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Mugabe and the irreconcilable legacy he left behind

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On April 17, 1980, as Robert Mugabe was sworn in as Prime Minister, the newly independent Zimbabwe was the most celebrated nation on the African continent. The former strife-torn colony, Rhodesia, had become an independent black-ruled nation after 90 years of white domination and 15 years of illegal independence. Robert Mugabe’s seemingly charismatic, intellectual and unaggressive character had made him Britain’s closest ally during the political transition. Robert Mugabe, being the leader of ZANU, the party that won 57 of the 80 seats during the 1980 parliamentary elections, was the obvious candidate to lead the new nation to a prosperous future. Even the displeased white minority had nothing on him at the time. If anything, he was the guy who wanted to reconcile Zimbabwe’s white elite community with the Zimbabwean native peasantry. No one could have ever thought that Mugabe, a man who was once the celebrated savior of Zimbabwe could be forced to resign by his people.

Speaking to an audience of about 35,000 overjoyed Zimbabweans and representatives of about 100 countries at Salisbury's main stadium, after taking the oath of office, Robert Mugabe pleaded to the people of Zimbabwe to end the hatred of seven years of war. Though the desire for land was one of the prime reasons black Zimbabweans had voted for Mugabe, since half of the country's land was controlled by about 5,000 white farmers, Mugabe had pledged not to expropriate white-owned farms. He had decided, instead, to settle the black farmers on vast areas of land that are unoccupied because of war ( Ross, 1980).

Britain had already promised $165 million in assistance and the United States had pledged $20 million that same year, with another $25 million next year depending on congressional approval. After obtaining independence and economic assistance from its former colonial master, one would expect Zimbabwe to prosper in no time. No one could have predicted that during his 37-year-old career, Mugabe would not achieve much of what he had promised (NZ Herald, 2017).

Mugabe first came into contact with communist ideas when he was pursuing a degree at University of Fort Hare in South Africa. There, he met a number of South African communists who introduced him to Marxist ideas. Like Mugabe, many African liberation leaders were attracted by the notions of social equality, mutual respect, and the sharing of labor because they perceived these values to have a lot in common with African traditions. It was after living in Ghana, however, that Mugabe finally embraced Marxism. He had gone to Ghana to see what it would be like to live in an independent African state; Ghana being the first African state to gain independence from its colonial masters. Mugabe admired the achievements of Kwame Nkrumah and even attended the Kwame Nkrumah ideological Institute in Winneba, which was formed to promote socialism in Ghana. Mugabe also mentioned Mahatma Gandhi to be one of his role models. Gandhi’s ideas of peaceful revolution seem apparent in Mugabe’s earlier political career when he was still advocating for peaceful relations between the black and white communities in Zimbabwe (Pavesi, 2019)

In 1960, he returned to the colony of Southern Rhodesia, where an anti-colonialist nationalist movement had spread. According to Mugabe (1981, p. 25-27), the first time Mugabe was part of a demonstration was when a march of 7,000 people walked from Highfield, a township that was built for African Rhodesians, to the Prime Minister's office in Salisbury. By midday the next day, the crowd had grown to 40,000. Mugabe, who was at the time in the possession of three degrees, had been invited to speak to the crowd. Following this event, Mugabe decided to devote himself full-time to activism. After resigning from his teaching post in Ghana, he joined the National Democratic Party (NPD), which was later renamed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), where he was soon elected as the party's publicity secretary.

In 1961, the British government held the Salisbury conference to determine Southern Rhodesia's future. Nkomo led an NDP delegation, which hoped to convince the British to support the creation of an independent state governed by the black majority. Representatives of the country's white minority were, however, opposed to this, and wished to continue white minority rule. Contrary to his party members who wanted nothing short of black majority rule, Nkomo agreed to a proposal which would allow the black majority to have only 15 of the 65 seats in Rhodesia’s parliament. This event is believed to be what incited the persisting feud between the NDP founding members in addition to contrasted political views; While radical nationalists like Mugabe believed that racial violence was inevitable in order to the overthrow British colonialists and white minority government, Nkomo and his followers thought it would be best to focus on international diplomacy in order to encourage the British government to grant their demands. Increasing disagreements between party members pushed the nationalists who were opposed to Nkomo's leadership to establish a new party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Smith & Simpson, 1981, p.37)

