Opinion

Let's not beat about the bush: Mugabe was the devil incarnate. He leaves a terrible legacy

08 September 2019 - 00:00
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe pictured here with his wife Grace Mugabe.
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe pictured here with his wife Grace Mugabe.
Image: Supplied

Now that Robert Mugabe has finally kicked the bucket, we will no doubt be inundated with stories portraying him as a hero and a revolutionary who not only freed Zimbabwe but brought dignity and respect to Africa and its diaspora. That’s balderdash. The man was a monster. An absolute villain. He was evil. He turned what should have been a dream future for the people of Zimbabwe into an absolute nightmare.

The fact that he died seeking medical care in a foreign country speaks volumes. In almost four decades in power, he succeeded in destroying the infrastructure and facilities in his country.

We’re taught from a young age not to speak ill of the dead. But Mugabe was the devil incarnate. There should be no equivocation about the utter devastation that this man inflicted on his people. No beating about the bush. He inherited a fairly prosperous economy but left behind something akin to a wasteland. Zimbabweans were being oppressed for the second time, this time by one of their own, who was egged on by his fellow African leaders and most notably by SA.

Almost 40 years ago, with a mixture of jubilation and tension gripping the country after his Zanu-PF had won the first democratic elections, a triumphant Mugabe went on television and, much to the surprise of his critics, appealed for peace, reconciliation and  adherence to the rule of law.

“Only a government that subjects itself to the rule of law has any moral right to demand of its citizens obedience to the rule of law,” he said. “Surely this is now the time to beat our swords into ploughshares.”

He formed a government of national unity, which included his arch-rival Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (Zapu) and, to placate white fears, he handed the key portfolios of agriculture and commerce and industry to members of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front. Peter Walls, who had hunted his guerrillas as head of the Rhodesian army, was appointed to lead the new integrated army.

But the new dawn didn’t last long. Nkomo was soon out of government, briefly going into exile claiming to be fearing for his life. But it was the four-year murderous campaign by the notorious Fifth Brigade in Matebeleland, hardly three years after coming to power, that established Mugabe as a despot who would brook no opposition.

Thousands were killed and many more were displaced as Mugabe sought to subdue Zapu’s heartland. The rest of Africa averted its gaze and closed its ears to the screams and pleas of the victims of Matebeleland. Finally cowed, Nkomo agreed to the merger of his Zapu with Zanu in return for a nominal position as one of Mugabe’s two vice-presidents.

Mugabe should have been removed from power in 2000. In that year, he lost a constitutional referendum which would have given him wide powers, and the Movement for Democratic Change came close to defeating his Zanu-PF in elections despite the widespread intimidation in which many opposition supporters were killed. Realising his power was ebbing away, Mugabe resorted to his trump card: seizing white-owned land. And when the supreme court ruled that land seizures were unlawful, he sacked the judges and replaced them with his sycophants.

Mugabe also had another indispensable ally. SA has always played chaperone to Zimbabwe’s fate. Smith would not have agreed to attend the Lancaster House talks which led to the birth of the new nation had he not been threatened with an embargo by John Vorster. Faced with another recalcitrant Zimbabwean leader years later, then-president Thabo Mbeki did the opposite. He embraced him. And the more the world screamed its denunciation of Mugabe, the more Mbeki became protective of him.

Years later Mbeki came up with a sham arrangement to keep Mugabe in power despite the fact that he had lost an election. The hostility towards Mbeki was such that when Mugabe was finally overthrown by the military in November 2017, many Zimbabweans were vociferous that they’d brook no interference from outsiders. 

It was, unfortunately, a belated realisation by Zimbabweans that they are their own liberators. It’s always been mystifying to outsiders why a people who had waged such a courageous freedom struggle against white minority rule would allow an autocrat to oppress them for such a long time.

Part of the reason could be that they relied a lot on outsiders —  the African Union, the Southern African Development Community, SA — coming to their assistance. Also, many Zimbabweans could always flee to SA whenever they found the situation in their own country intolerable. As a result, there were always fewer people back home to take on the regime when necessary.

Mugabe leaves a terrible legacy. The economy has been stagnant for years, the shelves are bare, there are no jobs and it is estimated that between three and four million of its citizens have left the country in search of greener pastures. The exiles are probably the lucky ones. Those who stayed behind run the risk of being killed, suffer constant harassment and bear the unpleasant realities of a failed state.

But Mugabe’s rule has not only decimated his own country, it has also contaminated the politics of the region. The flood of Zimbabweans to neighbouring countries has led to political tensions and fights with locals over scarce resources.

Mugabe wreaked havoc for so long because Africans not only tolerated him, but cheered him on. There will be many more Mugabes in future unless we learn to speak out whenever one of us steps out of line.


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