THE death of former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in Singapore on Friday morning has divided opinion in the country.
Most paid tribute to him as a liberator from colonialism and white-minority rule. Others on social media, however, recalled the 1984 Gukurahundi massacres, and the economic woes that changed Zimbabwe from the breadbasket of Africa to one of the world’s poorest countries.
The Revd Ewan Mawarire, who tore up the Zimbabwean flag in his #ThisFlag action and spent time in exile after the Mugabe government tried to imprison him, posted on Twitter: “In 2016 Mugabe threatened to have me killed — my response — ‘There are many things you have the power to do to us Mr President, but there are 2 things you have no power to stop. You cannot stop your sun from setting & you cannot stop mine from rising.’ Your sun has set Robert. Goodbye.”
The official opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, also on Twitter, appeared to follow an African convention of not speaking ill of the dead before their burial: “My condolences to the Mugabe family and Africa for the passing on of Zimbabwe’s founding President. This is a dark moment for the family because a giant among them has fallen. May the Lord comfort them.
“Even though I and our party, the MDC, and the Zimbabwean people had great political differences with the late former President during his tenure in office, and disagreed for decades, we recognise his contribution made during his lifetime as a nation’s founding President.
“There’s so much to say for a life of 95 years and national leadership spanning over 37 years but in the true spirit of Ubuntu, we would like to give this moment to mourning but there will be time for greater reflection.”
The media proprietor Trevor Ncube, an Evangelical Zimbabwean who now lives in South Africa, retweeted the official announcement with no further comment. His pinned tweet from 2018 remained: “Robert Mugabe imprisoned me. Took away my citizenship. Look who is still standing. I follow my convictions. Not fear of imprisonment. Not crowds. Not intimidation. But my inner spirit.”
President from 1987 to 2017, Mugabe succeeded Bishop Abel Muzorewa as Prime Minister of the country in 1980 after a transitional period during which the Lancaster House Agreement was negotiated in London to bring about fresh elections in the country, then known temporarily as Zimbabwe Rhodesia. The elections were held under a British governor, and the British considered disqualifying Mr Mugabe’s party ZANU for intimidation.
Ian Smith’s white-minority Rhodesian Front government had declared independence unilaterally in 1965, changing the name of the country from Southern Rhodesia, while Mr Mugabe was serving a prison sentence connected with his pursuit of armed resistance as member of the African nationalist movement. He was a prominent figure on the militant Left in the decades of struggle which followed.
Throughout his life, Robert Mugabe prided himself on his Roman Catholicism and the influence of his Jesuit education. In November 2017, as the army surrounded his presidential compound, his confidant was an RC priest, Fr Fidelis Mukonori. Nearly a week after the military intervened, Mugabe resigned.
He grew up at the Kutama Jesuit mission station in the south of the country. Church schools and missionary hospitals have shaped the Zimbabwean education system and health system for more than a century.
Mugabe, a former teacher, made sure that Zimbabwe’s education system remained one of the best in Africa, outperforming that of the neighbouring economic power South Africa. The South African Foreign Minister paid tribute to President Mugabe “as a freedom fighter” and said she admired his quest for education.
During the struggle for liberation in the 1970s the Churches gave support to majority. Zimbabwe remains a predominantly Christian country: 85 per cent of the population are church-attending Christians.
As his rule progressed, he became deaf to criticism, also from the Churches. When a Roman Catholic delegation handed him a dossier with atrocities committed by the notorious Fifth Brigade in Gukurahundi he dismissed it as untrue.
The divisive narrative followed by President Mugabe and his supporters in the later years of his rule also spilled over to the Churches, and created a split in Zimbabwe between the Church of the Province of Central Africa and a breakaway organisation led by the pro-ZANU PF Nolbert Kunonga, then Bishop of Harare.
After 2000, it led to the seizure of church properties and violence against clergy of the Province. Kunonga was unfrocked in 2008, and, in 2012, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe ruled that his group must surrender all property belonging to it.
Mr Mugabe was by all accounts a complex person who did not hide his dislikes. He was, however, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, whose Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington was the chief British negotiator in the Lancaster House talks, in which Mugabe was a reluctant participant.
Lord Carrington the journalist Heidi Holland, who wrote the former President’s biography: “There was a sort of reptilian quality about [Mugabe]. You could admire his skills and intellect . . . but he was an awfully slippery sort of person.”