JOHANNESBURG — Robert Mugabe had just made a furious speech against Zimbabwe’s LGBT community, calling them “worse than pigs and dogs.”
As he was about to get into his limousine, I asked, “Are you saying that gays in Zimbabwe have no legal rights?”
He glared at me and responded irately: “They have no rights whatsoever! They are an abomination and against human nature and God,” he shouted. He grabbed my arm and jostled me, causing my head to knock against a video camera behind.
That is how I remember Mugabe: an angry man who channeled his rage against colonial rule to become one of Africa’s most influential and longest-lasting leaders. He was one of the continent’s most iconic rulers, arguably more popular for a time than his rival Nelson Mandela. And he was one of Africa’s great liberators, who ruthlessly led the guerrilla force that ended white-minority rule in Rhodesia and brought about majority-rule Zimbabwe in 1980.
His 37-year reign and fist-shaking tirades against the former colonial powers of the West made him the ruler that many other African leaders emulate today.
Mugabe, who died Friday at age 95, grew up in poverty as the son of a single mother who was a subsistence farmer. Like all blacks in what was then Rhodesia, he suffered the indignities of colonial racism. He succeeded academically in a Catholic mission school and rose to become an African nationalist leader who had to fight to win basic democratic rights. When he won power in 1980, he advocated for reconciliation between whites and blacks but retained a bitterness that colored his rule.
I came to Zimbabwe as a journalist in 1980 and reported on Mugabe’s significant achievements in improving education and health for the country’s black majority, which made up more than 95% of the population. During 23 years in Zimbabwe, until my expulsion as the last foreign journalist in the country, I watched the shrewd tactics he used to retain power.
His attack on Zimbabwe’s LGBT community in August 1995 was a calculated move. He disliked that his star as Africa’s liberation hero had been eclipsed by Mandela, whose magnanimous and tolerant leadership included a constitution that specifically gave full legal rights to all citizens regardless of sexual orientation.
Mugabe defined a competing African nationalism that was exclusively for those who supported, and were accepted by, the ruling party. He was saying to the continent that Mandela’s leadership was too accepting of Western values and that his leadership of Zimbabwe was more authentically African.
His anti-gay tirades became a turning point in how Mugabe was viewed internationally. Until then, he was generally regarded as a benign leader who had dramatically improved conditions for Zimbabwe’s blacks. That positive image persisted despite the Matabeleland Massacres of the 1980s, in which his army killed 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Ndebeles in the southern Matabeleland provinces. After his public excoriation of Zimbabwe’s small LBGT community, he was widely seen as an authoritarian leader.
Mugabe’s public posturing against gay people was not followed by punitive arrests. The country’s small, beleaguered LGBT population, primarily represented by the group Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe, or GALZ, succeeded in becoming an integral part of the human rights community.
I saw Mugabe’s irritation with Mandela up close a year later, in August 1996, when he married his second wife, Grace, in a lavish wedding at his birthplace in Kutama Mission. Several African heads of state attended the ceremony, which was followed by a luncheon reception attended by thousands of his party’s leaders and local residents. There was polite applause when Mugabe and Grace took their place at the top table. Then a huge cheer rippled through the crowd as Mandela strode through the crowd to his table. I looked over to see Mugabe, his face twisted into a bitter scowl directed at the South African leader.
A few years later, Mugabe launched his seizures of white-owned farms, the controversial move that became his signature policy.
In 2000, he had been in power for 20 years and was facing his most significant challenge from a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which sprang from labor unions and attracted support from Zimbabwe’s main Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups, the country’s urban and rural residents and blacks and whites.
There had been a national vote for a new constitution, which would have increased Mugabe’s executive powers. In a surprise result, the referendum was rejected, a stinging rebuke to his leadership that came just months before general elections for president and parliament.
Within two weeks, militias supporting Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF, begin violently seizing white-owned farms. Mugabe said Zimbabweans were taking back land that had been illegally confiscated by British colonialists. About a dozen white farmers were killed in the takeovers.
At the same time, his militia attacked leaders of the opposition party across the country, killing an estimated 300 and torturing many more, according to human rights groups. Police stood by, saying they would not intervene in political disputes. The opposition was denied coverage in the state media, which had a monopoly on all television and radio broadcasts. There were widespread charges of rigging, through documented discrepancies in voter registration and vote counting. Mugabe and ZANU-PF won the election.
The farm confiscations continued over several years, reducing the 4,200 white-owned farms to just a few score. Many observers agreed that land redistribution from whites to blacks was long overdue, but the way it was done damaged the country’s agricultural production and sent the economy into a downward spiral from which it has never recovered.
Many Africans regard the land grabs as Mugabe’s crowning achievement. To them, it doesn’t matter that lots of the farms went to his wife, generals, Cabinet ministers and party officials. It doesn’t matter that Zimbabwe, which was once known as the continent’s breadbasket, was reduced to a perennial recipient of international food aid.
What matters is that Mugabe eradicated white ownership of farms, the remaining vestige of white colonialism, and told the West to go to hell. That tapped into a deep-seated resentment across Africa and earned Mugabe widespread, and lasting, support.