The Sunday Mail
Fr Fidelis Mukonori
On February 21, 2017, President Mugabe turns 93. In the lead-up to the day, The Sunday Mail will run a series of articles to celebrate the landmark. This week, we publish the views of the Head of the Roman Catholic Church’s Chishawasha Mission, Father Fidelis Mukonori, who has interacted with President Mugabe for decades.
I first got to know about Robert Mugabe when I was in school.
I took notice of him because of the way he spoke and how people respected him on account of how he conducted himself as a nationalist.
He presented insightful views on the politics of Southern Rhodesia and the vision of what the country ought to be.
I was fascinated and impressed by that kind of a man.
It was only in 1974 that I finally met him, and this was at Silveira House after he and other political prisoners had been released.
Nationalist leaders had become unavailable to the nation around 1964 when they were detained by the colonial regime and nobody could see them.
During that first meeting, I got the impression of a very calm and intelligent person. I didn’t think he knew me, but to my surprise, he did!
I was later to learn that he was aware of the work and war-related investigations the Catholic Commission of Justice and Peace had carried out while they were in prison.
He also knew that I was a member of CCJP and of my engagement with young people and stint in the Chiweshe area, a traditional warzone.
Our books – “The Man in the Middle” and “Civil War in Rhodesia” – had reached him and other detainees, too. So, he knew me alright.
On the other hand, I already knew so much about him: a person renowned for the depth of his thinking and sharpness in vision.
The second time I was to meet him was at the height of the liberation war in 1978 when he was now Commander-in-Chief of Zanla and Zanu-PF President.
We met at Zambia’s main international airport as he was coming from Nigeria accompanied by General Josiah Tongogara.
I was with Vice-President Muzenda who was leading a delegation the President had left in Zambia while he headed to Nigeria.
I saw a simple, unassuming person one could listen to intently. This person before me was totally different from the one described in the Rhodesian media.
Towards the end of 1977, The Rhodesia Herald started running a series of articles stating that anyone who would kill Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo would get US$50 000 “for each terrorist” and this money would be payable at any bank in the world.
One would have imagined that President Mugabe and Vice-President Joshua Nkomo were man-eaters, but to the contrary, I met a soft-spoken gentleman.
Vice-President Muzenda briefed President Mugabe at the airport, telling him how he had held meetings with “these Catholic Bishops from home”.
I was there in my capacity as chairman of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the only local organisation that spoke out clearly against the war.
The Smith regime had on several occasions threatened to close the Commission. However, that didn’t deter us from saying what needed to be said regarding goings-on at the war front.
We were very effective in writing and communicating with various people across the world, and our facts impressed everyone, including the Rhodesians themselves, State security, the CIO, military intelligence and police.
We did not publish any fiction. Mr Smith knew we spoke the truth, so did the Patriotic Front.
After the airport encounter, we met President Kaunda and Cde Mugabe at Zambia’s State House in the capital city, Lusaka.
President Mugabe was his usual calm self. He never displayed anger or vengeance despite having spent 11 years in prison fighting the unjust system.
He once said, “The evil is in the system. These white people happen to be the ones in charge and to be offshoots of a generation that colonised us. But it is the system that we are fighting. The fight is not about colour or race.”
That impressed me very much.
At State House in Zambia, President Mugabe listened intently as we delivered a presentation on how we saw the war in Zimbabwe.
Archbishop Patrick Chakaipa, who was head of our delegation, presented, with President Mugabe responding afterwards, saying the matter would be discussed seriously in Maputo, Mozambique.
“We are going take this report very seriously – point by point and case by case – because it is essential that we are getting this feedback from Zimbabwe. We had never had any group giving this kind of deep analysis of the situation and the way forward,” he said.
We interacted briefly afterwards as we were preparing to return home, while he and his team were getting ready to leave for Mozambique.
The next time we met was when I visited Maputo. I was with a colleague, Mr John Deere, the treasurer of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
We spent one week in Maputo and were warmly welcomed. Interestingly, we were always welcomed as very important persons and treated as such.
