Even in death, Robert Mugabe still inspires anger and despair. Thirty-nine years ago, the Rufaro stadium in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare was where Mugabe was sworn in as prime minister of a newly liberated and hopeful African nation.
This week, as the body of the deposed dictator returned to the crumbling arena for a public viewing in an open casket, thousands did genuinely mourn. But for most, the return of the one-time liberation hero, who died in a Singapore clinic this month, was a painful reminder of his wasted legacy.
“I won’t go and see him. Everything is terrible in Zimbabwe,” Admire, a jobless 39-year-old said outside the arena. “Those people who are going in just want to make sure he’s dead.”
As Mugabe’s body lay in state, a squabble raged between his relatives and Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president, over a final resting place. After days of wrangling, the Mugabe family on Friday agreed that he could be entombed in a national monument in the capital, having earlier accused Mr Mnangagwa and the ruling Zanu-PF party of “attempting to coerce” his last rites.
The liberation leader turned despot will, however, have a private burial after state ceremonies this weekend, in a snub to Mr Mnangagwa, the former deputy whom Mugabe never forgave for the 2017 coup that overthrew him.
Mugabe’s body had been transported from Harare airport as part of a fleet of luxury vehicles, attended by heavily armed soldiers and an entourage of Zanu-PF supporters. He came home to a struggling country with power cuts up to 18 hours per day, where doctors earn $100 a month and the Zimbabwe dollar, once a byword for hyperinflation, has been reintroduced.
“We are crying because of him,” said Walter, a motorist who was craning his neck for a view of the Mugabe cortege. They were not tears of mourning. “I don’t have a job because of him. The country was destroyed because of him. Look . . . they’re taking him to the Blue Roof,” he said, referring with disgust to the garish, 44-acre mansion where Mugabe spent his final years in rumination on his overthrow.
Mr Mnangagwa travelled there this week to pay respects to his former mentor. “Let bygones be bygones,” he said as Grace Mugabe, the ex-dictator’s wife who was once Mr Mnangagwa’s rival for power, sat veiled. “As long as Zanu-PF is in power and as long as I am leading . . . you remain our icon, our commander, and founding father,” the president said.
However, Mr Mnangagwa left without securing the full state burial that would have suffused his decayed ruling movement one last time with the aura of liberation around Mugabe. It was a humiliation for the Zanu-PF leadership, and revenge for Mugabe, who called them his “tormentors” after the coup that removed him.
This week’s infighting has been irrelevant for most Zimbabweans, who in the past two years have watched history repeat itself. Mr Mnangagwa promised a new era but his security forces have crushed dissent just like Mugabe’s by shooting protesters and torturing activists. Political reforms have stalled under the new president, and with them the prospects of international financial aid to stabilise the currency.
“We don’t regret [Mugabe], we don’t even care about him,” said Annamercy, owner of a down-at-heel dress shop on Robert Mugabe Road in downtown Harare. She was too busy trying to survive Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, she said: “No electricity, no transport, no water, no fuel, no money.”
And yet Annamercy and many others were wary of using their full names to speak about Mugabe or his successor. Death has not erased the fear. “It’s not the end of an era. Nothing will change,” said Brighton, a security guard who, like many, now lives on the brink of penury.
Mugabe’s funeral is unlikely to bring a sense of closure for the country. During the 2017 coup that removed Mugabe, jubilant protesters hoped for more. On Robert Mugabe Road they tore the street signs off the posts and literally dragged his name through the dirt.
“I remember marching in this street, we were saying that things must change,” recalled Tinashe, 27, as he queued for two hours to buy petrol — another manifestation of the shortages that have choked the economy. Of the change in leader that briefly raised hopes but delivered little, he said: “We changed the driver, the bus is still the same.”
Back at the stadium, a man who feared to give his name, said: “We are in hell after Robert Mugabe . . . Zimbabweans have come to say sorry.” When Mugabe was deposed, he added, “we didn’t know the faces of the new government were the devil.”