Some call him a ‘true African’ and a ‘revolutionary icon’. For others, the name evokes only ‘evil’, ‘destruction’ and ‘suffering’.
Zimbabweans on Friday woke up to the death of their founding president Robert Mugabe — a hero-turned despot whose increasingly tyrannic rule and economic mismanagement prompted millions to leave the country.
“To be honest I thought I would celebrate when he died,” said Tatenda Musoni, a 39-year old school teacher in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.
“I’m actually sad because he was an embodiment of what a true African should be.”
Mugabe, 95, died overnight in a hospital in Singapore, where he was receiving medical care. He ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years – making him one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents – before being deposed by the military in 2017.
“As a leader the only thing he did wrong was to stay in power for a long time,” Harare resident Joshua Tsenzete told AFP on the morning of his death.
“He liberated us from the colonialists as well as gave us land,” said George Bindu, as the passersby went on with their daily business.
Mugabe, a former guerilla lord who lead Zimbabwe to independence from Britain in 1980, was initially hailed for preaching racial reconciliation and for extending education and health services to the black majority.
One Harare resident, Eddington Pangeti, recalled that “speaking proper English” was “courtesy of our former president”.
– ‘Manipulated everyone’ –
Mugabe’s rule took a dark turn in the early 1980s with the slaughter of thousands of civilians belonging to the ethnic group of a political rival.
He then lead a violent campaign against white farmers – many of whom backed the main opposition party – causing the collapse of agricultural production.
“Mugabe was an educated man but he used his education for evil,” said Baster Magwizi, a war veteran in the southwestern city of Bulawayo.
“He manipulated everyone around him and fooled the world, only Zimbabweans can testify to this as we lived in hell under his leadership.”
Mugabe responded to the farming crisis and a series of poorly judged economic reforms by pumping cash into the economy.
The resulting hyperinflation rendered the Zimbabwean currency worthless and plunged thousands into poverty.
“I am a qualified mechanic but I never got employed,” Bulawayo hawker Isaac Maenzanise told AFP. “Going around carrying these brooms is not by choice.”
Nicolas Mapena, head of the Zimbabwean diaspora in South Africa, said many Zimbabweans left the country after “Mugabe collapsed the economy”.
“President Mandela died in South Africa,” he told AFP.
“Whereas our political leadership has not been seeking treatment in Zimbabwe. And this is because they collapsed the healthcare sector, the educational system and the economy.”
– ‘We used to buy bread’ –
On the streets of Yeoville, a central Johannesburg neighbourhood popular with foreigners, Zimbabweans had mixed feelings about Mugabe’s passing.
“We are here in South Africa because of what was happening in Zimbabwe. We didn’t want to be here, we came here just because of the situation that Mugabe created,” said Palmolive Nxumalo, 38, who works as a waitress.
“On my side I am happy that he is dead.”
Farayinesu Madzimure, a 47-year old telecom engineer, told AFP he was saddened by the news.
“We regard him as a great Zimbabwean citizen and I am sure you know about the education of the people in Zimbabwe.”
Close to three million Zimbabweans live abroad, according to the International Organization for Migration. They moved to neighbouring South Africa and Botswana, and further afield to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States among others
“Since 1993 things started to change very dramatically,” said Lamek Swanda, a Zimbabwean security guard. “We left our beloved country just because of him.”
But like many Zimbabweans, Swanda was more concerned with the economic hardship that continues under the current president.
“That guy was much better than what we have now,” said Harare taxi driver Mandla Latefa. “We used to buy bread for 90 cents and now its $9.”
Zimbabwe’s annual inflation rate hit 176 percent in June, the highest in the world after Venezuela.
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