Opinion: Many Zimbabweans have mixed feelings about the death of Robert Mugabe
PUBLISHED: 10:30 12 September 2019
On September 6, about 6.50am, I was nudged and woken up with news of the death of Zimbabwe’s first president, Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
Mugabe's death has been widely reported and talked about. On Saturday, his death was raised with me in Dunn's, Scarecrow and the Clocktower grocer's all before noon. People asking what I thought, how I felt and what it means. In many ways, we shouldn't be surprised. North London, and more specifically the London Borough of Haringey, has been home to a large and vibrant Southern Africa diaspora for a very long time indeed.
Who could forget that former ANC President Oliver Tambo lived with his family in an area of Muswell Hill once represented by my comrade Liz McShane; the large community of Zimbabweans who moved to Haringey in the late 1970s and early 1980s; or the fact that the people of Noel Park were served by the late Zimbo, Narendra Makanji, and that there are now three Zimbabweans on Haringey Council - me and my two colleagues, Cllr Mike Hakata and Cllr Eldridge Culverwell. Together, we form an unofficial Zimbo caucus!
Like many who love Zimbabwe - through family and heritage, like me, or simply its natural beauty like many here in North London - I wasn't sure how to feel or what to feel. Nobody can, or should, celebrate the death of another human being, at least that's how I was brought up. That said, I was soon consumed by weird, anti climatic feeling of confusion and nonchalance.
I have been hopelessly in love with Zimbabwe, my father's homeland, for as long as I can remember. The jacaranda trees can brighten up any day, the taste of fresh and sweet mangos, the warm and hot sun simply asking you to bask in it and the people. Zimbabweans, or Zimbos, are warm, considerate, decent and generous. They are - or certainly were - well educated, respectful, welcoming.
My siblings and I spent many happy summers with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and many (many!!) more extended relations. But for all the safety of my grandparents' suburban Harare home, as we grew older and spent more time there, the political situation continued to deteriorate.
People remember dates and events that mean something to them. Well, April 18, 1980, was a momentous day and meant a great deal to many people on the continent of Africa and across the world. The Smith regime was gone, the people had spoken at the ballot box and Zimbabwe was free at last.
Prince Charles, as representative of the Crown, was in Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia, to lower the Union flag and to witness the transfer of power to the new multi racial, non racist, inclusive Zimbabwe led by the new prime minister, Robert Mugabe. These were momentous times for Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans: investment flowed into the country, tourism went through the roof (if you read this and you haven't been to Victoria Falls, the Chimanimani Mountains or Hwange National Park - go visit now), and Mugabe managed to stop "white flight" by seemingly sticking to his promise to build a Zimbabwe for all Zimbabweans, black and white. Who could disagree?
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He went about building and investing in a world class education system - for most of the 1980s and 1990s, Zimbabwe had a literacy rate well above 90 per cent. The health service rivalled that in the UK and was used by Africans right across Southern Africa. And it was productive: the rich, red soil where almost anything could grow fed a nation and soon fed a continent too. Zimbabwe wasn't called the "breadbasket of Africa" for nothing
Mugabe was revered on the world stage - he enjoyed visits to Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and to Ronald Reagan at the White House, and he hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1993 in Harare. He was viewed by many as a global statesman who made people - particularly across Africa - stand up and listen when he spoke.
What happened, you say? Well, the age old adage about winning the war and losing the peace is a good one. Nobody can take away Mugabe's instrumental role in winning the war for independence, empowering his people and defeating white minority rule. I will forever be grateful to him for doing so.
Nor can we take away his belief in the power of Africa - his hopes that the African Union would flex its muscles on the world stage, that SADC (when not criticising him) should do for Africa what the EU has done for Europe.
But we cannot pretend all was rosy - far from it. The undeniable and brutal assault against democracy, the craving of money, power and control and the cruel and merciless crushing of dissent. As time went by, and the world approached the millennium, Zimbabwe grew tired of the Mugabe government and voted for the MDC under Morgan Tsvangirai.
Rather than reach out or retire gracefully like President Mandela of South Africa or even President Kaunda of Zambia; Mugabe doubled down, blamed the white community and held on. And in doing so he brought a proud, beautiful nation to its knees. Families were torn apart, livelihoods destroyed, teachers and doctors forced to sell fruit on the road and a once peaceful land turned into an "every man for himself" state. The Zimbabwe I first visited as a small child in 1992 was not the Zimbabwe of 2002 or 2012 and it hurts me to even write that.
There are many reasons attributed to Mugabe's change of heart, his turn for the worse and the policies that led to his ultimate downfall some 37 years after that momentous day in April 1980. Some say it was the death of his first wife, some say it was the pain of the war against Ian Smith's regime coming back to haunt him, some say it was the shock of the people voting against him.
Whatever it was, the legacy of freedom he earned in the 1970s and early 1980s gave way to a legacy of devastation, death and disgrace. And whilst I wouldn't celebrate the death of Robert Mugabe, I fully understand the complicated web of feelings in the hearts and minds of many Zimbabweans across the world over the last few days.
It will take some people many months to get over the feelings stirred up by his death; I suspect many will never forgive him. And we must respect them and support that. As for me, I feel a renewed love for a beautiful part of our world, the land of my father's birth and my Shona roots.
But when I think about my hope for Zimbabwe's future, I look to its national anthem: From Zambezi to Limpopo, may leaders be exemplary, and may the Almighty protect and bless our land.