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Longevity and bling in the court of King Mugabe

He may look like a 90-year-old pariah, but his presence is as strong as ever. EPA/STR

The Robert Mugabe who returned from Singapore for his 90th birthday celebrations was sprightly and energised. His Singapore sojourns, officially designated as trips to treat eye problems, invigorate more than his eyesight. The “before and after” Singapore pictures show a man weighed down by age, and then a man to whom age doesn’t matter; this has sparked all manner of rumours about his true health and the treatment he receives.

That Mugabe has to receive treatment at all reminds us that his future will hardly be problem-free. Yet he danced amidst the bling of his daughter’s wedding at the beginning of March, and he will be gallivanting at the China/Africa summit in August. While the Americans refuse to invite him to the US-led Africa summit planned for later this year, it is clear Mugabe’s star is once again on a curious kind of rise.

The Southern African Development Community will make him its ceremonial chairman at a Zimbabwe-hosted summit; he already holds a largely ceremonial post at the African Union. He handily won elections against a dispirited opposition in 2013, and despite clear evidence of dishonest practices by his electoral forces, it was clear that the opposition was a busted flush. The suspension of his arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai from the MDC shows how far the party has fallen.

And then, when he entered the Soweto stadium for the ceremonies that marked Mandela’s death, the crowd rose and applauded him.

Mugabe has become a latter-day symbol of defiance against white neo-colonialism well beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, and he has played media campaigns depicting him as such with a masterly touch. His spin doctors work in an overdrive that makes Peter Mandelson look like an exhausted novice.

But none of this detracts from two key points. The first is that Mugabe cannot go on forever. The second is that a fight to be his successor has already begun behind the scenes.

There are two key contenders. Vice president Joice Mujuru is a genuine liberation war heroine. She commands the support of the intelligence services, as well as some of the military old guard alongside whom she fought. The other is the former minister of defence and current justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has the support of the current military elite.

It is precisely that elite which, in February this year, had European sanctions lifted – even as some of its members led what many regard as war crimes in the suppression of supposed dissent in the mid-1980s Gukurahundi campaign. While the West sees Mujuru as the more tolerant and liberal candidate and would prefer her to succeed Mugabe, they have legitimised Mnangagwa’s key support base.

But whoever wins the succession, both belong to the same party. Both subscribe to the same nationalist ideology that approved the violent seizure of lands. Both became rich despite the economic meltdown those seizures engendered. Both are star chamber members of a securocratic oligarchy that dominates all national politics.

To an extent, Zimbabwe now resembles Putin’s Russia: an ordered “democracy” where an opposition exists but can never gain power, where security intelligence and military personnel are indistinguishable from the most wealthy members of society, and where senior membership of the ruling party opens all doors.

Whoever succeeds Mugabe, whether “liberal” or more ostensibly in their predecessor’s image, will need to do business with the West. The rhetoric will change. New spin-doctors will be engaged. And insofar as the West has been fighting a personal and personality war with Robert Mugabe, the only senior Zimbabwean figure (along with his wife) still under European sanction, the West will only be too delighted to do business with his successor, whoever he or she is.

Because this never really was a morality tale, with Mugabe as arch-villain beyond redemption. Nor was it ever really a saga of international relations. If the dispossessed farmers had been black, we would not have moved to their aid. That fact allowed Mugabe to play a black “kith and kin” card in his domestic politics, at great economic expense. And in Soweto, his black neighbours stood and cheered as he came to mourn Nelson Mandela, a man the West regarded as a saint. They greeted Mugabe not as the man who ruined a black nation, but as the one who “saved” it from the white West.

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