Zimbabwe: How Robert Mugabe squandered a “Mandela-esque” legacy

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Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe remains one of Africa’s most intriguing and controversial leaders. As part of our popular “Book Club” series, Martin Plaut and Sue Onslow share the lessons from their recent book on his life and legacy.

Our new biography of Robert Mugabe, written for a general audience, explains his accomplishments, the importance of his ideological outlook and continuing appeal. It is the study of a complex man and politician, who retained a fixity of purpose in defiance of accelerating change around him. As such, Mugabe represents the antithesis of the aphorism attributed to British economist J.M. Keynes’, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind.’

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was Prime Minister, then President of Zimbabwe, from the country’s transition to internationally recognised independence in April 1980, until his forced resignation in November 2017. This was formally and subsequently firmly described as the ‘Military Assisted Transition’, a crucial euphemism to ensure the plotters did not transgress the African Union’s formal strictures against the military overthrow of elected leaders.

This book summarizes the formative experiences and rise of a radical nationalist ideologue, sustained by personal self-belief and a ‘drive to power’, who owed his success to his ability to manoeuvre through the shifting brutal politics of exile, and determined exploitation of good luck.  Once in power, Mugabe remained embedded in the political culture of ZANU-PF as a particular variant of a Southern African National Liberation Movement, formed in the struggle: hierarchical, doctrinaire, reliant on revolutionary rhetoric of transformation and designation of enemies (real or supposed), and profoundly opposed to long-term cooperation with ‘counter-revolutionary’ forces.

Violence and intimidation were also seen as legitimate levers of social control. As this biography points out, violence was repeatedly used as a political language under Mugabe’s leadership in the revolutionary war, against the Zimbabwe rural population and internal dissidents, after independence in the Gukurahundi campaign of 1983-1987; against outspoken opposition politicians and activists from the late 1990s; during successive election campaigns and on the announcement of the election result (described as the ‘most testing time for African democracies’). This continued adherence to the trappings of democracy – seen in multi-party contested elections throughout Mugabe’s time in office – and the attachment to the importance of legitimacy conferred by the victory at the polls, underlines the hybridity of the African state. Zimbabwe was (and is) a particular example of the lasting inheritance of colonial structures and institutions, overlaying older forms of social and ethnic organisation, as well as post-independence attempts at transformation.

In any newly independent African country, leadership – the personal qualities and intellectual strategies of the incoming leader, their powerbase and relations with key post-colonial elites – has been a crucial variable. The book explores themes of state-led development, state-societal relations, transformation and response, common to other African newly independent countries, and the role of the state security forces in governance. The book also underlines the ‘initial conditions’ and challenges facing incoming leaders on assuming office, which were important factors across newly independent African states and their subsequent development trajectories. Mugabe and his first government of national unity were confronted with transforming a war economy, vast numbers of returning refugees, disrupted education and agricultural services, unemployed youth, gross inequalities around land access and ownership, a hostile neighbourhood with apartheid South Africa’s determined counter-insurgency, and the continuing civil war in Mozambique. Like other incoming African nationalist leaders, Mugabe and ZANU-PF also faced a disaffected rival national liberation leader, backed by armed and trained combatants. Zimbabwe was thus sadly not unusual in its continuing civil war post-formal independence. Nor was the deliberate suppression of information on Mugabe’s government brutal crackdown in Matabeleland an unusual post-liberation government practice.

As with other African post-colonial developmental models, the selection of Mugabe’s policies interacted with the context of the contemporary international political economy. Here Zimbabwe had a distinct advantage, when compared to other newly independent African states in an earlier epoch, and so was not another ‘late developer’. Mugabe inherited the second most diversified economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Under his leadership, Zimbabwe appeared to represent a successful transition to multi-racial modified capitalism which could be held up as a model for neighbouring South Africa in the post-apartheid era. In the 1980s the country was the recipient of massive bilateral and multilateral aid flows, and in the first two decades, very real progress made in education provision, health care, investment and employment, paralleled by the expansion of the Zimbabwean urban middle classes.

In the post-Cold War world of declining international aid largess, and faced with a different regional political economy now that international sanctions against neighbouring South Africa had been lifted, Mugabe found himself caught up in wider pressures for ‘democracy and good governance’. Using his position at the apex of government, Mugabe opted to exploit the most toxic colonial legacy in the country – the vastly unequal distribution of land with adequate access to rainfall or irrigation –as the means to underpin his own power. The book explores the progress of this rural revolution, pointing to the economic, social and human cost of its chaotic implementation, endemic corrupt practices as well as the emerging picture of partial improvement and social change.

Above all, the book is a case study in African leadership, but seeks to emphasize the importance of the national context, networks between elites, and individual circumstance. Mugabe was a complex conviction politician dedicated to the decolonisation of Zimbabwean society. He fused European ideological ideas of revolutionary transformation, increasingly with Afro-nationalists’ emphasis on the need to expunge colonial structures, institutions and influence, and the likelihood of malign agency of hostile Western imperial forces. His example and message has still considerable contemporary resonance in South Africa (first used by Julius Malema, as head of the Economic Freedom Fighters,  and then BlackFirst Land First), while even Mugabe’s African critics privately admired his successful defiance of Western neo-colonialism and lecturing.

Robert Mugabe’s life, his political and ideological beliefs, and his country’s fortunes over the subsequent thirty five years were thus inextricably woven together – in the minds of Western observers, as well as the realities of power within Zimbabwe. As man and leader he came to embody the contradictions of his country’s history and political culture. It also underlines that leadership in African post-colonial states needs to be understood firmly in the context of the coteries of support and vested interests. The fate of any country is never down to just one man, something the Western press and its demonization of Robert Mugabe failed to understand. Mugabe was at the apex of a system, never a fully independent political actor, but certainly not its prisoner. A preeminent figure as a former leader of a national liberation movement, turned party politician, had he stepped down following the Presidential elections of 2000, it is not fanciful to argue his reputation and legacy would have been comparable to that of President Nelson Mandela.


Sue Onslow is deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study at the University of London. 

Martin Plaut is senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study at the University of London. 

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