At just before 11.30am, the thousands of mourners in the vast bowl of Zimbabwe’s national stadium stood and the casket carrying the mortal remains of Robert Gabriel Mugabe began its short journey across the green grass to the podium where it would lie during the long, hot hours of the funeral.
A military brass band led the procession. Then came the bereaved family and Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, followed by foreign dignitaries, before a small crowd of ministers and officials from the ruling Zanu-PF party.
The band played lively hymns, the sun shone on the tubas, trumpets and trombones. The drums crashed and rattled. When the casket was settled in the shade beside a white and yellow wreath bearing the words, a choir sang jaunty methodist hymns, and the speeches began.
Mugabe died, aged 95, this month in a private clinic in Singapore. He was ousted in November 2017 after 37 years in power. The official order of service was coy about the brutality of the bloodless military takeover, launched by Mugabe’s closest aides, that deposed the former ruler. “Comrade Mugabe retired … after a long and distinguished political career,” it read.
Among those filing on to the concrete stands, there was deep respect for the man who fought a guerrilla war to overcome a white supremacist regime and bring full independence to his nation. “I am here to pay tribute to our former president. He is an icon of our nation. He did so many things for us. He encouraged women to work for ourselves and get educated,” said Joyce Mutyakurera, a 30-year-old administrator.
Jackson Njambo, 35, who had travelled from a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Harare, said Mugabe had stood up to the west. “He liberated our country and defended us against all the countries that want to take our land and resources and make us a colony again,” the builder said.
Such sentiments were echoed in the speeches that would boom out across the stadium in the hours to follow. This was a commemoration not just of Mugabe’s life – as a freedom fighter against western colonialism and racism – but of his vision of Africa and its struggle against the west too.
If the early years of Mugabe’s rule saw a series of progressive measures, welcomed by overseas observers, its later decades were characterised by economic mismanagement and brutal suppression of growing opposition. Isolated from the west and much of the international community, Mugabe and his officials turned increasingly to a new coalition of allies and collaborators: the Kabila family in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Theodore Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, China, Russia and Cuba.
Obiang, 77, was the first to address the thin crowds seeking the shade on the stadium’s terraces on Saturday. The veteran ruler, whose country is mired in poverty despite its vast oil riches, said Mugabe had joined a long list of “liberation struggle leaders in Africa”, including Nelson Mandela, and added that the funeral would give a “lasting sense of democracy to the policies and position of President Mnangagwa”.
This of course was a key reason for the pomp of the public ceremony: the line of soldiers, police and presidential guardsmen standing in the sun, the three-gun salute and the presence of all the foreign dignitaries. For Mnangagwa and those close to him – struggling with a deepening economic crisis, massive debts, continuing international isolation and significant domestic opposition to their rule – the death of Zimbabwe’s former ruler was an opportunity to assume the role of legitimate successors to the “founder of the nation” and to obscure the fact that Mugabe had no desire to leave power.
But this proved harder to arrange than many within the deeply divided ruling party had clearly believed. Mugabe had made no secret of his bitterness, telling journalists at his last public appearance that he and his second wife, Grace, had been mistreated by the new rulers of the country. Grace, 54, refused to allow Mnangagwa to preside over a burial, and her late husband will now be interred in a month once a suitable tomb has been constructed at the monument reserved for “national heroes” on a ridge overlooking Harare.
A family representative, Walter Chidakwa, spoke to the crowds in the stadium on Saturday of the “strong views” of Mugabe and his insistence on “integrity”. Many took his words as an indirect reproach to Mnangagwa. “Our father told us to be who you are,” Chidakwa said. “Towards the end of his life he was a sad man. A sad, sad, sad man. He recalled quietly the journey he had walked. A profound journey, a hard and excruciating journey.”
But if Mugabe has gone, his legacy remains. There is the crumbling infrastructure, soaring inflation and vast debts that have crippled the economy, leaving millions facing hunger. There is also the reflex authoritarianism and powerful security establishment that seeks to crush opposition.
And there is the strategic alignment: envoys from Havana, Beijing and Moscow spoke attended the funeral, speaking more or less interchangeably of their loss of a great friend and ally, their unbreakable friendships with Zimbabwe and the injustice of the sanctions imposed on the country by the EU and the US during Mugabe’s rule.
When it was the current president’s turn to address the crowd – which barely filled a quarter of the vast stadium – Mnangagwa spoke of his own desire to see “a Zimbabwe free of the albatross of sanctions”.
There was little evidence of the fresh approach he promised in the runup to elections last year, other than the crowd of foreign journalists before the podium. International media had been almost entirely banned in recent years.
“In many ways, Mugabe could have given that speech,” said Blessing-Miles Tendi, an expert and author from Oxford University. “There were very familiar themes: sovereignty, sanctions, and no recognition of the failings of the government itself. The man is gone, but his ideas and methods live on.”
In a gesture that many praised, opposition leaders had been invited to the funeral, including some from the Movement for Democratic Change, which headed protests against Mugabe and suffered repeated waves of repression as a consequence.
“In African culture you are bound to be present [at a funeral]. We are here for Mugabe, not for Mnangagwa or Zanu-PF,” said Job Sikhala, an MDC parliamentarian, shortly before the ceremony.
Sikhala, who is facing treason charges for his political activities and a potentially heavy prison term, said Mugabe’s pan-African ideology might have brought the late ruler admirers across the continent but was an anachronism. “Colonialism left its pains and scars … but we believe that 40 years after independence there is no point in crying over spilt milk. Africa needs its own solutions.”
The speeches went on. Any early excitement ebbed. The flow of supporters into the stadium began to reverse. The guns fired their salute and 95 doves were released into the air. The presidential guard – blamed for the shooting of six civilians days after the elections last year – huddled around the casket.
Grace Mugabe, her face veiled, her robes black, stood and watched. The soldiers lifted and began a slow, steady march out of the stadium followed by the bereaved family, the president, ministers, a large number of senior soldiers in diverse uniforms with braid and medals, and, after some time, the foreign dignitaries.
The band thumped and blared and the sun beat down. The band leader stamped time with a swagger stick under his arm.
Watching from a high terrace was Esther Moyo. Twenty-nine years old, hungry, poor, she was not impressed. “Mugabe is the reason we are in this mess,” she railed. “I just came here to sell my snacks to make a living … and to make sure the old man was really dead.”