Op-Ed: Mugabe could have been a hero, like Mandela. Instead his legacy is violence and greed

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends a meeting with the country's war veterans in Harare on April 7, 2016.
(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / Associated Press)

It may be hard to imagine now, but in the late 1970s Robert Mugabe was a revolutionary leader, considered a hero by his people.

As a South African, I couldn’t help but notice the clear similarities between Zimbabwe’s leader and Nelson Mandela. Like Mandela, Mugabe was educated among the black African elite, at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Like Mandela, he was arrested for sedition and served long years in prison for his political beliefs. And like Mandela, he had a child die while he was in prison and was denied permission to attend the funeral.

Mugabe was elected prime minister of Zimbabwe in 1980; Mandela was elected president of South Africa 14 years later, in 1994. In the run-up to their elections, and in some ways as a precondition, both men made comparable promises. They would institute true democracy in their countries. There would be free elections. White rule would come to an end without retribution against the white minority, and without the wholesale redistribution of white-owned land to a landless black majority.

There ends what the two men had in common.


Somewhere along the way Mugabe forgot whom and what he was supposed to be fighting for.

Mandela served as president for five years. When he retired in 1999 at the age of 81, South Africa was well on its way to becoming the kind of democracy he had promised.

Mugabe, on the other hand, held on to power against all odds, and at the age of 93 he was, until Wednesday, the oldest and longest-lasting leader in Africa. He has presided over the economic collapse of his country. He crushed growing opposition to his rule with violence and election fraud. Opponents have been killed or have fled the country. He encouraged the wholesale redistribution of white-owned land, which led to white flight from the country and resulted in massive food shortages. And until the military seized power this week, he appeared ready to install his wife as his successor.

Mandela died a hero, leaving South Africa free, peaceful and filled with optimism. He was a diplomat, a visionary, an imperfect but exemplary man. He believed with all his heart and his mind in the rule of law, and by anyone’s measure, he was an extraordinary leader. Mugabe might have had a similar end, but somewhere along the way he forgot whom and what he was supposed to be fighting for. After nearly four decades of authoritarian overreach, his legacy will be one of violence, famine, poverty and greed.

History will judge Mugabe a fallen man, but what becomes of Zimbabwe now is anyone’s guess. Will the military turn out to be the people’s protector and arrange for free and open elections? Will those who succeed him improve the lives of the people he has betrayed? Will Zimbabwe become the model state it was once poised to be? Or will this week’s developments, which have so many of the hallmarks of a military coup, turn out to be yet another chapter in the tragic story of a nation that can only dream of democracy?

Despite Mandela’s heroic legacy, those who followed him failed to bring his political vision to fruition. South Africa today suffers from political corruption and cronyism that Mandela would have decried. White flight continues. A weak economy. Land redistribution. And a generation of middle-class intellectuals, journalists and businesspeople who feel betrayed by the promises Mandela made in order to bring apartheid to an end.

In emerging countries, as well as for the richest and most powerful, a leader’s legacy may be engraved in stone, but whether it shapes the nation beyond his last day in office is up to whoever comes next. The dream can continue or be brought to an end.


For good or ill, there is always another chapter. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, and in democracies everywhere, the future hinges on institutions and the rule of law, so that we the people may do the writing.

Novelist Neville Frankel is the author of “The Third Power,” about the transformation of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe; “Bloodlines,” set in apartheid South Africa; and the Soviet-era work, “On the Sickle’s Edge.”

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