A crowd celebrating Mugabe before the fall. Picture: REUTERS
A crowd celebrating Mugabe before the fall. Picture: REUTERS

In 1980 tens of thousands of people waving banners, dancing and chanting slogans, thronged the streets of Zimbabwe’s cities, celebrating the dawn of a new era under Robert Mugabe, a giant of the African liberation struggle. 

Yet when his death was announced on Friday the messages on social media were decidedly mixed:  “An icon of anti-imperialist struggle”, a “big loss to Africa”, “good riddance to this evil tyrant”, “rot in hell” and “the African continent is better off without Mugabe”.

Given Zimbabwe's history, it is easy to sympathise with those who feel the need to dance on the grave of Mugabe, whose death comes nearly two years after he was ousted by his army after almost four decades in power, during which he destroyed much more than he built. The liberation hero had indeed become a power-hungry tyrant.

He deployed the same ruthlessness in his fight against white colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s to crush post-independence opponents, rig elections and drive his once-prosperous country into destitution.

In his early years as president he appeared sensible, presiding over a booming economy, extending education to the black majority and, remarkably,  championing racial reconciliation, including offering forgiveness to racist former white minority leader Ian Smith and keeping Ken Flower as head of intelligence, whose job description under the white minority rule had included arranging Mugabe’s assassination.

Mugabe went out of his way to reassure white farmers about their future in a newly independent country, knowing that Zimbabwe's economic welfare depended on them and accepting that he was bound by a constitutional agreement lasting 10 years, to undertake land reform on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis.  

But even in those early years his intolerance for dissent was limited, with a number of incidents indicating how ruthless he might be were he to gain full control of Zimbabwe, which he had reluctantly governed in coalition with rival Joshua Nkomo after an election victory in 1980. 

It did not take Mugabe long to unleash his henchmen, a death squad trained by North Koreans, on Nkomo’s supporters.  A series of massacres of Ndebele civilians followed, and hundreds of homes were trashed. Civilians were rounded up en masse, beaten for hours and executed, often in public.

It is soul-crushing to visualise the torture of those lucky  enough to be spared as they were forced to sing and dance on the mass graves of their neighbours and family members shortly after they had been inhumanely buried.  

By the mid 1980s the death squad — “Gukurahundi’’, a Shona word loosely translated as the early rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains — enforced a curfew in Matebeleland, a stronghold of Nkomo’s political party, starving to death thousands of people while others ate grass seeds and insects to stay alive.

Having crushed the dissidents, Mugabe’s dream of a one-party state where he would be able to dictate terms came true. With his dictatorial face on full display, he lay the country’s fortunes to waste with an ill-conceived plan to seize white-owned agricultural land,  sinking the economy to the point where the central bank was printing a 100-trillion Zimbabwe dollar bills, throwing millions of middle-class Zimbabweans into poverty.   

If ever a set of circumstances called for a celebratory dance on the grave, this would be it. But to rejoice over Mugabe’s death would rob us of our spirit of ubuntu, the same spirit that persuaded Nelson Mandela to strike up a cordial relationship with his jailers and compelled Mugabe to initially build a good working relationship with his former white adversaries.

Equally, celebrating Mugabe’s legacy would be an insult to the memory of the thousands of people who were killed in his pursuit of power. He deployed the same ruthlessness in his fight against white colonial rule in the 1960s and 1970s to crush post-independence opponents, rig elections and drive his once-prosperous country into destitution.

The reality is that Mugabe’s glorious revolutionary past pales in comparison to the unfortunate pain his post-liberation governance inflicted on Zimbabweans of all races, millions of whom have since fled the country in search of a better future elsewhere. Those left behind are fighting for survival in a moribund economy where there are shortages of everything from petrol to sugar.