Zimbabwe’s independence leader and former president Robert Mugabe is remembered for his leadership of the successful struggle for black majority rule in the former Rhodesia, his pursuit of Pan-Africanism and lifting living standards.
However, he should also be remembered for the Gukurahundi massacre, his treatment of opponents, the violence against white farmers and economic policies that caused incredible inflation and impoverishment of what was one of Africa’s richest countries.
Educated by Jesuits, Mugabe joined the African National Congress while at university in South Africa and became interested in Marxism.
While teaching in Zambia, he lived with Emmerson Mnangagwa’s family. The two became life-long collaborators until Mnangagwa deposed him as president in 2017.
Mugabe returned home in 1960 and became active in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. He was arrested in 1963 for sedition and imprisoned until 1975.
He maintained contact with the liberation movement as general secretary and then president of ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Popular Front) and helped launch the guerrilla war in 1972. After his release, he directed operations from Mozambique. More than 30,000 people were killed in the eight-year-long liberation war.
Two liberation parties emerged — ZANU-PF and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) — each with their own guerrilla army. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF received support from China. ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo was supported by the Soviet Union. Violent clashes between the two were frequent.
Mugabe reluctantly agreed to join his rival Nkomo at the peace talks in England that negotiated independence from Britain and ended the war. At the time, Mugabe extolled socialism, however, the peace agreement stipulated protection of private property which, in effect, meant continued white privilege.
In power, Mugabe dropped any promotion of socialism and pledged free market economics in return for International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid. Mugabe borrowed and spent massively on education and health. There were 177 secondary schools in 1980, rising to 1548 by 2000. Adult literacy rose substantially. Health, education, water and housing were brought to millions of people for the first time.
By 1990, 52,000 black families were settled on 6.5 million acres of previously white-run farms; the white farmers were compensated under the terms of the independence agreement. Half the white population emigrated by 1983, taking with them the skills necessary for rebuilding the country. Few Africans had more than primary school education, and many not even that: they had been the labourers and servants.
Mugabe was from the dominant Shona ethnic group, Nkomo was Ndebele. Zimbabwe is 70% Shona and 20% Ndebele. The Ndebele are Zulus who fled north from the Voortrekker (Dutch descendent colonist) advance in 1834 and settled in the south-west of what is now Zimbabwe.
In 1982, just two years after independence, Mugabe launched the Gukuruhundi genocide. He sent the army in on a murderous campaign against Nkomo’s supporters in Matabeleland, with orders that all Ndebele were dissidents and needed to be wiped out. More than 20,000 people were killed.
Nkomo signed a unity accord in 1987 that ended the conflict; ZAPU was disbanded and its leadership merged with ZANU-PF. Mugabe declared himself president, a new position incorporating head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Nkomo was appointed vice-president.
Discussion of the massacre has been taboo, and most Zimbabweans outside of Matabeleland know little about it. A 2010 exhibition about it by artist Owen Maseko was banned: “It was all in the past”, Mugabe said.
ZANU-PF still blames ZAPU aggression. However, in May President Mnangagwa launched a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the events. Burial pits are now being excavated, bodies identified and properly buried.
The “international community” ignored the massacre. Former United States president Ronald Reagan invited Mugabe to the White House in 1983. The University of Edinburgh awarded Mugabe an honorary doctorate in 1984 for “services to education in Africa”. In 1994 Britain gave him a knighthood (this was revoked in 2008).
Land reform was one of the chief aims of the independence movement. In 1980, the year majority rule was achieved, 70% of the arable land was owned by only 1% of the population.
Under the transfer of power, Britain funded the purchase of white-owned land under a “willing seller, willing buyer” program.
The agreement expired in 1992. In 1996 then British Prime Minister John Major agreed to restore the program, but his successor Tony Blair blocked it, despite Sweden, Norway and Germany offering to help fund it. Blair said then, with some justification, that he was not convinced that landless people were the beneficiaries.
With his popularity in decline and restless war veterans clamouring for land, Mugabe allowed farm invasions to forcibly take back the land under his Fast Track Land Reform Program in 2000. White farmers and their black employees were often subjected to violence, including murder, looting and burning. Sanctions were imposed by Britain, the US, the European Union and Australia — which all had turned a blind eye to the Matabeleland massacres.
While there were irregularities in the land reform program, overall 170,000 black farmers did benefit. In the Masvingo District, for example, more than two thirds of the confiscated land went to low-income rural people. Production fell as new farmers had little skill, capital or experience, and 30% of the seized land is still not being used.
Some Mugabe cronies got more than they should, and Mugabe himself is alleged to have acquired 20 farms and his wife Grace another 16, contravening the policy of one farm per family.
