OPINION: 5 things Mugabe may have got right
Robert Mugabe. The tyrant who messed up his country’s economy, not once but several times, stole elections, persecuted the opposition and presided over one of the highest ever rates of hyperinflation.
In the aftermath of his 95th birthday, we ask: was there anything the former Zimbabwe president actually got right?
Though it’s likely not as high as official figures claim, Zimbabwe still has one of the best rates of literacy in Africa. That’s always been credited to Robert Mugabe.
After independence, his government massively increased the number of schools and trained thousands of teachers.
Mugabe always made sure education received a big slice of the budget, and many universities were opened during his time in power.
His dedication to education is hardly surprising. With his BA in English and history from the University of Fort Hare, teaching was his first job.
MARRIED A GOOD WOMAN
We’re talking of Sally, his first wife. He met Sally while teaching in exile in Ghana in the early 1960s. Sally is still revered by many in Zimbabwe.
Sally, it has long been postulated, was a moderating influence on Mugabe. She is said to have kept some of his excesses in check (though admittedly, she wasn’t able to stop the security crackdown known as Gukurahundi that killed an estimated 20,000 during the early years of his reign).
Had Sally not succumbed to a kidney ailment in 1992, might she have reined in Mugabe post-2000, when he plunged his country into crisis in a bid to outwit a challenge from the nascent MDC?
With his clutch of degrees and distinguished academic record, Mugabe embodied Zimbabweans’ belief in the power of further and continuing education. Zimbabweans have an enviable reputation as degree-getters, often pursuing academia along with full-time jobs. It’s unclear if Mugabe is solely responsible for inspiring this, but he certainly helped set an example for others to follow. He didn’t just stick with his BA degree, he got six others, including degrees in law and economics. And that’s not counting the honorary ones.
Of course, one could argue that in a country with a high unemployment rate, sticking at studying is one way of occupying oneself. But that would be true almost anywhere.
This topic is dynamite. Many Mugabe critics still believe the land card was played by Mugabe to buy himself another 17 years in power beginning in 2000 when he faced certain defeat at the hands of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC party.
There’s little doubt that what Mugabe allowed to happen was a reckless and often violent programme of land seizures that set back Zimbabwe’s agro-dependent economy.
On the other hand, attempting to right a historical imbalance in land ownership? Few could argue that was a bad motive – even if the modus operandi was highly contested.
PUT ZIMBABWE ON THE WORLD MAP
After nearly 20 years of turmoil, crisis and Cecil the Lion, Zimbabwe is certainly a place people have heard of (even if they can’t find it on a map of Africa). And that means that many in the future might want to travel here and spend some much-needed foreign exchange.
Tourism as a prime forex earner fell away after 2000: few want to brave a country with fuel shortages, hyperinflation and political demonstrations. But when foreign journalists snuck in to cover political crises, some of them also got a chance to see Zimbabwe’s beauty: its rich arts scene and its stunning national parks and conservancies.
Towards the end of Mugabe’s rule there was a definite move from foreign journalists – including those from Conde Nast - to see Zimbabwe as an exciting new travel destination. Tourism figures in 2018 surpassed 1999 figures, earning the country more than US$1 billion.
Will that upward trend continue? If it doesn’t (for reasons, as above, of fuel shortages, inflation and political demonstrations), this time it won’t be Mugabe to blame.
Oliver Matthews is a freelance reporter based in Zimbabwe.