Thomas More’s prescription sola mors tyrranicida est (“death is the only way to be rid of tyrants”) proved to be half-right when 95-year-old Robert Mugabe died in Singapore.
Theoretically, it was not his physical demise but a political event, an in-house coup by his one-time trusted deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in 2017, which led to his downfall.
But the reverential outpourings of love and admiration for Mugabe and his top-down tyranny by Mnangagwa and Cyril Ramaphosa and Thabo Mbeki suggest that the dead dictator’s shadow looms large even if he no longer held formal office at the time of his death.
The most morbidly fascinating aspect of Mugabe’s demise was actually his durability both physically and politically.
First off, for any Zimbabwean to survive into their 90s is to go against all actuarial calculations for that immiserated country.
A 2015 study by academics Genius Murwirarapachena (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) and Courage Mlambo (University of Fort Hare) entitled “Life Expectancy in Zimbabwe”, suggested that life expectancy in our northern neighbour had slumped to 55.9 years on average by 2011. In the careful academic language of the study, the authors attribute this “sluggish increase in life expectancy’’ (up marginally from 51.1 years in 2009) as “mainly due to Zimbabwe’s economy which has been deteriorating without any sign of improvement and the HIV and Aids epidemic, among other reasons”. Cholera, hunger, the collapse of public health services and general despair would rank among these.
Mugabe nearly fulfilled his boast (made to The Economist magazine, when he was well into his 80s) that he would rule until he was “100 years old”. In the journal’s words, “the tragedy for Zimbabwe was how close he got to keeping his word”.
Of course there is a fascinating trajectory of pitiless and ruthless authoritarians of the Mugabe stripe and longevity.
In 2002, when Mugabe was at the height of his destructive powers and busy killing his country’s economy and democracy and several of his opponents, I made one of several visits to Harare.
At a dinner hosted for me on the evening of my arrival by the German ambassador to Zimbabwe, one of my diplomatic interlocutors made the essential observation on Mugabe, then only 80 years old. He reminded our party – which included opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai – that the caricature of the Zimbabwean president as mad or demonic was precisely that – a caricature.
The then president of Zimbabwe was, according to the diplomat, both very cruel but “cunning and essentially very rational”. He continued: “The way a dictator behaves depends on an actuarial calculation: whether he was nearing the end of his career or at the beginning. A young dictator will generally leaven doses of terror with doses of prosperity in order to stay in power. A ruthless tyrant, however, near the end of his regime will be utterly unconcerned with the long-term implications of his actions and will simply hold on to power by all means possible.”
Hence the Mugabe aim to live and rule until 100.
In the necessary antidote to the fawning and sickening paeans of praise heaped on Mugabe by Ramaphosa and Mbeki et al, a necessary antidote was penned by Basildon Peta, the well-known Zimbabwean lawyer and journalist based in Johannesburg.
In the Sunday Times he explained how in real terms Mugabe defied the actuarial odds in impoverished and health-hazardous Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe on state expense visited Singapore hospitals more times than some of us visit our own backyards. All the while destroying Zimbabwe’s public healthcare sector, which could no longer stock paracetamol, and whose junior doctors earned less than South African maids. It is said that every single Singaporean excursion by Mugabe on a luxury chartered plane could have paid all Zimbabwean state doctors’ decent wages for a year or stocked the main referral hospitals with the necessary consumables for the same period. Zimbabweans these days condemn state hospitals and clinics as mortuaries where you go to die.”
Of course, Mugabe, who, in the best dictatorial tradition, might have regarded the country’s treasury as his own piggy bank and indulged his avaricious wife Grace in all manner of expensive bling, was far more frugal when it came to his own wellbeing: no caricature of booze, women and unhealthy vices, more yoghurt and yoga, according to accounts.
But in this regard the path to longevity is well-hewed by the most extreme dictators. They understand and practise the politics of self-preservation.
Leaving aside the wartime tyrants such as Hitler and Mussolini, it is striking how Mugabe cleaved to a familiar pattern. Malawi dictator Hastings Banda reached the age of 96, Francisco Franco of Spain (in an era before medical science achieved its current levels) made it to 82, and his neighbour in Portugal, Antonio Salazar, died at 81 when his impoverished countrymen could only expect to live to around 65 in the year of his death in 1970.
Meantime, ousted Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Maram, who killed millions of Ethiopinans with a state-induced famine, lives on in splendid exile, appropriately enough in Harare, at the grand age of 82.
The second takeaway from all this is the disconnect between the elites and the masses, though in our neighbourhood the former claim their legitimacy for all manner of excesses, omissions and bad policies from the latter.
Enter stage left, as it were, and making a rare public appearance is our own Thabo Mbeki. Addressing an audience in Durban last week he made the extraordinary claim that he “had never met one single Zimbabwean who said I want Mugabe deposed”.
Either our former president – who acquiesced at all times in Mugabe’s top-down destruction of his own country – has an impoverished social circle, or else he is wilfully blind and deaf to the howls of ordinary Zimbabweans. After all, an estimated five million Zimbabweans have been forced to relocate to SA, and any casual conversation with any one of them disproves Mbeki’s preposterous claim.
But this is all of a piece with the greater tragedy of the 30-plus-year misrule of Zimbabwe by Mugabe and his henchmen. He fed the narrative that it was the outsider, the colonialist, the past regime which was to blame for the very impoverishment which self-serving bad policies had created at the hand of the very liberators who promised at the onset of their rule the precise opposite.
Back in 2007, at Harvard University I met the engaging professor of government Samantha Power. She discussed with our class an article she had written for The Atlantic magazine. This was one year before Barack Obama tapped her as his ambassador to the United Nations. Power – an expert in genocide and exposer of dictatorial excesses everywhere – distilled the essence of Mugabeism, a term that will linger in our continent long after he is finally buried: “He was one of the last surviving members of the club of African big men. Having led bold opposition to colonial rule, such men become addicted to power and its trappings … Mugabe, acting less as a ruler than an owner of his land, followed a how-to manual of national destruction, as his support waned.”
The irony in all this is that the most hopeful moment of the Mbeki presidency was his championing of the African Renaissance, which pointed the country and continent in the precise opposite direction of the ditch into which Mugabe drove his.
But in both the life and even after the death of Robert Mugabe, Mbeki lacked the courage and compassion to call things as they really were.