The remembrances focused on Mugabe’s use of the security apparatus to crush his political opponents and enforce a status quo that enriched his allies while plunging Zimbabwe into a decades-long abyss of poverty, disease and hunger.
But had his obituaries been published in the 1980s — in the early years of his 37-year-long authoritarian rule — they would have probably read very differently.
Writers would probably have focused on his role in helping the country gain independence. They may have referenced his conciliatory first speech as prime minister. Or they would have cited then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who celebrated Mugabe nine years into his rule, in 1989, saying “we share your sense of pride in your success.”
Thatcher cast Mugabe as a role model for other countries in Africa emerging from colonial rule.
Here are four reasons Mugabe had initially inspired hope, before becoming widely loathed both at home and abroad:
Reconciliation pledge after a protracted civil war
In his early years, Mugabe earned the respect of his supporters through a years-long fight for independence from Britain. Zimbabweans eventually achieved that goal and, in 1980, Mugabe’s party won the first democratic elections in what was then Southern Rhodesia. Newly inaugurated Prime Minister Mugabe pledged that reconciliation would become a cornerstone of his policies going forward.
“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. … If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you,” he said, but added an ominous warning that later gained a new meaning. If “the open hand of reconciliation” was rejected, he threatened, it may “turn into a clenched fist.”
But Mugabe’s references to the “love that binds you to me and me to you” soon met reality. In the following years, the increasingly authoritarian Mugabe and his backers relied on an expanded security apparatus — first set up by their former colonial rulers — to torture and kill opponents. As early as in 1982, critics described beatings, sexual violence and executions by government troops against dissidents in the Matabeleland region.
Later on, Mugabe even turned the distribution of food aid into a political weapon: Opponents were cut off from supplies and loyalists were rewarded.
Ending white minority rule after an anti-colonial struggle
Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 ended an era of white-minority rule over a predominantly black nation. But it wasn’t the first declaration of independence. In 1965, Prime Minister Ian Smith had become the first to declare Southern Rhodesia independent, even if it was for very different reasons.
By cutting ties to Britain, Smith believed he might be able to preserve the territory’s white-minority rule — even as anti-colonial and African nationalist forces gained strength. But Smith’s efforts were doomed, and they ultimately triggered the civil war that ended with Mugabe ascending to power.
To many black residents, Mugabe’s rise to the top office at the time inspired hope. Even though Mugabe asked for patience, he vowed “meaningful change to the lives of the majority of the people,” while insisting he would preserve the rights of the minority white population.
Relative social and economic stability
A Washington Post dispatch 14 years into Mugabe’s rule said Zimbabwe’s black majority had indeed “attained political power, pride and legal equality, and has done so with a remarkable absence of rancor and retribution given the long and cruel history of white-minority rule.”
Despite the economy being “dogged by inflation and the legacy of socialist mismanagement,” the report still found an “African success story” in a Zimbabwe that was “clean and safe” and “at peace."
As neighboring countries were plagued by famine and crisis, Zimbabwe managed to remain stable. “When one reads about what is happening in other places, we seem to have a near-perfect situation here,” Emerson Zhou, then-chief economist with the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, told The Post at the time.
But Mugabe had never been a real democrat, and his political maneuvers took increasingly authoritarian turns, which eventually triggered sanctions. The country’s fragile economy was thrown into turmoil amid hyperinflation, hunger and spreading diseases — but Mugabe refused to take responsibility and instead circulated conspiracy theories about foreigners being behind the downturn.
Health and education programs
Those steps also undid years of progress on other fronts, notably health and education. Only five years into his rule, Zimbabwe had become a nation close to achieving free public health care and universal primary education. Hundreds of new clinics had been opened under Mugabe, a self-declared Marxist. Meanwhile, the number of schools in the country doubled; the budget more than tripled.
Mugabe’s government vowed to tackle racial segregation and inequality in schools — a relic of the white-minority rule — but it soon saw itself confronted with other problems, including a rural-urban divide, surging costs and a shortage in qualified personnel.
Zimbabwe’s early problems in the mid-1980s paled in comparison to what the country later faced, as Mugabe’s moves led to disastrous impoverishment that lingered until he was eventually ousted following a military coup in 2017.
Even in death, Mugabe continues to divide public opinion.
For Zimbabwean salesman Tonderai Shuro, Mugabe’s legacy is not that of a liberator.
“I blame him for all the mess that we are in,” Shuro said Friday.
On social media, many argued that his policies had resulted in mass displacement, a deadly collapse of the health-care system and political violence.
But some still held positive views of Mugabe, whose hard-line stance against the West won him some support even in his final years.
“He is a true revolutionary, an icon and liberator in Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa,” said businessman Taurayi Mudzwiti. “He was a champion of black economic empowerment and gave the locals business opportunities which were originally in the hands of the whites."
In a response on Facebook, Zimbabwean academic Admire Mare acknowledged Mugabe had “exhibited some kind of solid and visionary leadership in his early years of rule,” but added he “created a vicious system” — leaving behind “contradictory legacies.”
“A liberator to some, a ruinous dictator to others,” wrote Zimbabwean journalist Brezh Malaba on Twitter.
Noack reported from Berlin.