Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s place in history is complicated. Vilified and jailed by Ian Smith’s white-minority rogue government of Rhodesia, he became an icon for African nationalists for spearheading the armed struggle that brought about majority rule for Zimbabwe.
As prime minister and then president, he received early praise for his apparent magnanimity towards his defeated white opponents during the 1980 post-election period, and for education reforms in his early tenure.
But by the time he was removed in an army coup in 2017 after 37 years in power, Mugabe’s legacy was seriously tarnished. His rule had become despotic, with political opponents jailed, tortured and murdered, and he was castigated for permissive attitude towards grand corruption within his government.
His rule saw appalling excesses such as the Matabeleland genocide, known locally as Gukurahundi, which scholars believe accounted for at least 20,000 Ndebele deaths. There was adventurism in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Land invasions and widespread political violence in Zimbabwe deepened the country’s isolation and wrecked its economy, ensuring that few Zimbabweans rued his sudden fall from power.
In Mugabe’s Legacy: Coups, Conspiracies and the Conceits of Power, David Moore, who recently retired as professor of development studies at the University of Johannesburg, suggests that Mugabe’s early life in the Zimbabwean liberation movement offers vital keys to understanding his later rule.
Born in rural Mashonaland, the clever young schoolteacher – regarded by his own mother as something of an unlovable oddball – was just one of many leaders awakening to a life of burning injustice in colonial and apartheid Southern Africa.
The initial liberation era was riven by factionalism – sometimes determined by political philosophies, sometimes by tribal affiliations. To reach the top, Mugabe would have to impose his will on allies and enemies alike. His subsequent aggressive rise through the hierarchy of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) showed the determination, as well as the ruthless Machiavellian streak, that would dominate the remainder of his career.
From the mid-1970s his domineering personality and willingness to use violence to purge young, radical challengers allowed Mugabe to lead the movement through the complexities of the Cold War and regional, ideological, generational, inter- and intra-party tensions. The lessons learned by Mugabe throughout his tough and brutal climb to the top stayed with him for the entirety of his political career, Moore shows.
As the war accelerated in ferocity towards the end of the 1970s, when the Rhodesian regime faced sustained military pressure and growing international isolation, Mugabe increasingly came to see himself as inseparable from the movement.
As one highly-critical, prominent but apolitical Zimbabwean told me, Mugabe, surrounded by sycophants, began to believe in the hero myth that had been built of himself as the “liberation fighter president”. Mugabe became convinced that Zanu was the only political party that could rule Zimbabwe – and that he was the only man to lead that party in the post-independence era.
As leader of the country – even while projecting himself internationally as an Anglophile lover of cricket with a predilection for tailored Saville Row suits – Mugabe soon began to turn the ferocity of his vision inwards. Political disputes with the Ndebele-dominated Zimbabwe African Patriotic Union and its charismatic leader Joshua Nkomo sparked the mass violence of the terrifying Gukurahundi campaign, to which the world largely turned a blind eye.
Indeed, it was not until the 1990s that Mugabe’s governance began to be seriously scrutinised by much of the international community. As the economy slumped and he came under pressure from radical opponents to reshape the nature of Zimbabwe’s white-dominated farming sector, Mugabe unleashed the power of the so-called “war veterans” movement, which began seizing and occupying white-owned farms, sometimes violently. It is in detailing the legacy of this disastrous move that Moore comes into his own.
Drawing on his own wealth of research into the land seizures, including his 2005 contribution to Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in Africa, he shows how Zimbabwe’s economy nose-dived.
“By 2004 the ‘fast track’ land reform process arising from the ZANU (PF)’s 2000 referendum loss and close election was moving towards a new agricultural mode.
“Over 1,500 white-owned large-scale commercial farms were now 127,192 households on A1 plots with use rights and grazing land, 7,260 ‘capitalists’ with leasehold and a ‘proposed option to buy’, and a few hundred big chiefs gaining most news coverage.
“Nearly 250,000 people waited for this land while more than four million starved. Productive and commercial farmers decreased from 4,500 in 2000 to under 500 in 2004.”
Moore tells us that Zimbabwe’s wheat production fell to 170,000 tons a year in 2004, from the former 300,000 tons average. The land-reform programme presaged a wider collapse of confidence in Mugabe’s leadership and in the economic direction of his government, which had become marred by corruption and rent-seeking.
Moore quotes Rob Davies, the former South African minister of trade and industry, reporting that Zimbabwean income per head fell by 2011 to 53% of the 1996 level. If growth had remained at the 1996 rate, income would have been 97% higher.
In 1980 when Zimbabwe achieved independence, the local currency, the Zimbabwe dollar, was worth twice that of the US dollar: and Moore observes that “if Zimbabwean people accepted that scale for weighing the merits of past and present then by 2005, life was 56,000 times worse than in 1980.”
Critical voices silenced
In truth, Mugabe’s presidency never recovered from the fiasco of the land reform programme. Geopolitically isolated and placed under sanctions by the US and Europe, Mugabe increasingly turned on his political opponents and allowed his allies to dominate what remained of the shrinking economy. With critical voices silenced and no space for dissenting political views, it was ultimately the military, wielded by senior allies in Zanu, that forced him from the throne.
In the continuing rule of that institution, which is struggling to return Zimbabwe to growth, continues to be shunned by Western powers and refuses to liberalise the political space, Moore shows that Mugabe’s true legacy lives on.