HomePoliticsMugabe: Revered, reviled in equal measure

2009: Not Quite the Real Thing


Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 32 years without a break, is many different things to many different people. To some he is a liberator and hero, yet to others he is a freedom fighter-turned-tyrant.  

Mugabe is a complex and paradoxical character. His life story, which includes family tragedies and assassination attempts, rivals the best Shakespearean plays in drama and ambition.

From being a village herdboy to a university graduate  with seven degrees, his  case history covers a long political career which
started almost accidentally. It is a story which peaks with utopian euphoria at Independence in 1980 and ends with tragedy at the Animal Farm-like dystopia that Zimbabwe is today.

The dark side of Mugabe’s character emerged early during the 1980s, with ruthless crushing of bitter rival, Joshua Nkomo and Zapu in pursuit of a one party-state agenda, command economy  and political hegemony. His contemporaries and colleagues during the liberation struggle now say Mugabe has always had a ruthless streak, which first manifested itself during his days in exile in Mozambique when he suppressed rivals.

Up to this day, he is still using the same authoritarian methods to remain in power. In recent years, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC have borne the brunt of his repression. During the past decade, Zimbabweans have gone through hell as Mugabe used violence and intimidation to remain in power.

Repression, arrests, detentions and killings have characterised his rule. He has always been mercurial political player — volatile, iron-fisted and ruthless in his manoeuvres.

Perhaps the best description of him in recent years came from former United States ambassador to Harare Christopher Dell in 2007 who said: “He is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalise the political dynamic and force everyone to react to his agenda.”

Dell, however, said Mugabe was being let down by his astonishing economic ignorance. 
But his life history is far more complex. Having emerged from humble beginnings to acquire several university degrees and lead the liberation struggle before becoming prime minister and then president, Mugabe was initially viewed as a liberator.

During the 1980s, he ran a command economy along socialist lines. Despite many problems, he did well in term of economic management in the first decade. The economy grew by an average of 4,47% between 1980 and 1990.

Mugabe vastly expanded social services, especially access to education and health, improving people’s standards of living and quality of life. As a result of that, Zimbabwe has the highest literacy in Africa. Roads were paved and small-scale agriculture also expanded.

However, given the deterioration of the past decade, his achievements now pale in comparison to his failures. At his peak, Mugabe was greatly admired and governments queued to host him; universities fell over each other to bestow honorary degrees on him and in the process he massed many awards, including an honorary knighthood in Britain. He wined and dined with kings, queens and world leaders.

But things changed somewhere down the road, mainly after 2000 when he embarked on farm seizures and launched a vicious campaign of repression in the face of rising political and social discontent, leading to the emergence of the MDC in 1999.

The MDC was born out of deteriorating economic and social conditions. In reaction, Mugabe unleashed a fierce wave of repression manifested through state-driven terror, property seizures, systematic crackdown on political opponents, civic activists, diplomats, judges, lawyers and journalists to crush dissent.

Countries which had hosted Mugabe reacted by imposing sanctions on him and his cronies, while universities competed to strip him of their honorary titles.

This has kept the debate around Mugabe burning: Is he modern Africa’s Stalin, or a patriot fighting to reverse the damaging legacy of colonialism?

Put differently, is Mugabe an African hero or a ruthless dictator consumed by hubris and self-righteousness?
Further questions arise. Is Mugabe so bad or he is just being misunderstood? Now that he is facing an endgame of potentially horrifying dimensions, how will he be remembered?

Whatever people think of him, Mugabe would be enjoying the usual razzmatazz of his North Korean-style birthday celebrations, organised by the 21st February Movement, tomorrow in the scenic city of Mutare.

Mugabe and his entourage will paint the town red with a colourful array of celebrations, tributes and festivities. His celebrations are likely to resemble a revue — a show in theatre with songs, dances, jokes, short plays or poems in his honour.

Mugabe’s lavish scale of birthday partying in recent years invariably conflicts with the current situation in Zimbabwe, home to an economy struggling to emerge from a meltdown and hyperinflation of the past decade.

As someone who belongs to the “eccentric end of the market”, to quote his bitter rival former British premier Tony Blair, he is a known admirer of the late North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung whom he visited in the early 1980s. 

After visiting the “Kingdom of the Absurd”, Mugabe was said to have particularly liked the Juche (self-reliance) ideology, mass following, cult of personality, as well as systematic political indoctrination, huge army parades, stadiums full of energetic masses doing calisthenics and colourful displays.

It is said Mugabe returned home from Pyongyang a changed man, convinced about the North Korean model on which his own totalitarian project was to be based.  Subsequently, he invited the North Koreans to work with him on his different projects, including the Gukurahundi massacres at their killing fields in the south-western region. Their footprints are still fresh in Zimbabwe. 

Born on February 21 1924 at Kutama Mission in Zvimba, about 100 km north of Harare, to a carpenter father and housewife mother, Mugabe’s case history is full of dramatic twists and turns.

He grew up scrounging for survival in poor rural areas, herding cattle before he was educated by Jesuit priests at Kutama Mission.   
After completing his secondary education, Mugabe taught in various schools for nine years while he also continued to study privately for his matriculation certificate.

Subsequent to passing his matric, he went to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa where he studied with many future African nationalists and leaders. He graduated with a BA in English and History degree in 1951 before he went on to acquire six other degrees.
Mugabe then returned to the then Southern Rhodesia to teach at several schools before he left for Zambia and Ghana.


After political parties were banned in 1964, Mugabe and many other nationalists, including Nkomo, were thrown into jail until 1974. While in detention, Mugabe was forced to assume the Zanu leadership in a prison coup after the ouster of Ndabaningi Sithole.

When he was released in 1974, he briefly lived in Harare until 1975 before crossing into Mozambique to join the liberation struggle. However, it was not until 1977 that he managed to gain control of the party rocked by internal strife, which was characterised by cutthroat competition for positions, revolts, kidnappings and killings. This paved way for him to become Zimbabwe’s first leader in 1980 until now.

— Sunday Times.

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