The past week has been an exhausting — if amusing — one on my social media timeline. My fellow South Africans posted rest-in-peace messages to the “pan-Africanist, a great son of the soil who got his people’s land back” Robert Mugabe. If “his people” are his family, his Zanu-PF cadres and some party card-carrying loyalists, then they would be absolutely right. Alas, this is not what they meant.
My fellow South Africans actually believe that Mugabe gave Zimbabweans land but many Zimbabweans chose to leave their land so that they can come and live in fear of Afrophobic attacks in South Africa. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Mugabe was not a hero. He was a very flawed person who refused to relinquish power and eroded whatever gains he may have initially made.
In the first decade of independence, he invested in education. People like myself and filmmaker Xolisa Sithole are some of the beneficiaries of his education policies back then. For the Zimbabwean citizens who should have been taking the nation to dizzying heights, it has not worked in the way that national investments are supposed to mature. It has not resulted in the best brains staying in the country and making it work. This is because the government under Mugabe and his successor has frustrated the best of their citizens.
Rather, the education has resulted in Zimbabweans being employable all over the world and, indeed, going there. The government, in a country of 15-million people blessed with diamonds, platinum, gold, cobalt, other minerals, land and, importantly, human resources, has failed to look after its citizens.
Further, by the time Mugabe was pushed out in a coup d’etat by his comrades in November 2017, whatever educational achievements he had made in the first decade had been reversed. At present, those who can afford it don’t send their children to government schools. Teachers in government schools who, in the 1980s, were middle class and could have a mortgage for their homes and educate their children, can now barely survive on the little they earn.
In that same decade, Mugabe also invested in primary healthcare. My extended family benefited from this, with two of my cousins being born in a village clinic in 1984 and in 1990. Again, whatever gains he made in this regard, he reversed them. Now, the people in my mother’s village travel 300km to Gweru. Once there, they have to contend with public hospitals that have underpaid, underworked and unmotivated staff members who often do not have basics such as gloves and medicine.
A doctor friend told me they sometimes feel as though they are at the hospitals to watch people die rather than to heal them.
Mugabe himself didn’t have faith in the health system. His daughter, who lives in Zimbabwe, gave birth in Malaysia. The vice-president, Constantino Chiwenga, who was an army general during the time of Mugabe, is in hospital in China. And Mugabe died in a hospital in Singapore where he had become a permanent fixture every January for medical check-ups when he was still president.
In Mugabe’s first decade, there was even some semblance of intolerance of corruption. In 1988, after journalist Geoffrey Nyarota exposed corrupt ministers who had benefited from some car scheme, some resigned in shame and one died of suicide. Although none of them was prosecuted, the fact that they stepped down is, in retrospect, unbelievable. Not so the Zimbabwe under his rule in the years that followed and the one he left behind.
Corruption seems embedded in the DNA of Zanu-PF leaders. Sanctions have hurt Zimbabwe but what hurts it more is the rot at the top. It started under Mugabe, with his family members often implicated. A president’s salary is public knowledge. His family’s lifestyle isn’t commensurate with what he earns. To then claim that he is a clean man surrounded by criminals, as the coup plotters stated, is thus disingenuous. Zimbabwe watchers will remember that it was under him that $15-billion of diamond revenue “disappeared”. How does money just disappear when the president had not claimed to be a magician?
A reflection on Mugabe’s life would be incomplete without mentioning his role in the Matabeleland atrocities from 1982 to 1987. At least 20 000 people died because one man — Mugabe — wanted to consolidate power and could not brook opposition. There are South Africans who have attempted to excuse him because they believe he was fighting against apartheid–trained and sponsored dissidents. I disagree with this. I am trying to imagine whether the same South Africans would have been so quick with excuses had the Mandela government done something similar in KwaZulu-Natal after 1994. Why then is it easy to dismiss the lives of Zimbabweans taken in the Gukurahundi yet we would be outraged if it had happened to us?
There are a lot of things that South Africans have to mourn about. Mugabe shouldn’t be one of them. To do so is to dance on the graves of those who were massacred in Matabeleland; those who spoke up against Mugabe and were “disappeared” such as Itai Dzamara and others who opposed the dictator and lost their lives in car “accidents”; and many others who continue to bear state-sanctioned violence under Mugabe’s successor but which started with him.
To call Mugabe a zero — not a hero — is to be generous. One just has to look at his legacy.