Robert Mugabe and Africa’s Historical Revisionism
The passing away of former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has led to much debate about his legacy, with people on both extremes either reviling him as a brutal murderer and typically despotic African dictator or lauding him as a liberator ala Simon Bolivar and profoundly committed African nationalist who did much to advance the African’s cause for complete emancipation from colonial era shackles and the devastating consequences therein that are still to a large extent felt and experienced in Africa even in this present day.
The popular misperception seems to be that Mugabe was a good guy who went rogue, that he started off very well and only veered towards the dark side when he started with the much-maligned “land grabs” as part of his land reform policy. This is a view that many in the West even hold up to today and is borne out by the fact that the British even knighted him at some point, only reversing that decision a couple of decades later.
It is quite an interesting and insightful outcome when one looks at the global balance of power, that for all that he had done before, Mugabe was considered a “good guy” until he made the mistake of touching white interests in Zimbawe, then he started being seen as the epitome of evil, but that is a debate for another day. You don’t have to like it or acknowledge it, but it is what it is as they say.
Was Robert Gabriel Mugabe a good guy turned bad? In fact, when looking at anyone’s legacy will simplistic distinctions between good and evil ever suffice given the innate condition of the human heart if one were to follow Calvinistic theological dogma? My view, on the issue of good and evil, as I have stated before is aptly and succinctly captured by the perspective of Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his haunting reflections on the brutal realities of Stalinist Russia in his book, The Gulag Archipelago. Would that we could just simplify life, meaning and existence to the distinction of good and bad guys when analysing human society and history, but alas those who are honest about resolving such conundrums often find the issue to be a tad more complex than that.
Now for me, the issue of Mugabe’s legacy has been one of great interest, given that I was named after the bloke and have had to spend my entire life trying to explain the reason for that whenever I enter any new space. Of course, the fact I was named after him placed a heavy burden on me over the years to study the man, his life, his impact and to find some kind of posture about him that I could stand on for myself.
It has been interesting (and hilarious) over the years each time I meet new people, to hear responses like, “aag shame, why would your parents do that to you?” Or other typical responses after I introduce myself like, “are you related?”(No). “Are you from Zim?”(No). “Don’t you think it would be better if you change your name to something better?”(No).
I always laugh all of this off and tell people that I never have any awkward moments when I meet new people, because by the time I have tried to explain my name and been the butt of a few jokes based on it, the ice has already been broken and the conversation is already flowing with some kind of familiarity. See, you can always find a positive in any negative folks.
I maintain that the biggest lesson of my late dad naming me after Robert Mugabe, is that you should never name your child after a so-called hero who is still alive, because he or she still has time to reverse that legacy which makes his or her contemporaries see him or her as a hero. In any case, on issues such as this, my view has always been that the judgement of posterity must hold greater weight than that of contemporaries.
Reflecting on Mugabe’s legacy leaves one with much food for thought and is made even more complicated by the fact that Africans insist on religiously holding on to the principles behind the Latin phrase, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” (of the dead, say nothing but good). This means that we are inclined to historical revisionism whenever we look back at the legacy of someone we considered great or who was prominent during their times.
To be fair, Mugabe did do well in his initial years leading Zimbabwe in terms of his education policies and his handling of the economy, with the hyperbolic cliché of Zimbabwe having been the “bread basket of Africa” being put forward as evidence for that. He did present himself as a reconciler ala Mandela, who would guarantee the protection of the interests of the white minority in the initial years. But does all of this then present evidence of a man who started off as a “good guy” but ended up deviating towards “evil”?
My take is that even that popular narrative about Mugabe is false. That he has always been a violent, brutal individual atop a violent, brutal political formation, ZANU. He did not all of a sudden become “evil” when he supposedly “turned” on the white minority in Zimbabwe in the 1990s.
His conduct then, was consistent with his politics right throughout his career, and it was only because this brutality was finally being unleashed on white Zimbabweans in the 2000s that the international community finally stood up and started to characterise him as “evil”. From being a man worthy of being knighted by the crown, he was now reduced to the caricature “Mad Bob.”
Mugabe’s history of brutality is seen in how he engineered a prison coup, to remove ZANU’s founding leader Ndabaningi Sithole from leadership and how he treated Sithole from therein till his death in 2000. Following on from that, we see it in the assassination and murder of ZANU’s leader in exile at the time, Herbert Chitepo who was in exile in Zambia. Both of these occurrences paved the way for Mugabe’s unilateral ascendance to power within ZANU.
In fact, despite the fact that a former Rhodesian Central Intelligence official wrote a biography in which he claimed that they where responsible for Chitepo’s assassination, it is telling that a commission of inquiry initiated by former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda found that Chitepo’s death was due to internal infighting and jostling for power within ZANU at the time.
The historically consistent brutality of Mugabe and ZANU can also be seen in the mysterious death of war hero, Josiah Tongogara, killed in a highly suspicious accident on the way to Mozambique to inform the troops that the war was over.
Tongogara, a former commander of ZANU’s military wing ZANLA, was seen as a moderate during the Lancaster House conference who favoured cooperation and unity between Mugabe’s ZANU and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU. He was a popular war hero who in some circles, was seen as a direct rival to Mugabe in a post independence Zimbabwean-state.
We see this brutality even more eerily in the events of Gukurahundi and the Matabeleland massacres and in contemporary times in the mysterious death by “accident”(a fire in his house) of another war hero Rex Nhongo AKA Solomon Mujuru, who made the mistake of defying Mugabe and lost his life for it as a result, albeit through a supposed “accident.” I hope you can now see, that the popular narrative of Mugabe being a good guy gone bad is profoundly historically inaccurate.
Mugabe’s legacy leaves room for many more debates. For example, his land reform policy, which though necessary to fix a historical injustice(and I know many readers won’t like this point) was executed in a rather clumsy and highly corrupt, inept manner. Mugabe’s land reform policy raises a question that remains highly germane and unresolved in contemporary times on the continent: can a historically unjust act (the stealing of land) become constitutionally justifiable owing to the passage of time?
His anti-imperialist stance for which he is highly celebrated on the continent, raises other questions and issues for contemporary Africans. How should we, as ordinary Africans respond, when corrupt, despotic and selfish leaders use anti-imperialist rhetoric as a red-herring to prevent us from scrutinising their nefarious activities? This can be seen in SA in the Zuma-era “white monopoly capital” ruse as well as in one of the main opposition party’s populist rantings whenever their leader’s personal conduct and ethics are questioned.
Mugabe’s legacy as a Pan Africanist is highly questionable. In fact, one would even question whether Mugabe should be considered an ideologue who tried to advance any ideology at all. The closest thing that Mugabe believed in, that could be called an ideology at a stretch, can be found in his own words, “our votes must go together with our guns.
After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer-its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
So, if the people’s vote goes against us, we have our guns, violence, intimidation and murder to keep ourselves in power. This is Mugabe and ZANU at their best, not just post the 1990s as the popular narrative holds, but right throughout their history, as long as Mugabe and his ilk were at the helm.
So, in bidding farewell to a man whose life and politics have defined an era for Africa, we would do well to remind ourselves of the words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the poem Ozymandias, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!”
Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government. He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.