The coffin of Zimbabwe former president Robert Mugabe during his official funeral ceremony at the National Sports stadium in Harare, September 14 2019. Picture: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA / AFP
The coffin of Zimbabwe former president Robert Mugabe during his official funeral ceremony at the National Sports stadium in Harare, September 14 2019. Picture: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA / AFP

Harare — It was billed as a resounding send-off for former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe but the crowds shunned Saturday’s memorial service. 

The poor attendance at the National Sports Stadium in Harare was a sharp contrast to that on Independence Day in 1980, when a full-capacity crowd packed Rufaro Stadium for the inauguration of Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s first prime minister.

Saturday’s low attendance underlined Mugabe’s transformation from a revered hero at independence to a polarising dictator at death.

His body will be in the custody of his family before it is buried, to allow for construction of a mausoleum that will take about 30 days to complete.

A weeklong dispute between the government and Mugabe’s family over where the former president would be interred ended on Friday after the state forced the Mugabes to allow the burial to take place at the National Heroes’ Acre instead of a private burial that the family preferred.

At the memorial service, several African heads of states paid tribute to Mugabe as an African icon, principled leader and African intellectual giant.

Despite having a tense relationship with Mugabe over the past two years, President Emmerson Mnangagwa applauded his predecessor, describing him as “giant tree of Africa that has fallen”, while also lauding him for the country’s land reform.

“For years and generations to come, we shall continue to draw inspiration from the life, leadership and bravery, of this great man. Today, over 365,000 families have benefited from the land reform programme that our revolutionary icon led from the front.”

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta described Mugabe as “an African liberation icon”. Other heads of state who gave tributes to Mugabe included SA President Cyril Ramaphosa, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea and President Brahim Ghali of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

In a voice quivering with grief, Mugabe’s nephew Walter Chidhakwa revealed that the former president “died a sad man”.

“I spent lots of time with him towards the end of his life. He was ... a sad, sad, sad man. He recalled quietly the journey he had walked, a profound journey, a hard and excruciating journey, and thus must he leave.”

Chidhakwa’s remarks were an inference to Mugabe’s fallout with Mnangagwa after the two had worked together for decades, before Zimbabwe’s current president conspired to oust his predecessor.

On Sunday, Mugabe’s nephew Leo Mugabe said the former president’s body will be taken to his rural home in Zvimba on Monday for a final ceremony before it will be preserved until his burial, on a date that is yet to be announced.

Mugabe died in Singapore on September 6 after a long battle with prostate cancer.