As Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe knew how to fill Harare’s cavernous National Sports Stadium.
But we soon realised that public interest in his commemoration service was decidedly modest.
Members of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, were bussed in from the countryside but there wasn’t much enthusiasm on display.
It was intended as an opportunity for Zimbabweans to say goodbye to the man who ran their country for 37 years and we watched as a dance troupe tried to lift proceedings in a stadium featuring acres of empty seats.
For the government, it was an opportunity to bury the past after the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, deposed Mugabe in a coup in 2017.
But some of Mugabe’s supporters had not forgotten. One group tried to disrupt the proceedings with a boisterous display of singing and dancing.
Regardless, Mugabe’s body arrived as part of the funeral parade with the coffin carried by a group of 3-star generals.
The invited dignitaries – a sort of who’s who of African presidents and former presidents – praised Mugabe as liberator, a unifier, as an African hero. “He was unwavering in his insistence that Africa’s problems demanded African solutions,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyetta.
The guest speakers were on message but the story is contested of course. For example, Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, is still thought to be angry about his removal from power.
But President Mnangagwa told us to stick with the official version of events, warning of “a retrogressive narrative falsely framing the late Comrade Mugabe, giving him many false names, routinely and systematically vilifying him”.
Other activities closely associated with Mugabe’s reign – like rigged elections and the intimidation of political opponents – did not get a mention during his commemoration and a grand 21-gun salute was offered before the coffin left the stadium.
Outside the complex, we did speak to some Zimbabweans who felt the need to say goodbye.
“That you lord, thank you lord for the great days you have given us living with that great guy,” said one man.
“But he did some terrible things,” I replied.
“For every living person can do something bad.”
Where and when Robert Mugabe will be buried is still subject to debate – something the family and Mnangagwa’s administration are still working on.
We can be certain that debate and controversy will continue to haunt his legacy.-sky