23/11/2017 10:05 SAST | Updated 23/11/2017 11:05 SAST

Robert Mugabe: The Creator And Destroyer Of Modern Zimbabwe

Mugabe leaves Zimbabwe -- and the world art large -- with a powerful but tragic legacy as a destructive leader.

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Philimon Bulawayo/ Reuters
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.

Today is the second day of Zimbabwe without its former president, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. He leaves Zimbabwe -- and the world art large -- with a powerful but tragic legacy as a destructive leader.

Our brief review of his colourful and dramatic life history reveals that his personal fortunes became entangled with that of the Zimbabwean nation, leading to a successful (if bloody) struggle to overthrow British colonial rule. However, as we show below, in the process the liberation hero tragically became a one-man ruler with dictatorial tendencies and, as with other historical figures, his leadership of the nation ended in tears.

Philimon Bulawayo/File Photo/ REUTERS
Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on February 21, 1924, in Kutama, a Jesuit mission station 50 miles west of the Southern Rhodesian capital. His father, Gabriel Matibili, was a carpenter from Nyasaland (later Malawi). His mother, Bona, belonged to the prominent Shona ethnic group.

Mugabe graduated from Kutama's St. Francis Xavier College in 1945. For the next 15 years, he taught in Rhodesia and Ghana and pursued further education at Fort Hare University in South Africa. In Ghana, he met and married his first wife, Sally Hayfron.

In 1960 Mugabe joined the pro-independence National Democratic Party, becoming its publicity secretary. In 1961 the NDP was banned and reformed as the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu). Two years later Mugabe left ZAPU for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu, later Zanu-PF), his political home until yesterday.

In 1964, Zanu was banned by Rhodesia's colonial government and Mugabe was imprisoned. In prison, Mugabe taught English to his fellow prisoners and earned multiple graduate degrees by correspondence from the University of London.

Indeed he helped create hope for a new Zimbabwe, which he would later destroy.

Freed in 1974, Mugabe went into exile in Zambia and Mozambique, and in 1977 he gained full control of Zanu's political and military fronts. He adopted Marxist and Maoist views and received arms and training from Asia and eastern Europe, but he still maintained good relations with Western donors.

A 1978 accord between Ian Smith's government and moderate black leaders paved the way for the election of Bishop Abel Muzorewa as prime minister of the state known as Zimbabwe Rhodesia, but it lacked international recognition because Zanu and Zapu had not participated.

In 1979, the British-brokered Lancaster House Agreement brought the major parties together to agree to majority rule while protecting the rights and property of the white minority. After winning new elections on March 4, 1980, Mugabe worked to convince the new country's 200,000 whites, including 4,500 commercial farmers, to stay. Indeed, he helped create hope for a new Zimbabwe, which he would later destroy.

In 1982, Mugabe sent his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to the Zapu stronghold of Matabeleland to smash dissent. Over five years, an estimated 20,000 Ndebele civilians were killed as part of a campaign of alleged political genocide. In 1987 Mugabe switched tactics, inviting Zapu to be merged with the governing Zanu-PF and creating a de facto one-party authoritarian state with himself as the ruling president.

During the 1990s, Mugabe was re-elected twice, became a widower and remarried. In 1998 he sent Zimbabwean troops to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war -- a move many viewed as a grab for the country's diamonds and valuable minerals.

Under the pretext of creating wealth for the previously marginalised (deserved), the manner this played out could only destroy the economic fabric of the nation.

To achieve this, in 2000 Mugabe organised a referendum on a new Zimbabwean constitution that would expand the powers of the presidency and allow the government to seize white-owned land. Groups opposed to the constitution formed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which successfully campaigned for a "no" vote in the referendum.

That same year, groups of individuals calling themselves "war veterans" -- though many were not old enough to have been part of Zimbabwe's independence struggle -- began invading white-owned farms. Violence caused many of Zimbabwe's whites to flee the country. Zimbabwe's commercial farming collapsed, triggering years of hyperinflation and food shortages that created a nation of impoverished billionaires.

After a 2008 election marred by Zanu-PF-sponsored violence, Mugabe was pressured by his regional allies to form an inclusive government with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai as vice-president. Even while implementing the accord, Mugabe kept up the pressure, subjecting MDC parliamentarians to arrest, imprisonment and torture.

Philimon Bulawayo / Reuters
An election official holds a ballot paper showing President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare, Zimbabwe June 27, 2008.

What will we remember from Robert Mugabe's reign of 37 years?

First, a legacy of struggle for independence that would turn into a dictatorship. Mugabe dominated the political landscape by force of personality, backed up with access to the security services (during the liberation struggle and after independence) to enforce his will.

The liberation struggle provided a unifying ideology that would bind Zimbabweans to say "never again would they be oppressed!".

On the flipside, the Matabeleland massacre will not be forgotten. This is a legacy of fear and loathing among the Zimbabwean people -- very much the behaviour of people under oppression -- whether under Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Id Amin of Uganda, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, or Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania.

Secondly, a legacy of a creator and destroyer. Mugabe's legacy in the 1980s is that of free primary education, a highly literate population, health care for all and food security among other notable achievements -- partly inherited from the past.

Given the spirit of resilience found amongst many Zimbabweans, it might just be possible for the country to embark on the difficult journey of physical and psychological recovery.

He was a symbol of hope to the extent that he was knighted by the queen of England.

Zimbabwe still has much potential to thrive as a successful agricultural producer, will beneficiate minerals if given the chance, and has an entrepreneurial spirit to develop an industrial base -- but Mugabe sabotaged the country's economic potential and many of the productive workforce to drive development are scattered in the diaspora. This is a legacy as the architect of poverty.

Thirdly, the "fading-liberation-struggle-hero" legacy. There is no denying Mugabe's dominant role in regional and continental affairs during much of the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, many technocrats in a number of intergovernmental organisations and international cooperations hailed from Zimbabwe.

However, towards the late 1990s, as the Cold War and apartheid ended, it became obvious that the struggle against colonialism and global exploitation has taken a new form. Bush war and ideological condemnation made way for new tools of struggle -- alliances and networks of professionals to develop responses to the demands of globalisation. This was not a development Mugabe was able to internalise.

As with so many dictators, his family and he fell prey to the seduction of corruption and material greed. His legacy will be marked by a descent into depravity rather than a glorious historical freedom fighter.

Finally, it remains to be seen to what extent Zimbabwe will be able to extricate itself from this once-glorious but toxic legacy of dictatorship, oppression, poverty accelerator and corruption. History demonstrates that it takes a nation many years to overcome such a setback. However, given the spirit of resilience found amongst many Zimbabweans, it might just be possible for the country to embark on the difficult journey of physical and psychological recovery.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is a professor at the Wits School of Governance.