Robert Gabriel Mugabe: A Lesson of Hope and Despair in Zimbabwe


Robert Mugabe, the prime minister and president of Zimbabwe from independence in 1980 until 2017, when he was overthrown in a coup, has passed away at the age of 95. The name of Robert Mugabe is synonymous with both Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and its post-colonial politics. His role and that of his party, Zanu-PF, were central to the dynamics of both processes and their legacies will mark Zimbabwean politics for the foreseeable future. 

ZANU-PF trailer with food supplies.

To speak the name “Mugabe” invokes charged political debates characterised by a range of conflicting tensions: hope and despair, demonisation and adulation, contempt and respect, dissent and loyalty. Sometimes these attitudes are interchangeable and overlapping, sometimes they express more fixed polarities. These divisions draw from the violence, fissures and closures that have given rise to Zimbabwe’s post-colonial political spectrum and left painful traces in the political imaginary of Zimbabwean people.

Robert Mugabe was often viewed as an “aloof and austere figure”, “secretive and solitary”, to use the words of one of his biographers, Martin Meredith. He was born on 21 February 1924 at Kutama Mission in Zvimba District, west of what was then Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe received a Jesuit education and, by many accounts, he was an exceptional student. A loner who preferred the company of books to the comradery of his peers, he readily imbibed the disciplinary logic of the Jesuits. At the age of seven, Mugabe’s father left home to find employment in Bulawayo. He remarried and never returned to his first family. The loss of his father deeply affected Mugabe.

In 1945, Mugabe left Kutama Mission with a teaching diploma and then, in 1949, he won a scholarship to Fort Hare University in South Africa where he interacted with other emerging young nationalists and a range of radical ideas. Armed with his degree, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1952 and then moved to Lusaka in 1955 to take up a teaching post. In 1958, he moved again, this time to teach at Takoradi Teacher Training College in Ghana. There Mugabe experienced the thrill, excitement and sense of possibility in a newly independent African state. This was a seminal political moment for him.

Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960 to introduce his new Ghanaian wife, Sally Hefron, to his family. Instead of going back to Ghana, he became involved in the nationalist movement, including the split between the two major nationalist parties, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). In 1963, Mugabe was arrested along with many other nationalist leaders. After 14 years in prison, he was released during the détente period in 1974. Mugabe and his colleague Edgar Tekere escaped to Mozambique to join the liberation war against the Ian Smith regime that was being conducted from bases there.

There are different accounts of Mugabe’s rise to the top of Zanu leadership in Mozambique. Wilfred Mhanda, a senior veteran of the liberation war, was particularly critical of Mugabe’s abuse of the trust placed in him by the military. In Mhanda’s account, their support was premised on Mugabe’s commitment to building unity between the rival nationalist movements, a promise he reneged on in his pursuit of supremacy for Zanu. In his biography, Mhanda expressed his disappointment, writing, “we lived to regret the day we put forward Mugabe’s name”. Following the turmoil of the mid-1970s, Mugabe had outmanoeuvred his rivals and established his position as head of Zanu and its armed wing.

Following the 1979 Lancaster House settlement that granted independence from Britain, Mugabe and Zanu-PF emerged as the dominant party in the 1980 elections. Mugabe set out a policy of reconciliation with the white population that, in effect, allowed the existing Rhodesian property and economic relations to continue while the politics of state power was transferred to Zanu-PF, which allowed Mugabe to consolidate his control of both his party and the state. The 1980s also gave evidence of Mugabe’s commitment to social policies, such as health and education, and the expansion of these was second to none on the continent. However, Zimbabwe’s first decade also revealed Zanu-PF’s brutal intolerance of opposition, with massive violence perpetrated against Zapu and Ndebele citizens during the 1983–87 Gukurahundi massacres.

As Zimbabwean politics became increasingly polarised and the opposition movement grew in size and influence during the neo-liberal 1990s, Mugabe’s ideological assertions and political trajectory both became clearer. Faced with enemies without, with the real possibility of political defeat by an emerging urban-based opposition, and from within Zapu-PF, with rising dissent among the war veterans, Mugabe drew on longstanding grievances around the land question to reconfigure the politics of the state and the party. Drawing on anti-imperialist and pan-Africanist narratives, the fast-track land-resettlement policy radically reconstructed settler-colonial land relations. As the land process unleashed questions around citizenship, belonging, and assertions of identity, it also created a massive rupture between human and redistributive rights. Mugabe’s often valid critique of imperialist duplicity was accompanied by an authoritarian intolerance of dissent within Zimbabwe. These two inextricably linked threads of his politics created both dilemmas and possibilities for opposition voices. Land reform will remain one of his most lasting legacies, but the challenges, opportunities and constraints of the process will also ensure that land issues remain “unfinished business”.

In November 2017, Mugabe was overthrown in a coup led by Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Constantino Chiwenga, the commander of Zimbabwe’s armed forces. The coup resulted from a long series of factional struggles within the ruling party that eventually threatened the future of key sections of the military, along with their ill-gotten economic gains. The removal of Mugabe was met with widespread euphoria within Zimbabwe, southern Africa and internationally. The new narrative of the Mnangagwa regime, which included economic and political reform as well as international re-engagement, generated a certain amount of optimism about the future of the country. International players, including the international financial institutions, actively sought to drive the dialogue of re-engagement forward. The G7 pushed for a programme – to be monitored by IMF staff – that would serve as a prelude, though not guarantee, to deal with Zimbabwe’s large debt and future financial injections.

Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF won the elections in 2018, but the violence that followed the elections, along with the repression and human rights abuses that met the popular protests in January and August 2019 against rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in the country, quickly depleted the goodwill that Mnangagwa had garnered after the coup. The UK government, which had been a champion of the so-called “new dispensation”, took on a more critical stance, as did the EU. For its part, the US’s position hadn’t moved much since its sanctions legislation in the early 2000s, only hardening in response to ongoing abuses in Zimbabwe. It also appears that the IMF’s initial hopes have dissipated.

Facing persistent opposition, the Mnangagwa regime now finds itself treading in Mugabe’s footsteps and taking his repressive politics to new levels. Civic and opposition activists have been arrested and their human rights abused. Once again, the Zanu-PF government is increasingly isolated in the world, consoled only by the solidarity and support of neighbouring SADC countries.

The South African government is in a much weaker position than it was when Thabo Mbeki led a diplomatic initiative to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis in the 2000s. With the ruling African National Congress (ANC) mired in its own internal factional battles and the familiar corruptive corrosion of post-colonial states, as well as losing political capital across the continent because of persistent Afrophobia in South Africa, it seems unlikely that any progress for Zimbabwe will come from the region. Mugabe’s legacy thus continues to mark the trajectory of Zimbabwe’s politics.

For many Zimbabweans, Mugabe will remain a contested figure. For those who lived through the humiliations of settler colonialism, his strident denouncements continue to resonate. And yet, his often essentialist and exclusivist assertions of national belonging and his authoritarian intolerance of dissent are also a reminder that any anti-imperialist critique that does not foster a democratic political project remains unacceptable. Land and democracy were both fundamental demands of the liberation struggle.


A version of this opinion piece first appeared on IOL on the 7th of September 2019.