The aim of Heidi Holland’s biography of Robert Mugabe is to humanise the monster so that we can understand the “three-dimensional Mugabe instead of a cartoon villain.” That doesn’t look like such a bright idea in the context of another brutal election campaign in which the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has been murdered, raped and tortured into submission.

Mugabe claims he has been appointed by God and can only be removed by God. In reality, the people preventing Mugabe’s exit are a junta of security chiefs implicated in past atrocities. In this light, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to pull out of the presidential run-off looks like a tactical mistake that played into Mugabe’s hands by allowing him the luxury of not having to rig the poll. But for those on the ground, the price of staying in may have become too high. In mid-June, Abigail Chiroto, the wife of the MDC mayor of Harare, was murdered by Zanu-PF thugs, the most high profile in a wave of killing that has taken the lives of 80 opposition supporters. Now Tsvangirai, as he has done with previous instances of electoral fraud, is asking the international community to step in to resolve the crisis. But with Thabo Mbeki in South Africa still blocking any serious regional or international intervention, it is hard to see where this crippled society goes from here.

Heidi Holland’s detailed excavation of Mugabe’s past unearths a more multifaceted narrative than that found in western media—a man who is both victim and villain. Reading it, I found myself sympathising with the diffident intellectual who was ill suited to a life of political struggle and leadership, but who gradually came to relish the Machiavellian modes of power. Holland’s gripping biography provides us with an opportunity to empathise with one of the world’s last great dictators—something that makes it deeply unsettling.

Holland was born in Johannesburg but grew up in Rhodesia, becoming an activist against Ian Smith’s white minority rule. The title of the book and the subject of the preface draws on an episode in 1975 when she allowed her home to be used as a safe house for the liberation struggle, and ended up cooking dinner for a young Robert Mugabe. In a nice piece of symmetry, the last chapter of the book is taken up with an interview Holland somehow managed to secure with President Mugabe in December 2007. Ostensibly, the subjects of the two interviews are very different men.

There have been good Mugabe biographies before, notably by Martin Meredith and David Blair, but this is the most captivating because it allows us to see a familiar character afresh. Traditional biography offers a linear progression from birth towards death, evoking a sense of inevitability and closure, but Holland’s method forgoes chronology and instead asks her sources to remember the man they knew and, with the benefit of hindsight, tell us what went wrong. Holland calls it a “psychobiography” because she has enlisted the help of two psychologists and an “emotional intelligence consultant” to analyse her taped interviews. This is occasionally irritating but for the most part it proves enlightening. The impressive roll call of witnesses includes Lady Soames, the widow of Britain’s last governor to Rhodesia, who touchingly describes the incongruous friendship that blossomed between the establishment Soames family and the self-professedly Marxist Mugabes.

The book never glosses over Mugabe’s flaws or atrocities. Rather it puts them in a fresh context. Mugabe’s is a life full of sadness and relatively empty of friendships. By the time he reaches ten, two of his brothers have died, and his father Gabriel has abandoned the family to go and live in Bulawayo. Robert, a bookish child, is teased by his schoolmates for his close relationship with his pious mother, and for being the favourite of Father Jerome O’Hea, the village’s Jesuit priest. Donato Mugabe, his last surviving brother, remembers: “Father O’Hea had told [our mother] that Robert was going to be an important somebody, a leader. [She] believed Father O’Hea had brought this message from God.”

The only person Mugabe ever really adored, his first wife Sally, dies in 1992. Mugabe is inconsolable. There are no surviving children—their three-year-old son had died in 1966 while Mugabe was imprisoned by Rhodesia’s white minority government, and Ian Smith had overruled the prison governor to prevent Mugabe from attending the funeral.

Various theories are put forward to explain Mugabe’s decline into tyranny. Most striking to a British audience is the description of how Tony Blair’s first government handled the question of land. In 1997, following a Commonwealth conference at which Blair and Mugabe had disagreed on land reform, the international development secretary Clare Short wrote a letter to Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister saying that Britain did not accept it had a responsibility to fund land redistribution. “We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers.” This jarringly patronising, never mind morally dubious, message was the precursor to untold damage. Short had her own ideas, wanting to decouple aid budgets from politics, but it was a naive hope in a continent as traumatised by colonialism as Africa. In Holland’s tense interview with Mugabe at State House, the president claims that John Major’s government had prepared a generous package of land reform, but that New Labour’s 1997 landslide changed everything. “‘They were going to tear it up,’ he growled bitterly. ‘And we read then that it was a government without norms and principles at all, and they didn’t deserve our respect.’”

A diplomatic row between an African country and its former colonial master need not have led to disaster. But Mugabe’s sensitivity and sense of betrayal is a recurring theme, whether in the brutal purges he inflicted on his own side during the liberation struggle or the way he quickly became paranoid on taking power.

Conventional wisdom has it that things began going wrong in the late 1990s when tough economic circumstances and the formation of the MDC panicked Mugabe into playing his jokers—land and race. But it is his first few years in office that encapsulates the real, schizophrenic Mugabe. In the early 1980s, he was simultaneously a moderate leader who ensured postwar reconciliation and rapid advances in health and education and a brutal oppressor made paranoid by apartheid South Africa’s attempts to destabilise him. The worst single act of Mugabe’s rule happened in 1983, when his Fifth Brigade massacred anywhere between 8,000 and 20,000 people in Matabeleland to put down a suspected Ndebele rebellion. In contrast to Britain’s later condemnations of the farm invasions, in which a handful of whites died, Margaret Thatcher’s government kept quiet, and a decade later the Queen awarded Mugabe an honorary knighthood.

The spin doctor Jonathan Moyo at one point tells Holland that the young Mugabe was never really interested in politics. As an articulate intellectual with a career as a teacher, he was seized upon by nationalist politicians as someone who could give their movement credibility. “Mugabe looks very different to them, even superior,” Moyo speculates. “And that becomes the reason for him being chosen and given high office, which he did not seek, let alone earn.” Like much of this thought-provoking book, this is just a theory. But if true, it’s telling that the 84-year-old Mugabe is no longer being used as a symbol of learning, but for the fear that his cult of personality inspires.

Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland (Penguin, £17.99)

This piece appeared at Prospect online on July 26 2008

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