AT Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, President Robert Mugabe was feted worldwide for his vision, statesmanship, intellect and the policy of reconciliation.
He was lauded for transforming what had become a veritable wasteland of conflict after the liberation struggle into a promising and relatively stable country.
His idea of national unity, as well as a functioning health, agricultural and education system saw the country achieve literacy rates well above 90%.
The country’s impressive economic growth was anchored on a highly successful manufacturing sector that was linked to a highly productive agricultural sector dubbed “the breadbasket of the region”.
This week, after 37 years, Mugabe’s legacy probably came to an end after he was placed under house arrest by the military at his Blue Roof mansion in Borrowdale, Harare, on Tuesday night. His life story engenders mixed feelings and is a clear lesson that overstaying in office spoils one’s legacy. He started well, but ended badly. Sadly, in history people will remember the ignominious end. The lasting images of Mugabe for many are those of an intolerant leader who struggled to break falls, who left his country in ruins, without its own currency, while unleashing his wife Grace to hurl attacks at real or imagined enemies.
After years of appearing to be pro-poor, which made him a darling of many vulnerable Zimbabweans, Mugabe appeared to have gradually lost touch with reality and the majority poor, abandoning them in the process though not entirely by design.
Few will forget the people-oriented policies Mugabe put in place in the 1980s, among them free education, free health as well as a reliable social welfare system that provided a safety net to millions of poor Zimbabweans. During those days he was fittingly known as “a man of the people”.
According to a 1991 World Bank report, soon after Independence the Zimbabwean economy showed strong growth with GDP increasing by 10,6% in 1980 and 12,5% in 1981. The average economic growth rate between 1980 and 1989 was 4,47%.
A 1995 World Bank report says that after independence Zimbabwe gave priority to human resource investments and support for smallholder agriculture and, as a result, small-scale agriculture expanded rapidly during the first half of the 1980s while social indicators improved quickly.
In terms of health, there was a committed fight against the infant mortality rate. The World Health Organisation’s country health system fact sheet (2006) says from 1980 to 1990, infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1 000 live births, while the under-five mortality rate was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1 000 live births.
Immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population. Child malnutrition also fell from 22% to 12% and life expectancy rose from 56 to 64. By 1990, Zimbabwe seemed to be doing pretty well with a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrolment rate compared to many developing countries.
During that period Mugabe, was a leader who could change people’s lives; he was against extreme capitalism and supported trade unions and collective bargaining by workers. He would turn up on Workers’ Day to deliver his fiery pro-worker speech and announce the “Worker of the Year”.
But as the years passed, the darker side of Mugabe, which first emerged with the brutal attacks on Zapu and the late former vice-resident Joshua Nkomo’s supporters in what became known as the Gukurahundi massacres, where an estimated 20 000 people were butchered in killings that largely escaped international attention, emerged.
For many, the adoption of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in 1991 due to local and international pressure — a move which was meant to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) — was the first sign Mugabe was abandoning the poor. Esap was meant to herald a new era of modernised, competitive, export-led industrialisation. But, according to a report by Richard Saunders titled Economic Structural Adjustment Programme’s Fables, neither the market reforms, nor the different measures that were meant to offset their effects on the most vulnerable, went according to plan.
Since 2000, however, Mugabe’s policies by design or accident have hit the poor very hard, and questions were frequently asked whether he has ordinary people at heart.
His government embarked on a chaotic, often violent land reform programme in 2000, arguing it wanted to empower landless and poor indigenous people in line with the objectives of the war of liberation.
In reality, however, the elite in government, Zanu PF, security establishments and their connections awarded themselves large tracts of land and rich wildlife conservancies. Mugabe and his close associates became multiple farm owners as a result of the land reform programme, which disrupted the country’s agricultural system contributing to food shortages that show no signs of ending, with government recently admitting land reform has been a disaster.
Mugabe’s controversial and ill-conceived policies such as indigenisation, which requires foreign firms to cede at least 51% shares to locals, have also resulted in de-industrialisation and lack of foreign direct investment, contributing to the high unemployment levels, which independent economic analysts put at 90%.
The policies have also resulted in widening socio-economic inequality, collapse of social services, infrastructure decay and falling exports. Company closures and retrenchments have seen a rapid growth of the informal sector which has resulted in most of the country’s city streets being occupied by vendors.
While corruption gnawed the society’s fabric and destroyed the economy and people’s lives, Mugabe chose to turn a blind eye.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungwemwe said Mugabe’s legacy is debatable and means different things to different people.
“To Zimbabweans under the age of 40, he is the only leader they know and what they remember him for are the economic hardships, human rights abuses, bad governance and dictatorship,” he said.
“For those about 40, they will remember him as an eloquent and educated Victorian gentlemen and pseudo pan-Africanist who was part of the liberation struggle and the led the Independence dispensation in the early years on a path of ‘reconciliation’ and improved social services, and later turned into dictator in the 1990s until he totally lost control to his wife and a hawkish faction of young turk in his party.
“But to people from Matabeleland and white farmers, they will remember him as a violent despot that killed their loved ones during Gukurahundi and farm invasions. In some African countries they see him as a star Pan-African leader who stood up to imperialism, while others see him as hopeless dictator who ran down a jewel of Africa.”