Thousands of people including foreign dignitaries bid farewell to former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in a memorial service on Saturday.
A number of current and former African leaders attended the memorial at the national stadium in Harare. Although the service was open to public, many seats in the arena remained empty as the turnout failed to match the crowds seen during the body viewing earlier this week.
The current Zimbabwean leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, former Zambian President and freedom fighter Kenneth Kaunda and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo all paid tribute to Mugabe, as did his wife Grace and other members of his family.
“A giant tree of Africa has fallen. Indeed the bold steadfast and resolute revolutionary, comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe is no more, taken away from us, the people he fought hard to free,” Mnangagwa said.
During the memorial service, 21 gun salutes were fired and 95 doves released to represent each year of Mugabe’s life.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa was heckled by the crowds during his speech, a response to a recent spate of xenophobia attacks against African immigrants in his country.
Mugabe will be buried in the country’s National Heroes Acre monument.
Mugabe’s family had been at loggerheads with the current President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Mnangagwa over where the funeral should take place.
The family said in a statement that the government did not initially consult them on burial plans. They had previously insisted the former president would be laid to rest in his hometown of Kutama, west of the capital city Harare, while the government insisted on the burial at the hilltop monument where the country’s national heroes are laid to rest.
Mugabe’s funeral will be held there as a private affair at a later, undisclosed date, Leo Mugabe, Mugabe’s nephew and the family spokesman told CNN on Friday.
In the meantime, Mugabe’s body will “go to Zvimba for the people in Zvimba to pay their respects and then he will be kept somewhere until the burial place is complete,” Leo Mugabe said.
“Burial will be done later at the National Heroes Acre. So when the rituals are done the family will do a private burial at the National Heroes Acre,” he said.
A crunch meeting was held Thursday at Mugabe’s mansion Blue Roof, Harare but ended in a stalemate and the family released the terse statement, accusing the government of “coercing them.”
Relations have since thawed as both parties appear to have reached an agreement and Mugabe will join other distinguished Zimbabweans at the Heroes Acres – but not before traditional burial rites are performed by elders from his village.
“On Sunday, we will have a normal government burial function, which normally happens at the Heroes Acre and then the 21 gun salute. But we will not do the actual burial on Sunday. We will take him away. The traditional leaders have asked for some time to perform traditional rituals,” Leo Mugabe told CNN.
Thousands of Zimbabweans walked through Harare’s Rufaro Sports Stadium to pay their last respects to the late leader who died in a Singaporean hospital last Friday.
At least five people were carried away on stretchers following a stampede when thousands thronged the stadium to view Mugabe’s body.
A bittersweet legacy
Although celebrated in death, Mugabe’s legacy in Zimbabwe is a bittersweet one.
While many revere him as the nation’s founding father who stood up to the British colonials and helped his country gain independence, his latter years in power were marked by brutality and violence towards his own citizens.
Yet many still choose to mourn him and celebrate him as a national hero.
Thousands of jubilant supporters gathered to witness the arrival and one said: “He is home to Rest.. The Giant of Zimbabwe.”
Zimbabwean TV host and producer Vimbai Mutihinri told CNN: “The Mugabe I knew was a quick-witted man, with an incredible sense of humor and a totally disarming presence. And he loved patriotic, young people,” the Nigeria-based TV personality said.
Mutinhiri, whose father served as a diplomat during Mugabe’s regime, had a chance to meet him several times and as a young child even pinned a rose on his lapel during a visit to their home in Yugoslavia where her father was the ambassador.
Mugabe also threw a special banquet in her honor when she represented Zimbabwe in the reality show Big Brother Africa in 2011.
“My personal experience is distant to the reality of many,” she said. “But this is why it is important for me to share it because while his public roles will face more scrutiny and judgment than ever, it is important to also keep the moments and gestures of love and goodwill that Robert Mugabe extended alive and to celebrate them as a part of his legacy,” she added.