Speaking ill of the dead? The uncertain legacy of Robert Mugabe

by Tinashe Nyamunda


Robert Mugabe, 2008. Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock (USAF) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for 37 years, died on 6 September 2019 aged 95. Towards the end of Mugabe’s rule, prophets predicted his imminent death in office while others circulated fake news of his death every new year, but he would always re-emerge from his Christmas holiday still appearing very healthy. In one interview held to commemorate his birthday, he declared he would live past 100, stoking fears that the country would have to endure what appeared to be an indefinite period with him in power. However, as fate would have it, Mugabe died only two years after being deposed in a coup and five years short of a century. In contrast to Mugabe’s ‘political death’ in the 2017 coup, his actual death was not necessarily anticipated and it caught Zimbabweans occupied with the business of navigating through a very rough, dysfunctional economic terrain of military rule in a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The reactions to his death were surprisingly contentious, his legacy has become a hotly debated topic and the history of his time in power is being re-imagined in largely unexpected ways by different people.

Across social and print media, there are multiple narratives, informed by people’s different experiences of Mugabe’s rule. Some perspectives are attempting to rehabilitate what others think is a tainted legacy. Among those who benefited from land reform, there would inevitably be people who are grateful for Mugabe’s land seizures and others who accessed political positions and economic gain from his patronage system. In contrast, the victims and survivors of political violence including the Gukurahundi massacres in which state security forces killed over 20,000 people in the Midlands and Matebeleland provinces, as well as farm seizures, economic collapse, political detention and extrajudicial murders, may feel a sense of denied justice.

Then there are in-between narratives that consider the good and bad aspects of this legacy. Among this group, some view the first part of Mugabe’s rule as a golden age, often connecting it to the time his first wife Sally Mugabe (née Hefron) was still alive. They argue that it was his marriage to his second wife, Grace Mugabe (née Marufu) which triggered his long decline. Yet others suggest that it was in fact in the latter years, especially because of land reform, indigenisation and economic empowerment policies, ZANU PF’s youth empowerment drive, and Mugabe’s confrontational stance against the imperial forces of the global north that rehabilitated the true hero status befitting his image as a national liberator. These perspectives suggest that his record in the 1980s was tainted by his reconciliatory approach towards the former white colonisers both at home and abroad, especially the relations with Britain and the United States.

By the 2000s, Mugabe had squandered what could have been an illustrious career by trying to retain power by any means necessary.

At another level, Mugabe receives a much warmer historical treatment in countries across the continent where he is regarded as an important historical figure of the liberation generation, even by those who acknowledge his mistakes. All of these accounts demonstrate the extent to which history, in the treatment of such leaders can be a murky, messy, sometimes subjective, disruptive and uneven terrain.

Amid the flood of discourses about who Mugabe was to different people, I was forced into questioning what I thought I knew about what Mugabe’s rule represented. I looked up Mugabe’s first interview after independence, and examined whether the fears and aspirations raised in that interview with a BBC reporter were realised and how he navigated them. Those promises of democracy and peaceful co-existence were suspended within a couple of years after independence because of Gukurahundi. The resettlement of landless Africans was initially delayed, only to be revisited in politically motivated chaotic land reform in the 2000s. Corruption, a patronage system, conflict, ethnic, racial and to some extent, class division, all culminated in a multi layered political and economic crisis that endures to date. By the 2000s, Mugabe had squandered what could have been an illustrious career by trying to retain power by any means necessary: witness his ‘my Zimbabwe’ speech directed at Tony Blair which showed how he had personalised and the nation-building project under the guise of fighting against imperialist forces.

Retaining power by any means necessary derailed that nationalist project, with serious implications for Zimbabwean citizens and the region. Getting back on track would be a monumental task. Mugabe’s means of power retention began with the Gukurahundi massacres and continued with the persecution of political opponents in the 2000s when Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) presented the most serious challenge to Mugabe’s rule. Alongside unplanned land seizures, carried out without due process, and politically motivated economic collapse, these actions resulted in more than a quarter of the country’s population leaving. Unemployment breached 90 percent while hyperinflation peaked at 89.7 sextillion percent. The weight of all these challenges produced massive dissent against Mugabe in the years leading up to the coup in November 2017.

