PARIS - Robert Mugabe, who died in ignominy this month at 95, swept into his first African summit in 1981 as a conquering hero, a teacher-turned-guerrilla leader in a snazzy suit and silk tie. He preached Marxism, but as prime minister he ran a laissez-faire economy that was anything but.
“I'd lay good money that Zimbabwe is going to hold together and prosper to boot,” Gregory Jaynes wrote in the New York Times. “Mugabe fought colonialists of British stock for majority rule and a finely tuned capitalist system he appears to want to keep.”
We reporters at that Nairobi summit mostly agreed, and that remained a safe bet for more than a decade. Despite a vicious seven-year civil war that took 20,000 lives, Zimbabwe thrived with a multiracial parliament and an uncommonly well-run government.
White-owned commercial farms exported enough maize to feed 10 percent of Africa and paid laborers fair wages. Industry bustled. Tourists flocked to the spectacular Victoria Falls, hobnobbed with rhinos along the Zambezi and explored ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins.
Harare was sensational when jacaranda blossoms fell like purple rain on the main city square outside the elegant paneled bar at Meikle's Hotel. Wealthy Zimbabweans, black and white, filled restaurants, clubbed until late, walked home without looking over their shoulders. Reporters blew in without visas, and officials spoke freely with rare frankness.Read More