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Why was Robert Mugabe dearly mourned by Zimbabweans?

  • Cyril Zenda
  • 16 Sep 2019

Two years ago when Mugabe was still in power, many people wished him dead, but when he truly died, a lot of people grieved for him.

( AP )

HARARE — Although Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime did to Zimbabweans what only an occupation force can do to citizens of a country – physically brutalising them and condemning them, near permanently, to a crucible of grinding poverty during his 37-year rule – in death his victims lionise him as a hero, turning up in large crowds to pour out grief for the very same man whose disastrous policies made the country that was once viewed as ‘the jewel of Africa’ the wasteland it is today.

A few hours after the news of Mugabe’s not unexpected death, on September 6 at an exclusive Singaporean hospital where the 95-year-old had been bed-ridden for more than five months, filtered through, an unlikely character appeared on the country’s only television station. This was Professor Lovemore Madhuku, singing the praises of Mugabe, emphasising how had it not been for Mugabe’s foresighted education policy, he would not be what he is today — a constitutional law expert and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Zimbabwe.

“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 benefitted from that vision,” Madhuku said.

The condolence message plastered up the fact that in the past two decades, Madhuku was arrested dozens of times and severely tortured by the police and other security agents for standing up against Mugabe’s repressive rule. In 2004, Madhuku – whom Mugabe regularly singled out by name as a prominent rabble-rouser – had his rural home burnt down and his house in Harare badly damaged. In 2007, he suffered a broken arm during torture while in police custody.

It was now all water under the bridge. With his abuser dead, Madhuku chose to focus only on the good that Mugabe did in his life. And that was to be true to the local Shona custom summed up by a local saying afa anaka, loosely translated to mean that once a person dies all the evil that they could have done is forgiven and forgotten.

Madhuku was not the only person whose dislike for the liberator-turned-tyrant Mugabe had changed since the former strongman fell from power. In November 2017 tens of thousands of people poured out on the streets of Zimbabwe’s cities and towns baying for Mugabe’s blood – accusing him of gross human rights abuses and impoverishing them – resulting in his downfall. Ironically, even bigger crowds turned up a short 22 months later to deeply mourn the death of the same man, whom they now praised as an icon, a giant and a hero.

“Mugabe was a very good man,” said Isaiah Laiton, despite the 76-year-old former farm worker having been made jobless by Mugabe’s disastrous land reform programme. “You cannot compare him to any other leader. He was a great man and I don’t think there will be another leader like him,” a sad Laiton told TRT World.

The land reform programme left more than 300,000 farm workers jobless, and Laiton is one of them, his employer’s farm, just on the outskirts of Harare, having been grabbed by Mugabe’s war veteran foot soldiers and ruling ZANU-PF party mobs in 2004.

A bumper crowd thronged the eponymously named Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport to witness the arrival Mugabe’s body from Singapore aboard a pricey chartered jet and among this crowd were thousands of thoroughly impoverished villagers from the countryside who never saw anything out of the ordinary with Mugabe’s lavish lifestyle in the middle of poverty.

Mourners stampede after the arrival of the coffin carrying former President Robert Mugabe at the Rufaro Stadium in Harare, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.(AP)

Stockholm syndrome?

That such bounteous crowds could gather on the airport tarmac and in stadiums for hours on weekdays when the days were not public holidays is thanks to Mugabe’s disastrous management of the economy which resulted in more than 90 percent of people being jobless. That economic disaster notwithstanding, these jobless victims of Mugabe’s policies still saw him as a hero.

“President Mugabe was a blessing not just to Zimbabwe, but to the whole of Africa and even the world,” said Forbes Mashereni, a 33-year-old electrician who says he qualified more than a decade ago, but he is yet to find a job. “I came here all the way from Karoi to welcome the body of my hero President Robert Gabriel Mugabe!”

Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch Southern Africa Director sees the ‘love’ that Mugabe’s victims have for him being a result of some form of Stockholm syndrome.

“Mugabe died without facing any accountability for the many egregious human rights abuses that he presided over, including the Gukurahundi massacres in the early 1980s, and waves of electoral violence including the horrific 2008 violence that left over 200 opposition supporters dead,” Mavhinga told TRT World in an interview. “But in death, it appears a wave of the Stockholm syndrome has washed over Zimbabwe, leading many to forgive and grieve over his passing in Singapore.”

Professor Kenneth Mufuka, who teaches of African History at Lander University in the US, also sees signs of the Stockholm syndrome coming into play among the citizens subjected to Mugabe’s extended misrule. 

