Robert Mugabe 1924 – 2019

Mugabe as reviled and revered in death as in life

By Peter Fabricius 6 September 2019

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaking to the media at his residence in the suburb of Borrowdale, Harare, Zimbabwe, 15 March 2018. EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI

Robert Mugabe, first leader of a democratic Zimbabwe, has died aged 95 in a Singapore Hospital, as he lived, highly divisive.

Back in Africa many people, mostly black, mourned the passing of a liberation hero who led his country to independence from colonial power Britain in 1980 and who continued to defy it and the rest of the Western world after independence as they opposed his policies.

On Friday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa mourned “the passing of a liberation hero and champion of Africa’s cause against colonialism.” He said under Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe’s liberation movement had supported South Africa’s liberation movement “to fight oppression on multiple fronts.”

Ace Magashule’s ANC went further, hailing Mugabe as a “new African” who had shrugged off the colonial yoke and placed Zimbabwe in its rightful place among nations.

Many others, mostly – but by no means exclusively – white, though not current political leaders, remembered him as a brutal dictator who ruthlessly crushed political opponents and presided over the economic and social destruction of a once-prosperous country.

MDC leader Nelson Chamisa chose to be respectful to the family, saying that in the spirit of ubuntu, the party wanted to defer a full analysis of Mugabe’s career until after the period of mourning.

On Friday morning Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa – who had toppled Mugabe in a November 2017 coup – announced the death of his predecessor in a Tweet:

It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President Cde (Comrade) Robert Mugabe.

Cde Mugabe was an icon of liberation, a pan-Africanist who dedicated his life to the emancipation and empowerment of his people. His contribution to the history of our nation and continent will never be forgotten. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

Mnangagwa had reportedly told the inner circle of Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu- PF party two weeks ago that Mugabe had stopped receiving treatment for his illness, which was reportedly cancer.

It was ironic that he died far away from his beloved Zimbabwe – in a foreign hospital, a testament to the destruction of Zimbabwe’s own health services – along with almost all other public services – that he had presided over in his 37 years of rule.

As he lay dying, Zimbabwe’s hospitals were once again crippled by a doctor’s strike.

Mugabe, both a hero and a villain, depending on your point of view, will be remembered differently by different people. Alongside Josh Nkomo’s Zapu, the fighters of his Zanu forced Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government to surrender power in 1980. Having won the 1980 elections and become Prime Minister he turned on Nkomo and Zapu, sending the now-notorious North Korean Fifth Brigade into Nkomo’s Matabeleland stronghold in 1983 to crush political resistance by killing thousands of civilians.

A defeated Nkomo was later absorbed into what then became the Zanu Patriotic Front government, as a token vice-president.

Mugabe was later to deal with any attempts at political opposition in much the same brutal way, including repression against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) the greatest threat to his and Zanu-PF’s grip on power, when it emerged in 1999.

Zimbabwe’s whites and most of the Western world will certainly remember Mugabe for his violent seizure of white farms that began in February 2000 and over the next few years forced some 4000 farmers from farm land which was then distributed among party cronies and peasants.

The effect was to precipitate the plunge of the economy into a nosedive from which it has never recovered. Nearly two years after the army stepped in to remove Mugabe from power when it looked as though he was trying to install his young wife Grace as his successor, Mnangagwa is still trying to repair a shattered economy.

The pugnacious, audacious and ruthless Mugabe succeeded in fending off death and political defeat by a vast array of enemies, domestic and foreign, during his long political career, first in the highlands of neighbouring Mozambique where Zanu was in exile and after assuming power in Harare – which until then had been called Salisbury.

His longevity and seemingly interminable grip on power in the end had become rather a grim joke, even to himself. While he was in office, journalists and others covering Zimbabwe were constantly besieged by reports of his demise that had to be painstakingly checked out and inevitably disproven.

Mugabe once remarked in response to the latest rumour of his passing, that “Only God who appointed me will remove me,”. In a speech before the African Union in 2016 he said he would remain in office “until God says ‘Come’”.

At the time that seemed all too depressingly likely, which was why his health became such an issue.

In the end it was not God – or perhaps God acting in mysterious ways – but one of Mugabe’s closest, once most trusted and longest-serving lieutenants, Zimbabwe’s deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had fought alongside him in the bush and served in his cabinet, who ousted him. And it was his second wife Grace, his former secretary some 40 years his junior, who precipitated his fall.

In the midst of a bitter succession struggle within Zanu PF in 2017, in which Grace at least formally led one faction and Mnangagwa another. Apparently at her behest, Mugabe fired Mnangagwa on November 6th. On November 14th armoured vehicles ordered by Mnangagwa’s main military backer, army chief General Constantino Chiwenga, surrounded Mugabe’s residence and forced him to retire in a de facto military coup which was never acknowledged as such.

