Division will be Mugabe's true legacy

Robert Mugabe had no qualms about trampling on his comrades and presenting himself as a great liberator. (Supplied)

Robert Mugabe had no qualms about trampling on his comrades and presenting himself as a great liberator. (Supplied)

Aged 89 and still hungry for more years in power, there is no telling how much more Mugabe can add to or subtract from his legacy.

What can be said now, though, is that there will always be two sides to it. He has always been deeply divisive — depending on who you ask, he will either always be known as an evil tyrant or a liberator.  

In a bookstore in Harare last week, the store manager asked an assistant what Peter Godwin's book, The Fear, was doing in the fiction section. I resisted the urge to quip it may have something to do with the book's subtitle, The Last Days of Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe is preparing himself for a new term in office, which will end when he is 94, still trying to keep those last days at bay. Even among his enemies, there is a secret admiration of his resilience. For decades, he has kept a tight lid on the ambitions of his would-be successors. He is fit for his age, despite now needing support to walk up and down stairs.

But there will never be agreement on the legacy he leaves behind. There are many Mugabe books on the shelves of bookstores around the world, all taking turns at trying to peel away the mystery that is Mugabe. In the Harare bookstore, in one corner, there is Heidi Holland and her attempted psychoanalysis of the man in Dinner with Mugabe and Godwin's tome of frustrated dispossessed privilege.

All try to answer how the shy Catholic boy turned monster. His legacy, most of the books in the "Mugabe genre" will have it, will be that of destruction and repression.

Split personality
The truth is there will never be a definitive legacy. Mugabe is different things to different people.

To victims of his strong-arm rule and the West, he will forever be the evil dictator. But to his backers, he is some kind of deity, a liberator who stood up to the West and delivered land and economic control to them.

Mugabe's early years in power were marked by economic growth and a globally celebrated education system. Yet recent years of ruin have rolled back much of that.

Although Mugabe was doing good in the 1980s, rights abuses were going on in the country. Although his economic management and investment in health and education built a heroic legacy that lasts until today, he was a villain to some.

Even during the war, he was loathed and admired in equal measure. In Dzino, an autobiography by Dzinashe Machingura, who was a commander of Zanu's military arm, Zanla, Mugabe rises to power not only on the support of fellow leaders but also by stepping on the toes of other comrades.

He was unknown to fighters in the camps. Rugare Gumbo, one of the few senior guerrillas who knew him, "spoke highly of him and described him as articulate".

'Loves the limelight'
But when Mugabe's name appeared at the top of a list of political leaders submitted to Samora Machel in Maputo, "Machel leapt from his chair in disgust. He was clearly not happy that we had included Mugabe, let alone as the leader". Mugabe "loves the limelight", Machingura quotes Machel as warning the fighters.

"We lived to regret the day we had put forward Mugabe's name," he writes. As Mugabe purged the ranks, "Dzino" — and Gumbo himself — found themselves imprisoned by Mugabe loyalists, accused of treason.

Because of his ruthlessness, it was Mugabe who addressed a crowd of more than 100 000 at the Highfields' Zimbabwe Grounds at the end of the war, casting himself as the sole liberator. Those who had contributed more were confined to the shadows.

Although Mugabe has mellowed over recent months, he seems to have long given up on winning over his Western critics. Land and indigenisation are the get-rich-quick schemes of his corrupt hangers on but he hopes they are the two pillars upon which he his legacy will be built — that of a black empowerment crusader. He knows the policies will win him enemies and infamy. But he also knows they are building a solid legacy elsewhere. As throughout his career, he is picking his side and sticking to it.

In Dinner with Mugabe, Holland asks Mugabe if he ever compromises at all. He replies: "No, we compromise a lot. But with principles, no. You don't sacrifice principles — you don't, you don't, you don't sacrifice principles."


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