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Learning from Mugabe’s misrule: What the dictator took from Zimbabwe, and why there’s still so much fondness for him


Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe looks on during his inauguration and swearing-in ceremony on August 22, 2013 in Harare. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

JOHANNESBURG — Standing next to a pile of smoldering trash, a group of men shiver in the late winter chill on a crumbling streetcorner in downtown Johannesburg.

The migrants from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe talk of their daily struggle to survive as foreigners on the harsh streets of South Africa, where they dodge regular outbreaks of xenophobic violence.

They are the most enduring living legacy of Mugabe, the liberation war hero turned kleptocratic dictator who died Friday at 95.

Along with millions of countrymen, they were forced to flee Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous nation brought to its knees by four decades of misrule and waves of political repression.

They left behind a stunningly beautiful land where college graduates hawk cell phone cards for $2 a day, starvation stalks millions and the lights only go on from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The grinding poverty and depredation would have been unthinkable when I first arrived in Zimbabwe in 1988 as a young graduate student.

Less than a decade after gaining independence from white minority rule, Zimbabwe stood as a beacon of hope for Africa and the whole developing world. Its thriving economy made it a bread basket for the region, and Mugabe was revered as a brave ally of the struggle to end apartheid in neighboring South Africa.

I studied at the well-regarded University of Zimbabwe, where green lawns stretched out on a leafy campus overlooking the shimmering new skyline of the capital Harare.

So what went wrong? In a word: power.

By the early 1990s, Mugabe had lost popularity in cities and among young people as economic mismanagement and corruption took root. Members of the minority Ndebele tribe chafed under the domination of Mugabe’s majority Shona group and the lingering anger over a violent campaign of repression that killed as many as 20,000 people.

As discontent rose, Mugabe dug in his heels.

He launched a campaign to drive white farmers off their famously productive farms — and handed the land over to a handful of political cronies. Railing incessantly against Western conspiracies to unseat him, Mugabe cracked down on opposition leaders and rigged successive elections.

Perhaps worst of all, he printed money by the truckload, sending the economy into a tailspin. Hyperinflation spiraled to 5 quintillion percent in 2008 before he was forced to abolish the local Zimbabwe dollar.

Through it all, the aging strongman maintained his grip on power by carrying out a series of purges and even grooming his young wife Grace to succeed him. Once known for his ascetic lifestyle, he accumulated eye-popping wealth and siphoned off enough cash to buy mansions in Dubai and Singapore as his countrymen suffered.

By 2017, even Mugabe’s powerful ruling ZANU-PF party had had enough of him. With the help of the army, they ousted him. But instead of breaking with the past, they installed Mugabe’s feared longtime lieutenant Emmerson Mnangagwa as the new leader of the same rotten system.

Despite it all, many Zimbabweans have shockingly kind words for the prime architect of their despair.

Especially in death, Mugabe is remembered first and foremost for bringing freedom to the country once known as Rhodesia. Few want to discuss the trail of bloodshed Mugabe left behind.

To the guys on the streets of Johannesburg, things seemed better when Uncle Bob was in charge.

Like me, they remember a Zimbabwe where the future seemed so bright. And they choose to forget how their eloquent hero turned into a power-crazed senile dictator.

And anyway, they have to find a few bucks to make ends meet — and little time to debate the sins of the past.

Their message to Mugabe in Shona?

Famba zvakanaka, Robert. Go well.