black Zimbabwean government agents in suits — the president’s bodyguards — who appeared out of nowhere, blocking my path. They wanted to know who I was and what business I had there. Behind the agents I could see president Mugabe and the first lady looking over at us with some concern.

I flashed my Zimbabwe government-issued press ID card, which I had wisely applied for as soon as I arrived in the country. Did I know that this was a line for receiving official state guests? one agent asked me. Yes, I said, I knew that (though there wasn’t exactly any “line” formed yet). Then, what was I doing there? the agent asked me. I decided against bullshitting the agents and to just level with them as one human being to another. “President Mugabe is one of my heroes,” I replied, “and I would be honored just to shake his hand and pay my respects to him.”

The agent’s equally human answer caught me off guard. If he had told me that I posed a serious security risk to the president, I was prepared to empty all my pockets and belongings to show him otherwise. I was a journalist, not a terrorist. But instead, the security agent began taking me to task for my personal appearance. “You’re not even wearing a necktie,” he said finally, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “It’s a joke!”

At the wave of the agent’s hand, I looked down at myself. I was not shabbily dressed, wearing passably nice clothes. But it was true: I did not have a necktie on. I hadn’t bothered to wear one, never imagining that I might actually bump into the president of the country face to face that afternoon. I glanced back up from my tieless shirt to find a look of total disgust crossing the agent’s face. I had violated all diplomatic protocol for greeting a person of president Mugabe’s high stature, and the agent was offended by this in a very personal way.

It was my appearance, not my perceived security threat, that bothered him most. It was a major gaffe on my part. I nodded, acknowledging to the agent that he was right, and walked away from president Mugabe and the first lady. So close, and yet so far.

You can bet that as soon as I left the conference center that afternoon and got back into downtown Harare, I went straight to a department store and bought a nice necktie. Then, the next day I headed back out to the conference center for the second round of talks at the British Commonwealth meeting and went straight over to the corner where I had gotten within handshaking distance of president Mugabe and the first lady the day before. I was prepared to wait for a while. But of course, Mugabe never showed up, and of course I felt like a fool.

For a long time afterward, I kicked myself for messing up so badly and missing the chance to shake the hand of a true African liberation hero such as Robert Mugabe. I found it hard to forgive myself, frankly, for missing the chance of a lifetime.

Over the ensuing years, I carefully followed the situation in Zimbabwe in the news and grew increasingly discouraged and disappointed at the kind of leader Mugabe was becoming. As I saw Mugabe turn from a respected statesman worthy of the highest accolades to an ego-driven, self-proclaimed leader-for-life of his country, I berated myself less and less about the memorable necktie incident of some years before in Zimbabwe.

By the time of Mugabe’s removal from office in a military coup last month in November 2017, two decades after my necktie episode and three decades after he became the only president Zimbabwe had ever known, Mugabe, at age 93, was little more than a despot and dictator who had run his country’s economy into the ground. He and his cronies — many of them veterans of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle years — had controlled the country’s vast political machinery, persecuting both enemies and allies alike, and isolating themselves from Zimbabwe’s military and public in the process. It grew just as dangerous under the Mugabe regime to speak out politically as it had been under the white British colonial government that ruled Zimbabwe before it became a sovereign nation.

The Lion of Zimbabwe

A good example, if one is needed, of how badly things got in Zimbabwe after liberation can be found in the person of Thomas Mapfumo, the famous black Zimbabwean singer/songwriter.

During the liberation struggle of the 1970s in Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia), Mapfumo used his funky style of music known as chimurenga, or struggle, music to stand in solidarity with and support of Robert Mugabe and the other African freedom fighters who were intent on taking their country back from Britain. At one point, Mapfumo the singer had even been jailed by the white authorities of his country for subversion.

After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Mapfumo and many other black Zimbabweans watched with horror as corruption began seeping into the new government under Mugabe. Corruption was the title of a record that Mapfumo released in 1989 (around the time I was there), with the album cover showing images of news reports of some of the Zimbabwean government officials implicated in such corruption. Mapfumo, outspoken and courageous as an artist, came under increasing pressure by Mugabe loyalists to shut up or face the consequences.

Things got so hot that Mapfumo decided to leave his native Zimbabwe in 2005 in fear for his safety. And where does Mapfumo live today? In the northwest of the United States — in Eugene, Oregon, to be exact.

