But that changed in the 1990s, when the economy began a downward spiral and Mugabe's government faced charges of elitism, cronyism and corruption.
His liberation credentials brought him high regard during the early part of his leadership, with many seeing him as a unifying figure committed to the needs of the average person.
Goodwill runs out
But the goodwill from his liberation struggle slowly ran out.
In 2000, he drew criticism for his land reform program that evicted white farmers and gave the land to poor black Zimbabweans, many veterans of the struggle for independence. Most were not as familiar with commercial farming.
"Zimbabwe belongs to the Zimbabweans, pure and simple," he said in a 2009 interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
White Zimbabweans -- even those born in the country with legal ownership of their land -- have a debt to pay, he said.
Soon after, agricultural output decreased sharply.
'One of Africa's bad boys'
Despite his pariah status in the West, analysts say Mugabe's anti-Western tirades have propelled his popularity at home.
To some, he commands respect for challenging the status quo and retaining his image as a critic of former colonial powers, said Ayo Johnson, director of Viewpoint Africa, which sells Africa content to media outlets.
"Mugabe ... is one of Africa's bad boys and wears his medal with pride," Johnson said in a past interview. "He who stands up and shouts the most is usually revered."
Few African leaders have as willfully and spitefully taunted the West, a major source of donor aid, as Mugabe has.
His anti-West tirades especially target Britain and the United States, which he accuses of colonialism.
"Keep your pink nose out of our affairs, please," he told the United States last week in response to criticism of his push for elections without key reforms.
Agyemang says Mugabe's bold economic policies are moving the nation forward.
"Mugabe is more than just a politician, he leads a cause, or as his militant supporters would say, he has become the cause itself," Agyemang said in The Guardian piece. "And the cause has something to do with giving back the African his dignity well beyond symbols of nominal independence."
No longer a breadbasket
In recent years, political rivals have accused him of turning a nation once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa into one racked by hunger and once sky-high inflation.
But Mugabe has clung to power at all costs.