Robert Mugabe, who ruled over Zimbabwe for 37 years, died on September 6. His was an undeniably epic life of glaring contradictions. He was a passionate voice for the liberation of the Zimbabwean people from the injustice and humiliation of white minority rule, but a brutal oppressor when those same people sought to exercise political freedom. For a time he helped to build a widely admired national education system, empowering citizens intellectually but then punishing those who used their intellect to challenge his dominance or question his decisions. He was a fierce nationalist and advocate of “Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans” who died in far-off Singapore, having long eschewed the inadequate medical resources of his country’s hollowed-out health system and adopted the elite practice of seeking medical care abroad. He helped to create a state that he then destroyed, and a system that ultimately destroyed him.
Finally, he was the indispensable man who became an irrelevance. Once sure that his dominance and the country of Zimbabwe were inextricably linked, his death is of little consequence to that country today. When military officers and leaders in the ruling party ousted Mugabe in 2017, the system of repressive governance that protects a small circle of elites overran its foremost founder, casting him aside in its own interests. Today, the system persists. Opponents of the ruling party are harassed, tortured, and sometimes killed. For many Zimbabweans, there is little relief in sight from grinding poverty and shrinking opportunities as a consequence of economic mismanagement intended to protect the connected few. The state-dominated media publishes outright falsehoods and wild accusations, often with the aim of instilling widespread fear. This toxic system is Mugabe’s enduring legacy.