Zimbabwe’s founding leader, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, has died. The widespread reaction to his death has revealed starkly the divided legacy he leaves behind. From one viewpoint he is Zimbabwe’s founding father, the man who led his comrades through an armed struggle for the liberation of Zimbabwe’s black majority from Rhodesian white-minority rule. His achievements in those early, heady years of independence were exemplary, with emphasis on health, education and women’s empowerment, thus opening up possibilities to many Zimbabweans, particularly the rural poor, who were shut out from Rhodesia’s opportunities.
From another viewpoint, he is the hero who became a villain, his 37-year rule characterised by massive human rights abuses, from the Gukurahundi massacres and persecution of supporters of the rival Zapu party of Joshua Nkomo just after independence, to the persecution of perceived enemies, both in the opposition and within his own party, whom he considered threats to his power. Even the land reform programme, much admired across Africa for restoring land to its rightful owners, was implemented amid chaos and violence.
This reform was meant to empower Zimbabweans, but it also isolated the country and impoverished the very people it was meant to support: swift sanctions soon followed from the west that, together with Mugabe’s own inconsistent economic policies and widespread corruption in his government, plunged the economy into an almost permanent recession for nearly two decades.
Mugabe’s legacy will continue to be contested between those who revere him and those who revile him, but what matters most now is how Zimbabwe’s new president handles that legacy. As Emmerson Mnangagwa prepares to bury his predecessor, he must also bury those aspects of the Mugabe presidency that polarised Zimbabweans, and those policies and attitudes that pauperised this once prosperous nation.
Mnangagwa has promised that his governance will bring a “new dispensation”, and has marked his era as that of the Second Republic. But if he is to avoid the fate of France’s Second Republic, in which the first citizen soon became the third emperor, Mnangagwa must bury the imperial presidency along with Mugabe.
The Gukurahundi massacres remain a sore wound that cannot be ignored. To end the violence, in 1987 Nkomo chose unity and peace over justice and entered into a political alliance with Mugabe. This political fix may have satisfied the establishment, but the wounds of Gukurahundi and other rights violations still fester. In 2018, Mnangagwa appointed a peace and reconciliation commission that before then had existed only in law, but he needs to expedite its work and to guarantee that its recommendations, however far-reaching, will be respected and that it will be transparent and free of political influence.
Burying Mugabe’s legacy also requires Mnangagwa to implement his own election promises. Zimbabwe needs constitutional reforms to make sure that future election results are not contested. Among the most urgent matters are the repeal of the laws that restrict the right to political expression and the freedom of the press. As recently as last month, Mnangagwa stated that these reforms mattered because they were demanded by the constitution and not because they were an external demand linked to sanctions.
A key feature of Mugabe’s rule was the conflation of party with government, and with state. This has meant outrages such as the selective application of the law and the abuse of food aid meant for the poor. Zimbabwe needs to adopt the principle common in advanced democracies that a president governs for his people, not just for his party. In particular, Mnangagwa has promised “zero tolerance” of corruption – but as long as some of his closest allies and top civil servants are shielded from investigation and prosecution, he will be considered no different to Mugabe.
The language of hate was a hallmark of Mugabe’s regime, along with crude propaganda. Particularly when Zimbabweans are suffering, as they have been from austerity measures, the president needs to find words of empathy and inclusiveness.
The one area in which Mnangagwa has shown a marked departure from his predecessor (and in which I was recently an external consultant on investment law policy and promotion) is in his outward-looking foreign policy. He has shown a willingness to open up Zimbabwe to all investors and to re-engage with even those nations with which Zimbabwe had disputes, both over land and over human rights. Yet without addressing corruption, human rights abuses – both past and continuing – and without engaging with compassion the millions of Zimbabweans who feel both disenfranchised and disenchanted, Mnangagwa will not succeed.
The president recently launched Vision 2030, an economic programme that aims to see Zimbabwe become an “upper-middle income economy” by 2030. Significantly, this programme will end after his own term in office, even if he runs again in 2023. If he is to succeed where Mugabe failed, Mnangagwa needs a vision that goes well beyond 2030.
The choice before him is clear: he can be Zimbabwe’s second Mugabe, with the same attitudes and policies, leading his country further down the path to isolation, internal division and economic misery. Or he can be the president who heals Zimbabwe, and puts it back on the path to prosperity and anchors it in real democracy, who guarantees the rights and freedoms of those who disagree with him, and who wins the grudging respect of even his bitterest opponents. As Mnangagwa buries Mugabe, he needs to look beyond the short-term temptations of power and instead focus on how history will remember him.
• Petina Gappah is an international lawyer and author