In some ways, this shake-up of the family decreed by life and fate, how Robert moved up in the patriarchal set-up to occupy its most central place, would be reprised when Mugabe moved into politics.
When he joined the nationalists in 1960, it was as publicity secretary and yet, by 1977, he was the head of Zanu, the party which would help liberate Zimbabwe from former prime minister Ian Smith’s shackles. The men for whom the leadership would have been natural – lawyer Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira and Zanu’s founding president Ndabaningi Sithole – had died, sometimes tragically, or been deposed from the party hierarchy.
The way Mugabe joined the nationalists followed no method and template. It just happened, in the way intimated by Graham Greene, one of Mugabe’s favourite authors, who wrote in the novel The Power and the Glory: “A man isn’t presented with two courses to follow: one good and one bad. He gets caught up.”
In July 1960, Mugabe had returned from Ghana, where he was working at St Mary’s Teacher Training College, on a short holiday to see his mother and introduce her to Sally Hayfron, the Ghanaian woman he intended to marry. When he arrived in what was then Southern Rhodesia, the country was in the throes of a nationalist upsurge as Leopold Takawira, Mugabe’s old friend from Kutama, Michael Mawema, the man credited with coining the name Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo, the trade unionist turned nationalist, and others were battling the racist, colonial government. As if on a whim, Mugabe became part of it.
Even on his return from Ghana, Mugabe had still not decided if he would join the nationalists. He made up his mind or was forced to make a decision when police conducted a dawn swoop on 19 July on the homes of National Democratic Party (NDP) president Mawema and Takawira, the NDP’s Salisbury chair.
On that febrile afternoon, at Stodart Hall in the township of Harare (now Mbare) before a throng that would later be known as the March of the 7 000, Mugabe made one of his first appearances at a nationalist gathering. He was introduced as a well-travelled Zimbabwean, with three university degrees, based in Ghana.
In his speech, Mugabe spoke of life in Ghana, its president Nkrumah and his programme of “Africanisation”. He explained that Ghana’s independence had been won with the help of everyone, “university students and also standard 6 men. So that it must be understood that it is not only the university graduate who is the best leader.
“It will be necessary for graduates, doctors, lawyers and all others who join the NDP to accept their leaders even if these may not be university men,” Mugabe continued, in a speech that must have made an impression on his audience. Already in awe of his several university degrees and his status as teacher trainer (in a country in which one of the few, respected professions available to Africans was becoming a teacher), they must have found his deprecation a winning trait.
“Whoever you may be and whatever may be your station in life, you must pray [for] and respect the leaders you choose,” said Mugabe. And just like that, Mugabe became a nationalist, the very thing he had, in departing to teach in Zambia between 1955 and 1957, tried to avoid.