In His Own World of Denial

Author Heidi Holland interviewing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, at right, in December. The other man is a Mugabe aide.
Author Heidi Holland interviewing Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, at right, in December. The other man is a Mugabe aide. (Courtesy Of Heidi Holland)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 14, 2008

JOHANNESBURG -- Author Heidi Holland's route to her interview with one of the world's most notorious dictators was a travelogue of decay, down crumbling streets, past half-empty stores, through neighborhoods where hawkers touted goods in an increasingly desperate bid to survive a once-proud nation's collapse.

But when she arrived at Zimbabwe's State House in Harare, the capital, that December morning, a massive banner outside the office of President Robert Mugabe made clear she would find little reflection -- or contrition -- inside.

"Mugabe is Right," declared the wall-size banner, hung where only the president's staff and handpicked visitors such as Holland could see it.

The interview that followed -- a 2 1/2 -hour conversation with a man who rarely speaks to any writer outside Zimbabwe's tightly controlled government propaganda machine -- was like the banner: odd, boastful, unrepentant. It offered rare insight into the thinking of Mugabe as he faces a difficult bid for reelection this month after almost three decades of unbroken power.

The interview included tender moments, such as when he discussed the deaths of relatives and his enduring "love" for Britain's royal family. But Mugabe, 84, displayed little remorse for the actions many Zimbabweans regard as his signature misdeeds, including the slaughter of thousands of minority Ndebeles in the 1980s and, more recently, land invasions that destroyed Zimbabwe's agriculture industry.

When Holland suggested that the nation's economy was ailing, Mugabe angrily insisted that -- contrary to hyperinflation then racing toward 100,000 percent and all other evidence -- it was "a hundred times better" than that of most African nations.

"Outside South Africa, what country is like Zimbabwe?" Mugabe said. "Even now, what is lacking now are goods on the shelves, perhaps. That's all. But the infrastructure is there. We have our mines, you see. We have our enterprises."

After that and several similar comments, Holland concluded that Mugabe was profoundly out of touch, surrounded by sycophantic aides unwilling to speak truthfully about Zimbabwe's deterioration.

"He's not mad, but he lives in the world in a mad kind of way," Holland said. "He's constructed his world as this kind of bubble."

Holland, who lives in South Africa but was raised in what is now Zimbabwe, shared a recording of her interview for the book "Dinner With Mugabe." Its release is scheduled for Friday.

The title comes from an encounter between Holland and Mugabe in 1975, when he was a guerrilla leader recently released after 11 years in prison. Holland, who is white and was then a magazine editor, was sympathetic to efforts to end white supremacist rule. A friend of hers arranged for Mugabe to have dinner at her home in Harare before his departure for Mozambique, where he took control of the insurgency that five years later forced the white supremacist rulers of what was then Rhodesia to give way for the creation of black-led Zimbabwe.

As dinner ended a bit late, and it became clear that Mugabe might miss his train, Holland frantically drove him to the station -- leaving her toddler son home alone, asleep in his crib.

Mugabe's phone call the next day, in which he thanked Holland for the meal and inquired about the well-being of her son, endured in her memory as she watched Zimbabwe rise to the forefront of African progress under his rule, then plunge into ruin. More than 80 percent of Zimbabweans now live in poverty, and an estimated one-quarter of the population of 12 million has fled to other countries. Millions of those left behind receive international food aid.

In the early phases of Holland's interview, Mugabe spoke with palpable affection for his village's inspirational Irish priest, the Rev. Jerome O'Hea, and his own older brother, Michael, who died from a mysterious poisoning at age 15.

Mugabe also reminisced about the simple pleasures of his early life, such as reading voraciously and swimming with O'Hea and other Catholic boys in a river near their village.

He described the land invasions of white-owned commercial farms in 2000 not as criminal acts but as political protests against Britain, the former colonial ruler of Zimbabwe. He said Britain had failed to pay its fair share to redistribute land originally taken by its settlers. War veterans instigated the invasions, but Mugabe supported them even as many became violent.

"They criticized us for having allowed this form of occupation to become legal," Mugabe said of the British. "In fact, we didn't regard it as legal, but we didn't disallow it because we were taking action against the British government, who had torn up what was a legal agreement. . . . They had reneged on it, so why look at just our own act?"

Mugabe also accepted little responsibility for his army's killing of Ndebele civilians -- estimates run up to 30,000 -- for supposedly fomenting rebellion against his rule.

"You had a party with a guerrilla force that wanted to reverse democracy in this country," Mugabe said. "And action was taken. And, yes, there might have been excesses, on both sides. . . . But we'd have to start with the excesses of Ian Smith -- and the colonialists, the British, who were still in charge, because lots of people disappeared, lots of people died." Smith was Rhodesia's longtime prime minister.

Holland said she was careful not to challenge Mugabe forcefully out of fear that he would end the interview immediately. And throughout, Mugabe maintained a tone of polite, persistent reasonableness as he made the case for his leadership of Zimbabwe.

As Holland scribbled notes and repeatedly flipped the tape on her recorder, Mugabe's own video camera captured the entire interview, she said.

The only truly contentious moment came near the end, as Holland suggested that Mugabe might be wrong in his assertions about the supposed health of Zimbabwe's economy. In her book, she wrote, "His eyes flashed and his voice rose" as he predicted that a dramatic recovery was imminent.

"We don't even have to go two years," Mugabe said. "Look at what we will do next year, and you'll be surprised."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company