02:56 pm
30 May 2017

Happy 93rd Birthday Mr President – Why Some Zimbabweans Still Love Mugabe

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It’s not just loyal Zimbabwean state media that will enthusiastically wish President Robert Mugabe a happy 93rd birthday on Tuesday.

There are still Zimbabweans – and not just in the rural areas – who support AND idolise Mugabe (though there’s little doubt a bit of vote-rigging always helps win an election).

As one Zimbabwean tweeted this weekend: “There are many people who vote for Zanu WILLINGLY. Please deal.”

So why, after years of economic hardship and international isolation, do some still love the man that critics accuse of turning the southern African country into a basket-case?

Here are some suggestions:

Powerful legacy

Like him or hate him, Mugabe played a key role in freeing Zimbabwe from colonial power in 1980. It’s a victory he often likes to remind locals often (“Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” etc etc). His story resonates well beyond Zimbabwe’s borders, which is why he also gets a lot of support when he travels on the continent.

Stressing the I-freed-the-country line is “chapter 1 in How to be a Dictator”, Jeffrey Smith of @VanguardAfrica told News24. There are some signs that the younger generation in Zimbabwe is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the “debt” Mugabe and other war vets claim they’re still owed nearly 40 years after the war for independence (As @BuildZimbabwe urged on Monday: “Don’t let your loyalty become slavery. Reject the status quo”). On the other hand, legacies win elections. Higher education minister @profjnmoyo argued along these lines at the weekend.

He gives Zimbabweans things

It was Grace who got tongues wagging over last week’s donations at her Buhera rally of shoes, soap and cooking oil, all allegedly confiscated by the state ZIMRA revenue authority from traders. Former finance minister @BitiTendai fumed: “It is illegal for ZANU & the obnoxious Grace to capture goods seized by ZIMRA meant for customs rummage sales & distribute same at rallies.” (Ruling party MP Psychology Maziwisa did something similar earlier this month, plastering the promise “Rice! Rice! Rice!” over flyers advertising his rally in his Highfield West constituency). But giving out free stuff is just what Mugabe’s been doing on a grander scale for years. Farms. Company shares. Thing is, many of those things you can only access if you’re a slogan-shouting member of the party.

There’s no viable opposition

Perhaps there was in 2008 when Movement For Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of polls. But since then Tsvangirai’s popularity has plummeted. Let’s be honest: who wants to be aligned to someone who keeps losing?

There’s also no “acceptable” opposition to Mugabe within his party, as the president himself confirmed this weekend. “The majority of people feel there is no replacement,” he said in a birthday interview. Possible replacement Emmerson Mnangagwa has never had the crowd-pulling charisma and the skill with words that Mugabe has, though he’s undoubtedly feared. As for Grace, another possible successor… enough said.

Got his scapegoats sorted

Companies closing in Zimbabwe? No foreign investment? It’s all illegal Western sanctions. Mugabe has repeated this mantra for the last 16 years. He’s had state media repeat it endlessly too, which is why a number of Zimbabweans still echo this line. Never mind that these have been targeted EU and US sanctions and that a deliberate decision not to invest or grant money does not fall into the official definition of a sanction imposed by one country upon another.

He’s made it

His wife may have claimed that he’s the poorest president on earth two years ago – but Mugabe does have that rather nice blue-tiled mansion in Borrowdale and enough money to buy her a diamond ring. Mugabe’s is the herd-boy-made-good story with more than a whiff of fairy-tale in it – and he does keep “pampering” his relatives, as his sister-in-law Serapia told the Sunday Mail. Many Zimbabweans are not impressed by that narrative. But there will always be some who admire Mugabe for his material successes and his ability to help out his relatives.

So: do enough Zimbabweans love Mugabe to vote him into power in 2018 even as a corpse, as Grace Mugabe suggested last week? Not long to find out…

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