Updated: Sep 21, 2019
The founding president of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe passed on on the 6th of September, 2019, in Singapore. He was 95 years old. On the day he died, I was in rural Mutare with my wife, my mom and dad and a huge contingent of my mom's side of the family. There are varied reactions concerning his legacy. He is, like many of us are, a complicated man - both in life and in death.
The very moment that I heard the news, we were driving to Inyanga District Hospital, and as I was super focused on the serious curviness of the roads, and also trying to get my "other mother" (my mom's sister) to the hospital in town for a tooth extraction, my dad, who was sitting in the back just blurted out: "Ah, hanzi Mugabe afa." ("Ah. People are saying Mugabe is dead.") while he scrolled through his phone.
Of course, as a Zimbabwean, I have heard that line time and time again. And I will be the first to admit that there was a time when I wished those rumours to be true, for reasons I will get back to in a moment. We all didn't take it seriously, but my dad seemed poised this was true.
We had arrived from Harare the previous day, and we were low on fuel. We had a card to swipe at any Redan Fuel Station but there was no such garage on these parts of the country - we could possibly only find petrol in Mutare town, which was pretty far from where we were. So as I was driving, I am constantly looking at the fuel gauge, wondering if we will be able to find fuel to come back to my grandma's place.
The first thought that came to my mind was the irony of us hearing that Mugabe had died while we drove on low fuel, wondering if we would come back home. When people talk about the legacy of Robert Mugabe, for me, it is a legacy marked by a constant wonder of "Will we be okay tomorrow?" more than anything. This is the question that I grew up with as a teenager in Zimbabwe, and its a question that one has to ask every time up to this very day in Zimbabwe with the current regime, which are products of the late statesman.
While some can view it in more nuanced ways and talk of "mixed feelings", the idea that everything rises and falls on leadership is one that I believe to my core. And any institution, church, country or family, minus God's sovereign hand in all things, will generally take the mold of the leader. We all can talk about Mugabe in very abstract ways and I want to talk about him in very personal and specific terms. That man affected me. He affected us. And this is my lived reality which I can never undo, and which I will not allow anyone to explain away.
I remember when I was in high school my parents warning me never to talk bad about the president in public settings, lest I get into big trouble. We supposed the state had eyes and ears everywhere. These were the 2000s. The years of intense economic hardship which were seasoned with great fear as the state intimidated and punished any dissenting voices, even up to death. That is what I think about when I think about Robert Mugabe. I think of the fear even at that young age. I think of the helplessness I saw my parents go through as they worked hard to raise us in a country that never "worked" for them.
I remember when I was in high school and all our teachers stopped coming to school - most of them moving down to Botswana or South Africa for greener pastures. I remember the feeling of abandonment. Hard to explain. But I enjoyed learning. I enjoyed it so much because it was the best my parents could give me to prepare for a future better than the reality they lived. Coming to school and spending the whole day playing cards and games became a norm around 2008/2009. In fact, I even remember how much time I spent going from class to class preaching to otherwise bored school children who had come to school to "hang out" because the teachers were just not there. Who would blame these teachers? They had families to take care of.
I remember, also in high school, my mother having to go to Botswana to work as an illegal immigrant as a maid for a Zambian family based in there. My father worked for the government but was paid peanuts which lost their value the same day he got paid. I remember her saying she needed to go so that we could be able to go to school. I remember the texts I would send to her and which she would send to me. I remember her struggles in a foreign land. I remember her tears. Her cries and longings to be home with her family. I remember thinking she was a wonder-woman because of the strength she exhibited.
I remember the frustration on my father's face as he woke up to go to work every day but what he was getting paid was quickly eroded by inflation. I remember wondering why my dad never spoke bad about a government that he worked for that never seemed to care. I am sure it was fear on his part too.
I remember waking up at 5am, while my father went to work, and my mother was in Botswana, and I headed to the bank to line up for my father's salary on his pay-day. I remember the long lines on the POSB Bank on Main Street and L. Takawira Avenue in Bulawayo. I was a teenager, man. I shouldn't have been doing all this. I would get there as early as I could. Be given a number on the line, and wait my turn to use that ATM. When I got to the ATM, I would insert the card, punch in my dad's PIN code, and withdraw all the money that had just been deposited in it as his salary. It lost its value by the time the day ended.
