The late Robert Mugabe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
The late Robert Mugabe. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

On Friday, Zimbabweans celebrated a national holiday in honour of the late former president Robert Mugabe as the country continues to be divided over his legacy.

A towering figure in African politics, Mugabe, who died in September last year, is revered by many for leading the country’s liberation struggle and giving land to black Zimbabweans. But he is also reviled for running down the once prosperous economy.

February 21, which was Mugabe’s birthday, has been set aside since 2017 as Robert Gabriel Mugabe National Youth Day.

This year marks the first time his birthday has been celebrated without him since 1986 when the country started the “February 21 youth movement” to encourage young people to emulate Mugabe.

During his 37 years in power, Mugabe ruled the country with an iron fist and was known for brutalising opponents and outbursts at western countries. He was forced to resign in November 2017 after a military coup orchestrated by former army commander and now vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, who conspired with current President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The brief military coup was ecstatically supported by tens of thousands of Zimbabwe who marched in the streets in celebration after Mugabe was confined by the military before the widespread street demonstrations forced him to resign.

However, two years after the end of his reign, many Zimbabweans regret the events of November 2017 as they argue that life is worse under Mnangagwa.

Despite promising reforms, Mnangagwa has maintained Mugabe’s authoritarian tactics while the economy is experiencing its worst decline in 10 years, marked by high inflation and a shortage of many basics.

In an interview with Business Day, a Harare resident, Kudakwashe Makombe, said life was much better under Mugabe.  “We were fooled into supporting that coup in November 2017,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. “Mugabe was much better than Mnangagwa. Of course he had his faults but he had the people at heart. He was a socialist and whenever things were bad he would make an intervention and proffer solutions. Mnangagwa appears to be clueless about the challenges that we are facing as a people.

“He is heartless and only thinks about himself and the cartels that he is running.”

Deputy information minister Energy Mutodi described Mugabe as a hero. “Leading a successful war of independence from Britain, creating a sound education system thereafter, and giving land back to its black owners are some of the reasons why ... Mugabe is regarded as a hero, nationalist and revolutionary.”

Political commentator Nickson Nyikadzino said Mugabe was loved and hated with “equal measure”.

However, some youths called for the scrapping of Mugabe’s national holiday saying it brings bad memories to the country.

For Denver Chiringa a university student, Mugabe was the face of ruthlessness in Zimbabwe. “In 2008, hundreds of people were killed because he had lost the election. My uncle was an opposition supporter and was one of those killed during the lead up to the run-off election that year. When I think of Mugabe, all I see is how he sent his people to murder my uncle.” 

Chair of the opposition MDC-T Alfred Dzirutwe said Mugabe was “evil as he wanted to eliminate the Ndebele people” during the Gukurahundi massacres.