Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s death last week was not surprising. At 95, Zimbabwe’s first ruler had exceeded his allotted time of “three score and ten” by a quarter century. As we read in Psalm 90:10, these extra years were characterised by burdensome sorrow, ending his life a defeated and largely reviled former ruler whose star had dimmed years before he “flew away” in a hospital in distant Singapore on September 6.
However, to watch Mugabe riding high, even in his later years, as emperor of a land he had fought to liberate from the apartheid British usurpers, was to behold a man who seemed to challenge the notion of inevitable mortality.
His defiant statement, made in 2008, long after his “use by date”, assuring his people and the world that only God, who had appointed him, would remove him from power, struck a psychologically potent arrow in the collective body of those who had placed their hopes in a democratic change in Zimbabwe.
Even as he stumbled, literally, betrayed by a frail human physiology, Mugabe retained an impressive confidence that had been his trademark since the heady days of the liberation struggle. Had he not been interrupted by his army and vice-president in November 2017, Mugabe would have offered himself for re-election last year and he would have probably “won.”
I first heard of Mugabe in the mid-1970s, when, along with men like Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Herbert Chitepo and Joshua Magama Tongogara, he became a rallying point for our youthful passions for total liberation from European colonial rule. Not even the disappointment with Africa’s post-colonial self-flagellation dimmed our passion for an end to Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), the Portuguese ownership of Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bisau and Capo Verde and the apartheid regime in South Africa and South West Africa.
Whereas his colleagues, like Nkomo and Sithole, had done tremendous work in mobilising international opinion against Rhodesia’s Ian Douglas Smith, their communication skills were completely eclipsed by Mugabe’s command of English that he used with devastating effect.
One looks back, with a sheepish smile, at the irony of admiring an African’s ability to speak Oxford English in the struggle for liberation from British colonialism. However, as I have said many times before, language matters, especially in the world of effective political communication and mobilisation. Mugabe had the gift in spades and, along with his willingness to take up arms against the Europeans, he easily turned us into his cheerleaders. By the time of the Lancaster House Talks in 1979, I was living in Lesotho, an exile from my own independent African country. Military regimes had toppled many “democratically” elected African governments.
Rivers of blood and tears of deep disappointment and fear were flowing over more than half of the liberated parts of Africa. Civilian regimes were holding onto power by force, many of them overseeing the collapse of functioning systems they had inherited from the colonialists.
None of these realities dimmed my excitement as I shared ideas, dreams and hopes with many Rhodesian exiles in Lesotho and as I listened to Mugabe promise Zimbabweans a future in which they would prosper in a free and democratic milieu. For example, as the Zimbabweans awaited the results of their first democratic election in February 1980, Mugabe appealed to his supporters: “Remain calm, respect your opponents and do nothing that will disturb the peace. We must now, all of us, work for unity, whether we have won the election or not.”
Mugabe won and took charge on April 18, 1980, one of the happiest days of my life. When my wife and I visited Zimbabwe in July 1980, three months after independence, we were thrilled and filled with great pride. Everything worked and there was palpable confidence and calm.
But soon things changed within a year of independence. We and others have previously written about Zimbabwe’s descent into terror, mass killings, repression and production of new refugees, all under Mugabe’s watch. Our liberation hero now donned a villainous identity that would remain a dark stain on the many good things he did before and after independence. His eloquent rhetoric, often sounding deliberately cynical, was frequently nullified by his regime’s actions against Zimbabweans. Mugabe, like many African rulers, had the gift of preaching democracy and freedom even as he denied his people those very rights.
But then again, Mugabe was not ruling a typical ex-colony of Britain. He took over a country with an intact apartheid system and a vast agricultural landscape that was mostly owned by descendants of European conquerors who had dispossessed the majority indigenous Zimbabweans. His attempts to redress that injustice was sabotaged by the greed of his party colleagues whose reported appetite for amassing vast tracts of land was at par with that of the British settlers. It was further sabotaged by Britain’s betrayal, midwifed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who cancelled his country’s commitment to fund the purchase of land from the European settlers, a critical measure that had helped secure Mugabe’s signature on the independence agreement in December 1979.
Therefore, the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural wealth and overall economy was a consequence of both external forces and self-inflicted internal wounds of a corrupt elite that appeared to have lacked the capacity to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. Yet it is also very difficult to justify the settlers’ continued occupation of land that was stolen from indigenous Zimbabweans. The short-term pain of a collapsed economy may well be a small price to pay for the independence of future generations.
If I sound conflicted over Mugabe and the Zimbabwe question, it is because I am. I admire his courage in standing up and staring in the eyes of the arrogant men and women in the West who believed that they had exclusive rights to Africa’s wealth. I admire his heroic struggle for independence of his country.
However, I despise his anti-democratic and repressive practices and his foolish belief that he was the only one capable of ruling Zimbabwe. Rulers who hold that view indulge in self-delusion about immortality. Time soon renders them irrelevant, forgotten within years, even months, of their deaths, only remembered for their dark deeds, and a negative legacy that endures long after they have turned to dust.