Review: The Fear, by Peter Godwin

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, by Peter Godwin. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 384 pp. $26.99 (hardcover).


Many books have documented horrible details of what happens under dictatorship. The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe presents some of the most horrific. In it, Peter Godwin captures the recent and ongoing struggle of Zimbabweans under a reign of lawlessness and terror.

The book begins in 2008, as Godwin is on his way “home to Zimbabwe, to dance on Robert Mugabe’s grave” (p. 5). Despite rigging the latest elections and intimidating the voters, as he has for many years, the aging dictator has been rejected so resoundingly that it seems he will have to accept defeat.

After flying into Harare, the capital of this formerly rich and now starving country, Godwin says that “[Mugabe’s] portrait is everywhere still, staring balefully down at us.”

From the walls of the airport, as the immigration officer harvests my U.S. dollars, sweeping them across his worn wooden counter, and softly thumping a smudged blue visa into my passport. From the campaign placards pasted to the posts of the broken street lights, during our bumpy ride into the reproachfully silent city. Watched only by the feral packs of hollow-chested dogs, [Mugabe] raises his fist into the sultry dome of night, as though blaming the fates for his mutinous subjects. The Fist of Empowerment, his caption fleetingly promises our insect-flecked beams. (pp. 5-6)

As Godwin makes his way into Harare, pickup trucks crowded with armed officers repeatedly pass him by. “The atmosphere,” he says, “is tense with anticipation” (p. 8). Something historic is about to happen. Unfortunately, however, Mugabe does not concede defeat, and there is “no political grave upon which to dance”—at least not one belonging to Mugabe (p. 14). But there will be many graves soon, an untold number of them, as Mugabe and his goons “know the places they didn’t do well” and plan to ensure they do better by terrorizing the local populace into changing their votes (p. 28).

Godwin skillfully shows what led up to the impending massacre. According to him, there was no single point at which Mugabe the “liberation hero” became Mugabe the “tyrannical villain.” And that, says Godwin, is because there was no metamorphosis: “Robert Mugabe has been surprisingly consistent in his modus operandi. His reaction to opposition has invariably been a violent one” (p. 30).

Referencing the massacre of around twenty thousand civilians in Matabeleland soon after Mugabe first gained power, Godwin goes on to describe the nature and purpose of the latest postelection terror:

[T]he murders are accompanied by torture and rape on an industrial scale, committed on a catch-and-release basis. When those who survive, terribly injured, limp home, or are carried or pushed in wheelbarrows, or on the backs of pickup trucks, they act like human billboards, advertising the appalling consequences of opposition to the tyranny, bearing their gruesome political stigmata. And in their home communities, their return causes ripples of anxiety to spread. The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, which I hear for the first time tonight. They are calling it chidudu. It means, simply, “The Fear.” (p. 109)

Although the name is new, Godwin points out that nothing has changed and that fear has always been the base upon which Mugabe’s power has rested. If that truth does not always seem real to Zimbabweans, it is—at least according to Godwin—in part because of how so many have chosen to deal with it. In this dictatorship, he says, people use subversive nicknames to mollify the nature of what exists. . . .

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