Something’s wrong with Comrade Bob. Maybe it’s the cancer everyone suspects, maybe it’s just old age, but he’s getting soft. Mugabe’s speeches don’t usually centre around peace, tolerance, and free will – quite the opposite – so his conciliatory address to mark Zimbabwe’s independence day came as a shock. By SIMON ALLISON.
Two controversies dominated the run up to Zimbabwe’s independence day celebrations, held in a packed stadium in Harare on Wednesday to commemorate 32 years since Zimbabweans replaced the Rhodesian regime with Mugabe’s.
The first concerned the celebrations themselves, and specifically what was being celebrated. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai went public with his dissatisfaction with the day’s theme, encapsulated by the not-so-catchy title Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment for Economic Transformation. “We find this a repugnant theme, which sounds more of a slogan for a political party than an inclusive, peace-building theme,” he said. It is topical, however, with the Zanu-PF section of the government recently bulldozing through new indigenisation laws which require companies to hand over half their shares to government-related entities. Despite his unhappiness, Tsvangirai refused to boycott the celebrations, anxious to emphasise that independence day was a national day, not just a Zanu-PF day.
The second controversy centred on Mugabe’s health; a flurry of unconfirmed media reports last week suggested he was in Singapore being treated for prostate cancer. But Mugabe denied this, running down the aircraft steps on his return home and telling reporters he was “fit as a fiddle”.
But maybe the speculators were on to something. I’m no doctor, but when people behave completely out of the ordinary, I start thinking something is wrong. When Mugabe finally gave his speech on Wednesday he wasn’t himself at all.
He looked frail and most reports commented that he sounded out of breath. It was an unusually short speech too. But it was the content that was most surprising. Where was the firebrand we all know and Zanu-PF supporters love? What’s all this talk of peace, cooperation and citizens’ rights? And was that a note of repentance I discerned? It was a speech that might as well have been delivered to the gentle accompaniment of Khumbaya. See for yourself:
“We have done wrong to our people, because we were fighting amongst ourselves All our political leaders should encourage their supporters to promote the spirit of peace and tranquillity through social dialogue… All violence, all fights, all struggles that are of a violent nature, they should not be allowed to interfere with the happiness of our groupings, no.
“It is now in our political organisations that we must take absolute care and caution and ensure that the fights of yesterday are buried in the past and that we must organise ourselves on the basis of free belonging, free choice of membership. Membership is not forced, should never be forced. People must freely belong to their own choice and freely vote for a party of their own choice.”
But despite the almost melancholic recognition of the imperfections in Zimbabwe’s political system, some of the old Mugabe remained. In typical fashion, he railed against the western colonialists, blaming them for Zimbabwe’s economic malaise. He also raised the contentious issue of general elections, implying they’ll happen this year – a year earlier than envisaged by the national unity agreement, and against the wishes of his MDC partners in the unity government.
Taken at face value, his words should mean that we see very different elections to what happened the last time. There should be no voter intimidation, no political vendettas, no arbitrary arrests and, above all, no violence.
Not that anybody is likely to take anything Mugabe says at face value. Words are cheap, after all, especially when they come in Zimbabwean denominations. But still it’s nice to think that somewhere in Mugabe’s mind is a recognition of his country’s immense political problems (most of his own making). Intriguingly, some sources reported that this speech was a departure from the prepared script that focussed exclusively on the indigenisation and empowerment theme, which in the end Mugabe barely mentioned.
Others reported that Mugabe’s health really was worsening, and this seemed the most likely cause of his sentimentality. The Southern Africa report writes that his frailty is becoming obvious in public. “He is often unsteady on his feet, and cannot easily negotiate stairs without the support of aides on each side. At public meetings, police routinely isolate a bathroom for his exclusive use. He regularly makes use of it, accompanied by an aide carrying a bag, and is often engaged for 30 minutes at a time. There is evidence that he no longer has full control of his bladder – a classic symptom of advanced prostate cancer.”
Regardless of why, Mugabe’s surprising speech will remain an oddity unless followed by a serious change in the way Zanu-PF conducts its politics. Unfortunately, if Mugabe really is as frail as described, he’s unlikely to be able to enforce his liberal new philosophy, even if he wanted to. DM
Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe looks on during a rally marking Zimbabwe’s 32nd independence anniversary celebrations in Harare on 18 April 2012. REUTERS/Stringer.
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