A tyrant goes out with a whimper
ROBERT MUGABE inspired many feelings among Zimbabweans. First there was devotion, as he led the country to independence in 1980. Later came anger, as his economic policies turned Africa’s bread-basket into a basket-case. His toppling in a coup in 2017 produced catharsis, as Zimbabweans, even those who once admired Mugabe, expressed hope that life would change.
What the despot never inspired was apathy. Yet that was the overwhelming mood at his state funeral in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, on September 14th. The stands at the National Sports Stadium were not even half-full. Military chiefs closed their eyes behind designer sunglasses and fell asleep. Many African leaders did not show up.
Those who attended went through the usual tropes: “liberation hero”, “son of the soil”, “pan-African icon”. No mention was made of the approximately 20,000 Ndebele Zimbabweans, most of them civilians, murdered by his security forces in the 1980s. Little was said about the impoverishment of the country. Then again, other “liberation” parties are wont to look after their own.
Outside the stadium there was very little sense of liberation. The economy is once again in freefall, the combined result of Mugabe’s long, destructive rule and the inability of Emmerson Mnangagwa, his successor, to stop the rot. The Zimbabwean dollar, notionally worth a US dollar a year ago, is today trading at 6% of a greenback. Inflation is running at about 500% a year. Petrol, electricity and tap water are scarce. It is hard to muster the enthusiasm to mourn a dictator when you cannot feed your family.
The week that ended in a collective shrug had otherwise been a time of reflection, confusion and farce. Robert Mugabe was never the sort to rest in peace. And his death, on September 6th at the age of 95, ensured that Mugabe caused trouble for Mr Mnangagwa from beyond the grave.
First there was the battle of Bob’s body. On September 11th Mugabe’s corpse arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, on a flight from Singapore, where the former president had chosen to receive treatment rather than rely on the hospitals he wrecked. He was met by hundreds of mourners, not all of them bused in by the ruling party, Zanu-PF. From the airport he was whisked to the Mugabe family’s mansion, known as “the blue roof”, after the azure tiles that line the top of the gaudy structure.
He was accompanied by members of his family, including Grace Mugabe, his second wife, who had unwittingly hastened his downfall. In 2017, as Mugabe proceeded further into his dotage, she jostled to succeed him, fronting the so-called “Generation 40” (G40) faction within Zanu-PF. Those shenanigans prompted Mr Mnagagwa, one of Mugabe’s veteran henchmen, and his military allies to replace the president. Since then Ms Mugabe has been a pariah, left to her shopping and scorn.
For several days, though, Zanu-PF needed to play nice with the Mugabes. Without their co-operation on funeral arrangements it would prove hard to maintain the fiction that Mr Mnangagwa’s succession was smooth, rather than a coup. And since they had the body, the Mugabes had bargaiining power.
So began a squabble over where Mugabe would be buried. The family pushed for a plot near to his place of birth, in Zvimba district. Mr Mnangagwa wanted Mugabe to lie in Heroes’ Acre, a cemetary in Harare occupied by other war veterans. The burial was set for September 15th but, as Leo Mugabe, Robert’s nephew, explained: “There will be no body-viewing because there will be no person in the coffin.” After much negotiation it was agreed that Mugabe would be buried in Heroes’ Acre, but not yet. First a suitably grand mausoleum needs to be built. That may take 30 days.
While the Mugabes and the junta negotiated, the public had a chance to say goodbye. On September 12th and 13th Zimbabweans could view Mugabe’s coffin at Rufaro stadium, where in 1980 the first national flag was raised in an independent Zimbabwe. Today it is a dilapidated pile of concrete. The Mugabe family sat in the VIP seats, looking bored. Two military helicopters stood at either end of the pitch. And in the middle of the parched pitch, underneath a white gazebo, lay Mugabe.
People shuffled past, including your correspondent, to catch a glimpse of the deceased tyrant. He wore a black suit and white shirt, his upper-quarter visible through a plastic screen. The make-up job was delicate, but he looked gaunt and, well, dead.
Mourners had complex motives. Some genuinely wanted to say “thank you” to the man who led the liberation war against white rule. “We’ve come to pay our last respects to the father of our nation,” said More Blessing. “This man took us to independence,” explained Doreen Mawuye. “He is the hero of heroes, the one who gave us education.” Laneck Chidedura “loved him personally”, for “how he stood by his principles”.
Others came out of a sense of curiosity. Mugabe was an ever-present figure in the lives of Zimbabweans. Now he is gone. “I desperately wanted to see him. Growing up he was everything,” said Andrew Bernard. Others were less doleful. “People just want to check if he is really dead,” said Marvellous Chibagidi.
Elsewhere the sense was of a country keen to move on, not just from Mugabe but from the whole “liberation” generation that has plundered the nation. Thousands did turn up at Rufaro but by the 13th, the stream of mourners had become a trickle. Young Zimbabweans, especially, seemed unmoved by the spectacle.
Some were downright peeved. On September 10th students at the University of Zimbabwe had been told to vacate their dormitories to make room for visiting dignitaries. No matter that term had started just two weeks previously and that the cost of finding alternative rooms would have been steep.
Rather than acquiesce, these students stood their ground, protested and had the decision rescinded. These young people do not necessarily detest Mugabe. “His legacy is complicated,” said Abiona Mataranyika, the chair of the student union. She admires Mugabe’s emphasis on education and how he stood up to the West. But she recognises that he committed human-rights abuses and “if you look at the economy, he screwed up big time”. Her fellow student, Watson Mavura, liked that “he was an intellectual who took us to independence, even if he had a lot of negative sides.”
What both objected to was the way the state sought to treat them. “It felt like we were being forced to mourn,” said Mr Mavura. They would much rather be left to focus on their studies than to be dragged into political pageantry.
So instead of a grand send-off, Mugabe had a tawdry one. Zimbabweans have complex feelings about their former president. Yet the empty seats at his funeral spoke volumes. Most of the country is too busy trying to survive to think much about the past. Mugabe is dead but his ruinous legacy is very much alive.