Mugabe and Grace were allowed to continue living their lives in freedom and comfort to maintain the illusion.

South Africa has always had a close though often fraught relationship with Zimbabwe and Mugabe. The old apartheid government unsurprisingly gave strong military and political support to Ian Smith’s government in fighting Zanu and Zapu. But South African Prime Minister John Vorster – in a bid to buy time for his own country – pulled the plug on Smith in 1979 by forcing him to begin negotiations with his opponents.

During the 1980s the National Party apartheid government did its best to destabilise Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, launching dirty operations against ANC operatives and others in the country.

Ironically, the ANC’s assumption of power in 1994 did not completely heal relations. Democratic South Africa’s first President Nelson Mandela did not get on well with Mugabe. Mugabe clearly resented being upstaged as the de-facto leader of Southern Africa. Mandela fought a long bitter fight to wrest Mugabe’s control of the security apparatus of the regional inter-governmental organisation, the Southern African Development Community.(SADC)

After Mugabe incurred the wrath of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the rest of the West by allowing the illegal seizure of white farms and cracking down on the political opposition, the ANC quietly suggested to Zanu PF that it should put up another presidential candidate in the 2002 presidential elections.

Zanu PF of course refused, Mugabe ran and won again, provoking a plethora of Western sanctions and taking Zimbabwe further down the road to isolation and economic decline.

Mbeki, however, came to regard Mugabe and ZanuPF not primarily as a destructive force in Zimbabwe but more of a benevolent force resisting neo-colonial efforts by Britain, especially, to seize control of the country through a proxy MDC.

Despite all the odds against it, the MDC somehow managed to defeat Zanu PF in the 2008 legislative elections and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai also defeated Mugabe in the presidential elections, though, officially at least, without the simple, 50% majority demanded by the constitution.

A presidential re-run election was called but Zanu PF, startled by its unexpected electoral defeats, mounted a nationwide campaign of violence against MDC supporters. This forced Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second election, giving Mugabe an uncontested victory.

This outcome was too much, even for the usually supine SADC, which ordered Mbeki to go in and mediate a negotiated settlement between Zanu PF and the MDC. As a result of his efforts, in 2009 an unsatisfactory government of national unity took office, in which ZanuPF and Mugabe retained all the hard power and the MDC controlled only softer portfolios like finance and health.

The GNU nonetheless helped stabilise the economy in particular where runaway inflation had run to 230-million percent and depreciation of the Zimbabwe dollar had plummeted to about 80-trillion to the US dollar, were halted by scrapping the local currency in favour of a basket comprising mainly the US dollar and the SA Rand. Unemployment exceeded 80 percent.

Mugabe, once considered an austere Catholic, immune to the corruption white anting his country, had also seemingly become corrupted by his high-spending wife Grace, famous for shopping sprees in expensive foreign countries. The Mugabes were revealed to have personally acquired several of the farms seized from white farmers, including a very lucrative diary.

In 2013 the unity government was dissolved and Zanu-PF soundly defeated the MDC in elections, the integrity of which, however, was disputed by the MDC and many observers.

Mugabe was sworn into office for the last time, though he did not know it, announcing on national TV in February 2017 that he would run again in 2018 because that’s what Zimbabweans wanted. “They want me to stand for elections; they want me to stand for elections everywhere in the party,” he said. “The majority of the people feel that there is no replacement, successor, who to them is acceptable, as acceptable as I am.”

He added, “The people, you know, would want to judge everyone else on the basis of President Mugabe as the criteria.”

Instead they turned out on the streets in vast numbers on November 14 to celebrate his ouster.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 Feb 1924 at the Kutuma Mission Village in Southern Rhodesia’s Zvimba district, north of the capital Salisbury, one of six children of his father Gabriel.

He was educated by Catholic missionaries, who instilled in him the austere, studious demeanour which later was to conceal a steely determination and readiness to resort to violence.

His father abandoned the family when Mugabe was 10, according to the late Heidi Holland’s biography “Dinner With Mugabe”.

He earned his first degree at South Africa’s Fort Hare Academy, alma mater of Nelson Mandela and many other regional leaders. Mugabe would eventually hold degrees in education, law, administration and economics.

The impact of India’s independence, and the example of Gandhi and Nehru, had a deep effect,” Mugabe told The New York Times about this period, in an interview just before Zimbabwe’s independence. “Apartheid was beginning to take shape. Marxism-Leninism was in the air.”

From then on I wanted to be a politician,” he said.

Mugabe taught in Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was then called, and Ghana, where he met Sally Hayfron, who would become his first wife.

