From Reverence to Revulsion: The Life of Robert Mugabe

A charismatic leader both loved and hated, Robert Mugabe was the face of Zimbabwe for almost four decades.

Sep 2, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

robert mugabe reverence to revulsion


The 37-year reign of Robert Mugabe over the nation of Zimbabwe is a complex issue that garners both love and hate from different parts of society. Mugabe was an academic and a man who thought a lot about the policies that he implemented. He was a scholar and a philosopher who helped guide his country through the transition from colonialism to independence. He preached tolerance and equality, building his country into a successful state. And then he destroyed it all.


Early Life of Robert Mugabe


On February 21, 1924, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in the village of Kutama in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which had, just months before, become a British Crown Colony. From the moment he was born, he was limited by new laws that would impair his opportunities for education and employment.


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The University of Fort Hare in East London, South Africa, via the University of Fort Hare


When Robert was a young boy, his eldest brother Raphael died from diarrhea, and soon after, his older brother Michael died from having accidentally ingested insecticide. The deaths severely affected the rest of the family, which Robert’s father abandoned in 1934, leaving for Bulawayo, where he remarried.


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Robert and his family had been brought up as Roman Catholics, and he found in Father Jerome O’Hea, the village’s headmaster, a surrogate father figure who nurtured Robert’s talents. Robert was a studious child with few friends and spent much of his time with books, to the derision of other children in the village. He formed a close bond with his mother, who doted on him.


After completing six years of elementary education, Robert Mugabe was accepted to study at St. Francis Xavier College in Kutama. He graduated in 1945 and took up teaching as a profession. After working at a few schools, he was granted a scholarship to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa (where Nelson Mandela had also studied). It was at this university that he joined the African National Congress and was introduced to many political thinkers who influenced his revolutionary philosophy.


Robert Mugabe graduated in 1952 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and English and returned to Rhodesia to continue teaching. While working, he studied through correspondence at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and earned a Bachelor of Education. He then worked in Zambia and Ghana, earning a degree in Economics through correspondence with the University of London. He also met his first wife, Sally Heyfron, whom he married in 1961.


Robert Mugabe Rises to Prominence

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Two soldiers from the Rhodesian African Rifles who fought on the side of the Rhodesian government, 1976, via Foreign Affairs


Upon returning to Rhodesia in 1960, Robert Mugabe witnessed the result of the minority white government’s policies on Black people. Dispossession led to riots and violence. Mugabe found himself addressing a group of 7,000 protestors whom he urged to embrace Marxism. This brought him the attention of political movements, and in October of 1960, he was appointed the National Democratic Party’s publicity secretary.


Mugabe acted quickly in building a military wing for the party, but by the end of 1961, the government banned the party. The remaining party members cooperated to create a new party: The Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). This incarnation swiftly rose to have a huge membership of almost half a million. The leader of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, entered talks with Britain to discuss majority rule in Rhodesia, but he was ignored. Robert Mugabe began discussing the possibility of a guerilla war. He was arrested for subversive talk and confined under house arrest for three months.


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Mugabe speaking at a press conference in 1979, from Bettman / Getty Images


Following a conflict of ideologies in ZAPU, the movement split. With Robert Mugabe as secretary general and Ndabaningi Sithole as president, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was formed. Mugabe was arrested again for subversion and sentenced to 21 months in prison. This sentence became indefinite as he was later found to have been involved in terrorist plots against the government. At this time, civil war erupted in Rhodesia between the minority white government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ian Smith and the Black majority who wanted democratic elections.


During his decade in prison, he used secret communications to coordinate resistance in the government. He also managed to oust Ndabaningi Sithole as leader of ZANU. After he was released from prison, Mugabe went into exile, moving between Zambia and Mozambique. He solidified his hold on power and was a key player in brokering the Lancaster House Agreement, which ended the war and paved the way for democratic elections to be held.


Mugabe as Prime Minister & President

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Robert Mugabe with Margaret Thatcher in 1988, from PA


On April 18, 1980, Robert Mugabe became prime minister, and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, breaking free of colonial rule. His organization, ZANU, had run as a political party under the new name of the Zimbabwean African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). His initial actions were ones of reconciliation, placating the white Zimbabwean population. He also caused a rift between ZANU-PF and ZAPU, which flared up into violent conflict over the next few years. By 1985, approximately 20,000 people had been brutally killed, and the leader of ZAPU, Joshua Nkomo, fled into exile.