“The other idea is that a long serving ruler becomes comfortable, and eventually people master his likes and dislikes,” said Mufuka who is also author of the book Life and Times of Robert Mugabe. “Mugabe liked to be praised and never contradicted. Therefore, in the same way that we were able to get along with our colonial masters, and yet resented them behind their backs, the same applies to Mugabe.”

Critics accused Mugabe of being selfish as to blow tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to get world-class healthcare for himself in Singapore since 2011, when ordinary citizens were dying from easily treatable ailments as the country’s health facilities are suffering acute shortages of basics such as painkillers.

Whatever he could have done to them, a good section of the Zimbabwean citizenry continued to view Mugabe as the best that the country ever had.

A mourner with a tag attends the funeral service for Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at the National Sports Stadium in Harare, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.(AP)

Indictment on Mnangagwa?

Mugabe’s renewed popularity in death is seen to be buoyed by a growing anti-Emmerson Mnangagwa sentiment as the new leader is increasingly being seen as worse than Mugabe in terms of both ruthlessness and economic mismanagement.

“In hindsight we are all seeing that we made a big mistake in 2017,” said Golden Gobvu, who is now a street vendor, having lost his job when the company he worked for closed early this year citing dim prospects. “It was a typical case of jumping from frying pan into the fire.”

Among the crowds that gathered at the airport, at the local stadium and lined the roads through which the funeral procession passed, the general sentiment was that if an election were to be called in Zimbabwe today and Mugabe’s coffin is fielded against Mnangagwa, it would be a runaway winner.

“The perception that Mugabe was not such a devil after all came before his death,” Mavhinga explained. “It was unlocked by the realisation that serious human rights abuses, including murders, abductions, rapes, and torture continued under current leader Mnangagwa well after Mugabe was removed from power. This comparison of Mugabe’s record, and the intense abuses witnessed in a short space of time between November 2017 and now, is partly the reason why Mugabe is now sanitised and viewed a little bit as a saint, in comparison to his successor,” Mavhinga added.

Crocodile tears?

However, while ordinary citizens that were mesmerised by Mugabe’s oratory skills, his boldness and daring habits, mourned him from deep in their hearts, his former colleagues in the ruling ZANU-PF party and their cahoots in the military who plotted his downfall were seen to be shedding crocodile tears. They were seen to be mourning with one eye while rejoicing with the other as Mugabe – who had turned into a fierce critic of Mnangagwa – was threatening to become the “political hooligan” that he routinely accused his predecessor, Ian Smith, of being one when the last prime minister of Rhodesia severely criticised his new black government in its apprentice days in power in the early 1980s. The few moments Mugabe spoke after his downfall, he was highly critical of Mnangagwa, his former right-hand man whom he bitterly accused of betraying him. 

While on the surface Mnangagwa has tried to present their relationship as cordial, the fact that the two never met face to face since the November 2017 coup – only communicating through letters and emissaries – spoke volumes about their relationship. 

No love lost

However not everyone mourned Mugabe, whom some saw as a ruthless dictator who retained power at all cost.

“I do not want to think, speak, read or write about him, now and/or ever again,” was Judith Todd’s response when TRT World tried to get her to share her feelings about the man celebrated as a hero. Judith, the daughter of former Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) prime minister Sir Garfield Todd, and fought together with her father to bring an end to white minority rule in Zimbabwe. In a poignant book Through The Darkness Judith reveals how she was raped by Agrippa Mutambara, then a brigadier in the army, in 1983 as punishment after she had presented evidence of the Gukurahundi genocide that had just started in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to Mugabe.

The same uncharitable sentiments are found among people who lost friends and relatives during Mugabe’s brutal repressions, especially during the Gukurahundi era and the 2008 post-election violence.

During the Gukurahundi pogroms more than 20,000 people from the Ndebele tribal minority on the southwestern provinces were killed, while in 2008 more than 200 opposition supporters were killed after Mugabe had lost the elections to then Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai. About 30 white farmers and 78 farm managers were killed when Mugabe seized their farms.

Good riddance?

However, among the crowds that stampeded to view Mugabe’s corpse during the three days that it was availed for public viewing were those who did not really believe that the man who appeared invincible to the world had really died. It was a mixture of disbelief and curiosity that drew them to the funeral, with some even coming to again bid good riddance to the man they were happy to see the back of two years ago.

Although mourning has ended, Mugabe’s burial has been deferred for about a month as the government builds a mausoleum that his family set as a condition for his burial at the National Heroes Acre, a national shrine where he had indicated that he would not want to be buried, bitter about the way he was removed from office.

While even in death Mugabe continues to the divisive figure that he was in life, some 

Zimbabweans, feeling betrayed by Mugabe’s successor, just shrug off, appearing to resign themselves to fate as if embracing the tag that veteran writer Lawrence Vambe put on them in his 1972 book An ill-fated people.

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