THE death of the former President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in Singapore last Friday, at the age of 95, has divided opinion in the country, while the Zimbabwean Churches have said that his life was an “unfinished legacy”.
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 Zimbabwean Council of Churches (ZCC) issued a statement saying that “Mugabe’s life must be celebrated not as an aggregation of the good and the bad, but as an unfinished legacy.
“We mourn the death of one of the remnants of the rare generation of Pan-African and frontline states leaders. Robert Gabriel Mugabe will be remembered for the great achievements in his earlier period and also the many challenges under his watch in the later part of his reign.
“As we mourn President Mugabe, Zimbabwe will not forget how his rhetoric and political gamesmanship inhibited consensus politics. It was Mugabe’s failure to design or respect a proper exit strategy that created transitional uncertainty whose effects have remained with us.”
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, Lord Soames, and the British considered disqualifying Mr Mugabe’s ZANU party for vote-rigging.
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 ten-year prison sentence connected with his pursuit of armed resistance as a member of the African nationalist movement. He was a prominent figure of the liberation movement in the decades of struggle which followed.
Throughout his life, although a Marxist, Mugabe prided himself on his Roman Catholicism and the influence of his Jesuit education (he grew up at the Kutama Jesuit mission station, in the south of the country).
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 intervention, Mugabe resigned.
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 divisive narrative followed by President Mugabe and his supporters in the later years of his rule, however, also affected 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.
As Mugabe’s rule progressed, he became deaf to criticism, including from the Churches. When a Roman Catholic delegation handed him a dossier listing atrocities committed by the notorious Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland, he dismissed it as untrue.
The ZCC statement concluded, “As we mourn Mugabe, whose ambivalent reign ushered both progress and decline, we must do so in light of the scripture he used in his inauguration speech in 1980: ‘He shall judge the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they war any more’. . . Such scripture envisions a society moving towards full unity, peace, justice, and prosperity for all!”
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.”
Mr Mugabe was 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.