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Mugabe’s death is an awakening for Zimbabwe’s diaspora youth
A liberation hero to some and a tyrant to others, in death as in life former president Robert Mugabe polarises discussion among Zimbabwean activists, workers, and politicians around the world. However, much less heard from during these conversations have been the thousands of young people across the Zimbabwean diaspora who are still affected by his legacy every day.
Over the past 30 years, some three million people have emigrated from Zimbabwe in search of better economic and educational opportunities. Skilled and educated, these migrants moved to South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries, to build new and more prosperous lives for themselves.
Whether or not members of the Zimbabwean diaspora have maintained their relationship with their country over the years, the death of Robert Mugabe on 6 September 2019 brought the country’s complex history to the forefront of their minds.
That Friday morning, my Facebook feed was a mix of two extremes: posts celebrating Mugabe’s demise (and overusing the Shia LaBeouf slow-clapping meme), and others asking Zimbabweans to remember all the good the former president had done for the country.
Within minutes of scrolling, I realised that my parent’s generation, who were responsible for this influx of Mugabe-related content, was conflicted. So was I.
My reaction to Mugabe’s death, which I found out about through a text in my family group chat, was a mix between “Oh, okay” and “Finally!”. I felt guilty for not respecting a dead person, but seeing as I had never experienced life under Mugabe the “liberation hero” or “black rights activist”, I couldn’t help myself. When I was growing up, Mugabe was “Kumudhara”, or old man. He was the reason my parents had to assimilate into foreign cultures and routinely send MoneyGrams to our relatives back home.
He’s been my president my whole life and now he’s dead.”
As it turns out, my primarily “disrespectful” attitude towards Mugabe’s death was reflected in other parts of the young, Zimbabwean diaspora. Sipho Mbuya*, 23, who is a recent graduate of the University of Cape Town, was particularly upset whilst reading about the former president’s passing.
“His death was only sad to me because dying is the easiest way to go. He deserves so much worse than just passing way. If you look at Zim right now, it’s bad. He left this place in ruins. You don’t get to go now that you don’t have power. Keep it together and feel the pain! That’s how I feel.”
The reaction of other young Zimbabweans in the diaspora reflected the numbing effect of Mugabe’s 30-year rule: “I was shocked. He’s been my president my whole life and now he’s dead,” says Quinrose Mvuri, 16, a student who moved from rural Zimbabwe to the United States four years ago. “I wasn’t happy about it. I know most Zimbabweans were very happy but me, I felt detached from it. I just want to see how the next leaders do and if Mugabe’s death improves the overall situation in Zimbabwe.”
Whatever feelings young Zimbabweans have about Mugabe’s death, we all feel the effects of his life and legacy. In addition to prompting thousands to emigrate, his actions, such as Gukurahundi, an army-led massacre of primarily Ndebele villagers in the 1980s, changed the economic, political and cultural landscape of Zimbabwe.
Decades later and thousands of miles away, Nozipho Moyo, 22, a student who grew up on the outskirts of London, talks about Mugabe’s influence on younger generations: “There’s still tribalism between Shonas and Ndebeles, even in my generation. You even find it with us in the diaspora. I remember telling some Zimbabweans that I met at university that I was Ndebele and they were immediately like ‘Oh that’s not proper Zimbabwean.’ That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
People don’t recognise what it means to be diaspora… it means not knowing who you are and having this conflicted identity”
Whether it is dealing with tribalism or not feeling Zimbabwean enough, the mass emigration of Zimbabweans during Mugabe’s presidency has resulted in a generation of young people who feel confused about their identities. Sipho talks about her experiences after moving from Bulawayo to Johannesburg when she was four years old: “It’s frustrating – I’ve never been South African enough because I am a foreigner, but I’ve also never been Zimbabwean enough. People don’t recognise what it means to be diaspora… it means not knowing who you are and having this conflicted identity.”
For Quinrose, her Zimbabwean identity is still strong but she worries that she is forgetting what it is like to actually live in the country: “People are going through hard times [in Zimbabwe]. I’ve been through those hard times. Sometimes, since I’m so used to American life, I feel like I’m forgetting a little bit. That’s not okay.”
Despite these identity struggles, Zimbabwean adults often talk about how it is up to younger generations to make a difference in our country. For me, this is difficult to hear because I have always felt too much of an outsider to participate in Zimbabwean politics. However, after engaging in countless conversations about Mugabe’s death, I’ve realised that I actually have something to say about the state of my country. I am learning now that I did not need to grow up in Zimbabwe to still be able to care about what happens to my people. Perhaps my role as a young Zimbabwean in the diaspora is to be aware of what is going on in the country and spread awareness of it on the outside.
We [young Zimbabweans] have to educate ourselves. We can’t afford to be ignorant about Zimbabwe’s situation because it still affects the people we love.”
Quinrose says: “We [young Zimbabweans] have to educate ourselves. We can’t afford to be ignorant about Zimbabwe’s situation because it still affects the people we love. I encourage other young people to stand up and say that we want a better economy. ”
Hopefully, Mugabe’s passing and the passionate debate that ensues will be a catalyst for young Zimbabweans around the world to be more socially and politically active in the country. Instead of worrying about Mugabe’s legacy, we can do our best to honour the freedom fighters that gave their lives working towards a better Zimbabwe.
*Name changed to protect identity.