Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The two faces of Robert Mugabe

As Robert Mugabe walked into a packed room to address a press conference at the Gaborone Grand Palm Hotel last week, reporters could have been forgiven for thinking that this frail looking old codger was pulling a poor impersonation of the Zimbabwean president.

The power walk has slowed down to a shuffle. At 91 he is no spring chicken but he is not exactly a wizened, bent-over old man although he had to use the chair arm-rest for support before he could sit down and huddle inside his black suit in a round shouldered slouch.

For a man roundly believed to be on a power trip, Mugabe does not look the part. Despite all the power props ÔÇô the red rose in his breast pocket and the red high decked chair, flanked by two smaller chairs, it was difficult to tell who was boss between Mugabe who sat slumped and dozing off on his red high decked chair and his minister of Foreign Affairs Simbarashe Mumbengegwi who from his smaller chair still towered over the aging gaffer. A fellow journalist observed that Mugabe’s dyed black hair did not help his countenance; it projected him as narcissistic and robbed him of the air of mature authority that comes with grey hair.

Even before he could field the first question, it became apparent that the nimble-witted nonagenarian may be losing his hearing. As a reporter from South Africa’s City Press newspaper Carien du Plessis, seated a whispering distance from the podium asked a question through the roving microphone, a confused looking Mugabe leaned over to his Minister of Foreign Affairs and asked: “What did she say?”

The press conference had to be kept short to only four questions because Mugabe needed time to go and rest. The Zimbabwean leader’s frailty became more pronounced as he struggled to get up from his chair at the end of the press conference.

The oldest head of state on earth may have lost his power look but he is still as quick on his wits as ever and packs a big punch. His voice is cracking, but still sounds authoritative, with a swaggering delivery. In fact, it is when he opens his mouth that the real Robert Mugabe comes alive, complete with his witty sense of humour and trade mark sound bites against whites. He is still a wet dream for reporters trolling for quotable quotes.

Mugabe who counts among his famous quotes ÔÇô “the only white man you can trust is a dead white man” could not resist lashing out at whites when the question on South Africa’s recent xenophobic attacks cropped up at the press conference. The Zimbabwean president argued that the new political dispensation in South Africa “did not address the racial economic inequality… Those we called oppressors yesterday still occupy the advantages and privileges they had allocated themselves during the colonial period…It is a matter of the whites keeping things to themselves and the political dispensation brought in by Mandela, that did not address the question of disparities between whites and blacks, and this is what must be addressed.” He argued that unemployment in South Africa and white dominance of land ownership made the xenophobic attacks understandable.

“Most of the land is in the hands of the whites who are in a minority…They are not talking in their country of whites being unemployed. It is blacks who are unemployed; this is what they must address first and foremost…. countries like Zimbabwe have overcome oppression and inequalities of land ownership. But if you go to SA it is a different story, we need to help them, they need another liberation.”

Mugabe also had a dig at South Africa’s economic dominance of the region, and suggested Khama shared his view. “Right now some of us are complaining about the bigness of SA, a giant establishing itself. That is what we discussed at the meeting, that if we are trying to establish our industries they are blocked.”

He said a Zimbabwean pharmaceutical company was trying to export to South Africa, but there were difficulties. “We produce some drugs, and they are in demand, and we want to send them to South Africa. Then those officials in trade say: ‘We will only receive them if they come by air.’ We say it is much more costly to send them to South Africa by air. We have planes, yes, but the planes are expensive, we can send them by road, but they say no. “You see, that is contrary to free-trade principles, there are lots of things we still have to discuss among us,” he said. He said the rest of the SADC region, for instance Botswana, Malawi and Tanzania, imported South African products such as beer. “It is a South African drink, it is a one-way thing,” he said. Mugabe said sometimes it had nothing to do with the government, because often it was companies who feared the competition from Zimbabwe. Mugabe conceded that SADC had been slow at getting people and trade moving between its countries.

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Sunday Standard August 2 – 8

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of August 2 - 8, 2020.