Triggered by internal power struggles within ZANU-PF, a party that many had lost confidence in, the coup was greeted with euphoria. Even in the images on international media, Mugabe’s removal from office was treated as a political death, with many expressing relief that they did not have to continue enduring his rule until he would eventually die in office. So, even the anticipation of his death in the years before the coup was replaced by his removal from office and greeted with even more enthusiasm. A few voices, including myself, were very cautious of this development given the legacies of coups in Africa. But during the coup, it suddenly no longer mattered whether ZANU-PF would continue in power, as long as Mugabe was removed. ZANU-PF attempted to regain political capital by claiming that Mugabe had been the problem all along. His successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa gave the impression that his removal would resolve the enduring political and economic crisis and even preached a gospel of re-engagement through declaring that ‘Zimbabwe is [now – own emphasis] open for business’. Even the semantics that it was not the president the coup organisers were after, but the criminals that surrounded him seemed not to matter. The incoming president was accepted by many, even celebrated for standing up to Mugabe. He even inspired renewed optimism and hope, although the MDC leader Nelson Chamisa also commanded a sizeable following.

These past two years of increasing repression and sustained collapse have triggered a narrative in popular and social media that ‘Mugabe was better’.

Yet I could not help but try to imagine whether the mood would have been the same had Mugabe died in 2017. Only two years into the post-coup dispensation, his demise seems to have taken on a very different character from what it might have been in 2017. At the time of the coup, Mugabe was viewed by those who celebrated it, in local and international media as the ultimate villain. But just two years later, for reasons I will now discuss, his image is undergoing some rehabilitation.

Two years into President Mnangagwa’s rule, Zimbabwe is at the threshold of a second round of hyperinflation. Although Zimbabwe since 2008 has officially used only foreign currency, a policy aimed at halting the runaway inflation of the preceding years, the state has responded to a liquidity crisis by printing ‘bond notes’ officially pegged to the US dollar but, in practice, of rapidly diminishing value. Some people have died from the state’s militarised heavy handedness against protestors, for example just after the elections and during protests against petrol price hikes. Any kind of dissent is not tolerated and the crisis in Zimbabwe seems to be taking up a dimension similar to the years that most Zimbabweans would never want to re-live. Indeed, any fears of deepening economic collapse rekindles fears of ‘a return to 2008’, almost as if history is working backwards. But these past two years of increasing repression and sustained collapse have triggered a narrative in popular and social media that ‘Mugabe was better’, with some even saying that they jumped from the frying pan into the fire when they supported the coup.

So, the rehabilitation of Mugabe’s legacy began even before his death, but with the news of his passing, these discourses have come full circle. As Zimbabwe’s situation has taken a turn for the worse the euphoria that greeted the coup has been doused and in some cases overtaken by regret for supporting the coup and giving it legitimacy. But whatever the case is, it may be that some of these temporal circumstances are influencing the kinds of narratives that are being contested as people remember Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe is again faced with having to endure another dictatorship, especially as the current president appears to have hinted that he may still be there even beyond the constitutionally stipulated term of office of 10 years. On the basis of this new constitution, Mnangagwa should be out of office, but many fear that his ‘2030 ne ndichipo [In 2030, I will still be here phrase]’ might be an indication of yet another indefinite period under authoritarian rule.

Will Mugabe’s legacy be rehabilitated and exonerated by history, and his image as the national hero of Zimbabwe and icon of liberation across the continent maintained?

The mixed feelings may in part be down to the Shona-language saying ‘wafawanaka’, meaning that the dead are now exorcised of bad doings and therefore we can only speak of their good deeds. But mostly, the doubts stem from the country’s current circumstances and it is uncertain what perspectives will endure. Will Mugabe’s legacy be rehabilitated and exonerated by history, and his image as the national hero of Zimbabwe and icon of liberation across the continent maintained? Or will he be viewed as the demagogue who derailed the nation-building project of Zimbabwe and presided over displacement, emigration, murder and other ‘mistakes’?

Either way, I will take away my own realities as a Zimbabwean living in South Africa, where foreign nationals are uncertain of their future because of the host nation’s own challenges with nation-building. I, like over 4 million others in the Zimbabwean diaspora across the world, fear the prospect of returning to a country whose prospects are, to say the least, bleak. However some may seek to rehabilitate Mugabe, all those thousands of deaths, the economic collapse, patronage and corruption cannot be dismissed as mere ‘mistakes’. They represent atrocities. So yes, while one cannot speak ill of the departed, it is very difficult to ignore these ‘mistakes’ and the kinds of legacies they will produce for the unforeseeable future.

About the author

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Tinashe Nyamunda is Senior Lecturer in History at Sol Plaatjie University in Kimberley, South Africa, and a former visiting fellow at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cambridge.

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