Armed with steely self-discipline, Mugabe excelled at St. Francis Xavier College, the top high school for blacks in what was then Rhodesia. He also honed a vindictive streak against fellow students who called him a Mama's boy, promising that one day he would get even.
Holland shows in her astute book "Dinner With Mugabe." Once in power, he allowed former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, a man who had jailed him for 11 years, to live freely in newly independent Zimbabwe.
Mugabe was a friend to Rhodesia's last British governor, Lord Soames. He maintained a relationship of respect with Denis Norman, a white farmer who served in his Cabinet. In his first decade in office, he arguably did more to educate and improve the health of his people than any African leader in history.
At 84, Mugabe is becoming more like Smith every day, using violence to batter political opponents yet steadfastly convinced of his own righteousness. After losing the first round of a presidential election in March, he unleashed militias to attack supporters of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has pulled out of this week's runoff.
Zimbabwe's economy is a disaster, with annual inflation running at more than 355,000 percent and unemployment above 80 percent.
Holland, a South African journalist raised in Zimbabwe, peels back the layers of Mugabe's character through a series of interviews with people who know him best: former guerrillas, relatives, Catholic priests and the president himself in a rare encounter. The result is the best attempt yet to understand the mind of Mugabe. Step by step, Holland shows how one of Zimbabwe's most erudite Africans became a paranoid tyrant who has bankrupted his country and brutalized a generation.
"In the end, Robert Mugabe is a disillusioned man surviving on omnipotence and distortion as he approaches the end of his life," she concludes.
Holland shows how Mugabe's childhood taste for revenge has colored his journey from the village of Kutama to the pinnacle of power in Zimbabwe. When leaders from the minority Ndebele tribe challenged his authority in the 1980s, Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained troops, killing tens of thousands in Matabeleland. When some whites backed the opposition in the late 1990s, he let mobs drive them from their farms, sparking economic catastrophe.
"Our present state of mind is that you are now enemies because you really have behaved as enemies of Zimbabwe," Mugabe chillingly told white farmers in a 2000 TV address to mark the 20th anniversary of the country's independence.
Holland, 60, first met Mugabe in 1975, when she allowed a friend to visit him clandestinely at her house. After dinner, she drove him to his train, leaving her toddler alone in the house. The next day, as Mugabe was preparing to go to neighboring Mozambique to join the guerrilla war against Rhodesia, he called her to inquire about the child.
"Dinner With Mugabe" points up several junctures at which Zimbabwe's history might have taken a better turn had Mugabe received a little nudge in the right direction.
When Mugabe cracked down on Matabeleland, for example, much of the world looked the other way, so intense was the desire for Zimbabwe to become an African success story in the shadow of apartheid South Africa. Then in 1997, Clare Short, the British minister in charge of foreign aid, informed Mugabe that Tony Blair's Labor government didn't feel bound by British commitments to fund land reform.
Author Lawrence Vambe, a contemporary of Mugabe's in his home village, says the decisive blow to Mugabe came in 1992, when his first wife, Sally, died of kidney failure.
"Something closed down in him," he told Holland. "He returned to being a lonely, isolated little boy in an old man's body."
Dinner With Mugabe
By Heidi Holland
Penguin Global, 280 pages, $30