Zimbabwe’s LGBTIQ community has expressed mixed feelings about the death of former president Robert Mugabe, who has been both hailed as a liberator and condemned as an oppressor.
On Friday, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, announced on Twiter that “Zimbabwe’s founding father and former President, Cde Robert Mugabe” had passed away. It’s understood that Mugabe died at a hospital in Singapore at the age of 95.
While Mugabe will always be recognised for his role in Africa’s liberation movement, including ensuring a free Zimbabwe in 1980, he will also be remembered as a tyrant and for overseeing the country’s economic collapse.
During his rule, Mugabe was a thorn in the side of the LGBTIQ community, vilifying sexual minorities and proclaiming that homosexuality is a Western affliction being imposed on the country. Over the years, LGBTIQ people were arrested and LGBTIQ rights group GALZ was often harassed and raided by the authorities.
Chesterfield Samba, Director of GALZ, told MambaOnline that Mugabe’s death had elicited mixed feelings within the country’s LGBTIQ community. “Whilst some revere him as a statesman, there are many who were impacted negatively by his statements and actions that fuelled tribalism, racism and homophobia,” he said.
“It was difficult to separate Mugabe from the man, head of state and party leader. We obviously do not celebrate death in our culture [and] we will remember him for the good and equally the bad. His death is a stark reminder of how mortal we are.”
Samba added: “We commiserate with the family and the nation at large.”
British LGBTIQ rights campaigner Peter Tatchell also spoke out about Mugabe’s death. Tatchell twice attempted a citizen’s arrest of the then president on charges of torture – in 1999 in London and again in Brussels in 2001. During the latter attempt, he was beaten unconscious by Mugabe’s security guards, leaving him with brain and eye damage.
“Robert Mugabe will go down in history as one of the most homophobic leaders in modern times. He demonised the LGBT+ community, banned LGBT+ events and fuelled anti-LGBT+ prejudice, discrimination and hate crime,” said Tatchell in a statement.
“The world had so much hope for the freedom fighter who suffered imprisonment and later rose to power on a promise to build a new, democratic, non-racial Zimbabwe. But the truth is that he betrayed it all for a repressive, dictatorial, self-serving regime that boosted his personal wealth while impoverishing his own people,” added Tatchell.
Among his most famous comments, Mugabe stated that gay people are “worse than pigs and dogs”, that they “don’t have any human rights at all” and that homosexuality “destroys nations, apart from it being a filthy, filthy disease”.
In 2014, Mugabe expressed his backing for Uganda’s extreme anti-homosexuality law, which was condemned around the world and eventually struck down by the courts. He described the law as “fighting a just fight”.
In September 2015, in a bizarre rant, Mugabe lashed out at LGBTIQ people at the UN General Assembly, proclaiming that LGBTIQ rights are “contrary to our values, norms, traditions, and beliefs,” and defiantly telling world leaders, “We are not gays!”
After 37 years in power, Mugabe was forced to resign in 2017 after a military coup that was backed by some of his former allies. At the time, GALZ said that “We are ecstatic that the face of brutality, hate and impunity has resigned.”
Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution expressly bans same-sex marriage but does otherwise provide for the protection of civil liberties and human rights. Nevertheless, laws criminalising homosexuality, with penalties of up to three years in jail, remain on the statute books and have yet to be challenged in court as unconstitutional.