Book Review: The Odd Man In – Mugabe’s White Hand Man by Denis Norman

The Odd Man In by Denis Norman

The Odd Man In by Denis Norman

The Odd Man In, understated and direct, reaches out to all Zimbabweans. It is a respectful testimony by a man who served as an independent government minister for seventeen years in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

It is a record of events from the inside.

Denis Norman, signing books at the Oxford Launch of The Odd Man In (photograph by Georgie Knaggs)

Denis Norman, signing books at the Oxford Launch of The Odd Man In (photograph by Georgie Knaggs)

I went to the Oxford launch of the book in mid-September. It was a dignified, and quietly emotional hour with friends, family and the interested there to watch as the memoir, first written out page by page in fountain pen, found its printed wings.

Denis Norman, born in England, has packed a huge amount into his over 80 years of life, spent mostly in what is now Zimbabwe, where he earned himself the nickname ‘Nothing Wrong Norman’.

His book is a sure-footed, brief analysis of those years. It follows the author’s life from his boyhood in Oxford, to one of farming, family and public office in the new Zimbabwe.

The time is tumultuous but he makes his way through it with his focus held firmly on the actions and anecdotes he wishes to recall. There is loss and criticism, praise and pain, but all are part of the energy that moves the memoir from one experience to the next. There is no wallowing.

The post-war years in Oxford have little luxury, nor do his beginnings as a manager on farms in Africa, but he does find himself a lovely, local wife and soon they are running a farm of their own.

“There was no electricity, and a very poor water supply. We were back to paraffin-burning fridges, a wood-burning stove, and light provided by paraffin-burning lamps.”

Slowly the family grows, but so does the trouble brewing in the background. In 1965 the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) frustrates those calling for change, and:

“…the first armed excursions into the community occurred. This had a growing impact on the lives of most people in the country for the next fourteen years.”

This statement, as brief as it gets, leads us on to the Lancaster House negotiations:

“…to many observers, it was considered to be the last chance to obtain a reasonable agreement which would satisfy or pacify all political shades of opinion, despite in many quarters hopes not being very high.”

The talks, attended in part by Denis Norman, did, eventually beat the odds and result in fresh elections, which in turn led to the government of Robert Mugabe. Shortly afterwards Denis Norman was persuaded to become the new government’s first Minister of Agriculture.

There are successes, frustrations, visits and visitors, together with two other ministerial roles. Denis Norman’s first and last are as Minister of Agriculture, serving as Minister of Energy, and then Transport in between.

“During this time I worked closely with Robert Mugabe, and witnessed his initial pragmatism and inclusiveness deteriorate over time through corruption, bad judgement and ill-advice.”

Two thirds of the way through the book the author, appointed Minister of Transport in 1990, takes us to Matabeleland where he discovers no new capital projects have been developed in the region since independence. He is horrified:

“…unfortunately, as Matabeleland was a predominantly ZAPU supporting province, it was not favourably considered for capital development projects.”

A chilling footnote adds that at the time Denis Norman had no knowledge of Gukurahundi:

“…an onslaught by the Fifth Brigade, during which many thousands of people were killed.”

As the decade progresses Zimbabwe begins to stall, and in 1997 Denis Norman decides it is time to resign from the government.

He uses the final two chapters of the book to look back at his last years on the farm, and at his government service.

His thoughts in this section are interspersed with the “mayhem and destruction caused by marauding gangs of thugs” who invade the farms during the land invasions which rolled across Zimbabwe at the turn of the millennium.

This part of the book is satisfyingly direct.

“On the upside, following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had made steady, if not spectacular, progress as a nation. Many of its social services such as health and education had expanded, bringing enhanced benefits to the people.”

Then the expanding civil service gets a mention:

“The whole decision-making process within the country began to slow down, as those who should have been responsible for keeping the wheels of government turning, were incapable of doing so, either through idleness or incompetence.”

So too does the military operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the increased “insidious and malicious” influence of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association.

It is a lot to fit in to such an accessible book, but Denis Norman covers a great deal.

Is he hopeful about the future? Yes, he is…particularly about farming:

“…I think much could be achieved over a ten-year recovery period. Agriculture was, and could become once again, the pivotal industry in the country.”

Finally, and despite all the personal upheaval, he ends the book with the following:

“I wish Zimbabwe well and remain confident that the country will not only regain its political and economic stability, but will develop and exploit its abundant natural resources, whether they be mineral, agricultural or human, to the benefit of all its citizens, and the central African region as a whole.”

It seems there is nothing that can stop ‘Nothing Wrong Norman.’

Worth a read? Definitely. This record of events written with such careful clarity by an outsider on the inside is like a torch in a long, dark tunnel. I found it a great help in my struggle to understand.

Three further book launches are scheduled:

  • 11.30am Saturday 6 October:        Gallery Delta, Harare, Zimbabwe
  • 11am – 1pm Tuesday 9 October:   Bryanston Country Club, Jo’burg, South Africa
  • 12noon – 2pm Friday 12 October: Westlake Golf Club, Cape Town, South Africa

The Odd Man In – Mugabe’s White Hand Man by Denis Norman
Published by Weaver Press Limited
Box A1922, Avondale, Harare, Zimbabwe
ISBN 978-1-77922-355-7(p/b)

ISBN 978-1-77922-366-4(e-book)
UK price £22.00

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

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