WORLD renowned Swedish writer and journalist Per Wastberg, a former family friend of President Robert Mugabe, believes the Zimbabwean leader lost direction after the death of his first wife, Sal
Mugabe also became jealous of the rise to power and popularity of former South African President Nelson Mandela in 1994, Wastberg said during a wide-ranging interview in Stockholm last week.
“The Mugabe I had known for more than 20 years was a simple, honest and straight-forward man,” said Wastberg. “He had Sally as a good adviser. I was surprised to read later in the 1990s that he had developed a penchant for power and a luxurious lifestyle.”
Wastberg first met Mugabe in 1959 when he came to the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
“I became interested in the struggle for Independence as soon as I arrived at the university in 1959. That is how I quickly came to know Joshua Nkomo, George Nyandoro and other Zapu leaders who were subsequently detained. Later on I met Robert Mugabe and we became very close friends. I used to smuggle books and newspapers to him when he was in detention and helped him study for his degrees,” said Wastberg.
The 73-year-old author and journalist – who has published 55 books – had close contacts with several nationalist leaders in the region. These included Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Sam Nujoma.
Wastberg said he helped Sally move to Sweden where she stayed at his home for three years in the early 1970s whilst teaching in elementary schools. Mugabe also visited Sweden several times after his release in 1974 and would visit Wastberg’s home.
“My last meeting with Mugabe was in 1994 when I visited him at State House in Harare. I expressed my concern over his policies, particularly in the field of edcuation and in relation to Matabeleland, which I made clear to him were destroying the country,” said Wastberg, who had been invited by Mugabe to the Lancaster House Conference in 1979 and the subsequent Independence celebrations in Harare.
“I reminded him that he should have stepped down after serving at most two terms. A deeply worried Mugabe opened up and told me that he felt anxious about the rise of Mandela, particularly the popularity he had gained,” he said. He was clearly uncomfortable with the direction Mandela was taking.
“This meeting was my last with Mugabe. We parted in a stiffly cool and polite way. I told him that our friendship of over 30 years was over since we no longer had any common views and approaches. He said ‘Is that so?’ and gave me a cool handshake. He told me he had to proceed without me. Since then the Christmas cards and messages of solidarity that had been a consistent thing have ended.”
Wastberg noted differences in the personalities of Mugabe and Mandela.
“Mandela was very articulate and not shy whilst Mugabe is a very shy person. He doesn’t like people. He prefers being alone whereas Mandela is a man of the people. Mugabe is a fearful intellectual who is very intolerant. I have no doubt that Mandela is one of the most tolerant leaders in Africa.”
After parting ways with Mugabe, Wastberg continued to observe the situation in Zimbabwe from a distance but with interest.
“In the 1970s the Mugabe I knew was a simple person who seemed to understand and appreciate other people. He was considerate of even the needs of his opponents”, Wastberg said.
“However, I later discovered that unlike many African leaders – such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Sam Nujoma and Mandela – that I was close to, Mugabe was difficult to define and understand. I have been a writer for a long time defining and deducing personalities. But with Mugabe I missed something.
“I felt that Mugabe was going the way of Kamuzu Banda, showing signs of clear dislike of opposition whilst strengthening his lust for power.”
Wastberg said it was unfortunate that Mugabe had promised to step down only at the end of his current term in 2008.
“It is a scandal that he wants to sound logical by promising to step down in 2008. Zimbabwe as it is can’t afford another month with Mugabe, let alone another four years. My message to him is, please consider the future of Zimbabwe and give its people a pleasant surprise by going before Christmas.”
A member of Sweden’s Nobel Committee, Wastberg castigated Mugabe’s land reform.
“The manner in which he has handled the land issue is regrettable. I had never expected him to stoop that low. Everything he has been doing is merely to cement his power.”