2 years after Robert Mugabe's ouster, Zimbabwe still waiting to move on

After former president Robert Mugabe's death at age 95, people in Zimbabwe maintain a cynical view of the man who replaced him two years ago and has embraced the policies of his one-time mentor.

Late ex-president's legacy of economic struggles and political arrests persists

Robert Mugabe, seen here on Oct. 3, 2017, about a month before he was ousted from office, died on Sept. 6, 2019, at age 95. Zimbabweans are still waiting for change. (Phil Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images)

"Let's see what something different feels like."

Those were the words of a young Harare woman named Stephanie on the day the people of Zimbabwe celebrated what many were calling the country's second independence day.

The irony, of course, was that the first had come courtesy of the very same man whose political demise they were cheering on the streets with wild abandon: Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

That was Nov. 21, 2017. The lieutenants who had helped sustain Mugabe's brutal rule for 37 years had finally turned on him, forcing him from power in a strange, slow motion coup they kept insisting wasn't really a coup.

But the fact of it was there for all to see.

And the strongman's removal was the punctuation people in Zimbabwe had been longing for, one they hoped would change the course of their history for the better.

Mugabe's death in a distant Singapore hospital on Friday seems almost irrelevant compared to that day, certainly an anti-climax.

"It's surreal," the young woman named Stephanie said at the time. "That's the only word I can find right now because I never thought we would stand up like this."

The truth, of course, was that Mugabe's political end came not through a mass uprising on the streets. His tools of oppression were far too efficient for that and his people too busy struggling to survive in an economy that had been driven into the ground by years of corruption and mismanagement.

The change came because Mugabe's coterie had begun to fear the man at the helm was preparing to hand the reins of power — and so the patronage trough — to his young wife, Grace.

Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, are seen in Harare on Aug. 26, 2017. His former allies in the ruling party had accused him of grooming his wife to take over the presidency. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters )

The man who wrested power from Mugabe to become Zimbabwe's next president, his former protégé and enforcer Emmerson Mnangagwa, was the man to announce his death, praising him as a national hero.

Mnangagwa has succeeded in very short order in putting the cap back on all those hopes and dreams that managed to escape the bottle and swirl around the streets for a time back when Mugabe was ousted.

"Emmerson Mnangagwa and his minions have made Robert Mugabe look like an angel, look like a hero," opposition figure Tendai Biti said from Harare in an interview after news of Mugabe's death broke.

The view that Mnangagwa could inflict as much damage on Zimbabwe in two years as Mugabe managed to over nearly four decades is no doubt connected to the fact that his embrace of the policies of his one-time mentor contrast so starkly against the expectation of change when "the old man" finally left the stage.

Hyperinflation, shortages and arrests

Instead, an estimated 90 per cent of people make a living only by working in the informal economy, inflation reached 175 per cent over the summer, and bread, fuel and electricity shortages are still a part of daily life for Zimbabweans.

Mnangagwa has also cracked down on all forms of dissent using Mugabe's time-honoured methods of fear, intimidation and violence, filling up the jails with opposition figures.

Emmerson Mnangagwa is seen addressing supporters in Harare on Nov. 22, 2017, when he was still the country's vice-president. Mnangagwa had worked closely with Robert Mugabe for decades before helping oust him. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Amnesty International documented 15 killings by police in January when security forces moved to put down protests over fuel prices.

In August, heads of mission from 10 embassies in Harare, including Canada's, issued a statement calling attacks on human rights defenders, trade union and civil society representatives and opposition politicians "cause for great concern."

Tendai Biti was tortured by the Mugabe regime in 2008. He would later be part of a short-lived power-sharing government between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC.

"One of the contradictions of 2009 was having to sit in the same room with the person who had done this to me," he said. "But I moved on. I can't say I forgave him. I moved on."

But as the past two years have shown, Zimbabwe itself can't move on, given that its present is essentially a manifestation of its past.

Stephanie and so many other Zimbabweans are still waiting to see what "different" feels like.

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.