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Everything and nothing: The Enigma that was Robert Mugabe


"Blair, keep your Britain, and I will keep my Zimbabwe." Eight year old me had no clue what that line meant as Robert Mugabe punched his fist in the air. However, looking around seeing the glitter and shock in my aunt's eye who was sitting on the couch beside me, I knew whatever this man was saying, was important. In fact, it was revolutionary.

That was my relationship with Mugabe, as it was for multitudes of Zimbabweans. He spoke with an eloquence that belonged among the knights of England, yet spit a revolutionary zeal that was similar to a guerrilla fighter mentored by Che Guevara. His simple, yet sturdy demeanour helped him attain political power in ZANU PF before independence. That power won by tactical side-lining and killing of enemies within the black revolutionary movements and creating a saviour persona that Nelson Mandela would one day imitate, got him to stand aloft in a stadium packed with Zimbabweans as they ushered in a new nation.

That saviour persona and revolutionary zeal allowed him to do what was unheard of, educating a whole mass of black people. On a continent that could barely write their names, Zimbabwe's education was a jewel to behold. By the late 1980s, the nation would have more black doctors per capita than any other nation in Africa. Middle-class Zimbabweans were driving cars, opening bank accounts, running corporates; it was a revolution.

In the dark underbelly of that revolution, Mugabe slowly but surely strengthened his stranglehold on political power. His long-term mortal political enemies-cum friends ZAPU and the minority Ndebele population had a quasi-army sent on them to silence them forever. The students at the only university of the time came out strong and were brutally hammered down. Mugabe never managed to create a one-party state, but he did create a one man nation. Zimbabwe was Mugabe and Mugabe was Zimbabwe.

But the revolution was not over. The economy began to crack under the heavy weight of corruption, inequality and neo-liberalism. Mugabe could see power dripping out of his hands and he could not allow that to happen. His lust for power and adamant belief in black emancipation, aligned to form an unholy marriage that justified brutality. That marriage birthed the disastrous land reform policies. 4000 white farmers rightfully, had to have their land re-distributed to hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans. However what followed was not land reform but repression of the highest order. The first rains in the early 2000s were mixed with the blood and tears of whites and their workers. It was a bloody revolution.

It was one and then two and then a multitude of people that came together and raised the question whether ‘He That Will Not Be Named’ could be taken out of power. Protests ignited; draconian laws were enacted; Mugabe lost a public plebiscite and arrests and killings were injudiciously augmented. The airports and borders became to fill, as both the middle class educated citizenry and the poor poured out of the nation, running to anywhere where Mugabe could not find them. But how could they run away from Mugabe? As soon as one arrived in Johannesburg, Sydney, London, Perth, Austin, Mombasa, you would be asked, "How is our revolutionary leader Mugabe? If only African leaders could be more like him, we would all be rich with our land."

As the world fell over themselves at this revolutionary leader, the Zimbabwean stared at their bank accounts with 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars. 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars, which could only buy a slice of bread and a sweet for their child. For a brief moment, the rest of the world agreed and forced Mugabe to let go of some of the power he held so tight like a mother clinging to a new-born child. What he gave with the left hand, he took with the right, and he was again, power incarnate. An even more angry youth, myself included took up the mantle to try dismantle this bond between Mugabe and power.

With our clever language, learnt in the corridors of universities, our thumbs tweeting our anger, the irony never left my mind. The same man who made it possible for me to have opportunity in this world, also made it impossible. He gave hope and took it away, he gave life and took it away. Mugabe had become an enigma. Itai Dzamara showed us the way, we carried his legacy on into the streets. We ended up in jail. We went back into the streets, this time with the army, Mugabe's long-time friend. And then he was gone.

But he really wasn't gone. He probably will never go. I write this with a street sign, "Robert Mugabe Rd" nailed on top of my bedroom door. An artefact I picked up during the protests, it reminds me of the eight-year-old me who watched Mugabe stand up against the world as he stood on the pain, toil and tears of Zimbabweans. Robert Mugabe was the road to emancipation that had potholes and dead street-lights. He was light and darkness, the protagonist and antagonist, he was white and black, never grey. He was hot and cold, never lukewarm. He was everything and nothing and that is what he has left us with. Everything and nothing.

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