Glowing tributes of Zimbabwe’s strongman and former longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, have been pouring in since he died Friday morning. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta called Mugabe a “shining beacon of Africa’s liberation,” while South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “We remember him as a towering leader of a struggle for independence of the people of Zimbabwe” and “as an outstanding leader on the African continent.”
This praise may come as a surprise, particularly in the West, given Mugabe’s infamous record of human rights abuses. Yet the glaring reality is that, for Zimbabweans, Mugabe’s legacy is more complicated than many abroad would think. He was a liberator who turned into an oppressor — and both sides are being remembered after his passing.
To many in Africa, Mugabe was a revolutionary who freed his people and reclaimed land from the colonialists to give to native Zimbabweans. He was a great orator and an unwavering leader who promoted an empowerment and education agenda. The law professor and politician Lovemore Madhuku — a man who has long opposed Mugabe through his organization, the National Constitutional Assembly — had this to say about Mugabe’s education policies: “My parents are poor peasants in Chipinge. They could not have afforded to pay for my university education. Under the leadership of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the government of an independent Zimbabwe paid for my university education. My generation benefited from that vision.” Others — whether they supported Mugabe or not — will no doubt relate.
This is the memory President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government is honoring by naming Mugabe a national hero and announcing a mourning period until his burial. Kenya, too, announced three days of mourning for the “icon.” In Shona (one of Zimbabwe’s vernacular languages), we have a saying that goes “afa anaka,” which loosely translates to the way someone can become a saint after they pass on, whether or not they deserve it. We can certainly see this happening with Mugabe already.
But Mugabe didn’t always practice what he advocated for, and his methods could be brutal. He was known for ruling with an iron fist and exhibiting a gross disregard for human rights. His government was implicated in reports of abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings, including the notorious Gukurahundi massacre of thousands, that have yet to be resolved. Luke Tamborinyoka — a politician who has served as the spokesman for the late Morgan Tsvangirai, who led the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change during Mugabe’s brutal regime — calls being in opposition during the Mugabe era “a tenuous experience. ... There was so much brutality, there was so much violence against the people of Zimbabwe.”
Mugabe maintained a firm grip on power through a complex system of patronage, jealously guarded by the elites who surrounded him. This system unfairly rewarded those who supported him and persecuted those who did not. It has come to be known as Mugabeism — and while its namesake may be gone, the underlying system remains intact.
He also left the country in economic disarray, with extraordinarily high levels of inflation, unemployment and shortages of food. His passing comes in a week when Zimbabweans living in neighboring South Africa were victims of xenophobic attacks. This is a reminder of the thousands of Zimbabweans who fled to South Africa as economic refugees, forced to leave their homes in search of greener pastures. There are millions more scattered around the world who escaped Mugabe’s rule for economic or political reasons.
His death in Singapore, a country he frequented for medical attention, is testimony to Zimbabwe’s poor quality of health care. Ironically, doctors in Zimbabwe have not been reporting for duty this week, citing lack of pay. Even as many remember Mugabe the liberation figure, this grim reality is the Zimbabwe he left behind.
Perhaps the mixed reactions that have greeted Mugabe’s death — even from within Zimbabwe’s corridors of power — are fitting for such a polarizing figure. But as the dust settles on the inevitable mourning and denunciation, Zimbabwe is not any better than it was under Mugabe. At the end of the day, Zimbabweans are still waiting for the same thing they hoped for during his rule: a brighter Zimbabwe where jobs, freedom and human rights are respected.