Mugabe was arrested shortly after, for refusing to retract inflammatory statements he had publicly made about the white minority government. While in prison, Ian Smith, who was leading the Rhodesian government, banned ZANU and ZAPU and arrested all its leaders. This was followed by issuing a Unilateral Declaration of independence to create the white-ruled state of Rhodesia, as a strategy to ruin the United Kingdom 's plans to enforce majority rule in Rhodesia. The UK refused to recognize the legitimacy of this and imposed economic sanctions on the country (Meredith, 2002).

After his release, Mugabe fled to Mozambique where he met with his ally and leader of the Mozambique Liberation Front, Samora Machel. While in exile, Mugabe, with the help of other African nationalists who had fled Ian Smith’s regime, organised a guerrilla war against Smith's government popularly known as the "Second Chimurenga". Chimurenga is a Shona word which means to fight or struggle. Traditionally, Chimurenga is a fight in which everyone takes part. The Rhodesian bush war which was labeled as the “ second revolution” was a fulfilment of the prophecy of a great Shona spirit, Mbuya Nehanda, sister of the great Shona prophet Chaminuka. Mbuya Nehanda led the first revolution against British colonial rule which was officially known as the first Chimurenga. Before she was hanged, she declared that her bones will rise and fight the second war to finally liberate Rhodesia (Zambuko). According to Re-living the Second Chimurenga, young peasants, including high school students had joined the liberation struggle, counting in thousands by 1974. The change from forced recruitment to volunteering was mainly due to the military success ZANLA scored from 1972. The freedom fighters believed they had the support of the ancestral spirits, in particular the spirit of Nehanda, who had come to finish the fight she had started 100 years ago. The liberation struggle saw the resurgence of traditional religion which became both an incentive to win the war and a way for the elite nationalist to connect with the Rhodesia peasants who did not understand the western political ideologies like socialism (Chung, 2009).

After continuously losing a costly war, Smith finally accepted that white minority rule was no longer a possibility. He oversaw the 1979 election which resulted in Abel Muzorewa, a politically moderate black bishop, becoming Prime Minister of the reconstituted Rhodesia. Both ZANU and ZAPU boycotted the election, however, and so it never received international recognition. Desperate to end the political crisis in Rhodesia, the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced at 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that the UK would officially recognise the country's independence if it transitioned to democratic majority rule. This was followed by the Lancaster agreement that had all participants in the Rhodesian Bush War, Mugabe included, agree to a ceasefire. The agreement also outlined a plan that will ensure the political transition of Rhodesia to a sovereign state, governed under black-majority rule. The agreement also ensured that the country's white minority retained many of its economic and political privileges with 20 seats reserved for the white minority in the new parliament. Though reluctant at first, Mugabe agreed to the protection of the white community's privately owned property on the condition that the UK and U.S governments provide financial assistance allowing the Zimbabwean government to purchase enough land for redistribution among the black community (Chan, 2009).

After the agreement, Mugabe’s ZANU seemed like the party less likely to win the 1980 elections. Becoming Zimbabwe. A history from the pre-colonial period to 2008, however, argues the opposite; According to the publication, Muzowera’s United African National Council party stood no chance. During the 1979 election, voters had no choice at all. There were no parties contesting to lead the new nation, which is why the majority of black Rhodesians had voted for Muzowera. The 1980 election was different; Both ZAPU and ZANU were very popular amongst the majority black Rhodesians. (Raftopoulos & Mlambo, 2009)

There were also concerns that other parties did not understand the needs of the black Rhodesians. The national liberation parties, constituted of mainly black Rhodesian peasants, were able to articulate these needs in a way that best appealed to the black Rhodesians. During the electoral campaign, ZANU-PF had promised that land would be made available to all those who wished to use it. Black farmers were also promised to provide reasonable loans. A “reasonable” minimum wage was promised to agricultural laborers on the settler farms, and an examination of the structure of salaries was promised to mine workers. ZANU also promised to end the war; Though others had promised the same, voters believed the ZANU was most likely to fulfill its promises.

