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Mugabe. What is in a legacy?

06 September 2019

With millions in Zimbabwe in crisis following drought, a cyclone and years of economic collapse, Sarah McCan in Harare reflects on the legacy of Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe in 2011. (Photo : Al Jazeera / Creative Commons)

When I first arrived in Zimbabwe three and a half years ago, the first thing many people said was ‘you might be here to see the end of the Mugabe era’. Little did I know that it would come not from natural causes, but rather through what was termed a ‘Military assisted transition’ or rather a coup back in November 2017 when Mugabe was forced to resign and step aside after more than 3 decades as the country’s one and only post-independence president.

When I woke this morning to hear of his passing, it stopped me in my tracks and made me think about his legacy. Amongst my Zimbabwean colleagues and friends , their feelings on hearing the news ranged from sorrow to anger and a whole gamut of feelings in-between.

The sorrow was for Mugabe as the Independence Hero and freedom fighter and the person who heralded the end of colonial rule in Zimbabwe in 1980. For the first few years’ post-independence Mugabe ruled the country well, investing in health and education for the majority black population, focusing on his people’s empowerment.   

The anger was for the unanswered questions that still remain over the massacres by Mugabe’s government and the armed forces of Zimbabwe of over 20,000 people in 1983 in the southern part of Zimbabwe known as Matebeleland for whom future generations still carry the burden of not knowing where their loved ones were buried or whether there will ever be really truth and reconciliation.

The anger was also for the decades of misrule, the human rights violations, the clampdown on the opposition, the economic collapse and the current situation Zimbabwe is now in; a country stricken by drought with over 5million people facing food shortages this year; a country stricken by economic collapse with inflation at over 200% and unemployment at over 90%; a country stricken by decades of elections that were neither free nor fair and where civil society organisations, including many of Trocaire’s partner organisations, carry out their work under the threat of fear, closure or worse.

A young Zimbabwean girl goes to fetch water. Hopes that elections in Zimbabwe would provide a political breakthrough to relieve the country's economic crisis are in doubt after violence following the elections. Photo: Isabel Corthier

A third of the population of Zimbabwe are currently experiencing a food crisis. Photo : Trócaire.

Trócaire has been supporting the people of Zimbabwe since 1974, six years before the country declared official independence. We work with the poorest and most marginalised and with those whose human rights have been violated, and in 2018 we supported 178,000 people. Our human rights work includes providing community training, mobile legal clinics, and documentation of violations and litigation.

This year we have been working to assist people affected by the devastating cyclone Idai, and are supporting those worst affected by the current drought, who literally won’t have enough food to feed their families to send their children to school. According to the UN, a third of the population is now facing a food crisis.

Representing Trócaire in Zimbabwe I am very proud of our work alongside incredibly brave local organisations. I am constantly struck by the complexity of this beautiful country where the people are its richest asset. Yet, this beauty is often overshadowed by the devastating impacts of those who rule and leave a very mixed legacy behind them.

Sarah McCan is Trócaire's Country Director for Zimbabwe, based in the capital Harare

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