Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Let Mugabe's life's work speak for itself

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe.
Daily Sun

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.

** Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to voices@news24.com with your name, profile picture, contact details and location. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Lockdown For
DAYS
HRS
MINS
Voting Booth
As a child or as an adult, have you ever been a victim of bullying?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Yes, at school
53% - 293 votes
Yes, at work
17% - 94 votes
No, I've never experienced this
31% - 171 votes
Vote
USD/ZAR
14.31
(0.0)
GBP/ZAR
19.81
(0.0)
EUR/ZAR
17.15
(0.0)
AUD/ZAR
11.07
(0.0)
JPY/ZAR
0.13
(0.0)
Gold
1,776.67
(0.0)
Silver
25.97
(0.0)
Platinum
1,203.79
(0.0)
Brent Crude
66.77
(-0.3)
Palladium
2,781.00
(0.0)
All Share
68,699
(+1.3)
Top 40
62,898
(+1.3)
Financial 15
12,446
(+0.8)
Industrial 25
89,364
(+0.8)
Resource 10
70,350
(+2.2)
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo