He was a young firebrand locked up in a Rhodesian jail. She was an exile in London, grieving the death of their only son. Here, nearly 40 years on, letters released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal how Robert Mugabe’s battle to save his beloved wife from deportation sowed the seeds of his lifelong hatred for the British government
By Robert Verkaik
Think of all the famous modern political love stories: Winston and Clementine Churchill; Tony and Cherie Blair; Margaret and Dennis Thatcher; Nelson and Winnie Mandela; or even the amants de nos jours, the French president and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. To this glamorous list of leaders, whose relationships inspired their rise to power and helped shape their early years in office, can now be added the unlikely name of international hate-figure Robert Mugabe.
New documents released under the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives in London reveal for the first time the strength of the bond between the Rhodesian freedom-fighter and his young Ghanaian bride, as Mugabe emerged as a political force in Africa during the 1960s.
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In letters and telegrams written to Harold Wilson and his Labour government, Mugabe emerges as a man both sensitive and humble, who was prepared to plead with the British government in order to persuade the Home Office not to deport his wife from London.
The papers also disclose how Westminster mishandled the formative stages of its own relationship with Mugabe and gave the Rhodesian dissident his first lesson in the heartless expediency of British foreign policy. Mugabe watchers will now surely wonder whether this could have been the moment that finally set the Zimbabwean rebel against his former colonial rulers.
Mugabe’s political achievements may now be overshadowed by the brutality of his regime, but in his early career he was an inspirational leader among the ranks of the fledgling Zimbabwe nationalist movement in the 1960s.
He was also a man who had recently found love with Sally Hayfron, a Ghanaian national seven years his junior. They had met in 1958 while both were teaching at a college in Ghana, where Mugabe had gone to make something of himself. Friends say that the attraction between the couple
was immediate, though they came from very different worlds. Mugabe’s family was poor and his father, Gabriel Mugabe Matibiri, a carpenter, abandoned his wife and Robert in 1934 in search of work in Bulawayo, Rhodesia’s second city. Robert is remembered as being bookish and lonely. Hayfron, meanwhile, described by friends as exuberant and beautiful, had been brought up in a political family that was part of the nationalist movement in colonial Ghana. Her family had strong links to Ghana’s then-prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah.
It is easy to see why their meeting made such an impression on Mugabe. In Ghana, he had experienced for the first time an African country run by its own people. And in Hayfron, he had met for the first time a woman whose political views were as strong as his own.
In 1960, a proud Mugabe returned home with Hayfron on his arm and immediately introduced her to his mother, to whom he was very close. The next year, with his mother’s blessing, the couple were married in a simple church ceremony in St Peter’s Catholic Church in Harare, then a black township of Salisbury. Their marriage was not a typical African relationship, where the woman would stay at home cooking and raising children. Rather, a shared political goal for a free Zimbabwe meant they both had key roles to play in Rhodesia’s burgeoning independence movement. While Mugabe rose up through the ranks of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), Sally helped enfranchise and mobilise the women of Salisbury.
In 1963, Mugabe left Zapu to help establish the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), a pan-Africanist movement formed by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and influenced by Maoism. It was an exciting time for the couple and their relationship was strengthened by the news that Sally was pregnant with their first child. Sadly, she lost the baby, but fell pregnant again in 1963 and, to the great delight of Mugabe, gave birth to a boy in Sep-tember, whom they named Nhamodzenyika.
By the mid-1960s, Mugabe’s political activism had brought him to the attention of the Rhodesian state government and, in 1964, he was arrested for “subversive speech” and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment in the country’s notorious Salisbury Prison. For the first time since they had met in 1958, the couple were forced to separate.
A year later, on 11 November 1965, Rhodesia’s white- minority government led by Ian Smith officially broke from British rule in what became known as the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
It was the same year that Nelson Mandela, already three years into his 18-year prison term, published his seminal work No Easy Walk to Freedom. Like Mandela, Mugabe used his time in prison to shape his political thinking. He immersed himself in study and, through correspondence courses, managed to attain seven degrees, including ones in law and engineering to add to his teaching qualifications.
Meanwhile, after her husband’s detention, Sally Mugabe had continued to be involved in subversive activities in Rhodesia and spent six weeks in one of Salisbury’s prisons for demonstrating against white rule. Later, she was found guilty of organising African women to directly challenge Smith’s Rhodesian constitution, which resulted in her being charged with sedition and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, part of which was suspended. ‘
The political climate made it too dangerous for her to stay in Salisbury and so, in 1963, she escaped the security services by fleeing first to Ghana with her son and then, in 1967, to self-imposed exile in London, where she found work as a secretary at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. From the safety of Britain, she campaigned tirelessly for the release of her husband and other Rhodesian dissidents. She also supported her husband’s studies by researching documents that the Salisbury Prison authorities had banned. Sometimes this meant transcribing very dry texts line by line and then posting them to her husband in prison.
There is no doubt that Sally Mugabe’s support for her husband helped sustain him during his time as a prisoner in Salisbury. But, in 1970, while still locked up, Mugabe discovered his wife’s immigration status was at risk and that the British government was planning to throw her out of the country because her visa had expired.
Now, documents released at the National Archives show that Mugabe was so enraged by the decision that he went to extraordinary lengths to help her. In March of that year, he wrote to James Callaghan, the then-Home Secretary, about his wife’s situation. This letter went unanswered, prompting Mugabe to send a telegram to Harold Wilson on 8 June, asking the Prime Minister to grant his wife British citizenship. Again, there was no official response.
Ten days later, he pursued this request with a three-page, handwritten letter to Wilson setting out the case for reconsideration on the grounds of exceptional circumstances, pleading with the Prime Minister to understand his wife’s predicament: shortly before Sally had come to England in 1967, tragedy struck the Mugabes when Nhamodzenyika died after succumbing to a severe attack of malaria. He was just three years old. With her husband in prison, Sally was left to bear the emotional burden of the loss alone. The confidential papers show that she later suffered a mental breakdown while living in London.
One of her supporters, Tony Hughes, secretary of the African rights group Ariel Foundation, wrote at the time that the strain of the bereavement, combined with the stress of her imminent deportation, had taken a great toll on Sally’s mental state, and in a letter to the government, he wrote of the proposed deportation: “It is certainly unfair for the British government to add to the misery of her already broken life.”
In his letter, Mugabe had told Wilson of the effect the death of his son had had on his wife, explaining that: “My wife, whose health has never been satisfactory since the loss of our son in 1966, is at present suffering serious emotional upset as a result of the decision by the Home Office. Surely then, the fact of my detention is enough suffering for her already. As I stated in my letter to Mr Callaghan, the reason my wife decided to work for the year (September 1969-June 1970) was to enable her to earn a little money for herself until October when she should enter university to do a degree in Household Science. The Home Office decision wrecks even this wholesome plan.”
He asked Wilson to reconsider the decision to refuse Sally permission to stay in Britain by politely explaining that his wife had a right to British citizenship because of their marriage, “under Christian rites”, in 1961. He added that it was “sheer force of circumstance” that meant his wife had had to use a Ghanaian passport to enter Britain, proclaiming, “She is first and foremost a Rhodesian citizen.”
Mugabe explained that, “When I and other nationalist leaders decided in 1963 to return from our temporary exile in Tanganyika, I could not bring my wife, who had just given birth to our late son, back with me as she was liable for imprisonment for a political offence she is alleged to have committed… I therefore decided to take my wife to Ghana, where she was to remain with her parents until our son was about four… When our son died in December 1966 the whole purpose of her stay no longer existed so I arranged that she should go to Britain for her studies.”
The letter not only displays Mugabe’s incisive intellect but also a talent for elegant and persuasive writing. “Since the British government asserts that it has legally assumed administrative authority for Rhodesia,” he added, “then it must place at the disposal of those who come under that authority, as my wife and I do, the procedures it considers valid for the acquisition of nationality as British Rhodesians… More than that, sir, I hold that the British government owes definite moral responsibility not only to persons in my circumstances but their wives and dependents as well… Am I to conclude that merely by virtue of the technicality of her possessing a Ghanaian passport, my wife’s Rhodesian citizenship by virtue of her being married to me must cease? Has she ceased being my wife merely because she… cannot produce Rhodesian papers in support of her being Rhodesian?”
