Mugabe’s bid to airbrush dark legacy

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WHENEVER President Robert Mugabe speaks in public these days, if he is not involved in political polemics and campaigning, there is always a hint of atonement — clues that he wants to make amends for his mistakes on the cusp of the sunset of his controversial political career.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Mleya

On Wednesday, in an off-the-cuff speech at the signing ceremony of the new constitution at State House in Harare, he again struck a conciliatory tone, sounding like someone delivering a valedictory speech yet making it clear he is still around.

In measured tones, Mugabe spoke about history, the Lancaster House constitution, Independence, nationhood, justice and equality, political and economic power, civil and political liberties, tolerance, peace and the media, among other things.

Despite his cynical remarks about journalists, the delivery was worlds apart from his usually sabre-rattling speeches. This time around, he sounded rather reflective and mellow, discounting traces of bellicose rhetoric and combative politics.

The question is: why is Mugabe doing all this? Is it to deceive the nation and give the impression he is changing ahead of watershed general elections or to show he is getting better with age like fine wine?

One can go on: Is it an attempt to atone for his excesses in power and leave a more positive legacy of unity and peace? Is it a Machiavellian move to win hearts and minds, including those of rivals, or a bid to airbrush his dark legacy?

There can’t be copper-bottomed answers to this sort of enquiry because it’s only him who knows the truth, but a candid assessment of his remarks, gestures and pointers can help to illuminate the debate.

Mugabe’s legacy has often been embellished by some, yet oversimplified by others, or excessively focused on limited aspects.

Deeper analysis, background and context, has often been lacking, distorting the history of his politics, his contribution and legacy.

Zimbabwean historians — and academia in general — have a responsibility to write about him, set the record straight, not as praise-singers or cynical critics, but incisive scholars guided by intellectual enterprise, public interest and the need to enlighten.
What of the Mugabe legacy itself? How will he be remembered when he is gone?

Without confining oneself to a binary framework, there is the good, the bad and the ugly on his balance sheet — advocates of Mugabe’s rule will always put forward what they claim he has achieved during his 33-year reign so far, while his critics say it is nothing but a disastrous failure.

Mugabe’s supporters claim the most enduring positive legacy of his rule is his achievements on the social service delivery front, particularly on education. Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is the highest in Africa, they always say.

They also note his social programmes and land reform exercise uplifted the subaltern majority. For instance, his government gave priority to human resource investments and smallholder agriculture, resulting in a rapid improvement in social indicators.

Despite his warped socialist vision and command economic policies, the economy started off well as he tried to bring the poor to the centre of national development. That was it.

On the flip side, Mugabe’s critics say after 33 years in power, he failed to build Zimbabwe as a sustainable democracy and viable economy.

Instead, the country has regressed and he will almost certainly leave it in a shambles — with record unemployment, inequalities, corruption, poverty and social exclusion as well as divisions on racial and ethnic lines. That is besides his legacy of repression, brutality and appalling human rights abuses.

Overall, whatever the arguments and justifications, Mugabe’s legacy is unedifying to say the least. The evidence is there for all — with eyes — to see.

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