Zimbabweans on Saturday mourned the death of their founding father Robert Mugabe, but there was confusion over when his body would be returned from abroad for burial, two years after he was toppled in a coup. Mugabe died on Friday aged 95 in Singapore, where he had long received medical treatment.
He was one of the most polarising figures in African history, a giant of national liberation movements whose 37-year rule ended in ignominy when he was overthrown by his own army in November 2017.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who worked closely with Mugabe for decades before helping oust him, granted him the status of national hero on Friday, while tributes poured in from leaders across the continent.
Mugabe’s body was initially expected to arrive in South Africa early on Saturday before flying on to Zimbabwe. But there was still no word on Saturday afternoon that the body had left Singapore.
There were no major public events to mark Mugabe’s passing in the capital Harare. Residents expressed a mix of sadness at the former president’s death and frustration that their daily hardships had not relented since he left power.
Mnangagwa said on Friday that Zimbabwe would be in mourning until Mugabe was buried, but he did not say when that would be.
It was also unclear whether Mugabe would be buried at Heroes Acre, a monument for national heroes built with the help of North Korean architects.
The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported in August that Mugabe, who cut a bitter figure since the 2017 coup, preferred not to be buried at Heroes Acre because he did not want Mnangagwa to “pontificate over his dead body.”
But on Saturday Zimbabwe’s Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi wrote on Twitter that the plan was still for Mugabe to be interred at the monument.
If Mugabe’s family were to choose to bury the former leader at his rural home in Zvimba instead of Heroes Acre, it would be a major snub to Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF, the ruling party that Mnangagwa now heads but which Mugabe led for four decades.
Mugabe was feted as a champion of racial reconciliation when he first came to power in 1980 in one of the last African states to throw off white colonial rule.
But by the time he was toppled to wild celebrations across the country of 13 million, he was viewed by many at home and abroad as a power-obsessed autocrat who unleashed death squads, rigged elections and ruined the economy to keep control.
Most residents in downtown Harare said on Saturday that they were saddened by Mugabe’s death since he was their liberator and had broadened access to education.
“Even now we have livestock we keep in the rural areas because of him. So, it’s painful to lose our father, our grandfather who helped us to learn and go to school,” said Tongai Huni, a fruit vendor, speaking in the local Shona language.
Others expressed anger that Mugabe had left the economy in a sorry state, with hyperinflation and mass unemployment.
Margaret Shumba, another resident of the capital, said she had bigger things to worry about than Mugabe’s death.
“We are just trying to deal with… the harm that he did.”
Nearby, a police officer shook his head as he walked past a row of newspapers bearing pictures of Mugabe’s face.
“End of an era,” read the headline of the Daily News, while the state-run Herald ran a commemorative edition to mark Mugabe’s death with articles praising him.
But the harsh reality for many Zimbabweans is that the economy is mired in its worst crisis in a decade, with triple-digit inflation, rolling power cuts which can last up to 18 hours a day and shortages of basic goods like fuel.
Moves towards reintroducing the Zimbabwean dollar have been met by a deep-seated lack of confidence, and a clampdown on dissent by Mnangagwa’s government has revived memories of repressive tactics in the Mugabe era.