The death of Robert Mugabe, the 95-year-old former president of Zimbabwe, last Friday elicited a mixed and somewhat subdued response from Zimbabweans.
Mugabe who passed on in Singapore’s Gleneagles Hospital, is said to have died a very bitter man. The hero turned tyrant was overthrown by the military in 2017 and was succeeded by the former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, a long-serving veteran of Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation wars who had always been viewed as a likely successor.
Abandoned by his father as a boy, Mugabe was raised a Catholic and educated at missionary schools, he moved to Fort Hare University in South Africa for the first of his seven degrees and became a teacher in Ghana.
When he returned to the then Rhodesia in 1960, his political activism earned him a 10-year prison term for “subversive speech”, after which he fled to neighbouring Mozambique to lead the guerrilla forces of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) – which had split from Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) – in a protracted war against Ian Smith’s government that left 27,000 dead.
When Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980, in his famous inaugural address, he urged Zimbabweans to “to forget our grim past, forgive and forget.” He gained greater popularity as his government embarked on huge social spending programs, which included the creation of an excellent education system. He announced a policy of reconciliation and invited whites to help rebuild the country. “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend,” he told them. “If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you.”
But Mugabe swiftly moved to consolidate power. In 1982, arms believed to belong to former guerrilla fighters associated with Joshua Nkomo, a key leader in the liberation struggle and a contender to being the first black prime minister of the country, were found. Mr. Mugabe stripped Mr. Nkomo, who came from the Ndebele minority group, of his cabinet post and accused him of plotting a coup.
The optimism began to sour in 1997, when Mugabe gave in to pressure from war veterans waging violent protests for pensions. Trade unions and political activists began organising what would become the first viable political threat to Mugabe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But it was partly bankrolled by white farmers, which allowed Mugabe to whip up militancy against it.
In 2000 Mugabe began a land reform programme, billed as an attempt to correct the unresolved colonialist legacy by giving white-owned farms to landless black people. Many saw it as a crude attempt to sideline the MDC, which commanded wide support among farm workers.
White farmers were forcibly evicted by self-styled war veterans, many too young ever to have fought in the liberation war, and their properties handed to Zanu-PF cronies or black Zimbabweans who lacked the skills and capital to farm.
The ensuing chaos undermined the economy, which shrank to half the size it had been in 1980. The one-time “breadbasket of Africa” became dependent on foreign aid to feed its masses. Hyperinflation turned the national currency into a standing joke – a hamburger cost 15m Zimbabwe dollars – and it had to be abolished as the US dollar became the de facto currency.
By 2000, veterans of the liberation war were fed up with the Mugabe government’s refusal to deliver fundamental land reform. On Easter weekend in 2000, 170,000 black families occupied 3,000 farms owned by white farmers. Mugabe’s government, seeing the occupation’s popularity with Zimbabweans, formalized it as its fast-track land redistribution program.
Like Nelson Mandela, he was a ‘prison graduate’, having spent 10 years in a Rhodesian jail. The experience taught him remarkable self-possession to contain his anger at private personal tragedy, racial and social injustice in Rhodesia and its delayed transition to black majority rule.
An intellectual shaped by his Jesuit education and his Marxist beliefs, there was a remarkable consistency to his thinking, despite the fact that the rest of the world and the international political economy had moved on, he resolutely refused to do so. A bibliophile – even as Zimbabwe’s leader – he would fly incognito to London to browse the bookshelves of Dillons bookshop. An eloquent and charismatic speaker, he tailored his message according to his audience, and ensured that these resonated directly with the hopes and aspirations of his listeners.
Mugabe was a deeply complex and contradictory individual. He was a dedicated revolutionary, who deeply admired the Queen and appreciated Savile Row suits. As a political manipulator, he consolidated his personal power through structures and personalities, through rivals and antagonists who ‘worked towards the leader’. And as a political manager, he oversaw ZANU-PF’s policies as a rural-based movement, which produced Zimbabwe’s deprivation but presented itself through largesse, food handouts and access to land for voters as the solution.
Knighted and stripped
Mugabe was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen then stripped of the honour in 2008 and subjected to targeted sanctions that prevented him travelling to Britain and other countries, an insult he never forgave. The former colonial power shaped his dress code, manners and vision to the end. He loves the place and its character, its mannerisms.
He will be remembered for all the events that have taken place during his latter period in power: the land invasions, the rigged elections, the beatings in the townships and the ineptitude of the courts.
Mugabe’s softer side of his nature was rarely if ever seen, but it certainly used to exist, along with a warm sense of humour which inspired a number of meme and hilarious quotes on social media. Here are a few of his famous quotes.
“Africa must revert to what it was before the imperialists divided it. These are artificial divisions which we, in our pan-African concept, will seek to remove.” - Speech at Salisbury, 1962
“We ask, was he born out of homosexuality? We need continuity in our race, and that comes from the woman, and no to homosexuality. John and John, no; Maria and Maria, no. They are worse than dogs and pigs. I keep pigs and the male pig knows the female one.” - ZDC radio interview, 2015.
“I have died many times - that’s where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once.” - To state radio on his 88th birthday
On grooming a successor
“Grooming a successor, is it an inheritance? In a democratic party, you don’t want leaders appointed that way. They have to be appointed properly by the people.” - TV interview, 2016