I remember also waking up early in Queens Park East to join the lines for bread at the local store. I remember paying ZW$750,000 for a bloomer which was not enough for us. I remember sometimes being told that you can only buy 6 buns, which again, were not enough for us. I remember that. I was young. I shouldn't have been here. But I had to. This is the country that Robert Mugabe and his government had produced out of Zimbabwe.
See, I want to make two things clear here.
Leaders are called to solve problems. Yet, Mugabe himself never solved any in my lifetime. He created them - directly or indirectly. Hear me well: our countries are all naturally headed to a bad place, and leaders are put in place to make sure that the ship can be steered in the right direction. No country will naturally work well, they all naturally will go rogue - unless leaders step in. I have never seen such a leader in my country in all my life in a president. The so-called founding leaders failed. Dismally.
Secondly, while folks seem to focus on how Mugabe started, it actually matters more how someone ends. Even the Good Book says in Ecclesiastes 7:8, "The end of a matter is better than its beginning..." We do acknowledge how the late statesman was instrumental in the liberation of our country, but the story of our liberation is not our only story. Some of us were not there in the struggle in the late 70s which we are grateful he led.
But some people were there in the mid-to-late 80s when thousands of Zimbabweans were killed in Matabeleland under Mugabe (and Mnangagwa). Up to his death, he had not solved this ever-present issue in our nation's psyche. He never apologized. Just crickets. He just called it "a moment of madness" in some random interview. People died at his command. Thousands of my brothers and sisters who are Ndebele lost uncles, aunts, grandpas, and grandmas.
Politically, I would classify myself as a pan-African to the core. I am for the unification of the African continent into one union. I pray and hope to see this in my lifetime. I know this is where we will thrive and would compete at the world's economic and political stages. And so was Mugabe. But Mugabe espoused a pan-Africanism I do not want to be associated with. A pan-Africanism that used violence to get it's way is not one we should be associated with.
I know people on the continent love him for his stances. But its no different from men who admire beautiful women from a distance, yet when they sit and listen to people who know these women experientially, they are told how much their character and personality actually stinks, in spite of their outward beauty as seen by the public. Mugabe looks charming from the outside, but for us who grew up under him, we have things to say which you should probably listen to in its varied forms.
The Land Question in Zimbabwe had to be addressed. The co-signers of the Lancaster House Agreement (1979), mainly the British, had to play their part in the re-distribution of land in Zimbabwe, and they did not. Mugabe was initially accepting and patient. Zimbabweans were patient too. We waited for South Africa to get independent or else the region would have been de-stabilized. I applaud the patience and grace.
But the events of the early 2000s when white commercial farmers were brutalized are a stain in what is left of Mugabe's legacy. That must be condemned in no uncertain terms.
Part of me feels like the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s were practice rounds in state-sponsored violence. Then came the violence, abductions, and killings of white farmers and opposition members in the early to late 2000s, and I cannot help but link all that to the current spurts of violence in Zimbabwe. This is the repressive state apparatus which Uncle Bob created. This is Mugabe's ZANU PF.
Yes, Mugabe stood up to the West.
Yes, his early investment in education and health were a model in Africa.
Yes, his leadership in the very early years saw the new Zimbabwe slowly uniting across racial lines.
Yes, his pan-Africanism is a vision that a lot of younger Africans espouse.
But the man did not finish well.
The man is loved and hated.
The man's legacy is disputed.
The man's country is in political, economic and social shambles.
The man's protegees are a menace on the people of Zimbabwe.
The man's reign of terror on his people cannot be forgotten.
On the day that Robert Mugabe died, it honestly did not mean much to me other than my dreading of all the politicking and drama that will be associated with his demise.
On the day that Robert Mugabe died, I admitted he is complicated. His life will be studied in history books as a man who was complex, just like all of us.
But on the day that Robert Mugabe died I admittedly did not feel much remorse because of the pain that I associate him with in my life as a young Zimbabwean. I feel for his family, and am sorry they lost a loved one. But I also feel for my people who have directly and indirectly affected by Mugabe in very negative ways. Their wounds fester infections with each passing year with no attention towards them.
Mugabe is dead, but not Mugabeism.