Indeed, on this issue, Mugabe went as far as delivering flatly contradictory messages to different audiences on the same day.
On one occasion, he told white farmers that they should “stay on in Zimbabwe and reassured them that the government recognised their role as the backbone of the Zimbabwean economy”, only to tell a black audience shortly afterwards that the government would “take over” white-owned farms and “redistribute them to peasant farmers”.
Attempting to make sense of such contradictions, the British concluded that Mugabe was politicking in order to manage expectations among his black constituency.
A year later, a British diplomat wrote to London of another instance when Mugabe had claimed “we were denying his government funds to purchase land for resettlement and said that we must buy land from ‘our kith and kin’”.
If the British failed to provide funds, “the government would not hesitate to take over this land and give it to the peasants”.
The author lamented that it was “disheartening that Mugabe should have spoken in this way when he knows full well that there is no lack of money for land purchase and that delays in the scheme are largely caused by the inefficiency of the Zimbabwe bureaucracy and physical restraints”.
Still, the British were persuaded that the government’s “real policies” were different to “such talk” and that they would have to live with the prime minister’s posturing from time to time. It does not seem to have occurred to them that they were being played by Mugabe.
It was not just the “imperialist”, white West that was the target and victim of Mugabe’s dissembling.
He took an equally cynical approach to ZANU-PF’s ostensible ideological fellow travellers and closest wartime allies.
Remarking on a visit he made to China and North Korea at the end of 1980, he told a colleague – who was also a South African spy – that it had been necessary to go because of the assistance these countries had provided during the war, but added that the trip was a “lot of bull”.
The Chinese and Koreans wanted to assist Zimbabwe only “by supplying a few tractors and many technicians”.
He was “personally … not at all impressed with the idea of the technicians” because they were little more than a fifth column – a posse of “Marxists who will start a process of undermining” and who would “only contribute to more friction within the party”.
Rather than be exploited by his allies, Mugabe turned the tables and used them for his own ends.
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