Nicolas Stebbing considers the legacy of Robert Mugabe
I arrived in Harare on 5 September to find Robert Mugabe had died in Singapore. Next day the TV and newspapers were full of this with long reports and interviews. What did the people make of it? Well, Harare was completely quiet. There were no demonstrations of sorrow, nor of joy. It was as if nothing had happened. Shona people I knew joked about it: ‘We are grieving—ha! ha!’ Many who had intended to open bottles of champagne decided they couldn’t be bothered. It was as if Robert Mugabe had ceased to exist two years ago when toppled from power. Perhaps he did. His death was no more than a footnote.
What is his legacy? It is true that he led Zimbabwe to independence, overthrowing the unjust rule of the white minority (of whom I was one). Yet it was at a cost of civil war in which 30,000 people died, often in horrible circumstances. That was a war which could have been avoided with a bit of wisdom and compromise. White and black leaders failed to find that wisdom, but the black people suffered most from the guerrilla tactics. Mugabe sought untrammelled power at any cost, even the suffering of his own people. He was never a true liberator.
In his first years he did show a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, bringing white leaders into his Government. Later this was revealed as pragmatism. As soon as they showed signs of disagreement he sacked them. Also, in those early years of independence the Matabele in the South West began to oppose his Government, so he sent in the Korean-trained Fifth Brigade who killed about 30,000 men, women and children, often with appalling cruelty—burning them alive in huts or beating them to death. His successor, Mnangagwa, was complicit in that.
Today he is given credit for greatly expanding the schools and healthcare of the country. There is a lot of truth in that, yet widely available education has left a frustrated people without jobs. Clinics struggle to find medicines, schools are poorly resourced. Teachers and doctors receive tiny salaries such that most of us couldn’t live on. The last few decades have been economically disastrous as first white farmers were driven off their farms, then associated industries declined and the Zimbabwean dollar collapsed leaving the country with the miseries of hyper-inflation. This seems like economic incompetence. It is not. It is the deliberate pauperization of a people.
That sounds shocking but it is true. It was not only white farmers who were deprived of their farms. Many black farmers lost theirs too, because they did not support the ruling party. White farmers (including two of my brothers-in-law) had tried for years to negotiate with the Government to arrange a peaceful redistribution of land that would raise up good commercial black farmers. The Government refused. They do not want prosperous blacks who might not support them. They only want development that can be channelled into their pockets or bolster up their power. Destitute people are too busy trying to survive to make political trouble.
Even today, with the country on its knees, fuel queues, hyper-inflation, hunger and poverty, the Government will not allow any development that they do not control. Those who try to develop new businesses find import licences are denied, petty regulations are invented. Only the top echelons of the party are allowed to become rich (and they are very rich). Everyone else must be poor.
So did I have a miserable visit to Zimbabwe? Most definitely not. And that is the real point of this article. Life is tough in Zimbabwe and people are suffering, but they have an astonishing resilience. There is much joy and laughter. In church, particularly, people can escape the political ideology and rejoice in their fellowship as Christians. The country continues to function, not because of the Government but because ordinary people get on with it and small charities like ours (Tariro) keep on working below the Government radar.
What we see in Zimbabwe today is the triumph of the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor; blessed are the meek; blessed are the peace makers. It is easy for us to forget that Christianity is about a poor Man who had no power, but changed the world. That remains the task of Christianity everywhere. In the West, just as much as in Zimbabwe, we are surrounded by the trappings of power. They are not nearly as powerful as they think they are, or as we think they are. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort, the most evil wizard of all time, ends up a miserable bag of bones, his great power defeated by an unqualified, teenage wizard who was simply good and brave. That, too, is Mugabe: all that power, all that attempt to make himself immortal and he ends up a mere dead body with people squabbling over his legacy like vultures.
I speak not just of Zimbabwe. In the West we have violent populist leaders, massive industries and multi-national corporations; and we are involved in the wars of Yemen and the Middle East. We have the frightening facts of climate change and the rolling power of the technological giants. We know things are going wrong but we feel powerless to do anything about it. Yet these powers are not as strong as they seem. A small Swedish teenager has challenged the mighty over climate change and discountenanced them. In countries where populist rulers throw their weight around, thousands resist them, quietly subverting their arrogance. In places like Yemen charities like Médecins Sans Frontières work heroically to heal a battered people. This is how God works: not through dramatic storms and arrogant posturing, but quietly through the small voices, the quiet acts of goodness. Good is always more lasting than evil. We can find God’s Holy Spirit making Christ present in every place we look if we take time to remember that he will most likely be found amongst the weak.
Every time I visit Zimbabwe I am filled with hope by the young people we help through Tariro (the Shona word for ‘Hope’). Their lives are still tough but they have that energy of youth. They will not be defeated. Yet it is not just the youth; it is the priests, the nuns, the wonderful women in the dry, rural areas. They have no money yet somehow they build new churches, new houses for the clergy. They run little chicken projects and sewing projects to send their children to school. They grow beautiful vegetables in poor soil. They live off poor quality food and sleep on hard beds. They know God is helping them. They don’t despiar. They preach the message to us, without words, that God is on the side of the poor; God acts through the weak. If we look at them and listen to them we may let their examples fire up our cold souls. They can teach us tired Western Christians how to live again.
Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR is a brother of
the Community of the Resurrection.