Former Zimbabwean President Robert Gabriel Mugabe on Friday passed on at the age of 95, ending the life of one of the most prolific figures in African history.
His death is another point of reflection and debate on the complicated legacy of the strongman who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years which were preceded by three decades of independence struggle.
The western media preferred to refer him as a tyrant, a dictator, a human rights abuser whose regime “brought Zimbabwe to its knees".
This article is inspired by the teaching of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who has warned us of the danger of a single story. This is a story that has seldom been told from the perspective of Africans who continue to carry the burden of colonialism, neocolonialism, and systemic domination by the white monopoly capital.
From the onset, it must be known that Mugabe was in many ways shaped by the horrific experiences of colonialism and racist European masters who have dominated this continent like a colossus.
Mugabe abandoned his teaching career to join the struggle for independence in 1960. He was a sharp brain with a gift of the garb that enabled him to rise through the ranks of the underground Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu).
His fiery speeches would see him arrested by the British colonialists, four years joining the movement, and imprisoned for 21 months. While Mugabe was serving his term, the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia made a Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) under the leadership of the real tyrant and human rights abuser Ian Smith.
When Mugabe’s three-year old son died in 1966, Smith denied him permission to temporarily leave prison for the boy’s burial. It is interesting, but not surprising, that Ian Smith – upon his death in 2007 was referred to as the “last leader of white Rhodesia”.
The Western media did not mention that at least 30,000 black Zimbabweans were killed under Smith’s leadership and when asked to reflect on his legacy – he said he was happy to have killed “terrorists”.
“The more we killed, the happier we were. We were fighting terrorists,” Smith said in a 2002 interview.
Back to Mugabe, he was re-arrested shortly after completing his sentence in 1966, and spent another eight years under the chain of the brutal Smith regime.
In prison, Mugabe overcame the physical and mental torture by reading and teaching fellow prisoners.
By the time he left prison in in 1975, Mugabe had obtained two degrees from the University of London through long-distance learning – a bachelor’s degree in Law and a master’s degree in the same field.
Prior to that, he had three degrees, his first being a B.A in history and English Literature from the University of Fort Hare – and two others in Administration and Science - obtained through correspondence.
Between 1975 and 1979, Mugabe led Zanu in opposing the white settler government of Ian Smith – which ultimately agreed for independence talks brokered by the British Government.
The talks, held at the famous Lancaster House, included an agreement that British government would fund the independent Zimbabwean state to buy land from the white settlers on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis.
As with most founding African leaders, Mugabe was a darling of the west as he initially allowed white settlers to keep their land with the hope that they would eventually sell to the African population.
Despite the pain he had been subjected to during the struggle, he was willing to forgive the past and allow white settlers to integrate in independent Zimbabwe. He allowed Smith, the man who denied him permission to bury his son, to continue serving as MP and even appointed two whites into the Cabinet.
Ten years later, Mugabe would face betrayal from the British government and its international partners who had committed to help redistribute the land to the black masses.
While the world celebrated Zimbabwe as the “food basket of Africa”, six thousand white settlers owned nearly half of all the arable land in Zimbabwe while the rest of the population was crowed in the little land that remained – many of them in the former colonial reserves.
The white settlers were not willing to sell their lucrative farms, the IMF and World Bank suspended aid for land reform, while the British government declined to avail the funds as per the agreement made at independence donating only S4.7 billion ($47 million) against the S63 billion that had been agreed ($630 million).
Cornered and angry at the betrayal, Mugabe borrowed tact from Malcolm X, using any means necessary to achieve his revolutionary dreams. He turned up the heat by coming up with laws that allowed his government to compulsory appropriate under-utilized land owned by the white farmers.
The West reciprocated by further cutting down aid to the Zimbabwean government – even as the whites continued to own majority of the strategic national resources including most of the productive land, businesses, and mines.
After twenty years of trying to achieve the goals of the revolution, the Zimbabwean President was tired.
“The only white man you can trust is a dead white man,” he said at one time.
From 2000, Mugabe called upon his people to forcefully acquire land from the minority whites – sparking a full -blown war with the West.
“They think because they are white they have a divine right to our resources. Not here. The white man is not indigenous to Africa. Africa is for Africans, Zimbabwe is for Zimbabweans,” he said in one of his fiery speeches.
The Western powers hit back with economic sanctions that still haunt the Zimbabwean economy to date – with the international media decrying over the fall of the “African food basket”.
This was not an opinion shared by Zimbabweans who were all too happy to own land – even if for subsistence farming. Of course they could not engage in commercial farming in the level the white man had done (considering the economic sanctions) – but the situation was much improved because land gave them dignity and ability to fed for themselves.
Put differently, the West did not mind referring to Zimbabwe as a “food basket” when it was providing British multinationals with free raw materials and cheap labor from the disenfranchised masses. When the black masses took over their land and did subsistence farming, Mugabe was labelled a tyrant overseeing a regime of poverty.
The common juxtaposition that many in the West have used to deride Mugabe’s leadership status is that of his fellow alumni at Fort Hare University – Nelson Mandela.
Yet history will record that Mandela died without ever condemning the failed “willing buyer, willing seller” land reform policy he negotiated before South Africa’s independence in 1994. Today, black south Africans are domiciled in slums and in reserves where they offer cheap labor to white monopoly capital.
Today, white South Africans own 72% of the land – despite constituting a mere nine percent of the country’s population. On the other hand, Africans jointly own four percent of the land despite accounting for 80 percent of the so-called rainbow population. Mandela’s South Africa has resorted to attacking the few African nationals who visit their country for greener pastures – while doing nothing about the minority whites who continue to lord over their ancestral land.
Mugabe has had his fair share of shortcomings including overstaying in power and abuse of human rights – but that is only a part of his legacy. Saboteurs of African progression would want these mistakes to define Mugabe, but he is no different from historical figures who were flawed but nevertheless left a revolutionary legacy.
History will be kind to uncle Bob for managing to defy and defeat white monopoly capital in a continent where the most profitable companies, and the most fertile lands are seen as the reserve of the cronies of former colonial masters. Rest In peace Mugabe!