Mugabe: villain or hero?

Alexa Dalby

To say that Robert Mugabe receives a bad press from the international media is an understatement, but his reputation is now being put under the microscope by a new documentary which aims to bring balance to the legacy of one of Africa’s most influential – and controversial – leaders.

A new documentary about Robert Mugabe boldly questions whether the Zimbabwean president is the much-maligned “despot” of international media headlines, or an ordinary man who instills pride in his people for his refusal to bow to pressure from the West.

In 2007, Roy Agyemang, a Ghanaian British film-maker, arrived in Harare to interview Zimbabwe’s octogenarian president, Robert Mugabe. Agyemang’s crew was the first Western film crew to whom Mugabe had given extensive access. But Agyemang’s English accent made those closest to Mugabe suspicious, and it was only after two years of filming him that he finally got his interview. His feature film,Mugabe: Villain or Hero?, vividly mixing new material with well-chosen archive footage, made its sold-out debut in London last December to three standing ovations.

“Here’s a man who was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize in 1981, given a knighthood in 1994 and yet in the UK, he is a villain. I wanted to find out what was behind the headlines,” Agyemang says, “to bring balance to the story. In the film, you hear comments unheard in the Western news media before – people talking favourably about Mugabe. I wanted to get a sense from people on the ground to what extent does he actually have support?”

Agyemang doggedly trailed Mugabe in public and private – at ecstatic congresses and rallies, on Colonel Qadhafi’s luxurious private jet, being groomed for an election broadcast. He links this footage with comments from ministers, journalists, political commentators, the chairman of the War Veterans’ Association, the governor of the reserve bank and ordinary citizens.

The film shows the historical reasons for the land redistribution conflicts that triggered sanctions by the West, and the resulting hyperinflation and currency collapse. It follows the rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – suspected of being a Western puppet – and the elections at which Mugabe loses to Morgan Tsvangirai. These are declared fair by independent observers – even the ballot boxes are translucent – but were seen as a missed opportunity to remove Mugabe. Young white Zimbabweans complain about international propaganda: “More people were killed in the Kenyan elections, yet there was no cry for intervention there.”

The interview finally happens. Mugabe elegantly turns the single question to his own overarching priorities: economic independence; control of natural resources; the changing nature of imperialism and the dangers of international aid, which is “never really assistance to get us to industrialise and therefore be economically independent. If they made us economically independent, they would not have this lever to control us to their advantage.”

He is nostalgic for the leaders of his generation. “What we have are leaders who depend more on the West to run their countries rather than depend on their own people and on real cooperation and partnership within their own regions to build their economies and make them sound.”

Evil dictator or man of principle? In the flesh, Mugabe was “living history,” says Agyemang. “When you strip through the layers of security, you see a man who is quite ordinary – an old man now – quite humble, very witty, who can communicate with people on different levels – old, young, black, white.”

Mugabe has been in power 32 years, yet he has failed to groom a successor and there are doubts whether people still share the same dream, the film comments. There is a fear among Mugabe’s supporters that they may lose control of their country to neocolonial forces intent on controlling its natural resources.

“The feeling among MDC supporters,” says Agyemang, “was that the old man has got to go, but deep down he makes us proud. He’s eloquent, he’s educated us, but sometimes it’s the people around him we don’t agree with. So if he can’t control them, he has to go.”

About the author:

Alexa Dalby is a journalist specialising in film, African business, culture and cinema


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