For better or worse, at 95 Robert Mugabe finally dies leaving a complex legacy

Robert Mugabe dies

I woke up early on Friday 6 September 2019 with the social media buzz on my WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter on the death of Robert Mugabe, the long-time serving former president of Zimbabwe. Previously, during his days as president, Robert Mugabe died many times especially in January of every year. It became common to think Robert Mugabe as one with nine lives. Now he is no more, what else can I think of except to take a retrospection on the life and times of Robert Mugabe? Should I be happy or sad? It is against my Ubuntu teachings of course to think negatively especially after the death of an elder. In our Shona vernacular the elders say Wafa Wanaka (we are not to speak ill of the dead). On the contrary, the same Shona elders also say rufu haruzivishe (death doesn’t matter). In short, I find myself caught in-between as sad and good memories are all invoked on the personality of Robert Mugabe.

I was born and raised in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

In historical terms, grand narratives were interpreted along street parlance of nyika yavaMugabe (Mugabe’s country). Growing up in such a Zimbabwe, I remember vividly my interest in seeing Robert Mugabe at a tender age. I was only 12 years when I successfully made efforts to sneak into Chibuku Stadium back in 2002. Robert Mugabe had come for a political rally and I knew I wouldn’t be allowed entrance into the stadium. At that age I had also learned in Social studies of his heroism in the independence of the country.

Watching television at that age, I remember I could also sing the famous hondo yeminda jingles. More interesting, behind the hondo yeminda jingles, I was already aware of Robert Mugabe’s sloganeering at Chibuku stadium was on Ivhu Kuvanhu (land to the people). I was to learn later on as an undergraduate in the department of History at the University of Zimbabwe that in 2002, the theme for the 2002 elections was the land is the economy and the economy is the land.

What I still remember again when I had snuck into Chibuku stadium was that Robert Mugabe’s appearance on the stage gave me an intense excitement which I can’t explain even to this day. I was happy to have seen the popular figure who was adorned on many T-shirts, caps and dresses that the party supporters were wearing. It was of course colourful. Green, yellow, green, red and white decorated colours were appealing. And yes, Elliot Manyika also accompanied the president on this occasion. The stadium was packed to full capacity and other people even failed to make it inside. Making his speech, Robert Mugabe expressed his joys and challenges with Chitungwiza party cadres (ZANU-PF) towards the impending 2002 elections. His main issue was that Chitungwiza party true cadres were not supposed to disappoint the spirit medium of the great Chaminuka. To avoid disappointing the spirit of Chaminuka, the people had to vote for the ruling party ZANU-PF.

On the same occasion, the now late Morgan Tsvangirai was described as one not to be voted into power. Voting for him was viewed as equivalent to selling out the country to former colonisers (the British government). I went home of course happy that I had seen the president in person (I mean of course being among the party supporters). I was also fortunate enough to have seen my elder brother inside the stadium. He was angry that I had followed him into the stadium but it was now too late to take me outside, except to monitor my movements as closely as possible. Our parents had gone to work and they didn’t know about all these movements.

I was to see Robert Mugabe again three years later at an official opening of High school computers at Zengeza 4 High School. I was then attending my secondary education at Seke One High school. By then I didn’t know of political violence. I was to learn that when I was now doing my advanced levels, stories of people beaten up of the opposition MDC was happening. The 2008 elections which were popularly known with the slogan, 27 June vaMugabe mu office (27 June Mugabe in office). This was prior to the contested harmonized March elections in 2008. I was now learning much faster and better about History as a subject and life in general. My father had passed away a year earlier and my mother a cross border trader in South Africa would send groceries for us to survive. She was to die in September 2010 back in Zimbabwe (MHSRP).

