Loved and hated in almost equal measure by Zimbabweans, the former teacher was best known for leading Zimbabwe to independence, his controversial land reform programme, his hatred of any political opposition and his very glamorous young wife Grace.
Mugabe was reported to have died with such frequency in recent years that he boasted once that he had “beaten Jesus Christ because he only died once”. But as he became noticeably more doddery in his 90s, slipping twice in public in 2015, officials in his party began to campaign more openly to succeed him despite his very obvious displeasure.
The lonely former cattle herder and teacher ruled Zimbabwe with an iron grip from independence in 1980. He came to power on a wave of international goodwill, promising reconciliation with whites who stayed on in the former Rhodesia after a 12-year bush war. But the soothing platitudes turned sour.
In the early 1980s, he launched a brutal attack on dissidents in the southern Matabeleland provinces. Up to 20 000 villagers were killed by the president’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in an operation known as Gukurahundi (The Rains that Sweep Away the Chaff).
It took him 20 years to offer any kind of apology. By then Mugabe had turned his sights on the latest threat: the newly-formed Movement for Democratic Change, led by former textile worker Morgan Tsvangirai.
Believing the party was to be bankrolled by Zimbabwe’s 4 000 white farmers, Mugabe embarked on a programme of land redistribution. Thirteen farmers were killed and tens of thousands of farmworkers lost homes and jobs in the grabs, which are ongoing.
Agricultural production plummeted, shortages set in and inflation began to climb, reaching at its apogee in 2008 an official 231 million percent.
When the MDC won most seats in major cities in parliamentary elections in 2005, Mugabe embarked on more retribution: sending out bulldozers to tear down shacks in Zimbabwe’s townships. The UN said 700 000 lost their homes or jobs in Operation Murambatsvina (Drive Out The Filth). Few were ever rehoused.
When he lost the first round of presidential elections to Tsvangirai in 2008, Mugabe’s security chief drew up a quick plan of attack. Two hundred MDC supporters were killed, leading Tsvangirai to pull out of the second round.
The ‘nearest woman’ to him
The regional SADC grouping refused to accept Mugabe’s victory, forcing him into a coalition in September (though he made sure he and his allies gave up little power). Soon cholera was creeping through Zimbabwe’s wrecked townships, helped on by a public health system in tatters. At least 4 000 Zimbabweans died: Mugabe and his allies blamed the outbreak on Western sanctions.
In later years, Mugabe tried to soften his image, granting interviews to state media and, in December 2013, to the son of a South African freedom fighter, Dali Tambo.
In these carefully-choreographed pieces, viewers were treated to titbits of life chez les Mugabe: Grace enthusing about her husband rescuing her dairy project, Mugabe – less flatteringly – acknowledging that he chose his secretary because she was “the nearest” woman to him when his first wife Sally lay dying from kidney disease.
Grace suddenly took on a much bigger role in politics in 2014, after years as a demure shoe-shopper and philanthropist. She was instrumental in getting vice president Joice Mujuru fired in December 2014, officially for wearing a miniskirt and plotting to “kill” Mugabe (though everyone knew it was really because Mujuru’s popularity had become a threat to the first couple).
As head of the Zanu-PF women’s league, Grace was given a right-hand seat in Mugabe’s Soviet-style politburo. Her insistence that she was senior to the two party officials who were named to the vice presidency after Mujuru’s unceremonious dismissal was at odds with her oft-repeated denials that she had any desire to take Mugabe’s place as president.
Mugabe himself stayed mum on the subject, though he occasionally appeared to suggest he had no control of his wife.
In much of southern Africa, Mugabe was seen as a brave leader who’d dared to challenge – and humiliate – white settlers by retaking their land. His popularity was harder to gauge within Zimbabwe, where he continued to win elections with overwhelming support from rural populations.
Significantly, Mugabe’s support base appeared to strengthen during the four years of the coalition as some tech-savvy urban youths grew disillusioned with Tsvangirai’s personal excesses and the corruption of low-level MDC councillors.
As he turned 90, the president became an unlikely fashion icon. Soccer supporters jostled to wear a “Hovhorosi-style” overall, emblazoned with the president’s signature.There were Mugabe T-shirts and Mugabe umbrellas. It was reported that if you managed to get a Mugabe signature on your car, you wouldn’t be forced to pay a bribe at a roadblock. But the fear remained. As the economy dipped again from 2014, frustrations mounted. Everyone knew he was on his way out: the only question was when.
Complex web of fear
Mugabe was called many things over the years by fed-up Zimbabweans. “Rotten old donkey” was a favourite term of abuse: “Robot Mugabe” was another. But bad-mouthing the president was a crime that could get you arrested. The scary thing was that in most cases the ‘insulters’ were shipped by ordinary Zimbabweans: bus passengers, shoppers at a supermarket till, fellow beer drinkers or members of a WhatsApp chat group.
Mugabe’s lieutenants maintained a complex web of fear, starting with his military generals and reaching down to the lowest level of informants. At the heart of the post-2000 crisis, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube – himself brought down in a CIO honey-trap – estimated that 1 in 6 Zimbabweans was in the pay of the secret service. The size of the secret service was never confirmed, but two reporters who dared suggest agents had been paid a yearly bonus at the end of 2015 when the rest of the civil service hadn’t, found themselves in police cells.
Mugabe had been ailing for a long time. As a reporter, you got used to the Has-he-gone-yet? phone-call late at night, the sighting of his military helicopter at a Pretoria health facility. Before Wikileaks the rumour in Harare was that he had syphilis. Then his personal banker, Gideon Gono told the US ambassador it was actually prostate cancer he was afflicted with, advanced and terminal. That was in 2008. As his doctors predicted, he took years to die, maintained by frequent trips for Far Eastern medical attention – and, no doubt, the grim knowledge that his party would likely implode without him.
His mother Bona had lived until well into her 90s: his genes were good.