Former Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe’s death has inevitably triggered global debate on his legacy. For some, he is a true son of the soil, boldly shaking his fist at Western neo-colonialists, speaking truth to power and steadfastly championing the continental dream of putting economic authority back in the hands of Africans.
For others, Mugabe is a murderous fraud. A man who skipped most of the liberation struggle, but claimed he was in the vanguard. A man who tricked and killed his way to the head of a party, while endearing himself to the same West he would conveniently use as scapegoats in later years.
A man who killed off his biggest challenger in a post-Independence genocide intended to entrench a one-party state. A man who when the economic goodwill he inherited after Independence began to peter out, embarked on ruinous populist programmes that he stubbornly persisted with despite the collapse of the country and its citizens.
In death, as in life, Mugabe continues to divide.
In a world obsessed with the binary, black and white approach to understanding anything, the debate over Mugabe invariably falls into one of the two mentioned above: son of the soil or murderous fraud.
However, reality is nearly always grey and Mugabe’s legacy is not a zero-sum affair.
Where he is credited with leading Zimbabwe out of the armed struggle and securing Western support for the expansion of the newly independent economy to previously disenfranchised blacks, Mugabe is also known to have masterminded the massacre of more than 20,000 Ndebeles in a callous, calculating push for a one-party state.
Where he is praised for being amongst the drivers of the Frontline States fighting against apartheid, Mugabe was amongst those post-Independence leaders who used their influence to dull the effectiveness of the Frontline States’ successor, SADC, blunting its ability to take on regional dictatorships and human rights abusers.
Where his legacy is believed to include the mass education and empowerment of Zimbabweans, it also includes the marginalisation of certain tribes, crushing of civil liberties, destruction of political dissent, electoral theft and the creation of a global economic and political pariah. Ultimately, the best judges of his legacy will be the people of Zimbabwe.
The same ones scattered across the world, in strange lands. The same ones who watched their aspirations obliterated by Mugabe and the system he set up to stay in power for 37 years.
That system endures today, weighing on Southern Africa, holding it back from blossoming into the continent’s most prosperous region. For Zimbabweans and those suffering in Southern Africa from the collapse of a one-time economic breadbasket, Mugabe is proof that any hero who overstays his welcome will ultimately morph into a tyrant.
“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.”
– George Orwell