I was now seeing other young people of my age and below 16 years forcing even some adults to sing party songs. Those adults who failed to respond so well were sometimes beaten or forced to sit down until the young boys allowed them to go. I was learning of the Reign of terror at school under the course of the French Revolution. I was now conscious of the use of terror to gain votes by Robert Mugabe. Public speaking skills as a manipulative tool was another feature I remember to have understood at that stage. On his political sleeve were many tools employed to remain in power, the anti-sanctions discourse, religious appeal, the Look East policy, naming and labelling opposition party politics, abductions, torture on his enemies (perceived and imagined) among others.

Just close to our family home was another guy in the name of Langton who invited me to his shop to do some typing and photocopying for his clients. He would of course entrust me with his two computers that he used for his small business. I was of course doing this without my mother knowing since in most cases she was in South Africa-taking about 3-6 months. Langton’s business partly assisted me financially in those days of crisis. A week before the 27 June elections, I was to learn that Langton was wanted by the police. I went to the shop only to find the computers taken by unidentified men who took Langton with them.  It took me around three months not knowing what had actually happened to Langton except that he was taken. Around early September 2008, Langton came to our house explaining his side of the story. He told me that he was arrested for being a leading member of the opposition MDC in Mutoko and some parts of Mrewa.  He also explained how he recruited young people to fight ZANU PF youths in these rural areas. Again, he also explained how he was arrested and tortured by the men who took him. But in his explanations he was happy that he was alive and said he was to go back to his actual profession, which is teaching. He was a qualified teacher. He was also regrettably sad on the part of young people he claimed to have recruited into violence against youths from the ruling party ZANU PF. All this was new to me since I had no idea of his involvement in national politics. He only left me a book by Ngugi Wathi’ongo, the Kenyan writer titled Matigari. I never saw Langton again.

All these memories have been revived by the death of Robert Mugabe. I see in him a leader who was successful and a failure at the same time. Anti-colonial struggle was won with Robert Mugabe playing his part among other founding fathers of Zimbabwe such as Joshua Nkomo, Ndabaningi Sithole, Edgar Tekere, and Herbert Chitepo. Political rhetoric in the fight against imperialism won him international appeal to those of the Global South. Far from the grand narratives which elevated him to demigod status during my primary and high school education, l now also accept his shortfalls as a leader. Beyond the excitement I had in 2002, I now look at his legacy in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. These views are now a product of my academic training in History as a discipline and one who belongs to Zimbabwe. Poor social services in the country and the toxic political culture were nurtured in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The hospitals in Zimbabwe are deplorable such that Robert Mugabe himself had to die in a foreign hospital-in Singapore, in search of better medical attention unlike those at home in Zimbabwe. His predecessor and long-time protégé, Emmerson D. Mnangagwa inherited an ailing economy in November 2017 after Operation Restore Legacy.

Roads in every major city in Zimbabwe have been named with the aim of memorializing his life, the National Heroes Acre in Warren Park-Harare is ornamented with Robert Mugabe the colossus, the Robert Mugabe International Airport welcomes every visitor to Zimbabwe, History books have been written celebrating and denouncing him. Contestations over Gukurahundi in the quest for peace and reconciliation, the myths and realities on the land reform, the involvement of Zimbabwe in the Mozambican civil war as well as Democratic Republic of Congo among others. Thinking of Robert Mugabe the individual and the system he presided over remains an anathema. It shall be many years in Zimbabwe’s national memory conversing on and about the personality of Robert Mugabe. To some, Robert Mugabe is a hero beyond Zimbabwe borders, a doyen of Pan Africanism, a hero of Africa, a hero of the subaltern. On the one hand he is detested as a champion of bad governance, a failed leader, a facilitator of the looting of Zimbabwe’s natural resources and its heritage among other evils associated with bad leaders.

It is no wonder in our Shona vernacular the elders say Wafa Wanaka (we are not to speak ill of the dead). On the other hand, the same Shona elders also say rufu haruzivishe (death doesn’t matter). On his epithet I say, For better or worse, @ 95 Robert Mugabe finally dies leaving a complex legacy. May His Soul Rest In Peace (MHSRIP).


Featured image | Robert Mugabe| Al Jazeera English | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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