Chung (2009) also made a comparative study to understand why ZANU won the 1980 election instead of ZAPU, which was equally popular during and after the liberation war. Apparently, ZANU military strategies during the liberation struggle came in handy during the elections. ZAPU believed that ZANU would not have had such an overwhelming electoral victory had it not deployed its most experienced political commissars in the field to control part of the country while the rest of the army was in exile. ZANU's control of a sizable part of the country, particularly of the rural areas, turned it the most popular party overnight.

There are, however, other narratives about Robert Mugabe’s political career that put into question his character and role as a liberation leader. Raftopoulos & Mlambo (2009) also questioned if Mugabe ever really accepted the Lancaster House agreement. While the language of reconciliation and inclusiveness was very pronounced during Mugabe's early days in office, it became quickly apparent that the policy of reconciliation would be based on the subordination of opposition political forces. Established boundaries of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to the nation became quickly apparent. The Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and the Midlands in the mid-1980s displayed a number of these traits. Gukurahundi which in Shona means “early rain that washes away chaff”, refers to the attempted genocide of the Ndebele by Robert Mugabe's Fifth Brigade soon after Zimbabwe gained independence. By 1983, Mugabe had waged a campaign of terror against the people in Matabeleland in the western part of the country. The Gukurahundi massacres are one of the darkest times in the country’s history since its independence, killing between 20,000 and 80,000 civilians (p.12).

While earlier violence instigated by Zimbabwean nationalists was justified as inevitable to overcome the colonial regime, Re-living the Second Chimurenga, criticizes the aggressiveness that followed ZAPU and ZANU’s separation. According to the book, groups of youths roamed the townships demanding party cards from all and sundry. The petrol bombing of each other’s houses was becoming a daily occurrence. It was believed that the violence was initially instigated by ZAPU, using the slogan that it was essential to destroy the “snake inside the house”, meaning ZANU, before destroying the “snake outside”, meaning the colonial-settler regime of Ian Smith. This angle does not depict Mugabe and his nationalists as political leaders desperate to liberate their country, but rather greedy politicians in a power struggle.

While academics have had a hard time describing the true nature of Robert Mugabe, they all agree on his radical ideas that once helped him rise to power, as a consequence free Zimbabwe from colonial rule. Robert Mugabe’s legacy is one that is as revered and it is disdained. Though it is hard to trace the specific time Robert Mugabe’s character took a turn, he made a lot sacrifices to ensure the liberation of Zimbabwe. Mugabe was also admired for his Pan-africanist rhetoric that seemed to save his image when he was unable to deliver the promises he had made to his people.

Forced to resign in 2017, Mugabe was president long enough to see a new generation of Zimbabweans cheer the day he announced his resignation; the scene of people cheering on the streets resembled cunningly that of four decades ago when black Zimbabweans got rid of the white minority regime.


Ross, J. (1980, April 18). Zimbabwe gains independence. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/04/18/zimbabwe-gains-independence/185c3573-e9e4-4d3a-9dce-5fe89bf04605/

Unknown. (2017, Nov 22). The day Robert Mugabe was sworn in as Zimbabwe's Prime Minister. NZ Herald.

Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11946562

Mbiba, Beacon. (2009). Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, by Fay Chung. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/31301507_Re-living_the_Second_Chimurenga_Memories_from_Zimbabwe's_liberation_struggle_by_Fay_Chung

Raftopoulos, B., & Mlambo, A.S. (2009). Becoming Zimbabwe. A history from the pre-colonial period to 2008. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287607676_Becoming_Zimbabwe_A_history_from_the_pre-colonial_period_to_2008

Chan, S. (2009). Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence. Bloomsbury Academic

Smith, D., & Simpson, C. (1981). Mugabe. London: Sphere Books

Meredith, M. (2002). Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe. New York: Public Affairs