Between 45,000 and 70,000 workers on white-owned farms were displaced. Under a genuine and just land redistribution program they should have been the first beneficiaries.
At independence, 90% of the economy was controlled by white settlers and multinationals. Little changed over the following 20 years.
The Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act was passed in 2008. The aim was to transfer some ownership of foreign and white owned businesses to black Zimbabweans and enhance the development of a black middle class. Similar acts had been adopted in other previously colonised countries.
Over five years, businesses with more than US$500,000 in share capital had to transfer 51% ownership and control. Banks were exempted. Some companies sold shares to black Zimbabweans as required, and others set up community trusts. In 2016 rules were changed to only apply to mining companies, and completely abolished in 2019.
The act frightened businesses and worsened the economic crisis. Foreign investment plummeted. It was poorly managed, confusing and inconsistent. Major party donors largely managed to avoid the rules.
The majority of people did not benefit because they had no financial resources to buy shares. The greatest beneficiaries were the well-off, especially those with connections to the government.
In return for debt relief, Mugabe agreed to the IMF-dictated Structural Adjustment Program in 1989. Public funding for health and education fell and state assets were sold.
In 1996 Mugabe sent 11,000 troops to Congo to support the Kabila government in the civil war there, costing Zimbabwe US$1 million per day, a huge drain on a fragile economy.
By 1998 unemployment reached 50%. The production of maize, the staple food, fell to a quarter between 2000--2008. About 75% of the population relied on food aid. Only 20% of children were attending school in 2008. Life expectancy had fallen to 34 for women and 36 for men.
Slum clearance policies left 700,000 people homeless in 2005, and targeted supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a loose coalition of unionists, liberals and capitalists that emerged in the early 2000s as living standards declined.
The economic crisis was caused by a combination of reduced agricultural exports, shortage of foreign currency and the economic sanctions imposed on the country because of the farm invasions. The IMF and Britain terminated aid.
Mugabe’s tolerance of widespread theft of public wealth by his military backers also contributed to the crisis. Mugabe’s wife, known as “Gucci Grace”, was known for her US$70,000 shopping trips to Europe and mansions in Singapore, Hong Kong and Harare. Mugabe spent US$250,000 on his 85th birthday party.
To counteract the fiscal problems, the government printed money. In November 2008 inflation was 80 billion percent per month. Banknotes of several trillion Zimbabwean dollars were issued.
Then the currency was abolished and US dollars became the main means of exchange, together with the South African rand. The economy stabilised after 2009 and per capita GDP doubled by 2018.
But it has since fallen. In June, a new currency was issued — the RTGS (Real Time Gross Settlement) dollar — nicknamed the zollar and foreign currency use was outlawed.
Inflation is soaring, estimated to reach 230-570% this year. Interest rates are 70% in a vain attempt to control inflation. About 75% of the population lives in poverty. Three to 4 million Zimbabweans have emigrated and more would like to.
There were joyous scenes of hope for a better future when Mugabe was deposed in the 2017 coup. The military elite deposed him when he no longer suited their interests.
His replacement, Mnangagwa, was a major player in Mugabe’s ruling elite. He was the head of the intelligence services during the Matabeleland massacre and is no less corrupt.
Mnangagwa’s foreign investment program has not improved the economy. There are fuel, medicine and foreign currency shortages. School fees are unaffordable, corruption is rife, and the black market thrives.
Mugabe was deft at cultivating his fake anti-imperialist credentials: he chaired the Non-Aligned Movement in 1986-89, the Organisation for African Unity in 1997-98 and the African Union in 2015-16. These positions helped deflect blame for his government’s failures.
The colonial era Censorship and Entertainments Act of 1967 is still in force and still used to quash dissent. Mugabe’s government used intimidation, threats, assault, torture and imprisonment to repress any opposition.
The 2008 election was fraudulent, as were many others. ZANU-PF thugs beat up candidates and MDC campaigners. The MDC won the election but was prevented from governing. Instead, Mugabe got them to join a government of national unity, which neutralised them.
In the same year, several hundred miners were killed in the Marange diamond fields to protect Mugabe’s and his party colleagues’ business interests.
To some, mainly in the cities, Mugabe will always be a hero for leading the independence struggle, for creating one of the best education and health systems in Africa, and bringing water supply, housing and sanitation to millions of people. His land reforms also did benefit many rural people. But he also presided over the running down of these services.
But Mugabe must also be judged on his record of brutality and corruption, which included maintaining power at any cost.
A good leader does not need to rely on intimidation, is not corrupt, knows when to bow out and does not need to name streets, buildings and parks after himself while still alive.
Mugabe does not rank with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.