He returned to what was still Southern Rhodesia in 1960. He soon became publicity secretary of the National Democratic Party, led by Josh Nkomobut and in 1963 lead a militant breakaway, with the Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, to form ZANU.

In 1964 Mugabe, Sithole and many other political activists were arrested and began prison terms that would last 11 years.

While Mugabe was in prison, his only child died in Ghana. Smith’s government refused to let him out to attend the funeral. This fuelled a deep resentment which emerged later in his dealing with white Zimbabweans, many believe, though he himself claimed he had gotten over it.

After his release in 1974 he fled to Mozambique and took control of ZANU after Sithole had been ousted as party leader for being too conciliatory.

It was from Mozambique that he conducted ZANU’s guerrilla war against Smith’s Rhodesia, while Nkomo battled it from Zambia. Though the Rhodesian and many Western governments depicted Mugabe as a more extreme Marxist and a more dangerous enemy than Nkomo’s Zapu, it was the latter which probably committed greater atrocities in the liberal war, such as the shooting down of two civilian passenger aircraft. Analysts believe Mugabe never personally joined combat in the liberation war.

In 1979 the beleaguered Smith government was forced into British-brokered negotiations with a reluctant Mugabe [who thought he could win the war outright], Nkomo and other political leaders which culminated in the Lancaster House peace agreement in London in late 1979.

Mugabe was not entirely happy with the outcome, particularly because he had been forced to agree to a moratorium on the seizure of the land, owned predominantly by whites. Britain compensated with an offer to finance the purchase of white farms but this deal faded in controversy, setting the stage for the violent land grab starting in 2000.

Mugabe nonetheless convincingly won the first democratic elections of 1980, securing 57 of 100 seats in Parliament and becoming prime minister.

He began office sounding like a future Mandela, preaching reconciliation with his defeated enemies. But that attitude lasted only as long as those enemies were content to remain defeated. At the first sign of a challenge, just three years later in Matabeleland, Mugabe showed his true colours and his deeply-held conviction that he was destined to rule until God decreed otherwise.

Among those who expressed condolences at his death were regional organisations like the African Union. It was a remarkable tribute to Mugabe’s unflagging popularity on the Continent – despite his destruction of his own country – that he continued to be given high honours, such as the chair of SADC in 2014 and the AU in 2015.

Just a month before his ouster, the World Health Organisation, under its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, named Mugabe, destroyer of Zimbabwe’s own health services, as a “good-will ambassador.”

The WHO was forced to reverse the decision after a global outcry.

The WHO’s gesture remains, though, as a rather depressing testimony to the fact that even so late in his career –and indeed until the present –Mugabe’s destructive policies over perhaps the last two decades of his tenure were not enough to erase his anti-colonial legacy, in the minds of so many people, especially on this Continent. That is a measure of how strong the anti-colonial sentiment remains. 

But Brian Raftopoulos, Research Fellow, International Studies Group, at the University of Free State and long an astute observer of Mugabe and his politics, perhaps best sums up the man and that issue like this; 

 “For many Zimbabweans, Mugabe will remain a contested figure. For those who lived through the humiliations of settler colonialism, his strident critique of its legacies will continue to resonate. However, his often essentialist and exclusivist assertions of national belonging and authoritarian intolerance of dissent will be a reminder that an anti-imperialist critique that negates a democratic political project remains unacceptable.”

For many Zimbabweans on Friday, it was business as usual as they continued with their daily struggle to survive.

Patrick Chiwalo based in Harare said he was old, his time was up and his death showed he was just as human as everyone else. “But I will always remember him for not giving others a chance to lead the country,” said Chiwalo.

Dr Andrew Manyawu, an executive Dean of International Relations at the Midlands State University described him as “an ambitious man who lived a life that was good for himself at our expense, the people he used to get to the feeding trough”.

Danmore Maderadzana who is now based in South African but whose family was in Harare, said “I can’t celebrate the death of a fellow black man but this man is responsible for our suffering, which we are still feeling now.”

He added that Mugabe had been a liberator but had lost his way.

The former president’s death left some conflicted.

Carl Moyo said the death of the long serving president of Zimbabwe leaves him conflicted as a part of him is sad for his family and the fact that the country had lost its first democratic president.

The other part has no sympathy on the passing on of Mugabe who brutalised people, destroyed many livelihoods and killed many more. If not for him and his policies some of the Zimbabweans would most likely be living happily in our motherland not in the diaspora,” Moyo said.

Obert Masaraure, the President of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) also expressed mixed feelings.

Mugabe legacy has two sides, the immense contribution towards independence of the country and his black empowerment initiatives. However, they were dwarfed by the other side of corruption, authoritarianism and nepotism which bought our country to its knees,” said Masaraure. DM

Additional reporting by Sally Nyakanyanga in Zimbabwe.

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