Mapfumo has said in recent years that he wants to go back to his country, but wisely postponed doing so after finding out that a price still remained on his head back in Zimbabwe, presumably from people within the government or among loyal supporters of Mugabe. The Lion of Zimbabwe, as Mapfumo is known to his many music fans across the globe, has continued making his unique brand of chimurenga music over the years while in exile in the USA, only now in staunch defiance of Mugabe and the oppressive government of Zimbabwe, not a white foreign colonial power.

Apartheid Blueprint

Needless to say, my chances of being granted an audience with Robert Mugabe, now that he is disgraced and out of power as president following the recent palace coup in Zimbabwe, are next to none. But I sometimes wonder these days: If I could meet Mugabe, what would I say to him now?

First of all, I would tell him the same thing that his own people have been trying to tell him since Day One in 1980, following Zimbabwe’s independence. That is, listen to the people and work for their needs. Keep your promises to them. Respect human rights, in all facets and for all of the people. Get the country on sound economic footing, and quit enriching yourself and the dishonest folks around you. Do like Nelson Mandela did: step down after one or two good terms in office, ensuring your influence and legacy as one of the great leaders of Africa.

But that advice would be irrelevant and much too late now, just proverbial water under the bridge. Mugabe will undoubtedly go down in history like so many other failed political leaders of other countries around the world, who got too intoxicated on their own power and became their own worst enemies in the end.

And just in case you’re wondering, no, I never made it over the border of Zimbabwe into South Africa during the time I was there in December 1989/January 1990. After staying about a month in Zimbabwe, I had seen enough.

In those few weeks, I had grown to like and admire the black Zimbabwean journalists and other Africans I met there, and knew I would miss them. But at the same time, I grew to detest the pompous, selfish, racist white Zimbabweans I met there, and was glad to be rid of them. Ten years after Zimbabwe had gotten its political independence, I saw clearly how the white minority population still held the country’s purse strings, still owned the nicest homes in the suburbs, still employed the live-in black servants, still ran the biggest companies, and still owned most of the farms and the land. And the black majority population of Zimbabwe still filled the country’s townships and ghettos, still faced the worst poverty, still milled about the streets in search of work, still were forced to live away from their families if they could find work, and still were fighting for dignity on a daily basis in a country that was theirs to begin with.

I had a gnawing sense in my gut, as I said goodbye to Zimbabwe at the airport in January 1990 and eventually made my way back to Japan, that I was seeing in a free Zimbabwe the very blueprint of a future post-apartheid state in South Africa, located right next door: Political independence would be achieved, certainly, but the chains of economic slavery would stay in place. And that is just how it has gone with South Africa since the formal end of apartheid in 1994, right up to the present day.

As it turned out, my journalistic instinct that something very big was about to happen in South Africa was right on the mark. Just one month after I left Zimbabwe, the government of South Africa released Nelson Mandela from prison on 11 February 1990, as the whole world stopped and watched in awe. It was about the only thing the apartheid regime of South Africa could have done at the time to defuse the highly explosive situation and avert an all-out race war in that country, and it worked. And by the time Mandela, freed from prison, made his way to Japan some months later, I was in the right place at the right time. I met Mandela twice here in Japan. I got to greet Mandela and shake his hand on the first occasion in October 1990, and on the second occasion in May 1991, I was the first one to “unofficially” welcome him back to Japan at the airport.

I still dream of making it back to southern Africa again in my lifetime and visiting a democratic, free South Africa for the first time. And who knows? If I do, I may even make a “reverse trek” from Cape Town, South Africa up north to Harare, Zimbabwe for a brief spell and report on the tenuous political situation there. It would be good, after so many years, to see some of the people and places I used to know there in Zim (as the locals call it).

One thing is for sure: If I were lucky enough this time around to be granted an audience with the honorable Robert Mugabe, perhaps at his luxurious home in Harare, not only would I make a point of not wearing a necktie in his presence, I would not even feel the remotest desire to shake the hand of the man who once ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist. Sorry, Mr. Ex-President, I would have to say, but I make it a point nowadays never to show my respects to dictators of the past — let alone get dressed up in a nice suit and tie to interview them.

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