U.S. Markets closed

Empty seats give Robert Mugabe fitting farewell in stadium funeral

Roland Oliphant
Robert Mugabe's coffin arrives for a state funeral at Harare's national stadium - AP

They came in their thousands, but not - as hoped - in their tens of thousands. There were presidents and heads of government, but none from outside Africa. There was a fly past - but by only six planes.

Robert Mugabe’s funeral was a subdued, low energy affair that reflected the host of conflicting emotions surrounding this most divisive of African statesman.

It was a fitting send off for a man whose achievements as an African liberation hero and founding father of Zimbabwe will be forever marred by his legacy of economic collapse, international isolation, and political violence.  

Harare's 60,000 seat Zimbabwe National Stadium was barely at a third of its capacity as Zimbabwe's military and civilian leadership, a small group of foreign dignitaries, and members of the Mugabe family paid their formal farewell to Mugabe at a five hour ceremony on Saturday.

In one of the most discombobulating moments, President Emmerson Mnangagwa praised the man he betrayed and overthrew in a coup two years ago as "our revolutionary icon, statesman, leader, wartime commander, and former president."

Robert Mugabe's coffin arrives for a state funeral at Harare's national stadium Credit:  Ben Curtis/AP

He went on to pay tribute to Grace Mugabe, the late former president's widow and his political arch enemy, who sat silently throughout the ceremony.

Serving and former presidents from Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, paid tribute to him as one of the last of a generation of pan African leaders and icons of the liberation struggle against colonialism.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea who has run a brutal and kleptocratic regime since 1979, opened the tributes to Mugabe as a "true African icon in the liberation of the continent from colonialism."

Jerry Rawlings, the former president of Ghana, said "he consistently demonstrated his steadfast commitment to our vision of the Africa we want."

Large parts of the 60,000 seat stadium were empty during the ceremony  Credit: Themba Hadebe/AP

The Chinese and Russian governments appointed their ambassadors to read out tributes rather than sending dignitaries.  

The loudest reception from the crowd was for Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, who was booed throughout his speech until he issued an unreserved apology for the recent spate of attacks on migrant workers in South Africa, where thousands of Zimbabweans have moved to seek work.  

At that point, the crowd switched to cheering. It was a rare moment of modern statesmanship in a day devoted to the past.

After a 21 gun salute from the Zimbabwean army's howitzers and a flypast by six aircraft, the ceremony was over.

There was no mention of his record of violence against opponents and allies alike, the thousands slaughtered in the massacres known as the Gukurahundi in the 1980s, or the vast wealth his family amassed while the country was reduced to penury.  

In truth, most Zimbabweans are too preoccupied with day-to-day survival to give much thought to the man who liked to think of himself as their liberator.

Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa pays his last respects to Robert Mugabe Credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

The country is in the midst of an economic crisis that has seen running water cut off, electricity reduced to just a few hours a day, and the price of essentials from bread to petrol surge beyond the reach of most ordinary people.

Biggie Mutendozora, 45, father of three and a barber, who lives in a working class Harare suburb and stayed away from the funeral, said he disliked Mr Mugabe, but “I do not want to speak bad of the dead."

He added: "We got nothing except we all became poor. He was not a good leader." Even those who attended the funeral were preoccupied with daily struggles - although they tended to blame Mr Mnangagwa rather than his predecessor.

“When he left office, bread was at two dollars a loaf. Transport was affordable, food was affordable. Right now we are all suffering,” said Fadzai Mutasa, a 42 year old from Harare who attended the funeral. She rejected the suggestion that she was attending as a kind of protest against president Mnangagwa, saying she had come only to pay tribute to Mugabe's "good works."

Grace Mugabe walks to pay her last respects to her late husband Credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

But she then added: “Mugabe would understand when the people were suffering. The current leadership must hear the challenges facing the people - like he did.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Itai Chikwenga, 30, who said she credited Mr Mugabe for improving womens’ rights,  then said: "Bread is now 10 dollars. Robert Mugabe would have said “enough is enough, make it one dollar. And it would have been one dollar.”

Mugabe may get a less ambivalent reception when his body is flown to his home village of Kutama, a 90 minute drive northwest of Harare for a wake on Sunday.

The extended Mugabe family and their neighbours have spent the past week putting up marquees and arranging seating and catering for thousands.

Mugabe, who lavished spending on the local Catholic school where he studied as a child, is well respected here. But unease and confusion are following Mugabe literally to the grave.  

Mourners hold a portrait of Robert Mugabe Credit: Ben Curtis/AP

His body will not be laid to rest for a month, while a mausoleum is constructed at the Heroes Acre national monument, a cemetery where he himself insisted on burying liberation war heroes, including his first wife Sally.

His family had wanted to bury him closer to Zvimba, where his mothers and brothers are buried in a patch of rocky ground in a secluded copse.

Here there is no fence, no bombastic North-Korean designed monolith, and no armed guards. Only a cluster of black marble headstones shielded from the sun by swaying Massasa trees.

In front of his mother and brothers, there is an unused plot just the right size for another modest grave.

It is a place where you can imagine a divisive spirit might find rest. But there is no sign of digging.