Von Paleske – Mugabe: from hero to villain


I came to Africa after I belonged to a political group in Germany that supported the Liberation movements in the 70s. It was a left-wing movement that had its base in the student movement post-1968.

After I qualified as a lawyer, I was asked to accompany Robert Mugabe when he visited Germany on our invitation in 1976 before the so-called Geneva talks. I was very impressed by this guy. He looked to me as if he is a born leader. He was certainly a liberation hero.

He had a very strict idea of how to deal with the situation in Africa, and how to get rid of colonialism, and a that time, countries like Angola and Mozambique had just become independent, you remember the so called flower revolution in Portugal.

That tremendously expanded his bases in Mozambique at that time and was a big boost for the liberation movement. Also we should not forget that it inspired the ANC, to see that things were moving forward in the right direction.

When I had finished my postgraduate training at the university of Hamburg, in the fields of cancer and leukaemia, I decided to go to Zimbabwe and apply for a job there.

That was in 1987. It was a little bit of mixed feelings at that time, because there were problems in Zimbabwe. There was suppression of the Ndebele in the southern part of Zimbabwe, and there were mass killings organised by his [Mugabe’s] lieutenants.

His lieutenants at that time were Emerson Munangagwa  who is still minister in his cabinet now, and the head of the so-called Fifth Brigade, that was exclusively made up of the tribe of the Shonas in the north, an army commander by the name of Perence Shiri who was still a leading figure in the Zimbabwean Army until now.

However, that didn’t disturb me too much at that time, because when you’re very enthusiastic, going into such a country, you’re also a little bit tempted to put those things under the carpet. But the reality cannot be forgotten forever, so when over the years, it became obvious that Mugabe was going the wrong way, these things were resurfacing, each and everyone basically had to face up to the reality.

Mugabe after he was a liberation hero, had basically become a mass murderer on the one hand, and on the other hand he became somebody who wasn’t very interested in his own country. He was mostly flying out of the country. He had the nickname ‘flying Robert’ because the problems in his country weren’t really on top of the agenda.

However in saying this, there is no doubt that the burning question in Zimbabwe was the land. 60 per cent of the fertile land was in the hands of 4,000 mostly British originating white settlers, while the majority of the black people was cramped in so-called tribal trust lands, TTLs, after independence named communal areas.

Robert Mugabe was after the Lancaster House Agreement, only bound for ten years, ending 1990, to the so-called willing buyer, willing seller basis. Afterwards he was free to find a way to equal land redistribution, that on the one hand would not destroy the productive side, and on the other hand would give benefits to the majority of the black people.

However, things turned out in a completely different way. The farms that were acquired went mostly to his cronies. It was a former freedom fighter by the name of Margaret Dongo, who was a member of Parliament from 1995 to 2000, who uncovered that scam and made it public.








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