This name evokes emotions of anger, hatred, regret and revulsion to many. Yet it is also a name that draws a lot of admiration, satisfaction, pride and gratitude to others.
In death, just like he did in life, Mugabe has caused plenty of controversy as his legacy is a debate that is far from settled.
People struggle to come up with a clear storyline to definitively capture the essence of his legacy.
For a man who had a long life, going all the way to the age of 95, his life was full of remarkable milestones and historic moments, but never has a man’s
life story been so vexatious that people have argued endlessly about what he stood for.
He was a hero to some, but a villain to others.
He is adored in many parts of the continent for his legacy as a liberator, the founding father of Zimbabwe and a great pan-Africanist.
But he also presided over the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy owing to his ruinous policies and failure to take action against corruption.
In Shona they say wafa wanaka (speak no ill of the dead), but for Mugabe there just has to be an exception. Some have vowed that the wounds and scars he left are too deep to forget and the atrocities he committed too heinous to forgive.
His ouster, in a military coup in November 2017, added to his complicated legacy. Many say his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa has turned out to be as disastrous
as the grandmaster of Zimbabwean politics, or even worse.
So bad has Mnangagwa been as a leader that assertions that “Mugabe was better” have been heard frequently in public places in the past two years of Mnangagwa’s increasingly dismal rule.
Leading African political leaders, including heads of state such as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nigerian
President Muhammadu Buhari have all eulogised Mugabe in exceedingly glowing terms.
Julius Malema, who leads opposition South African party Economic Freedom Fighters, also spoke glowingly about Mugabe, describing him as a hero and a true pan-
But, as if to fulfil the Biblical expression that a prophet has no honour among his people, Zimbabweans back home have been tearing each other apart on social
media as their hard-line stances over the Mugabe legacy have boiled over since the news of his demise filtered through last Friday.
Much of the debate is basically centred on a simple yet complex question: Is Mugabe a hero or a villain?
The international community also added its voice to the discourse with the media and influential British public figures variously describing Mugabe as a “true
monster” and “hero-turned-villain”.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London, said the common reaction was that Mugabe stayed in office too long, messing up his
legacy as he aged.
“… having started well but then grew too old to execute nationalisation in an orderly and peaceful manner. This is to an extent true. However, he was never a
complete nationalist. The Gukurahundi is evidence that he never had a complete sense of Zimbabwe as one nation,” Chan said.
“Secondly, it took the advent of the MDC in 1999 and its referendum success in early 2000 to prompt him, perhaps panic him, to nationalise the land. He was in
his 70s and had been in power 20 years, and he had still not begun the nationalisation of land.
“When, in 2000, he began to do so, it was unplanned and chaotic, and the economy collapsed — and that remains the case today. So, was he a failure? He was a
success at achieving liberation. He was a failure as the president of an independent nation.”
University of Zimbabwe political scientist Eldred Masunungure said it was not surprising that there are many interpretations of Mugabe’s legacy as he had lived
a whole 95 years and had a complex character.
“It’s not surprising; he was a complex character both in his private and public life. He was hard to interpret and it depends on which face one is looking at.
Being a leader of Zanu PF for 40 years and Zimbabwe for 37, he created divisions locally and globally and, therefore, depending on one’s view, he was a
different man. It is like the case of the six blind men and the elephant where they were trying to establish what kind of animal it was,” Masunungure said.
In the story referred to by Masunungure, each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part. They then describe the elephant based
on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other.
“He played his part in the liberation and the first 10 years of his rule, which are now the ideal years for a president to rule. If he had stopped then, I
don’t think many people would be talking about the ugly side. He forgot the exit door; otherwise he would have been one of Africa’s greatest leaders,”
He said it was unfortunate that Mnangagwa was seemingly turning out to be worse than Mugabe, a situation that has seen some people becoming nostalgic about a
Zimbabwe under Mugabe. The late former president has been praised in some quarters for making sure the cost of living does not skyrocket to the level it is
“But they also forget that Mugabe had inherited the ‘Jewel of Africa’ and Mnangagwa did not inherit that, it was tarnished already. And with the Shona wafa
wanaka [speak no ill of the dead], some got over the ugly things he did. However, for the people of Matabeleland and some in the Midlands, I heard some talk,
they have not forgiven because he did not ask for forgiveness, he just said it was a moment of madness.”
Political analyst and publisher Ibbo Mandaza said it was quite normal for the legacies of public figures to be viewed as complex.
“There are two extremes, one to glorify and the other to trash. Very few are balanced, very few look beyond the individual but a system,” he told the Zimbabwe
David van Wyk, a mining researcher based in South Africa, wrote on Twitter explaining how the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the wider world
had an impact on Zimbabwe under Mugabe.
“Mugabe’s failure and that of the British government to address the land issue early on and taking advice from the IMF and World Bank are what led to the
country’s economic challenges. As a refugee, Zimbabwe gave me a job as a teacher. It allowed me to do my honours degree at the University of Zimbabwe. It
treated me and my family with respect. I have fond memories and made many friends in Zimbabwe and globally because of the exposure to many nationalities from
Africa and globally. Mugabe was a highly educated and articulate man,” he said.