The tragedy of Robert Mugabe was thus complete. He was the guerrilla hero who defeated white minority rule but went on to ruin the newly independent country he inherited. He was the supposedly model African leader who turned into a despot, the liberator who became an oppressor, crushing opponents and rigging elections. He was the professed advocate of reconciliation and national unity who might have been another Nelson Mandela but ended up pursuing the politics of hatred and division — most notably and disastrously by seizing the white-owned farms that were the mainstay of his country’s economy.
Towards the end of his rule Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa, was unable even to feed its own people. Inflation briefly reached 500 billion per cent and unemployment 90 per cent. Nearly a quarter of the population, including most of the brightest and the best, left the country.
Ironies abounded. As Mugabe neared his tenth decade, life expectancy in Zimbabwe fell to the lowest in the world. An intellectual with seven degrees, Mugabe sent his children to prestigious private schools in Harare while the state education system that he had built up during his early years in office collapsed for want of funds. His supporters staged ostentatiously lavish celebrations of his birthday as millions of Zimbabweans survived on a single daily bowl of cornmeal porridge.
Under Mugabe’s grotesque misrule commercial farms reverted to vegetable patches, the lightbulb to the oil lamp, the tap to the well and the wheel to the foot. Only the abolition of the worthless Zimbabwean dollar, and a power-sharing agreement with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 2008, halted the country’s implosion.