The long-overdue expiry of Robert Mugabe was a bittersweet event for me, arriving as it did at least 30 years too late, following a depressing week in the South African news cycle and immediately preceding the death of our beloved Springbok legend, Chester Williams. After all the damage already wrought by him and with Zimbabwe now under the control of the man who carried out massacres in his name, his death was cold comfort.
The fallout following the event, however, did make an impression. The death of this brutal dictator, has in the last week culminated in the absolute apotheosis of years of creepy equivocation and dishonest moral ambiguity by the media and political class. It is a testament to Mugabe’s successful harnessing of racial grievance politics, post-colonial guilt and the refusal to condemn liberation leaders (at all costs) that he is receiving sycophantic tributes and pontificating puff pieces around his “complex” legacy.
Echoing and even amplifying decades of failure on the part of the political class to stand up for the people of our Northern neighbour for fear of criticising a revolutionary leader, and while our own people beat and murder Zimbabwean immigrants in the streets of Johannesburg in a series of xenophobic attacks, our government and political parties have offered little but lies and obsequious praise. Of course Mugabe himself was a fan of this professional courtesy – Mengistu Haile Mariam, architect of the horrifying Ethiopian genocide, remains a fugitive from justice, comfortably ensconced in a large mansion in Harare and was even said to have advised Mugabe on “security matters” including his ruthless program of land-clearances, Operation Murambatsvina (“Move the rubbish”).
Predictably then, the ANC’s official statement was an insult to all those who suffered under Mugabe’s rule and have come to our country to seek a better life, only to be failed by our government as well who choose political expediency over morality and integrity. Here is a sample of ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule’s fatuous speech.
We mourn the passing of our brother Comrade President Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who passes away having devoted his life to the service of his country and his people…
Comrade Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has over the years been a longstanding friend and supporter of the African National Congress (ANC), from the exile years through to democracy. Our fraternal relations, grounded in the mutual aspirations of human rights, political dignity and social justice – have endured over the years…
To the Mugabe family, we extend our heartfelt condolences. To our friends in Zanu-PF be comforted that you have lost a leader whose service to his country will forever be inscribed. We mourn with you the passing of our friend, statesman, leader, revolutionary.
To hear Mugabe’s name invoked in the context of “human rights, political dignity and social justice” is nothing short of a cruel joke.
I know many Zimbaweans here in Cape Town. Many who are highly educated who now have to drive cabs and wait tables for a living and their positivity and emotional fortitude never ceases to astonish me. This drivel, spouted by the pampered hypocrites of the South African political class, is a slap in the face to these people to whom we owe immense solidarity.
Of course one should expect no better from South African politicians and the media have not been much better – cowed by the cultural yolk of identity politics they also offer up cowardly fence-sitting and moral relativism. I had to roll my eyes at the hand-wringing nonsense I heard on the radio about how he “started out with good intentions” but the way he went about it was “up for debate”.
The international media have not been much better – while offering up his legacy as something of a cautionary tale, journalists skirt around Mugabe’s propensity for mass murder and fuelling of racial and tribal bigotry. Tellingly, very few even mention the brutal land-grabs of white-owned farms. This is not surprising, as we all know in this day and age it’s not particularly trendy to stick up for someone if they happen to be white, regardless of who is at fault. In actual fact much of the land that was invaded was legally purchased post-independence and was not redistributed to the people as promised but rather was doled out to Zanu-PF cronies leaving the land mismanaged and fallow, the economy plunging into an ever-deepening crisis and over 400,000 black farmworkers displaced and jobless. Yes we are told, while imperfect, this program was “necessary” or “widely praised”, according to several articles in the British press. To quote one particularly egregious moral own-goal from Will Hutton of the Guardian;
Of course, he had a great story. It needed a strong man to take on the noxious legacy of colonisation. The white community, still owning vast tracts of land, would necessarily oppose black rule. Fire had to be fought with fire: Zimbabweans should not listen to complaints about democratic abuse and interference with the rule of law. This was a raw power struggle in which democratic norms came second to redressing gross injustice. His black critics were playing into the hands of the whites.
But the most common misconception at the route of the failure to see the man for what he was seems to be this idea that he started out on the right foot – essentially a good man and a brave revolutionary leader with good intentions who lost himself along the way. This is a lie that must be confronted head on.
To hear Mugabe’ name invoked in the context of “human rights, political dignity and social justice” is nothing short of a cruel joke.
Following the revolutionary Bush War that saw the white Rhodesian government deposed, Mugabe served as Prime Minister from 1980 to 1987 (after which he was appointed as President) and he wasted no time in brutally consolidating his power. In 1983, having come to power as the leader of the predominantly Shona ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and seeing fellow revolutionary Joshua Nkomo’s and primarily Ndebele ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) as a potential ideological rival, he sent his North-Korean-trained Fifth Brigade death squads south into Matabeleland where they murdered, tortured, and brutalised thousands of civilians. Many were forced in re-education camps while others were simply executed. Estimates vary but the consensus of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) is that over 20,000 people were killed. This was known as Operation Gukurahundi– a Shona word roughly translated as “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains”.
This was by no means the last creatively-named exercise in casual and widespread brutality employed by the Mugabe regime. Along with the aforementioned Murambatsvina, enraged by support for the opposition party, The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2008, he implemented Operation Ngatipedzenavo (“Let Us Finish Them Off”), a bloodthirsty maelstrom of beatings, assassinations and torture to crush any hopes and aspirations for political change. With the relative acquiescence of the African Union and the international community, it proved effective.
If you want a fair accounting of Robert Mugabe’s legacy then these are the facts you will have to contend with. If you want to argue about the moral complexity of such of a man, then you have to admit to being the kind of person who can look one of his victims in the eye and try and make your case with a straight face. To argue that Robert Mugabe’s methods were “up for debate”is to erase the tens of thousands of people who suffered and died as a direct result of his lust for power. Ultimately Mugabe was for himself, not for the people of Zimbabwe. In his own words:
“I will never, never, never surrender. Zimbabwe is mine.”