Robert Mugabe

On the morning of Friday, September 6th, 2019, I woke up to the news of Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s death. I felt nothing. No anger, no elation, no sympathy, no empathy, no pity; nothing. Even to myself, this was a surprising reaction. For most of my life – in fact for all my adult life – the man had loomed large in my consciousness; so large in fact that at one time, a Zimbabwe without R G Mugabe as president seemed inconceivable! Yet, here I was, trying hard to define what I felt about his dying, and finding nothing.

Well, perhaps there was a feeling of sadness, that what should have been the closing chapter of a difficult period in the history of a country that has seen nothing but difficult periods, had been overtaken by the events of November 2017 and a new chapter had opened even before the old one closed. How, I asked myself, would R G Mugabe be remembered? What legacy, if any, had he left behind?

In the 19th century, someone came up with a theory called “The ‘Great Man’ Theory of History”, which suggested that throughout the ages, the course of history has been changed by ‘great men’ whose greatness is in the impact – positive or negative –  that they will have had on a society and its trajectory thereafter. By this definition, R G Mugabe is indeed a great man- at least in Zimbabwe. Not only was he part of a small group of men that had the temerity to challenge a well organised minority government that had somehow managed to cow the rest of the population into submission. Waging a war against a well armed, well trained foe, he went on to become the first leader of an independent Zimbabwe and for nearly four decades, was captain of a ship that navigated waters that got more and more treacherous; holding on, even as the ship began to disintegrate all about him. Sadly, just as the vessel threatened to completely break up, a mutiny within his own ranks took him off the ship and left him on a desert island. But he had set the course, and try as they may, his successors continue on that course. How will he be remembered?

For the people of Matebeleland, he will be remembered for Gukurahundi, the brutal war of attrition he waged against a section of his own people. The world watched apparently helplessly, as thousands of people in that region and parts of the Midlands were terrorised, maimed, raped and butchered by an army led by their erstwhile liberators. It is perhaps a measure of the man that the nearest he came to apologising for the atrocities committed in the name of fighting dissidents was to call it “a moment of madness”, the possible title for my next novel. If indeed it was madness, then it lasted much longer than the three of four years of Gukurahundi. Less documented or commented upon, his treatment of opposition, even within his own ranks during the ‘war of liberation’ has been hinted on by the few who dare speak out; and the brutal methods used by his soldiers to gain the ‘support ‘of the populace, which included public executions of ‘sell outs’ were only a precursor to what was to come in Matebeleland!

Even after Gukurahundi, the rest of the country – most of whom had seen Gukurahundi as a regional problem of the Ndebeles –  got their own taste of the man’s brutality during election times! Electoral intimidation, which started with the man threatening to ‘go back to war’ if he did not win the first universal elections in 1980, and carried on with the infamous youth brigades, and later on the green bombers, was fully unleashed after the Constitutional referendum in 2000 which saw the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) successfully campaigning against a flawed constitution. The elections later on that year and subsequent elections in 2005, 2008 (When teams were sent out to ‘educate’ – with violence –  those in areas that had voted for the opposition which had won the first round) and 2013, were characterised by abductions, beatings, torture and killing of opposition activists.

Of course he will also be remembered for the violent “Fast Track” land reform which saw the violent takeover of white owned farms. But here, we saw the genius of the man. The redistribution was something that most Zimbabweans supported. Seeing that the opposition was gaining ground fast, he made the move which took the momentum away from them. Who would not want ‘free’ land, regardless of how it came about? Of course the results of making such a crucial policy decision on political rather than economic and long term sustainability considerations are plain for all to see. It served the short term purposes for Mr Mugabe, but has left the country in an economic mess that will be difficult to get out of. And the ‘Land Question’ remains unresolved. More people want land than what is available especially as corruption and patronage meant that not all who deserved it got land; and many who did not deserve it got more than their fair share. But it served Mr Mugabe’s purposes and that is all that mattered to the man.

Of all his many attribute, I think that the one he will be remembered most for is his eloquence.  Whether at such fora as the United Nations – where he always spoke up for Africa –  or addressing a rally in his native Shona, Mugabe had a way with words that made him difficult to ignore. But his eloquence was at its magnificent best when he felt insulted and hit back. He could ridicule the opposition with a well chosen phrase as easily as he could insult world leaders whose stance on such matters as gay rights and colonialism he disagreed with!

Perhaps he will be remembered as the great pan Africanist visionary that his speeches at international fora suggested, but many Zimbabweans could not see his vision through teary eyes as they mourned for loved ones that perished in unclear circumstances under his leadership. Perhaps he will be seen as the ideologue who started out with good intentions but lost his way. Alas, many Zimbabweans – the majority, in fact, are too young to remember those times. Perhaps a time will come when the people of Zimbabwe will rue the fact that he was removed so unceremoniously from power – as some already seem to be, apparently forgetting that we could possibly now be faced with the prospect of being ruled by the Amazing Grace! Perhaps time will heal the gaping wounds and remove the culture of fear that characterises life in Zimbabwe today. When that time comes, we may yet see the value of having had a leader like him, and call him great.

But I worry about Zimbabwe. The settler government was brutally cruel to its black population. So brutal that we celebrated its demise with utmost enthusiasm; yet after a few years of independence, they were many who wished we could go back there. Robert Mugabe’s regime was as brutal, and again, when he was removed in 2017, we had the world’s largest street party, celebrating the end of tyranny. Already, there are voices being raised to say he was probably a better leader. We seem to want to go back to what we know, even if it was not good. Is it perhaps because we have no experience of what is good? Why do we not aspire to be in a country with good governance; a country where human rights are respected; where our votes are respected; where the economy works and our children want to make their lives here?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart