One of the ‘chosen whites’: I made Mugabe laugh

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One of the ‘chosen whites’: I made Mugabe laugh

‘No one really got close to Mugabe, but in some way, I was, sometimes’

Peta Thornycroft


Zimbabwe’s first post-independence agricultural minister Denis Norman, now aged 88, changed the world, so to speak. 
His world. And Robert Mugabe’s world.  And he changed the world for tens of thousands of subsistence farmers, who were 30 years ago for the first time able to grow almost enough to feed the nation.
In a new book, Norman, who was the agricultural minister from 1980 to 1985, recalls how he was overwhelmed with emotion when he announced a successful development project that had seen subsistence farmers in Zimbabwe produce more than half the country’s maize crop at the time.
He was one of a handful of whites chosen by Mugabe to serve him. Norman helped subsistence farmers grow into small-scale commercial farmers, which allowed them, with almost no collateral, to borrow money from the state’s land bank, at two-percent interest lower than mainstream loans to white commercial farmers.
He and his highly committed staff went around the country training young and upcoming farmers with the help of more established commercial farmers. As a result, the country’s silos started groaning with wonderful harvests.  
Norman tells this story and many others in his autobiography, The Odd Man In,  which was launched in Harare last Saturday.
His launch was attended by many old and evicted farmers and some former senior civil servants with whom he worked in those very different times in Zimbabwe.
Now Denis Norman lives in the UK. By 2003, after 50 years in Zimbabwe, he returned to the UK and lives there now, not far from where he grew up and worked as a labourer on his father’s small farm.
Norman left the southern African country because his children in Zimbabwe could no longer earn their living – their farms were taken – and went to Australia. Norman’s farm, which he and his wife June developed, was not touched by the invasions – perhaps because he was a former long-serving member of the cabinet – but by then his heart for the country had gone, along with his family.
“I was fortunate and was able to sell my farm for almost nothing, however, in 2003. And we then left and went to the UK,” he said in an interview after the book launch.
“No one really got close to Mugabe, but in some way, I was, sometimes. I made him laugh.
“It seemed to me the land grabs [post-2000] happened because of the war veterans. He had paid them pensions, but they came back and wanted more, and he paid them again, and then 18 months later they returned and said we went to war for the land.”
By then, a new opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had emerged, and it was hugely popular. It was supported by some white farmers and their workers, the largest employed sector.
And recent history tells what happened then.
Many subsistence farmers were no longer able to operate since their success relied on the commercial farming sector’s infrastructure – such as transport for fertiliser, seeds and marketing. It all collapsed with the dramatic reduction of agricultural exports, sparking hyperinflation and ultimately the collapse of the economy.
Norman has not been in contact with Mugabe for years. But he does not speak ill of him. He clearly admired him in the past, but in his book, he notes that the civil service began abusing the system. He writes about unbudgeted expenses, extravagance and corruption. 
In his book, he writes: “The lavish lifestyle of this premiership was dramatically exposed when, after [Mugabe’s first wife] Sally’s death, Mugabe married Grace, with whom he by now had two children. It was a wedding. on a grand scale with no thought given to the cost, and to which many companies and individuals were ‘invited’ to contribute.
“To me personally, it was suggested that a suitable gift would be a pedigree beef bull which would enhance the bloodline of Mugabe’s own herd. 
“After consultation with our son, Howard, we duly transported a young Brahman bull, accompanied by its pedigree certificate, to the bride and groom, with a note wishing them a long and happy life as a couple, together with a footnote, saying how we looked forward to visiting them the following year to view the progeny resulting from our gift.
“A week after the wedding, we received the news that our bull had been slaughtered to help feed the wedding guests.”
Norman launches his book on Tuesday in SA at the Bryanston Country Club.

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