Mugabe’s brooding frustration and indignation, which would later develop into a naked hatred of all things British, is already clearly marked. “I pose these questions, Mr Prime Minister,” he concluded, “because it is clear to me that the Home Office is hanging on to legal technicalities completely deprived of morality.”
Mugabe closed his request by appealing to Wilson’s sense of humanity, and then apologised for posting the letter from Salisbury Prison, which means that Downing Street had to pay a surcharge for its receipt.
The confidential papers reveal that the Mugabes’ case left the Labour government deeply divided. The Foreign Office secretly urged a compassionate approach, while the Home Office insisted on a strict observance of the letter of the law consistent with Labour’s immigration policy.
The case of Mrs Mugabe’s deportation was taken up by Maurice Foley, a young minister in the Foreign Office who had been corresponding with her supporters. Foley, known for being quick-witted and passionate about his politics, had already served in the Home Office as a minister responsible for immigration, where he was instrumental in introducing measures to help thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers from post-colonial Africa. Foley even featured in the launch of a BBC TV programme for immigrants, called Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye (meaning “Make Yourself at Home”) that was broadcast on 10 October 1965.
The junior Foreign Office minister decided to raise the matter of Mrs Mugabe with the then-Home Secretary Merlyn Rees. But Rees, who had a reputation for an unbending interpretation of policy and law, wrote back saying that while he sympathised with her “personal problems” he was not prepared to reverse his decision to expel her.
He told Foley: “We deal with large numbers of cases of Commonwealth citizens where there are compassionate elements, and we give full weight to them, but they rarely justify our taking action outside the ordinary rules of immigration control.”
After news broke of the Home Office’s latest rejection, Sally Mugabe wrote to Foley from her address in Madeley Road, Ealing Broadway, west London. “I am surprised at this decision in spite of my plight,” she said. “I am completely at a loss to know how else I could have written to touch the hearts of the decision makers… My employer has already indicated that she cannot keep me for long and I can understand her fears. But I must live whilst this scrutiny goes on.”
Robert Mugabe had every reason to believe the Prime Minister would consider his request favourably. While Mandela had given up believing that South Africa’s former colonial rulers would ever come to his aid, Mugabe still clung to the hope that a Labour government would deliver him from Ian Smith’s oppressive regime.
His spirits had been raised by Wilson’s response to Smith’s declaration of UDI in 1965: the British government had adopted a policy of no compromise until there was a commitment to black-majority African rule, dictating that colonies with a substantial population of white settlers would not receive independence except under conditions of universal suffrage and majority rule. And it was at the behest of Wilson that the United Nations Security Council authorised the first use of sanctions.
But Mugabe was not to know that his letter was not processed by Downing Street until 16 July, a full month after Wilson had been defeated by the Conservatives in the snap election of 1970, meaning that the case fell instead to the consideration of Edward Heath’s government.
A confidential memo written by a Foreign Office diplomat set out the situation in plain terms: “We know very little about Mr Mugabe except that he is in detention and is the former founder and secretary general of Zanu.” Nevertheless, the Foreign Office urged the Home Office to adopt a sympathetic approach on the grounds that they could ill-afford to alienate a potential ally in the road to black independence in Rhodesia: “If Mrs Mugabe has to leave Britain this would have a bad effect on her husband and could be politically embarrassing.”
Further correspondence written by Foreign Office minister Lord Lothian to Lord Windlesham, a minister of state at the Home Office, reveals that the Foreign Office had now recognised Mugabe’s importance to the nationalist movement in Rhodesia and wanted to bend the immigration rules to preserve good relations, in case he be of use to Britain in the future. Another Foreign Office memo warned that if his wife was not allowed to stay, Mugabe’s attitude to the British government could “change completely”.
Then, in August 1970, a damaging story appeared in The Observer concerning another politically sensitive immigration case that could be compared unfavourably with the Mugabe request: the Home Office had granted a work visa to Ian Smith’s stepson, Robert, a Rhodesian citizen.