In 1987, Robert Mugabe merged the two parties. He changed the constitution, removing the ceremonial post of president, dismissing president Canaan Banana, and declaring himself Executive President, effectively creating an authoritarian one-party state. In 1990, he was re-elected in an election marked by intimidation and violence.


He laid out a five-year plan to fix the economy, which had been mostly successful by the end of 1994, especially in the farming, manufacturing, and mining sectors. He also built clinics and schools. Despite this, the violent nature of his rule and the receding economy in the late 1990s created pushback from the Zimbabwean people. Following an announcement in 1998 that government ministers would receive a pay increase, riots broke out.


In 1999, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was founded under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai and provided the only real opposition that ZANU-PF had during Mugabe’s rule. During the parliamentary elections of 2000, the MDC won about half the contested seats, but the ZANU-PF remained in control of the government. Around this time, people referring to themselves as “war veterans” began violently acting on promises to seize white-owned farms. Violence ensued, and many white people fled the country, fearing for their lives.


Zimbabwe Collapses

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Hyperinflation destroyed the Zimbabwean currency, NBC News


Mugabe supported the war veterans, and about half of all white-owned farms were reappropriated and given to people with little to no farming experience. The result was economic disaster coupled with food shortages. By 2009, three-quarters of the Zimbabwean population relied on food aid, and hyperinflation destroyed the Zimbabwean dollar. The unemployment rate hit 80% in 2005; in 2008, only 20% of the country’s children were in schools.


HIV/AIDS cases skyrocketed and, coupled with a cholera outbreak, lowered the country’s life expectancy to 35 years. The once lucrative tourist industry was almost completely wiped out.


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Morgan Tsvangirai (died in 2018, aged 65) of the Movement for Democratic Change, via CNN


In the 2008 national elections, the MDC received more votes and more seats than the ZANU-PF. Neither party had a 50% majority, and Mugabe declared that there would be a run-off election. A campaign of violence ensued against MDC supporters. Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off to avoid more violence, and Mugabe won by a landslide. Despite a power-sharing deal being brokered by South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the ZANU-PF continued to block and ignore any MDC attempts at reform.


The next election in 2013 was a quieter affair, with many MDC supporters afraid to speak out. Mugabe won the rigged election with 61% of the vote. Amid his old age and failing health, Mugabe was urged to name a successor, but he refused, claiming he would rule until he died. There was also fear that his wife, Grace Mugabe, would take over. She was widely disliked across Zimbabwe.



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Zimbabweans across the country turned on their televisions to be greeted by Maj. Gen. S.B. Moyo who said, “To both our people and the world beyond our borders, we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government;” from Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, via CNN


In November 2017, Robert Mugabe sacked his first vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. This resulted in the Zimbabwe National Army placing Mugabe under house arrest. He had lost much support within his own ZANU-PF, and his own party gave him an ultimatum. He was to resign or be impeached. After much deliberating, Robert Mugabe resigned from the presidency under the condition that he would not be prosecuted. Emmerson Mnangagwa took over the role of the presidency.


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Parliamentarians celebrating the resignation of Robert Mugabe, from Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images


For the next two years, Mugabe lived in luxury in a 5-bedroom house with 23 staff members. He was allowed to keep the wealth he had amassed while in office, and the government gave him an additional $10 million.


On September 6, 2019, Robert Mugabe died. The official cause of death is unknown, but Mnangagwa claimed that Mugabe was suffering from advanced stages of cancer. He was 95 years old.


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Mourners gather at Robert Mugabe’s funeral, from Reuters


Like many other African leaders, Robert Mugabe fills the role of a beloved revolutionary hero who fought for freedom only to fail the country shortly after achieving power. It is a story that has been repeated in Africa many times over. In the case of Robert Mugabe, almost four decades went by after he became the leader of Zimbabwe. His mental health suffered, and he made increasingly questionable decisions in the process, losing the reverence he had gained as a revolutionary and in the first stages of his rule.


His decisions led to misery, violence, dispossession, and death, which will forever stain his legacy.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.