Mandela, Mugabe legacies worlds apart

AFTER the death of anti-apartheid icon and democratic South Africa’s first president Nelson Mandela –– whose story hogged worldwide media for 10 days, except on ZBC and Zimpapers of course –– I skimmed through a wide range of television and radio channels, as well as newspapers, online news and social media platforms to see how this momentous event was covered.

By Alfred Shumba

The bottom line was that everybody generally agreed Mandela was a towering and extraordinary historical figure. Even his most rabid critics also agreed with this conclusion, albeit grudgingly.

However, there was some useful criticism from certain quarters, pointing out contradictions and outright hypocrisy as well as vain attempts to rewrite history. In Zimbabwe there were attempts to compare Mandela to President Robert Mugabe from a partisan perspective.

Africa produced many great liberation struggle heroes, from Kwame Nkrumah to Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Mugabe, who played critical roles in defeating colonial regimes. However, Mandela was exceptional.

Apart from bringing down the strongest colonial/apartheid regime on the continent, Mandela did many other things, including unifying a deeply divided society, reconciliation and laying a strong democratic base for the country and a framework for transformation. He also ensured South Africa did not become a one-party state with the attendant economic ruin prevalent in many other African countries, which sets him apart from the others.

Although Mugabe did not, like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda and others introduce a de jure one-party state system and declare himself president-for-life, he was stopped from doing that in his tracks through a coalition of political and civic movements towards the end of the first decade of Independence.

Although it would be rather unfair to compare Mandela and Mugabe given the different historical, social, political and economic dynamics in South Africa and Zimbabwe, one cannot help but observe similarities in the circumstances and issues that propelled them into liberation struggle politics from which they emerged as heroes.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe and South Africa share common historical and cultural backgrounds, which, without downplaying the differences, provide a useful basis and framework for analysis and comparison.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mugabe became its first prime minister at the age of 56 and has remained in power for 33 years. Mandela became the founding leader of a democratic South Africa at 76 but quit five years later.

This on its own explains the different styles of leadership between the two; one believes in being president-for-life, while the other believed he played his role to ensure the political struggle was won and younger people must continue the economic struggle for emancipation and empowerment.

While it is true Mugabe and Mandela had a vision of building better societies in which their people enjoyed liberty and economic empowerment, their paths later became different.

After initially proclaiming reconciliation and forming a unity government, as Mandela was to do 14 years later, Mugabe soon waged a fierce campaign of vengeance against his rivals, particularly then Zapu leader, the late Joshua Nkomo and his party. Some of Zimbabwe’s illustrious freedom fighters, including Zipra supremo Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Swazini Ndlovu, Tshaka Moyo, Gilbert Nkomo, Misheck Velaphi, and many others were rewarded for their role in the struggle with arrest, detention and torture. Masuku died as a result of the incarceration on false charges of a coup plot.

Even though Dabengwa was acquitted in the early 1980s, he remained in detention until the Unity Accord in 1987.

In a bid to crush Nkomo and Zapu, Mugabe’s government also launched a fierce crackdown in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, with the massacre of about 20 000 people, using the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.

Up to this day Mugabe has not apologised for the Gukurahundi massacres, only conceding that it was an “act of madness”. Besides, Mugabe resented dissent as shown by his brutal suppression of his former close ally, the late Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement. He was later to use even more brutal methods against the MDC formations after 2000 as he fought a rising wave of popular discontent against his misrule.

During the first decade of his rule, Mugabe, through his socialist policies in a command economy, focused on improving access to education, health, water, electricity, and transport. Great strides were made and Zimbabwe achieved the highest literacy rate in Africa partly due to that.

However, Mugabe’s reign degenerated into a tale of power, violence and plunder –– turning him from hero to villain.

The land reform programme, which came 20 years after Independence, because Zimbabwe, like South Africa, emerged from a negotiated settlement, helped to redeem his legacy. However, the reality is that Zimbabwe is now far poorer than it was in 1980 when it emerged from the liberation war amid full United Nations-backed sanctions.

Research by Zimstats, the official government statistics agency, shows that the overall poverty rate has reached a record high of 63% with Zimbabwe’s estimated population of 13 million vastly classified as poor and 16% living in extreme poverty. The poverty rate in Matabeleland North province is now the highest in the country at a shocking 81,7% followed by Mashonaland Central with 75,4% and Mashonaland West 72,4%. Bulawayo has the least poverty rate in the country at 34,5% while Harare has 35,7%.

