Zimbabweans Have Complicated Views on Robert Mugabe’s Legacy

FILE – In this Sunday, August. 17, 2008 file photo, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is seen at the closing ceremony of the 28th Southern African Development Community summit of heads of state and government, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mugabe, the former leader of Zimbabwe forced to resign in 2017 after a 37-year rule whose early promise was eroded by economic turmoil, disputed elections and human rights violations, has died. He was 95.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

A Zimbabwean politician summed up her reaction to Robert Mugabe’s death with one word: Complicated.

Mugabe, 95, stood tall on the world stage for decades, first as a celebrated liberator and then as a combative enforcer, loathed by many of the Zimbabweans who once loved him.

The mark — a raw wound, some would say —that he left on long-suffering Zimbabwe will be felt long after Mugabe, who could be as charming as he was remorseless, died in a hospital far from home.

In November 2017, euphoria swept Harare when Mugabe resigned after nearly four decades in power that saw one of Africa’s most promising nations become one of its most dysfunctional.

Nearly two years later, much of the local response to his death Friday has been muted, indifferent or sullen, reflecting the fatigue and distraction of the daily hardship that is Mugabe’s most enduring legacy.

“He died in luxury in Singapore. What about us, who can’t even get medicines at hospitals here?” a woman shouted among commuters as she and dozens of others prepared to shove their way onto crowded, government-subsidized buses in Harare.

“Zimbabweans, you are an ungrateful lot,” a man shouted back. “He gave you independence, and then returned the land from the whites.”

At one time, Mugabe was an electric figure, a champion of Africa’s struggle to shake off the last vestiges of white minority rule on a continent that had been colonized over centuries. In 1980, he presided over the end of what was called Rhodesia and the creation of independent Zimbabwe, promising racial reconciliation and economic growth.

Then, things turned ominous.

Thousands of Ndebele people were killed in the 1980s by a North Korea-trained military unit loyal to Mugabe, a member of the rival Shona ethnic group. In 2000, violent seizures of thousands of white-owned farms began, causing agricultural production to plunge. A land reform program favored Mugabe loyalists.

As the years went by, Mugabe was widely accused of hanging onto power through violence and vote fraud, notably in a 2008 election that led to a troubled coalition government after regional mediators intervened.

Under Mugabe, shortages of basic goods, collapsing infrastructure and economic hardship were the norm for Zimbabweans. They still are under his successor and former loyalist, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

“Mugabe invokes two emotions: a hero of the liberation struggle and a villain toward the end of his administration,” Morgan Tsvangirai, then the main opposition leader, said in an interview with The Associated Press after Mugabe quit. Tsvangirai died of cancer in February 2018.

“I ain’t an expert on critical race theory; but there must be an explanation why predominantly white countries focus on his legacy as dictator whilst the predominantly black ones acknowledge his role as a liberator,” tweeted David Tinashe Hofisi, a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe.

Fadzayi Mahere, a Zimbabwean opposition politician, also alluded to Mugabe’s mixed record.

“Rest In Peace, Robert Mugabe,” Mahere wrote on Twitter. “My response to your passing is complicated. I’m going to write a long piece. However, for now, deepest condolences to his family.”

In ruthlessly hanging onto power, Mugabe seemed the antithesis of Nelson Mandela, the global statesman who led South Africa out of white minority rule and served one term as president.

Yet Mugabe’s criticism that Mandela was too soft on the country’s white minority is shared by some black South Africans struggling for economic opportunities. Social problems in South Africa, Zimbabwe’s wealthier, more powerful neighbor, have boiled into violence against African immigrants in past days.

A target of Western sanctions, Mugabe nevertheless enjoyed appreciation on the continent, serving as the rotating chair of the African Union in 2015-2016. His often frenetic travel schedule well into his 90s, and false alarms about his health, had many Zimbabweans musing sardonically about whether, indeed, the old man would ever die.

He showed his old gusto as late as March 2016 when an interviewer from state television asked him about retirement plans.

“Do you want me to punch you to the floor to realize I am still there?” Mugabe told the interviewer.

Zimbabwean ruling party officials say they assured Mugabe ahead of his resignation that he would not be prosecuted for alleged crimes. Some people wonder whether his wife Grace, who at one time was positioning herself to succeed her husband and faces an arrest warrant in South Africa for alleged assault, might now be vulnerable.

For many Zimbabweans, Mugabe’s rule was a deeply personal, often anguished experience. He embodied the country for the bulk of their lives, an immovable object whose longevity drove some to despair. Millions who couldn’t bear conditions in Zimbabwe left the country.

Months before he was forced from power, even Mugabe seemed to see the end of the road.

During a meandering speech at his birthday party in February 2017, he raised his fist in salute, but he also rested his drooping head on one hand. His hands gripped the podium. He talked slowly about his mission as Zimbabwe’s leader, said he felt alone and described his life as a “long, long journey.”

For Zimbabwe, it’s been a long, long journey too.


Torchia reported from Rio de Janeiro. He covered events in Zimbabwe while based in Johannesburg between 2013 and 2019.