It matters not that at some frozen moments in the past, a person did good or bad. What matters is the evolution of their work over time to the present, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.
There is a famous, instructive and yet simple Shangaan idiom that holds undeniable truths about life: "mintirho ya vulavula". Loosely translated, it means your work speaks for itself.
When we evaluate the contribution to humanity of those who have departed, or those among us who are still alive, a contestation arises about how to go about it. It gets trickier when we reflect on the lives of popular personalities.
There are two ways to evaluate a legacy. One is to freeze the work of the person at different times and spaces. In this way, the work of a person is like a still photograph or photographs. It can be good or bad. It can leave a good or bad impression.
This "frozen" option of evaluating life allows you to be selective about which still images to use as a collection to reflect on the work of the person. It gives the selector an option to see that which they prefer to see – in the form of all the frozen images. These pictures can also be in the form of mental observations of the selector.
The other way to evaluate legacy is the "live" option. Nothing is frozen. The legacy is evaluated from the past to the present continuously, even beyond the moment the person stopped breathing.
It matters not that at some frozen moments in the past, a person did good or bad. What matters is the evolution of their work over time to the present. Indeed, the dead have presence and they speak through the legacy of their work. It is this work that the beautiful Shangaan saying refers to.
The idea that speaking ill of the dead is morally wrong cannot stand in the way of the saying that your work speaks for itself. Whether we verbalise a legacy or not does not matter. When someone's work speaks, it speaks for itself. It doesn't need a spokesperson.
Which brings me to the contentious issue of liberation heroes and the controversy about how best to remember them when they die or how best to evaluate the work of those who are still active in public life. The debate about the legacy of the late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe says something about the choices we make in evaluating the work of the dead.
Those who hail Mugabe exclusively as a liberation hero have chosen to freeze his work at a particular and most popular period of his life. In terms of the still frames they have selected, there is nothing that surpasses the fact that Mugabe was a hero. For them, he died a hero.
However, those who evaluate the work of the dead on a continuous basis and look at work as it continuously speaks in the present legacy have a different take. They don't deny Mugabe was a hero. But they accept that he had evolved and, in the process, became a monster who destroyed the economy of Zimbabwe and derailed a promising democratic project.
If Mugabe's work speaks for itself, as it should, we have to consider the fact that the country has no currency to speak of, unemployment is above 90%, interest rates are at 70% and the cream of Zimbabwe, its skilled people, are scattered around the world trying to eke out a living.
All these factors soil what would otherwise have been a sterling record for Mugabe. Political freedom that doesn't put food on the table has no meaning. Putting food on the table in the absence of political freedom also doesn't give life its full expression and meaning.
Mugabe fought for the achievement of both material and political freedoms for his people. In the second half of his rule, Zimbabweans became extremely poor and they had no political freedoms. This is the legacy that speaks louder than any words or eulogies.
There is a possibility that those who refuse to see this as Mugabe's legacy hope that when their own legacy is evaluated, their own shortcomings would be overlooked in favour of moments of brilliance of the past, frozen in some specific moments in history.
But it doesn't matter because the brilliant Shangaan saying has taught us very well: your work speaks for itself in life or in death. And one might add, it speaks louder than any loudhailers at a funeral or memorial service.
- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.
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