But just how did we get to these alarming levels of poverty, having inherited a relatively prosperous economy at Independence in 1980? Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral resources and yet poverty is increasing every year as the economy regresses. Corruption and bad governance, which Mugabe has allowed to flourish in his successive governments, have given way to policies that created limited employment opportunities and ruined infrastructure resulting in poor resource exploitation.

Because of Mugabe’s seeming reluctance to punish corrupt officials over the years, a culture of impunity has developed and created a society with a small influential, rich and powerful political elite and a poor majority.

The lack of transparency in the mining sector and sale of diamonds from Marange is a case in point. Everything is done in secrecy with only a privileged few in the know. Political violence, intimidation and the absence of the rule of law have also contributed to economic decline, rising poverty and social decline in the country. Unemployment has reached an estimated 85%, tourism has declined and hospitals and schools function on shoe-string budgets.

This is the reality of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. No wonder millions of Zimbabweans have fled to other countries in search of the proverbial greener pastures.
Even though both Mugabe and Mandela used violence to liberate their people, the former never stopped using it as an instrument of politics and power up to this day.
Instead of reforming the former settler colonial state, Mugabe inherited its repressive apparatus and used it to suppress opposition and dissenters, including his comrades during the liberation struggle.

Although land reform was one of the key liberation struggle grievances, it only came 20 years later largely due to social pressure from the poor and the emergence of the MDC in 1999. If Mugabe had gone after five or 20 years in power, the issue would have remained unresolved.

Mandela in merely five years in power had massive social programmes to address housing, water, education, health and other problems. They went a long way and that is why the South Africa of today is vastly different from that of the apartheid era. However, myriad problems remain in South Africa, not least economic inequalities. Mandela said when he quit the presidency in 1999 that younger leaders must come into the fray to address new challenges facing South Africa. He could not redress inequalities created over 350 years of apartheid in five years.

Mandela’s “rainbow nation” project remains work-in-progress.

Those claiming Mandela sold out need to refer to the Lancaster House agreement for perspective on power dynamics and negotiated settlements.

For all these and many other unstated reasons, Mugabe is nowhere near Mandela who was in a class of his own as widely acknowledged by all rational people around the world, friends and foes alike.

Shumba is a Zimbabwean political commentator based in the Scandinavia.

Do you have a coronavirus story? You can email us on:


  1. apa shumba wanyepa apa, go to S.A and find out the inequalities still so much thriving ikoko wozouya wotaura futi. Apartheid is still very much alive and kicking,/the society is still polarised. Mandela though great achieved more globally than in S.A

    1. Is Zimbabwe not polarized? What about segregation along party lines being practized Mr Mugabe? Food,land, scholarships etc belong to ZanuPF and are those who support it.

      1. which society on earth at this point in time is not polarised???? Italy’s Berlusconi, Egypt’s army repressors,
        South Africa is also as you point out above too -nepotism nepotism nepotism etc!!!!! Wakey wakey please – what/when is both Zimbabwe & SA electorate going to do something about it is another matter
        Your point here being exactly what!!!!!!

    2. Mandela didn’t bring down aparteid. They released him when they wished. Besides, the very same people made him a media hero. He wasn’t the only one to serve time. Chris Hani, Steve Biko etc were murdered, but the very same sections never say a word. Oliver Tambo, G Mbeki also served time. Mavheti akakuita hero, uri wrong somewhere or they are using you.

    3. Are zimbos insatiable species? matebele in particular. If you fail to appreciate anything you risk losing what is within your grasp. Mandela sacrificed his life 27 years for his people to have the right to vote and equal status in society. Mugabe liberated his people from colonialism and now Fighting for economic empowerment. Despite all this some regard him with disdain and contempt. I wonder their love for Mandela Is genuine?

  2. (He could not redress
    inequalities created over 350 years of apartheid in
    five years.)
    Shumba anyepei?

  3. People have a tendance of cherry picking history. soUth Africa is regarded as the most unequal society in the world. At least mugabe is trying to address these Issues

  4. thats life

  5. Good article. To try and compare these two is frivolity. Mandela achieved more, even if he did not implement a Chinos- styled land reform and Murambatsvina. They have their RDP program which can never be compared with our Hlalani Kuhle. Baba ava havana kuti ndini ndakarwa hondo saka ndinotonga kusvika ndafa. That was a great display of the selflessness that he had. We can accuse him for selling out or whatever, but the quality of life for all the citizens speaks for itself. While they have a functional social services system, our widows and orphans wallow in poverty while the ruling elite “indigenise” all the national resources, and personalise wealth. We have ngoda, but tinotoda vana World Food Program kuti vachengete nherera dzedu.

