Some people push this as the truth; Robert Mugabe was a liberation war hero and an icon of Pan-African progress. And others, this; Robert Mugabe was a brutal dictator who over saw the murder of thousands of Zimbabweans, victimized his political opponents and who sought to remain in power for as long as he could outmaneuver them.
Even before he died, Zimbabweans had started the endless debate on social media about this man’s legacy. People usually take sides and only see one of those two extremes.
We have a complicated relationship with the bad things that are done by the people who have power over us. As a result, we don’t have enough distance from the emotional strain Mugabe’s rule put on us or from the overwhelming weight of his gravitas to see not only that he was both these things and everything in between them, but also to what extent he was these things.
When I was still in Primary School, my mother started a savings account for each one of her four children at the Post Office Savings Bank. In those days, you got a little book where the teller wrote your new balance each time you visited the bank. It was fun to watch the balance growing. “This money is for when you’re at University or when you want to start your own family,” my mother told me. “I don’t want you to start with nothing.”
She wanted to give us a leg up because she and my father had started from scratch and did not want their children to do the same. They both had rural upbringings and moved to the city with other young hopefuls of their time, seeking to start a career in any one of the few sectors open to black people in Zimbabwe before independence.
She also wanted us to learn to save. “One of the most important lessons I can teach you is how to save your money,” she said. “Don’t spend everything. Always put something aside.”
And she showed us by example. We watched our savings grow for about ten years and fantasized about what we would do with the money.
Then one day, all the savings were gone. After hyperinflation hit Zimbabwe in the 2000s, all those years of putting money in the bank came to nothing. In the end, it was worth so little, it wasn’t even worth it going to the bank to take it all out. There are pensioners in Zimbabwe today who had set aside what they assumed to be healthy retirement funds, only to have it disappear under their noses.
As people made a run to get their money out of the banks, cash shortages ensued. Some would sleep in queues outside banks to get a few dollars at a time and then get angry with bank managers for not giving them all their money.
Mugabe’s government did that to bank accounts, pensions and investments. It also did it to people; slowly ripped away our value and values till we didn’t even know how to speak up for ourselves without it becoming a skirmish of the downtrodden. We don’t know, as a people, how to speak out against power without it becoming about hating the ruling party, or about being unpatriotic or a sellout or a boot licker of Western ideologies.
As in Mugabe’s case, you will often see people having intellectual arguments about whether or not to vilify a leader who has erred. “Focus on the good they did,” is the argument. “They delivered us to the promised land.” But in Harare, if someone grabs your cellphone on the street and you scream, “Thief!” People will run after the suspected thief and, quite unfortunately, pound them senseless. No one says, “Wait a minute, let’s assess this person for the good they have done in life.” No one says, “Maybe he was trying to feed his children or to rob from the rich and give to the poor.” No one cares about all of that. In that moment, even the sympathizers who don’t want him to experience mob justice are angry at him for supposedly stealing the phone.
We do not over-intellectualize the matter. Even in court, where there is leniency shown for a crime committed under extenuating circumstances, it is still labelled a crime. Out here on the leadership front though, we want to hold conferences and debates to discuss if Mugabe was good or bad. That is dishonest. I suspect that even a six year old, given the story of this man’s life, will tell you, here was a man who did good and then messed it all up. Big time.
So do we remember him as a good or a bad person? What is his legacy?
If I, a common person, go out and steal a car today, the news reports would refer to me as the car thief. It won’t matter what good things I do or have done. Those things will perhaps be mentioned in latter paragraphs. We, rightly or wrongly, call people who have been convicted of serious crimes felons. We stick that one damning label onto them.
And Mugabe? We want to have plenaries to discuss his legacy?
Then there are the people who want to make the argument more complicated than it really is. They bring in the actions of the West in fast-tracking Zimbabwe’s demise. Is there interference by other governments in Zimbabwe’s affairs? Yes. If we ask that question though, we should also ask if our leaders have acted in our best interests in managing the economy and in dealing with this interference. The answer is no. Too many times they put their own self-interest ahead of the country.
Perhaps the big scale of history, over time, will judge these powerful men and women in the same way that the small scale of society judges us, the more common people, with immediacy.
It takes us time to distance ourselves from the auras of leaders, from the fear they strike in our hearts, from the anger we carry with us and cannot share out loud. As Zimbabweans, we carry a lot of that unexpressed anger. We carry too much trauma to bear the full load of the truth right now. By the time you are grown up enough to read this, perhaps the world would have matured in its relationship with power. Perhaps, by then, no matter how big the stick is, we will be brave enough to call it a stick.
PICTURE: Fungai Tichawangana / FUNGAIOTO
Journalists accost Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe after he had cast his vote in the country’s general elections, July 2013. Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) party won the elections by a landslide amid widespread accusations of vote rigging.