Perhaps it’s time to explore the early life of Zimbabwe’s longest serving leader as we begin a new era.
Setting the scene
Published in 1924, a read through the first ever “Official Year Book” for the then-Southern Rhodesia shows that year was a momentous one in the history of Zimbabwe: 29 April 1924 saw the first election to the Legislative Assembly of Southern Rhodesia following the grant of responsible government to the colony in 1923. This saw the creation of the first popularly elected government in the history of country, headed by Sir Charles Coghlan. Then, the entire population was estimated at less than 900,000 strong, while Bulawayo was the largest town in the country with over 16,000 residents and gold mining dominated the economy while the civil service was the largest single employer.
Government revenue was less than £24,000,000, the biggest solo expense being the payment of pensions to the police and civil service. This was the year that the Public Health Act (15:09), regulating public health matters on everything from meat processing to controlling epidemics, was passed – and surprisingly remains almost unchanged to this day! In the rural areas, Christian missions dominated the scene, providing healthcare, education and skills training to the majority of the population.
What about Kutama?
Kutama Mission was founded by Father John Loubiere of the Jesuits in 1913, with his assistant Joseph Dambaza. He named it Kutama after his first convert the chief. Originally the focus was on evangelisation as Loubiere firmly believed he had to convert as many people to Catholicism to save their souls. As described by Laurence Vambe, the atmosphere there resembled Lourdes during a pilgrimage. By 1926 the Jesuits had established a two year Teacher Training course for primary school teachers. After the death of Loubiere in 1930, Father Jerome O’Hea arrived in 1931 and assisted in running Kutama Mission and changed the atmosphere considerably, choosing instead to focus on education, health care and teacher training for the people in the district.
In the 1920s, the population of the Zvimba district was estimated at over 8,000 with no hospital and only the one school at Kutama. The Jesuit Priests found it taxing to combine pastoral work and running a school and in 1939, Bishop Chichester invited the Marist Brothers to come to Kutama and take over the running of the educational segment of Kutama Mission. The school has since produced great teachers and leaders including former President Mugabe, Dr Ignatius Chombo, Dr Washington Mbizvo, Professor George Kahari, Professor Chali Nondo, James Chikerema, Lawrence Vambe, former Mines Minister Walter Chidhakwa, former Lands Minister Douglas Mombeshora, Fr E. Ribeiro, Ambassador Chris Mutsvangwa, and others.
Back to 1924.
Cde Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924 in Kutama Village, Zvimba District. He was the third of six children born to Gabriel Matibili Mugabe and Bona Mugabe. In recent years, several people have claimed that the Mugabe family is actually the Karigamombe family, adding that Bona, Cde Mugabe’s late mother, is from the Shonhiwa, which is the Kutama family. Gabriel and Bona married in 1918 and their first child, Michael was born in 1919 followed by Raphael in 1922. His father worked as a carpenter in the area and his wife raised his family according to strict Catholic principles. Raphael died tragically at the age of six months in 1922 from causes unknown.
Cde Mugabe’s early life would be familiar to most people, as it is said that he spent time with his older brother tending cattle, fishing in the river, and playing in the surrounding bush. Childhood innocence was shattered quickly. Speaking at the burial of his sister, Bridgette, in 2014, Cde Mugabe revealed the difficult early life he and his entire family had endured. He said that his father left the family in 1934 after the death of his oldest brother Michael from poisoning, possibly from eating food contaminated with insecticide. As Cde Mugabe said, “after the poisoning, my father was not happy and said that there was something wrong at our home before going to Bulawayo in 1934.”
“I even wrote to him (Gabriel) a letter expressing my unhappiness about how he had left us alone. My uncles later reprimanded me saying I was being disrespectful. I was forced to apologise.” Cde Mugabe traced his father to Bulawayo in 1943 and went to Makokoba where one of his uncles was staying. “There was a good life in Bulawayo with beautiful Ndebele girls and our father had taken one. He was a carpenter in Nyamandlovu and had married a beautiful lady,” Cde Mugabe said in 2014. Two other children David and Albert were born to Gabriel Mugabe in Tsholotsho.
In 1944 Gabriel returned to the Kutama area to visit his family but Cde Mugabe was teaching Matabeleland and did not have a chance to see him. His father died in about 1945. “When I came back, he had died but had left me another burden because he had brought with him his new in-laws. Now that I was now the eldest, I had to take care of them all but I was only 21,” Cde Mugabe revealed in 2014. “He had transported all his cattle and other things from Matabeleland by train. He came with three children, his in-laws and I said: ‘God I am only 21, but I have such a big family, including the one my father had brought.’ We set down with my mother and she said there was no problem in looking after her husband’s children and from then, we have remained united as a family,” Cde Mugabe said.
Education remained paramount
In an interview in 2007, Cde Mugabe’s younger brother, Donato, claimed that Robert loved to be at school. “His books were his only friends,” he said. In an interview with Heidi Holland published in 2008, Cde Mugabe confirmed this saying, “Yes, I liked reading, reading every little book I found. Yes, I preferred to keep to myself than playing with others. I didn’t want too many friends, one or two only – the chosen ones. I lived in my mind a lot.” This hunger for knowledge and education, coupled with a religious devotion inspired by his mother, was to transform his life, and that of Zimbabwe.
