HARARE, ZIMBABWE —
Last year, Zimbabwe's government declared the birthday of longtime leader Robert Mugabe a public holiday. Oh, what a difference a few months make. There was none of the usual fanfare today as the now former president celebrated his 94th birthday. But the official holiday still went on.
The holiday was first announced last August, just three months before Robert Mugabe was forced out under military pressure. Since then, the former president has not spoken in public.
Some Zimbabweans thought the holiday might be forgotten. But this morning, Zimbabweans woke up to this message from state-owned radio and TV stations: "President Emmerson Mnangagwa has declared the 21st of February of every year a public holiday."
Still, it is a stark contrast to years past when the ruling ZANU-PF party would mount massive birthday celebrations.
The price tag for last year's party was estimated to be at least $1 million, with a birthday cake reportedly weighing in at a whopping 93 kilograms.
Pupurai Togarepi, ZANU-PF's current youth leader, said the party decided to go low-key this year.
"It is a day we look at what he has done for this country to improve the lives of people, including the youths. We also look at the livelihoods of the youths, opportunities that are there. We are not going to have rallies, or big bashes as we used to do," said Togarepi.
In his final years in office, Mugabe faced fresh protests over the failed economy and rights abuses.
There is nothing to celebrate on this February 21st, said Harare resident Stan Shava.
"It's just a reminder of the 37 years that Robert Mugabe was in power. Otherwise, when we really look at it, it does not have any value addition. Of course, coining it the Youth Day tries to give us an insinuation that there is so much that people should look forward to in terms of youth development, but when you look at the name that is coming through, 37 years, in terms of the youth, nothing really good is there for us to talk about," said Shava.
But, analyst Alexander Rusero from Harare Polytechnic College School of Journalism said it would have been wrong to cancel the holiday. He said Mugabe is still an important figure to Zimbabwe.
"He [Mugabe] was dethroned from power specifically to restore his legacy. So you cannot restore the legacy of Mugabe by undoing a day specifically set to commemorate what he stood for. So what is happening is an acknowledgement that Mugabe-ism is within ZANU-PF and within Zimbabwe for as long as it takes…. Mugabe-ism is a philosophy which calls for upliftment of black Zimbabweans," said Rusero.
On Wednesday, all banks and government offices were closed, so were most shops and traffic in the capital was lighter than usual, a day of reflection as the nation grapples with the past and looks to the future.