The curtain has finally fallen on Africa’s oldest and longest-reigning despot. For Zimbabweans and those who love this beautiful and uniquely creative country, the event has been far too long in coming. One aches to remember all the times that the common wisdom on the streets of Harare was, “He can’t last another six months.” I heard that often when I lived there in 1997-98 researching a biography of Zimbabwe’s greatest popular singer, Thomas Mapfumo. The first food riots were beginning. So were brutally destructive seizures of white-owned commercial farms by gangs of “war veterans,” some of them far too young to have participated in the grinding guerrilla war that turned Southern Rhodesia into Zimbabwe during the 1970s.
Riots and farm seizures were not yet international headlines in 1998, but driving through vandalized Harare after the unrest, Mapfumo was reminded of Rhodesian times, under the stubborn regime of Ian Smith. “People have been very patient in this country,” Mapfumo remarked. “They must not feel that they fought and died for nothing.” Few could have imagined then that Mugabe would cling to power for nearly 20 more years.
Historians will debate the causes of such longevity. I look to Mugabe’s youth in the 1930s and ‘40s on the Zvimba Native Reserve north of Harare. His Malawian father ran afoul of the Jesuit priest who governed the village of Kutama. The family was forced to relocate, and remoteness contributed to the deaths of Mugabe’s two older brothers, who both succumbed to illnesses that might easily have been treated in town. Shamed, Mugabe’s father abandoned the family, only to return years later with three more children. Soon afterwards, he died, leaving 20-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe as head of a large, struggling family. It’s easy to imagine how deep anger and resentment, as well as profound personal strength, could result from these experiences.
When I first visited Zimbabwe early in 1988, Mugabe was an international rock star—the serene, eloquent leader who had emerged from a terrible war eight years earlier to speak inspiring words to all Zimbabweans, black and white: “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you.”
But already some Zimbabweans were seeing a darker picture. By the end of 1988, the first major corruption scandal of Mugabe’s now scandal-ridden rule had broken, and Thomas Mapfumo had bravely made it a part of mass culture with his hit song, “Corruption.” Over the next decade, Mapfumo would morph from the beloved muse of the liberation war to the most vocal popular critic of its result. In the early 2000s, harassed and threatened, he would move his family to Oregon, not wishing his children to grow up and be educated in a country he then sang about as a “Disaster.” Mapfumo has not set foot in the land of his ancestors since 2004.
Land, of course, is another key to Mugabe’s resilience. The Shona majority of Zimbabwe traditionally believes that the land where the bones of their ancestors lie is sacred. It must be revisited and cared for by generations of descendants, lest misfortune befall them. This belief meant that the forced relocations the Rhodesians imposed on Shona people were more than a matter of seizing fertile regions and leaving barren ones to the Africans. Relocation violated a generation’s most deeply held beliefs and values. Land seizures were not events lost in the mists of time either. Cecil Rhodes had arrived only in the 1870s and established his bare-knuckled regime around the turn of the century. That regime would continue to force people off their land for decades to come. Those who fought in the liberation struggle had close memories of losing their land. As Mapfumo often noted in his large catalog of chimurenga—roughly “struggle”—songs, the main purpose of the war had been to reclaim that land.
Zimbabwe’s plight cannot be separated from its rapid and extreme experience of colonialism. After all, white Rhodesians did not come simply to exploit natural resources, though that was voracious adventurer Rhodes’s initial goal. They soon discovered the charms of this temperate, fertile, scenic and largely disease-free land, and decided to become Africans themselves. In addition to claiming the best land, this meant aggressive interference with local culture, shaming traditional practices, including religion, language and music, and replacing them with Christianity and Western values and aspirations. Resisting acculturation and restoring African beliefs and practices—notably through use of the music and sonority of the sacred, metal-pronged mbira—has been the dominant theme of Mapfumo’s music, beginning in the mid-1970s, well before Independence. Africans fought to retake their land, but Mapfumo was there to remind them that there were deeper matters at stake: culture, history, identity.
How different things might have been had an orderly program of land resettlement begun right away, with the English, Rhodesian and Zimbabwean players who had participated in the war working on it together. As it was, the terms of peace in 1979 called for a 10-year pause. Momentum was lost. New leaders in England failed to follow through on promises made by their predecessors. Mugabe’s government sank deeper into corruption. By the time Mugabe moved in earnest to reclaim stolen land, it was an act of vengeance and fury, poorly managed, condemned by the world and brazenly used to whip up reckless and violent emotions, all as a cover for decades of failed economic policies that had rendered the country a shadow of what it was in the early years of Independence.
So Robert Mugabe at last exits the stage, but the rot of endemic corruption and the tragic distortion of Zimbabwe’s once-visionary constitution will likely prove the most lasting consequences of his rule. Sadly, the new leadership does not promise dramatic change. Even if new leaders surprise us with their willingness to restore responsive and honest governance, it will take many years for Zimbabwe to truly recover the optimism and pride that I experienced at Mapfumo’s ecstatic performances there in the 1980s. The ecstasy we’ve witnessed with Mugabe’s departure could fade fast as the reality of his legacy lingers. One sure sign that things are indeed headed in the right direction will be the day that Thomas Mapfumo returns from exile to sing once again for the people who love him most.
Banning Eyre is Senior Producer for public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, and author of “Lion Songs: Thomas Mapfumo and the Music That Made Zimbabwe.”