Robert Mugabe’s death at age 95, after nearly 60 years at the helm of Zimbabwe’s liberation and post-independence politics, is a momentous occasion. Mugabe was the founding father of modern Zimbabwe, with all its stunning successes and grievous failures. As he moves into national legend, contestations over his legacy demonstrate that, in death as in life, the man known as Gushungo (from his family lineage) still continues to polarize opinion.
His failings are well known, including the mass murders of more than 30,000 civilians in Matabeleland during the 1980s Gukurahundi campaigns, and the killings and torture of opposition activists in the 2000s and 2010s.
The land reform process, although necessary, was handled in a haphazard way, contributing to the economic crash and 2008’s ‘year zero’, when Zimbabwe was plagued with a worthless currency, no food in the shops, unsafe drinking water and the spread of cholera and typhoid.
Nevertheless, Mugabe is genuinely mourned by millions in Zimbabwe and beyond. Partly this is for what he achieved in building Zimbabwe’s education, health and economy, and for giving land – however haphazardly – to millions of Zimbabweans.
But it was his assertion of black and African identity and pride which made Mugabe connect with millions. I grew up in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, where being a black African was, by law, a cardinal sin and, at times, a capital offence. Mugabe helped to make being black not just acceptable but also a cause for celebration.
What now for the country?
Mugabe continues to shape Zimbabwe’s politics. Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has tried to differentiate itself from Mugabe’s administrations, avoiding his radical and ideologically driven language and policies. But Zimbabwe’s military, which played a critical role in Mugabe’s 2017 removal, remains influential over government policy.
Mnangagwa wants to be seen as a moderate, accessible for regular meetings with private sector and international investors through the Presidential Advisory Commission, the Tripartite Negotiating Forum, investment meetings and other forums.
Politically, Zimbabwe’s bipartisan Parliamentary Portfolio Committees have emerged over the past year as key institutions able to effectively hold the government and other institutions to account. Contentious Mugabe-era legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act has been revised in line with Zimbabwe’s constitution. And the ongoing multiparty dialogue is a useful start towards a much-needed national political dialogue.
Through its Transitional Stabilization Programme, the Mnangagwa administration has outlined an ambitious economic reform agenda. There has been some progress; in January, the government reported a $113 million budget surplus, and publicly available audits of state-owned enterprises by Public Auditor Mildred Chiri have exposed the rot at the heart of institutions such as the National Social Security Authority.
The government has streamlined bureaucracy and legislation to improve Zimbabwe’s business climate; and the newly empowered Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission has begun probing some high-profile fraud cases.
Zimbabwe’s global re-engagement with international financial institutions, a process which had stalled in Mugabe’s later years, is now making some progress, with Zimbabwe joining the Staff Monitored Programme with the IMF in mid-2019. The introduction of a new currency in February was designed to end the chaos of multiple US-dollar exchange rates and the dominance of the black market, but has had limited results.
But the Mnangagwa administration’s attempts to stabilize the Zimbabwean economy have also included deep cuts in government spending, and the resulting austerity has brought severe hardship for ordinary Zimbabweans. Massive fuel, power and water shortages and the sky-rocketing cost of living are all reminiscent of the Mugabe era, damaging the credibility of the government’s promise of an economic dividend.
Shortages have also hit tourism, which had rebounded in recent years, and the new national currency initiative has pushed inflation to an official 180%. Violent urban protests took place in 2018 and 2019.
While government is right to commit to reforms, and has taken steps, such as cost-of-living allowances, to help mitigate the worst impacts, many Zimbabweans view the official ‘austerity for prosperity’ message with deep scepticism, and the current state of the economy has encouraged more young Zimbabweans to leave the country. Government and the business community need to prioritize people over statistics, and put social protection, anti-poverty programmes and economic democracy at the forefront of economic reform.
Getting public services working again will also require a broad national economic consensus and could look to capitalize on diaspora-led initiatives in education, agriculture, health and other sectors.
But this will require the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to recognize Mnangagwa’s legitimacy in return for substantive talks between government and the opposition and strengthened outreach to Zimbabwe’s nearly 5-million strong global diaspora, many in the United Kingdom, unsure of what tomorrow will bring, and an increasingly troubled South Africa.
Robert Mugabe’s funeral will bring together the great and the good, not just from Zimbabwe but from all over the world. Robert Mugabe was always a voice and never an echo, and his passing, as with those of other Zimbabwean change-makers of all races and backgrounds, is an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the liberation era.
But more importantly, it is also an opportunity to think about what lies ahead. Zimbabweans have proved to be resilient and innovative; but it will require a collective effort and a national re-engagement to ensure that Zimbabwe’s future is not its past. And with Mugabe now gone, the Zimbabwe government must prove that it can and will do better.