Until the end, even as they deposed him from power, the Zimbabwean military held Robert Mugabe in the highest regard. His fight against white minority rule in Rhodesia which began in the 1960s during a ten-year prison term and culminated in his 1980 election as Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader, is not forgotten by the people of Zimbabwe. But neither is his legacy as the ruthless, thirty-year president of a tortuous, brutal regime in Southern Africa.
Mugabe’s early life as a pan-Africanist was dedicated to the emancipation and empowerment of his people, inspired by what he termed, ‘Marxist-Leninism-Mao-Tse-tung thought‘. Mugabe’s dream was to overturn white minority rule in Rhodesia, and played a leading role in the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), which he characterised as a militaristic national struggle for black Africans. Mugabe encouraged violence against the colonial leadership of his nation, and saw this as more effective than slow international diplomacy. Both Mugabe and his wife, though never fighting on the battlefield, were at odds with the law, and his wife Sally Hafron was sent to prison in 1962 for telling Queen Elizabeth II to ‘go to hell‘. Eventually in 1979, the guerrilla tactics of Mugabe’s fighters forced newly-elected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to start negotiations which would lead to the birth of the modern day, independent Zimbabwe. A truce followed, and elections set for February 1980 resulted in a landslide victory for Mugabe and his Zanu Party. Despite winning a convincing and absolute majority in the new Zimbabwean Parliament, the first president of the free nation, in an act of black unity and compassion, invited members of other parties to join him in a ruling coalition. Despite a healthy combination of an average economic growth of 2.7%, foreign investment, and conservative monetary policies, this was outstripped by population growth and a soaring unemployment rate. Whilst the number of schools rose tenfold and literacy rose to over 80% in Mugabe’s first years as leader, real incomes fell, and a new leadership elite was formed.
It is with the utmost sadness that I announce the passing on of Zimbabwe's founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe (1/2)
— President of Zimbabwe (@edmnangagwa) September 6, 2019
Things continued to go downhill in 1990 after Nelson Mandela, South African anti-apartheid freedom fighter, was released from prison and became the new face of African global statesmanship. Mugabe became increasingly Marxist and racist against the white population, accusing them of attempting to ‘destroy our unity, to sabotage our economy, and to overthrow the popularly elected government I lead‘. State-owned media parroted this anti-white message, leading to a rise in violent crime and murder rates against whites. Mugabe’s iron-fisted rule tightened, and revealed plans to transform Zimbabwe into a one-party state. In 1995, he increased the pay of MPs by 133% whilst life expectancy and living standards plummeted. Mugabe, committed to Marxism, went on a spending spree, promising billions of Zimbabwean Dollars in pension money for those who fought in the guerrilla war for independence. Subsequently, riots broke out in response to a lack of access to food, and the army was deployed, an act which led to the deaths of tens of protesters. Seeking to place blame for Zimbabwe’s collapse elsewhere, Mugabe’s racist rhetoric hardened, encouraging Zimbabweans to, ‘to strike fear in the hearts of the white man, our real enemy‘. He blamed Western nations on homosexuality, accusing the gay community of being ‘guilty of sub-human behaviour‘. In 2000, Mugabe presided over ‘land invasions‘ which targeted white farm owners. He began to rig elections, and in 2008 ordered his guerrilla army to kill 153 opposition supporters; opposition leader Morgan Tsangirai later dropped out, with Mugabe declared the victor.
It is said that Robert Mugabe’s hatred of the white population in Africa stemmed from the death of his son whilst he was in prison and subsequent refusal by the white minority rulers of an application for compassionate release, making him miss the funeral of his only child. But in the end it was his own people who grew tired of the massacres, the economic depletion, and the political Marxism that President Mugabe presided over. He certainly played a crucial role in the liberation of one of Africa’s most culturally wealthy nations, and the people of Zimbabwe remain grateful to him for that. Eventually, however, his addiction to power and wealth led to his downfall. President Mugabe, who in 2016 vowed to lead Zimbabwe ‘until God says, “Come”‘, was ousted by his own army a year later, after rumours spread that he planned on crowning his wife as his direct successor. Unlike most tyrannical leaders, Mugabe was not killed, or removed from office violently, but was allowed to live out the rest of his days split between his Harare mansion and a luxury Singapore hospital. He will be remembered for his mixed legacy as the liberator of Zimbabwe against white minority rule, and the subsequent tyrannical rule of his own people.