  6. Can we, for one day, just ONE DAY, recall ALL the Africans who have fled to SA because of the non-functioning of their regimes at home? This might give SA a real chance to look at what it is faced with. Right now . . . it is faced with artificial problems created by, unfortunately, non-functioning immigration policies.

  7. well said Mr Shumba however zanu supporters wouldnt agree with you as always.

  8. Mugabe is hero,Mandela is nothing. Anway th Mandela u ar talking about is not real mandela hw can he b recognised abroad more than in his country,there is smething unrevealed open yo eyes

    1. He was recognized in SA as well as abroad. A great man does as much as possible for the persons he is representing.

      Leaders from throughout the world were upset because Mandela was a political prisoner for so long. The leaders of these countries imposed sanctions so the leaders in SA would see apartheid would have to end. And it did end.

      Do not ever underestimate the power of Mandela and as a result SA is moving ahead socially, economically and environmentally. He was wasn’t a divisive leader because he knew it wasn’t beneficial to be inclusive. This is wisdom.

      If SA is so bad why are there so many people from Zimbabwe living and working in SA. I would say because there is a future.

      Zimbabwe should have a wonderful future but it is now one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Only leaders can change that situation.

      1. Mugabe was/is recognised and admired abroad too as was recently proved by the loudest & longest applause/reception for an African head of state at the recent Mandela memorial?? Fact not fiction. Im sure the likes of Jessie Jackson & Andrew Young would tell a different version of the story to yours. SA is moving ahead socially, economically & environmentally?? tell that to the majority of Sowetans and the corruption investigators of the current leadership please
        Read your history, past and contemporary and do some research. Yes Mandela spent so much time in prison & so did Mugabe & yes they both denied permission to attend the funerals of their sons who died when they both incarcerated & the only diff being one was out there with the fighters – lets not be economical with the facts here
        Whether one likes it or not it has to accepted that Mugabe pushed the country – in some cases kicking and screaming – to be the most educationally/socially able country on the continent & the dividends are still recognised & paying off today despite the fact that the economy has gone into free fall at various stages. Its a testimony to the guy that Zim professionals do so well in SA and it
        Why are there so many Zims working in SA?? Notwithstanding the obvious mistakes made by some within govt. it is a fallacy to deny that so called “targeted” sanctions have not had the effect of turning Zims into economic refugees!! and dont tell me these were instituted to promote democracy please!!!! I find it heartening that despite all Zims tend to be looked upon very favourably by most contemporaries from the continent

        1. Mugabe is not admired abroad and Zimbabwe doesn’t have a good education system. Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada, China have good education systems. This based on objective international studies.

          Jessie Jackson is a has been and I hear earns his living on the grievance industry. Something which unsuccessful political leaders duplicate because they can’t be successful economically.

          Yes there are very many poor in SA but SA is moving ahead.

          The sanctions are an excuse.

          Zimbabwe has so much potential but it must rid itself of the victim mentality filled with excuses. Model itself from successes like Asian countries who work to move ahead and don’t dwell on being a victim.


            To say that you miss the point is an understatement because yes “objectively” Zim has the highest literacy rating in Africa – well above SA – due to policies implemented by this guy that you hate so much. My point? despite all the economic/educational woes, that is indeed impressive wouldn’t you agree?
            Unfortunately for you yes Mugabe is looked up to by many in Africa and abroad for whatever reasons – maybe not necessarily the right reasons according to some – but we should not shy away from that reality
            Your denigrating attack on Jessie Jackson is most shocking to say the least but mostly comes over as infantile spitefulness because, like others, he has alternative views to yours and this somehow diminishes points you might be trying to put over

            And yes sanctions have had an effect – what do you think happens to many thousands of peoples’ livelihoods when companies suddenly pull out because of pressures from their govts???? &, this has not happened to the countries that you so selectively mention above. This is not say that Mugabe deserves support but please give some credit where its due.
            And yes politicians should/could do much better & yes Zim must rid itself of this victim mentality syndrome – always pleading for outsiders to correct the domestic situation?????

