Yes, Robert Gabriel Mugabe became a deep-sea monster in human form along the way. For eternity though, the historical record will always show that when he became Zimbabwe’s president in 1980, the man who was the world’s most educated president spent more than any other Sub-Saharan nation on education.
Fresh from the bush and determined to empower people who had been subjugated by the British for over a century, Mugabe declared education a basic human right. The Zimbabwean president himself held a string of university degrees: Bachelor of Arts from University of Fort Hare, Bachelor of Administration and Bachelor of Education from the University of South Africa as well as Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Laws, Master of Science, and Master of Laws from the University of London.
His party, ZANU-PF, went a step farther by making education not just free but compulsory as well. The result was that at one point, Zimbabwe had the highest literacy rate in Africa. The country not only spent huge sums of money on education, it also ensured that such education was of the right quality. The latter led to some Batswana parents sending their children to Zimbabwean schools. It says something that Zimbabweans have never been known to come to Botswana for good education.
Online there is a video of Mugabe’s youngest son pouring champagne that costs P50 000 a bottle over a diamond-encrusted P850 000 wristwatch he is wearing to make a point no more profound than that he has money to burn. In the early years of Mugabe’s rule, P900 000 would have been spent on the education of more than 10 Zimbabweans. For a reason those qualified would explain, Zimbabweans are hard-working and have great passion for knowledge. A good number of them combined those attributes to make the most of educational opportunities they were availed of. It is likely that somewhere there is a Zimbabwean who is a lawyer, accountant, welder, midwife, tobacco technologist, magician, orchestral conductor and bartender all rolled in one.
As Zimbabweans acknowledge themselves, Mugabe’s expenditure on education meant that even after he messed up the country, they were able to use the good education they had acquired to fend for themselves not just regionally but internationally. Zimbabwean formed a significant portion of artisans who built South African stadiums ahead of the 2010 World Cup. Interestingly, it could have been Batswana doing that if Botswana’s founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, had been more supportive of the brigades movement that was started by the late Patrick Van Rensburg and provided young Batswana with valuable vocational education. At the height of the Cold War, the South African refugee had aligned himself with the opposition and left-leaning Botswana National Front. Brigades could have improved lives a million times more than they did if the government had worked more closely with Van Rensburg. Some retain the view that Khama actually “sabotaged” them out of political expedience.
Sir Seretse’s first-born son, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, would become president himself, inheriting an education system that had deteriorated under his predecessor. Botswana is one of the Top 5 spenders on education but the outcome doesn’t reflect that. The country’s tertiary education institutions produce graduates who get sub-standard education and are thus not job-ready when they complete their studies. General Khama’s own vocational education initiative, Target 20 000, was so disastrous that it has had to be discontinued.
As described, this disparity of outcome means that Mugabe educated his people well enough that they can thrive in the global job market while across the southern border, his nemesis has not able to do the same. Ironically, Mugabe stepped down in disgrace last Tuesday while Khama will step down in dignity next year. In an open letter that Khama wrote Mugabe in the final hours of the coup, he stated: “The people of Zimbabwe have for a long time been subjected to untold suffering as a result of poor governance under your leadership.” The statement is mostly true but Khama wouldn’t want to compare himself to Mugabe on quality education afforded citizens. Another irony is that Botswana could improve the quality of its education by benchmarking with Zimbabwe. That is not happening.
Rarely does western media laud this seminal achievement, choosing instead to obsess over how Mugabe turned what was once Africa’s breadbasket into a net importer of food. There is a strain of Pan-Africanist thinking that deems this obsession to have racist undertones because the offenders’ subconscious minds are essentially limiting black aspirations to no more than a full stomach. The Setswana equivalent that best expresses the offending sentiment is “ha ba jele ba kgotshe ba siame” – which is actually known to exist in white racist thought. The reality though is that black people have aspirations that go far beyond enough food.