This was different from when we went to meet “internal leaders” – Mr Smith, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and Chief Chirawu. We would be searched, frisked, but the supposed “terrorists” gave us first-class treatment.
Our second day in Maputo started with a meeting around 8:30am. The meeting went on non-stop, only ending at 2pm.
We made our presentation about the situation in Zimbabwe, encompassing the political, economic, social, security and military sides of issues pertaining to the war. These segments showed how people were surviving in the midst of war.
The meeting went through the reports case by case and point by point. This included how the freedom fighters presented themselves to the people.
The way we saw it was that if you are in a guerrilla war situation where you do not control people with telephones, vehicles and planes, you will depend on the grace of God and the behaviour of your soldiers.
They had to be disciplined. We had to be very clear about that.
I presented the negatives, the positives, the challenges and the way forward.
The impression I got from those meetings was that of Robert Mugabe the debater. He loves to debate; he wants to challenge certain points. When you debate with him, you have to be clear, honest and say what you want to say no matter how difficult and painful it may be even for him.
Then you would go through it together.
In my view, that is the character of a national leader, an international personality who can hold his own with other international leaders.
It’s not just about the sharp memory or intelligence, but also about how one presents himself, the depth of argument and intelligence.
He would dissect each issue for one to look at its quiddity. That is what has always impressed me about President Mugabe.
I enjoy talking to him; even when we say let us agree to disagree or let us look at things from different standpoints.
One area I might look into is when we met during the Lancaster House Conference.
I was in London with my colleague, John Deere, and the purpose of going there was to represent the CCJP and Catholic Bishops Conference.
The CBC had a very clear message: “This Lancaster House Conference should be taken seriously by all leaders coming from our country. They should remember that they are not representing themselves; they are representing the people of Zimbabwe. They are representing masses of people who are toiling in anguish because of the war.”
At that time, in 1979, we were talking of 1 200 people who were being killed daily by the war. That was our assessment and we were not wrong. We were talking of two million people having left the country, and over a million people were internally displaced. So, we were talking of people who were in anguish.
The bishops were saying the leaders have to take the talks seriously, and realise that they were not representing themselves. President Mugabe was very grateful when we presented this message.
We gave reports on the situation back home and discussed issues pertaining to Lancaster House.
At some point in London, I was approached by a journalist who wanted to interview the leaders, especially from the Patriotic Front.
He said: “I’m trying to put things together and present the best questions, which can open up the future of Zimbabwe. The whole international community is waiting to hear from these leaders, especially the Patriotic Front. I have gone to several people and have been referred to your offices.”
I took my time with this gentleman, posing issues I thought were essential and of national interest and would help the international community hear what our leaders had to say about the country’s future.
Interviews of various leaders were subsequently broadcast on television, and many people focused on the Patriotic Front. The Robert Mugabe interview was flighted at midnight.
I remember saying to the President later: “Ahh, President, I was very pleased with your performance in the interview.”
He just said, “Oh, okay.”
He then smiled and asked: “Did that gentleman (the journalist) come to you office before (the interview)?”
When I responded in the affirmative, he said, “Now I understand.”
In essence, what the President said to me was an acknowledgement because he could feel the input of the CCJP in the questions. That kind of acknowledgement humbles one; that is the Robert I know.
On Independence eve, the Prime Minister-designate told the nation to join hands, “drop our guns and turn our swords into plough shears”.
My wish is for our leaders to reflect on that speech because it carries a lot. The way a country is run is based on the bedrock of the eve of its birth.
Self-rule is like a marriage; what you do on the first day of marriage cuts deep. Forty years down the road as husband and wife, you should be able to go back to that day you married. If you were to ask President Mugabe today, “Mr President, would you repeat the same speech today?”
I’m sure he will say “Yes”.
The Robert Mugabe I know is consistent and persistent, moving forward with a vision and view. He does not forget or waver.