Lord Lothian wrote to his colleagues: “The recent agreement by the Home Office that Mr Ian Smith’s stepson should be allowed to take up work in the UK can be cited as an example of possible racial discrimination… At the present time we want to avoid as much as possible additional controversy over Southern African issues.”
Robert Mugabe, stewing in prison and still without any British government response to his request, must have been incensed by news of the treatment of Ian Smith’s stepson.
By now even Number 10 could see the political dangers. “This case,” wrote one of Heath’s advisers, “is now getting a little ancient. It seems only too likely to me that Mr or Mrs Mugabe may well write to the leader of the Opposition’s office to ask what has been done and I think the story we would have to tell would be, to put it mildly, embarrassing.”
Towards the end of 1970, Sally Mugabe received further upsetting news that her father had died, and Lord Lothian once again wrote to Lord Windlesham to urge reconsideration of the case: “It is quite evident that this will be a very difficult matter and that topics which bear on Rhodesia will continue to cause us great trouble,” he wrote. “We shall not, I think, be assisted in this search for a settlement if any Rhodesian issue attracts more publicity than can be reasonably avoided. There are some new factors in the case of Mrs Mugabe which, in our view, alter its merits to some extent and may well result in further adverse publicity if the present decision is maintained. We would therefore be grateful if you would reconsider the decision in light of these factors and that you would see your way to agreeing that Mrs Mugabe should be treated as a Rhodesian citizen even if… she is not legally so for reasons outside her control.”
The need to curry favour with the imprisoned Mugabe was regarded by Lord Lothian as a critical factor. “The issue of detainees in Rhodesia and what we can do for them as part of any settlement is likely to become more sensitive when talk of negotiations is in the air,” he wrote. “Critics of the present decision will be able to make some play with the argument that by working in the United Kingdom Mrs Mugabe will be doing the best she can to help her detained husband, and to send her back to Ghana would reduce the possibilities of this and hence cause both him and her further suffering.”
Despite mounting pressure, the new Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, refused to budge, and it was not until after a high-profile media campaign, and a petition signed by more than 400 parliamentarians, that the government finally relented and allowed Sally Mugabe to stay.
Yet, Robert Mugabe would never forget the attempts by the British to deport his wife at a time when she was at her most vulnerable. When his personal entreaties to Britain went unacknowledged for almost a year, the suspicion that neither a Labour nor Conservative government would be prepared to help him topple the Smith government, and install black-majority rule in Zimbabwe, must have hardened. (Indeed, Wilson later famously recounted that he knew the British public would never have countenanced an armed conflict with its “kith and kin” in Rhodesia.)
It was not until 1975 that Mugabe was finally released from prison, and was reunited with his wife in Mozambique, where he had fled to begin a guerrilla war of independence. If anything, however, the years apart had made their relationship stronger, and they set about accomplishing their dream of recreating a free Zimababwe with renewed energy. While he focused on preparing his forces for an armed struggle, his wife found herself in the new role of a mother figure to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees fleeing Smith’s regime. Her efforts later earned her the title Amai (“Mother”).
Five years later, Mugabe became Zimbabwe’s first black Prime Minister, and Sally took her place by his side. As the first lady of Zimababwe, she launched the Zimbabwe Women’s Cooperative in the UK and was an active supporter of other London-based African women’s organisations.
In the early years of Mugabe’s rule, it was his wife who was credited with helping to temper his excesses. She could lighten his mood, said one of his former colleagues, just by entering the room. But the relationship began to falter when they discovered they were unable to have any more children and, as Sally’s health failed, Mugabe began to have affairs.
Sally Mugabe died on 27 January 1992 from kidney failure and four years later Mugabe married his South African mistress, Grace Marufu. Without his first wife there to caution him against his extreme politics, Mugabe began to emerge as a tyrant. But that has not stopped Sally Hayfron from still being remembered affectionately, as the founding mother of the nation of Zimbabwe.
- This article was originally published in 2008 by UK Independent. We republish in the interest of our readers.