Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe. Picture: Rogan Ward/Reuters/African News Agency (ANA)

Despite the glaringly checkered record as a leader, Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s life story remains one of pan Africanism and hope for those struggling to repel neo-colonialism. In death, just like in his life, Mugabe casts a divisive incongruous persona. 

The avalanche of obituaries written fail dismally to appreciate the fact that he was by and large a product of the very same colonial system he fought hard to dismantle.

Growing up in Kutama village the young Robert Mugabe understood well that colonial education was critical to overcome grinding poverty and colonial suppression. He became a very disciplined and studious, influenced by his mother and a Catholic priest.

Mugabe joined the famous Fort Hare University, a breeding ground for African political activism. The university boasts an impressive list of alumni such as ZK Matthews, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Mugabe’s first vocation seems to have been in education and, as a response to that, he worked in Zambia and later in Ghana as a teacher.

In Ghana, Mugabe met Kwame Nkrumah, a pan-African leader that he admired and influenced his own political orientation. The other important towering figure Mugabe met in Ghana was his first wife Sarah Hayfron. These two further influenced Zimbabwe’s future leader’s pan-African ideals.

Due to involvement in politics upon his return home in early 1960s, Mugabe was imprisoned for almost 11 years by Ian Smith’s white minority regime. During his long sentences, Mugabe acquired more academic qualifications that had undoubtedly an effect on his ensuing years. Throughout the 1970s, he fought with nationalist movements in Zimbabwe and the region.

Although Mugabe's Zanu party was on the verge of defeating the white minority regime in Rhodesia, he joined Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu at the Lancaster House to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Contrary to most misleading obituaries that portray him as a brutal dictator, he was revered in most Western capitals, especially in London. In the early years of his leadership, President Mugabe achieved great strides in education and health for his people.

He stood firmly for regional integration in southern Africa and Africa. He became a formidable voice within the Global South advancing solidarity in the face of apartheid in South Africa and neo-colonialism during the cold war.

While recording these achievements, Mugabe brutally suppressed his opponents in Matabeleland Province (Gukurahundi massacre) while Britain and most Western countries stayed silent. Mugabe was knighted by the queen and received numerous honorary degrees in UK and the US.

Throughout Mugabe’s first decade and half, he protected appalling British interests particularly land agreed upon at Lancaster House. Mugabe’s regime became a typical carbon copy of Frantz Fanon’s depiction of the post-independence African state and elite.

When his progressive agenda to expand education and health was forcefully curbed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank through austerity measures, Mugabe lost support of the urban elite. Zimbabwe’s war veterans became more restive because they had relied on state patronage. To maintain political power and retain their loyalty, Mugabe embarked upon the land distribution programme.

What Africa can learn from Mugabe’s journey is that leaders should be wary of not losing their ideals in their clamour to impress foreign interests. Mugabe was expendable to the West and experienced the ignominy of being tossed when he exhausted his usefulness. Another lesson is that power should not be maintained at all costs, especially if if is detrimental to the people.

* Monyae is director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.