  9. Pane zvinotipa chikafu here apa. The truth is takwara nenzara muZim. Mandela’s history wil never bring food to our table, and Mugabe is failing to put food on our table as well. So vese havana basa

  10. chief dzorai hasha kikiki

  11. kikiki” we don’t want noise in the streets”

  12. Mugabe’s legacy can be summarised as a legacy of madness,corruption,theft,imprisoning and killing of opponents,non tolerance of dissent,electoral thefts,suppression of the media and trade unions,militarisation of state institutions even ZEC,lawlessness,illegitimacy,International isolation,repression and insatiable thirst and hunger for power until one drops dead.

  13. mugabe z bttr than mandela mugabe z duin fo hs country uther than mandela fo e royal

  14. mugabe my hero our hero go on Bob

  15. wanyepa apa shumba

  16. does all this shit bring food on our tables. Backoff mhani nxaa

  17. Please please dont go wrong way athawise this article is very penetrating in both sideways…mugabe is a hero in his beckground wallpaper zvekudhara during lobengula tym,not now koz he caused many deaths here in zimbabwe,soo wen we want to survive this tym around we need a new zimbabwe that means we have to served by a new president not ava vekusunungura nyika..ts not about being tough like smith to be a peoples choice,but yu must be a good leader wth better leadership qualities….Mugabe of coz is a Black President wel educated but he must surrender all his presidency to some generations so that things will b cum better for us…However that Mandela being hero of e world it doesnt count much koz European countries are benefiting from all sorts of tricks thats why people like Obamas and to name few vakanomhanya kupa speech parufu rwaMandela!!so ts a favour from a favour goes to a favour vanozivana,koz if u luk at some places in UK theres a school named after Mandela wich is a dodge heyy thats a cleverly way of fetching gold from SAfrica…while some black majority people in SA are suffering…

  18. Mandela vadhara chaivo. Tingaramba hedu but the truth remains comrades. Akatonga ari mujeri akapedza,kwete vamwe vanoti vakagarisa mujeri saka handibvi. Dei mukuru vakasiya kudhara vanorukudzo runodadisa.

  19. To suggest that the legacies of the two gentlemen in questions are worlds apart is quite naive sir
    If memory serves well Mandela got the concept of reconciliation from Mugabe except that in Mugabe’s case this later proved to be most problematic due to the fact that the magnanimity was not genuinely reciprocated by the former power as they had the option to run away to SA where a system they approved of was still intact! and to a very large extent is still intact!! Beside poisoning the drinking water/wells etc in the rural areas and packing off to join the abusive apartheid regime it was only until recent times since the issue of land arose, that we see Mugabe being pariahed for doing the right thing – the fact that some of the press in SA has basically not changed hands since the so called demise of apartheid has not helped either.
    The apartheid regime only mostly capitulated because of economics & not because Mandela was a great guy! Mugabe & Mandela are basically cut from the same cloth

  20. Its clear that people from other regions chooses to forget what Zanu did in Matabeleland&Midlands soon after independence. That tainted Mgabe forever&revealed his true colours. A blood-thirst individual. I suggest people google&read a letter to Mgabe from Nkomo in London. Go on and google the letter.

    1. Nkomo’s letter could not help his cause either. he failed to account for cache of arms found at property owned by the party he led at the time. however he did the right thing by Signing the unity accord. he must be applauded for preventing civil war.

  21. PanaMugabe ndikokurumbidza duzvi chairo.

    1. I suggest we restrain from derogatory remarks/verbal abuse just because we may extremely disagree with a person’s political stance and instead stick to some facts.Firstly, Mugabe is not perfect – far from it!!! – and neither was Mandela nor Nkomo for that matter.
      Furthermore Mandela did not directly do much for the SA indigenous population during his tenure, as his deputy ran the show from the background in order to facilitate Mandela’s world status and thereby SA’s too. As soon as there were murmurings of political dissent/dissatisfaction about this, I suspect that is when it was decided that he retire “gracefully”(??)

      1. refrain not restrain

  22. those who have doubts abt Mugabe read on that link. you will get a clear picture of him

  23. musungwa musungwa

    mugabi is a great man baba…mandela akashandiswa ndokubva pachigaro asina kupedza zvaakaendera robert

  24. mugabe’s legacy has been tainted by lootying, greediness, foul mouth and a lot of other things. he has become insane with age

Comments are closed.