The death of Robert Mugabe, the 95-year-old former president of Zimbabwe, on Friday elicited a mixed and somewhat subdued response from Zimbabweans, in part because he had already suffered his political death after being overthrown by the military in 2017.
Zimbabweans had celebrated the end of Mr. Mugabe’s 37-year-rule with enthusiasm on the streets and on social media. Until the coup, we Zimbabweans had been resigned to living under Mr. Mugabe’s rule till his death. There was a feeling he would outlive us.
After his ouster, Mr. Mugabe’s presidential portrait was replaced in public buildings by that of his longtime associate Emmerson Mnangagwa, who created a certain narrative of the coup: Emmerson was the dutiful son who merely took the reins from Robert, the ailing father and liberation hero who was being abused by his much younger second wife, Grace and her cronies, a faction of politicians who were born too late to participate in the war of the 1970s that ended white minority rule.
Speaking of Mr. Mugabe’s legacy has always been a difficult task without falling into the false dichotomies created by the tensions between his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and the West over transferring settler-owned land to black Zimbabweans.
The 1979 agreement that ended the conflict between Mr. Mugabe’s fighters and the white government gave political control to the black majority but ensured that the most productive farmland in this mostly agricultural nation remained in the hands of a few thousand white settlers. Britain, Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler, committed to raising hundreds of millions of dollars to buy white-owned land and redistribute it, but under the agreement white owners couldn’t be forced to sell for at least 10 years.
When Mr. Mugabe was elected prime minister in 1980, in his famous inaugural address, he urged Zimbabweans to “to forget our grim past, forgive and forget.” He gained greater popularity as his government embarked on huge social spending programs, which included the creation of an excellent education system.
But Mr. Mugabe swiftly moved to consolidate power. In 1982, arms believed to belong to former guerrilla fighters associated with Joshua Nkomo, a key leader in the liberation struggle and a contender to being the first black prime minister of the country, were found. Mr. Mugabe stripped Mr. Nkomo, who came from the Ndebele minority group, of his cabinet post and accused him of plotting a coup.
Soon the Fifth Brigade, a Korean-trained military unit reporting to Mr. Mnangagwa, then the minister of national security, killed more than 20,000 Ndebele people, who were accused of being “dissidents” supporting Mr. Nkomo. The Constitution was amended to give Mr. Mugabe even greater powers in an executive presidency.
In the late 1980s, an economic crisis forced Mr. Mugabe’s government to turn to a structural adjustment program by the International Monetary Fund in 1991. Unemployment and inflation rose, and do did popular disenchantment with Mr. Mugabe’s rule. Organized labor and civil rights groups led the dissenting voices. Pressure mounted on Mr. Mugabe to revamp an economy anchored on a white landowning class allied with international capital.
In 1997, as Mr. Mugabe’s government attempted to speed up land redistribution through the expropriation of 1,471 farms, Britain reneged on the commitment to finance land reform. A British official argued that a Labour government “without links to former colonial interests” had no “special responsibility” to pay for redistribution.
Increasingly agitated rural communities, veterans, local politicians and black business owners continued to pressure the ruling party to use its two-thirds majority to transform the agricultural sector, which contributed about 20 percent of the gross domestic product in the 1990s.
By 2000, veterans of the liberation war were fed up with the Mugabe government’s refusal to deliver fundamental land reform. On Easter weekend in 2000, 170,000 black families occupied 3,000 farms owned by white farmers. Mr. Mugabe’s government, seeing the occupation’s popularity with Zimbabweans, formalized it as its fast-track land redistribution program.
The economic fallout spread as inflation began to rise, the currency became worthless and lines outside supermarkets, banks, fuel stations, hospitals and workplaces lengthened. Mr. Mugabe became more repressive.
Zimbabwe and its economic meltdown after 2000 have been portrayed by the West as occurring in a vacuum set off by a “senseless land grab,” a narrative that ignores the historical basis for radical land redistribution and Britain’s betrayal of the 1979 agreement.
That Western narrative also skips over the fact that the land reform is far from being an unmitigated disaster. In 2016, tobacco exports brought in $887 million, 31 percent of the country’s total foreign revenue. This wealth is no longer the preserve of 1,500 mostly white large-scale tobacco growers but generated by 100,000 black farmers, of which 70,000 are small holders.
The loss of “white lands” and white lives — reportedly five white farmers were killed in the land seizures in 2000 — has determined the Western world’s attitude toward Zimbabwe. But Mr. Mugabe’s failures and repressive tactics were deemed relevant only when they threatened white settler and Western interests, as the Western silence over the killings of Ndebele people illustrated.
The brutal history of colonialism and imperialism has created a strain of pan-Africanism that largely defines itself by opposition to the West and ignores the excesses of Africa’s post-colonial rulers. In South Africa and other parts of the Africa, Mr. Mugabe was seen by certain quarters as a pan-Africanist revolutionary who was willing to stand up to the West. But that strain of pan-Africanism neglects Mr. Mugabe’s excesses, the killings of Ndebele people, rigging of the 2002 and 2008 elections, forcible clearance of slums, political abductions and widespread corruption.
Since Mr. Mugabe’s ouster, Mr. Mnangagwa, the new president, has revealed himself as the new face of the old Zimbabwe. Mr. Mnangagwa has tried to fashion his “post-Mugabe” government as a new liberal order keen to normalize relations with the West, with slogans like “Zimbabwe is open for business” and “The people’s voice is the voice of God.”
But the July 2018 election, in which six people were killed by security forces during violence over disputed results, have undermined his political legitimacy. Recently, Mr. Mnangagwa’s forces used tear gas, batons and whips to crush protests over deteriorating economic conditions. Since January, Mr. Mnangagwa’s forces have used tear gas, batons, whips and bullets to crush protests over deteriorating economic conditions, killing at least 17 people.
There was a time when many Zimbabweans believed that Mr. Mugabe’s death would signal something new for the country. But his demise means nothing when the repressive system he helped establish is thriving.
The wait for Mr. Mugabe’s departure weighed down so heavily on our hearts and minds that it constrained the spirit of radical political imagination that delivered us from colonial rule. We limited our political imagination to the end of colonialism, with dire consequences for our post-independence years. Now with Mr. Mugabe gone, we need to understand the Zimbabwe’s future is not a matter of the old dying and the new being born.
Beyond opposing the current president, Zimbabwe needs a genuinely pan-African mass movement that is pro-land-reform, pro-indigenization, pro-poor, pro-women and pro-L. G.B.T.Q to challenge the broader system of Big Man politics he represents.
We need a progressive movement that will be anti-corruption, anti-injustice and anti-violence while addressing the historical injustices of colonial rule and state-sponsored violence. Zimbabwe’s future lies in pulling generations together to truly reimagine ourselves and our politics to ensure that our nation benefits all of its people.
Panashe Chigumadzi is the author of “These Bones Will Rise Again,” a book about the coup that deposed Robert Mugabe.
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