Noticing Cde Mugabe’s “unusual gravitas,” and admiring his commitment to learning, Father O’Hea provided a bursary to Cde Mugabe to complete his education at Kutama. A life committed to education and a sometimes self-diagnosed lofty attitude towards other children did not make for an easy life. “Those who did not value learning tormented him,” said Lawrence Vambe, who was at school with Cde Mugabe. “And even we who appreciated his diligence felt he was trying to prove too much.”
Qualification and University Acceptance
After completing six years of elementary education, in 1941 Cde Mugabe was offered a place on a teacher training course at Kutama. As part of this education, he began teaching at his old school, thus earning £2 per month, which he used to support his family. By 1945 he had decided to leave Kutama to take up various teaching posts around the country. Between 1945 and 1949, Cde Mugabe taught at Mapanzure, Dadaya (where he befriended Ndabaningi Sithole), and Empandeni Mission before taking up a position at Hope Fountain Mission, near Bulawayo. In the midst of this frenetic schedule, he studied for a Matriculation Certificate, finally winning a scholarship to the University of Fort Hare in 1949.
What is the University of Fort Hare?
The South African Native College, later the University of Fort Hare, was founded in 1916 on the site of an earlier British military stronghold. The college originated from an alliance between a new class of educated African Christians, supported by a number of traditional Southern African leaders, and early twentieth-century white liberals, many of them clergy. The religious tradition at the heart of Fort Hare’s origin, heralded “plain living and high thinking,” and a Eurocentric form of education. It aimed to produced graduates who knew they were as good as the best.
Several leading opponents of the colonial system attended Fort Hare in the 1940s and 1950s, among them Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Oliver Tambo of the ANC, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress, Desmond Tutu, and other prominent African politicians such as Seretse Khama, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Joshua Nkomo. Mandela who studied Latin and physics there for almost two years in the 1940s, wrote in his autobiography that “For young black South Africans like myself, it was Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.”
How did it influence Robert Mugabe?
When Cde Mugabe arrived at Fort Hare, it was in political ferment. The ANC was changing its tactics from cooperation with the authorities to one of confrontation, inspired and dominated by the “Young Lions” such as Mandela, Tambo, Buthelezi and Sobukwe. Cde Mugabe has repeatedly stated that his time at Fort Hare was a “turning point” in his life. He joined the Youth League wing of the South African ANC and attended meetings and discussions on politics, civil rights and other social issues.
In 1980, speaking with British journalists, he said, “When I left Fort Hare I had a new orientation and outlook. I came from a country where most black people had accepted European rule as such… Most of us believed that all should be done was remove our grievances within the system. After Fort Hare there was a radical change in my views. I was completely hostile… but of course I came back to Rhodesia to teach within the system.”
Did he become immediately involved in politics?
From 1951 to 1960 Cde Mugabe remained a school teacher and continued his studies. With his BA degree, he got a job teaching at Driefontein Mission, near Mvuma, working during his spare time toward a Diploma of Education. In 1953 he relocated to Highfield Government School in the then-Salisbury’s Harari township and in 1954 to the Mambo Township Government School in the then-Gwelo, where he met an old friend from Kutama: Leopold Takawira. Several biographers have credited Cde Takawira with helping Cde Mugabe energise his political views and guide him on the path of Marxism, whose ideology and principles he was to openly adopt until the 1980s.
Cde Mugabe began to discuss the politics of Africa openly in class – especially the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya – but refrained from involving himself in any of the burgeoning protests and political meetings. He joined a number of inter-racial groups, such as the Capricorn Africa Society, through which he mixed with both black and white Rhodesians. National Hero Cde Guy Clutton-Brock, who knew Cde Mugabe through this group, later noted that he was “an extraordinary young man” who could be “a bit of a cold fish at times” but “could talk about Elvis Presley or Bing Crosby as easily as politics. Above all he had an overwhelming thirst for knowledge.”
Where would this take him?
By his own account, Cde Mugabe moved to the then-Northern Rhodesia in 1955 because he was dissatisfied with the meagre financial reward for a teacher in Southern Rhodesia. He worked at Chalimbana Teacher Training College in Lusaka for three years. There he continued his education by working on a second degree by correspondence, this time a Bachelor of Administration from the University of London. During this time, as noted in the 1981 biography, Mugabe, “he was more immersed in his reading than ever before and it seemed to all who met him then that he had opted for a lifetime of teaching and scholarship… he appeared to have buried any aspirations to a career as a nationalist.”
Why move to Ghana?
As he said in Mugabe, “I went as an adventurist. I wanted to see what it would be like in an independent African state… you could say that it was there I accepted the general principles of Marxism.” In 1958 he moved to Ghana to work at St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Takoradi located on the coast; he had undergone local certification at Achimota School before beginning work. Ghana had been the first African state to gain Independence and under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah underwent a range of nationalist reforms; Cde Mugabe revelled in this exciting environment.
In tandem with his teaching, Mugabe attended the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute in Winneba. After meeting at a Roman Catholic reception, he also began a relationship with a Ghanaian woman, Sally Hayfron, who worked at the college. As the official 1988 biography of Cde Sally says, they “had so much in common: intellect, a capacity for sustained hard work, self-discipline and a dedication to the cause of liberating Africa.” By the end of 1960, Cde Mugabe felt that it was time for them to go home to meet his mother and family before they got married. While saying openly that it was merely a holiday, in his heart Cde Mugabe was possibly looking for a chance to join the nationalists and apply the Ghanaian example to Southern Rhodesia. As it was, he would not have long to wait: 1960 changed everything. Why, and how, will be a future briefing.