Rogers, Douglas: Two Weeks in November

Seven members of the group gathered on a pleasant August evening, some arriving slightly breathless from the exertions of climbing a couple of flights of stairs to the host’s grand flat.

The book had been headlined as “The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe.” Our proposer had been inspired to read more after listening to 2 episodes of the book on BBC 4’s “Book of the Week”. Having been duly captivated by the book he felt it worthy of our analysis.

The author had been born in Umtali, Rhodesia in 1968 to Lyn, a lawyer and Rosalind a drama teacher. He grew up on heavily fortified chicken and grape farms during the Rhodesian Bush War. He was schooled in Rhodesia and graduated with a degree in journalism in Rhodes University, South Africa. Following newspaper and radio assignments in Johannesburg he moved to London in 1994  and wrote feature and travel articles for several broadsheets. He settled in the USA in 2003 and has contributed to many of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers. In 2009 he published “The Last Resort: a Memoir of Zimbabwe” to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at the Gothan Writers Workshop.

The title of the book seemed to be appropriate as Britain could well be facing difficult times during our imminent departure from the EU at the end of October. The last two weeks of October could well prove to be of major significance for our future on these islands.

There was a long discussion about how Africa, despite its vast natural resources seems to remain in the doldrums. One member who had visited Africa several times and had met a good number of top Africans, found them to be rational and deeply intellectual. But corruption amongst leaders and expensive local wars prevented proper investment in infrastructure and distribution of wealth to the masses.

Why had Africa not thrived as much as other continents? Historically, factors such as Africa’s challenging geography prevented easy trade routes being established. There seemed to be a different work ethic compared to northern and far eastern countries. There was a theory that the short growing season in northern Europe led to greater efforts to produce food efficiently whilst in Africa there wasn’t that pressure.

Comment was made on Britain’s support of corrupt regimes who were of commercial or strategic use to us and of bestowing honours on their leaders. We had a habit of conveniently ignoring misdemeanours carried out by these administrations if it suited us. We were reminded that President Mugabe had been given an honorary degree by Edinburgh University in 1984 but this was eventually revoked after years of campaigning about his poor human rights record.

Eventually, after 45 minutes of general discussion about Africa, the group were focussed on discussing the book.

There was general agreement that the journalistic style of writing wasn’t very agreeable. Reading the book was like reading a journalist’s notebook and the narrative was poor. There was a huge cast of characters, many with multiple names.  

The story did have some exciting episodes, particularly ED’s attempts to cross the border into Mozambique, the dash to retrieve his briefcase from the border post and the highly professional neutralisation of the Police Support Unit by 1 Para special forces team. Some felt that some of the scenes beggared belief and questioned that the actions of Ellis, Kasper, Angel, Horse and Gabriel played such a major role in the eventual resignation of Mugabe.

The book did however effectively convey the chaotic nature of events, which was probably quite authentic. The influence of social media, rallying support for the march, was impressive and a modern day phenomenon. There were several hints that the Chinese might well have had some part to play in the coup. Whoever had China on their side would win. It seemed that it was no coincidence that General Chiwenga had been in China prior to his return to Zimbabwe to take control of the bloodless coup. He claims that he had no immediate aspirations to be President but unsurprisingly now sits as Vice President. The author paraphrases Milton Friedman’s statement “the important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing”. He claims that on the 18th November 2017, the wrong people, the Zimbabwean military, the country’s war veterans and elements of ZANU-PF actually did the right thing.

Rogers quotes Nelson Chamisa, President of the Movement for Democratic Change as saying “what is the point in partnering with the new regime. They are still ZANU-PF. Same bus, different driver”

For a book that purported to have been impeccably researched, there were no references. For some purists in the group, even although the book is published in the UK, the American spellings of whiskey, color and sulfur was irritating. Overall, most thought the book worthy of just about 3 stars as the author had managed to unearth some sensitive information about a very secretive operation. The book certainly stimulated a good deal of discussion.

One member of the group had earlier circulated an article about modern day Zimbabwe. Little seems to have changed for the average Zimbabwe citizen since Mugabe’s resignation. There are shortages of fuel and rioting and beatings are commonplace leading to some deaths. Internet services are suspended and Twitter is locked down. It comments that Zimbabwe needn’t be poor with its copious minerals, an educated and ambitious population and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. However, the country “is being looted by its government.” Zimbabwe was once regarded as the “breadbasket of Africa” but now is a “basket case.”

Was it the talk of food that spurred our host into offering coffee? This was duly produced accompanied by a plate groaning with delicious “brownies”.

Thus fortified, the conversation moved on to our current situation in the UK.  Many are on protest marches throughout the country. Politicians appear to be acting for themselves or their political party rather than thinking of the good of the nation. It’s not just Africa that has its problems. We have our own concerns much nearer to home and we wait with some trepidation what will happen with our two weeks in October and beyond.