President Robert Mugabe sat and casually snacked on imported American Lay’s potato chips, with a bottle of South Africa’s Valpre water set on a table in front of him.
As the newly turned 93 year-old leader slowly munched away, his ruling party’s youth leader Kudzai Chipanga stood metres away, waxing lyrical about signs that the Mugabe government was starting to win its battle to curb imports, protect local industry and revive a flagging economy.
This glaring irony was just one of several punctuating Mugabe’s huge birthday rally hosted by Zanu-PF, which feted him as “an African liberation icon” on Saturday.
The venue in Matobo, 30 kilometres outside Zimbabwe’s second capital Bulawayo, was a school named after British colonial icon Cecil John Rhodes and a stone’s throw away from his grave site atop a hill.
In the run-up to the event, Zanu-PF officials in the host province explained the reason behind the choice. The school, established in 1932, still boasts of some of the best infrastructure in the area, in stark contrast to the Mugabe government’s patchy record in developing post-independence public infrastructure, especially schools.
No doubt aware of the awkward symbolism, Zanu-PF youth commissar Innocent Hamandishe told Mugabe:
“Today we trample upon the grave of Cecil John Rhodes in disgust for all he stands for.”
In response, later as he addressed the rally, Mugabe did not seem keen on jousting with colonial ghosts, saving some choice jabs for living foes in the form of party officials feuding over his succession.
“It’s not as if he will rise again,” Mugabe said dismissively, although he promised to “crush Rhodes’ head if he somehow rears it.”
Mugabe did say officials had told him the Rhodes Estate Preparatory School, on whose vast, muddy grounds the rally was held, would be re-named Matopos Junior School.
Unsurprisingly, Mugabe’s 73-minute speech largely ignored the economy — the subdued leader only became slightly animated when addressing the vexed issue of his succession — but urged patience with a parallel currency his government introduced last year in a bid to ease a bank note shortage.
Mugabe’s government says the shortage has been caused by unrestrained imports. Like crisps and bottled water.
“Bond notes are just a temporary thing. We want you to bear with us,” Mugabe said at the end of a long, ad-libbed speech which hardly hit any highs and sounded like a morose monologue.
“We want you to bear with us. We wanted to adopt them for a short period.”
The currency move has not been popular, triggering lawsuits and street protests amid fears the introduction of the bond notes could lead to the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe dollar, ditched when the country effectively dollarised in 2009, after being ravaged by inflation which reached 500 billion percent in December 2008.
The bond notes have, however, enjoyed widespread acceptance in the dollar-starved economy since their introduction last November, with the transacting public left without much of a choice.
Mugabe’s birthday rallies — national events held annually since 1986 — are fashioned as occasions for the youth, but the president rarely addresses quite possibly the biggest issue facing that demographic — unemployment.
Saturday was no exception. He, however, did speak about jobs. American jobs.Shifting sharply from admonishing ambitious party lieutenants jostling to succeed him, Mugabe spoke about US President Donald Trump, a new-found favourite subject of his.
“I listened to Trump in Maryland yesterday and his message was America for Americans. American jobs for Americans,” Mugabe said, pausing for effect, with evident amusement.
“For you to want to go to America to look for a job is stupid. People are being deported there.”
Mugabe asked, in his Shona language, why any Zimbabwean would seek employment outside the country.
Few take Zimbabwe’s official jobless rate of 11 percent seriously. Independent economists say only one in 10 Zimbabweans is formally employed, giving rise to acute levels of poverty.
Zimbabwe’s unemployment crisis is blamed on Mugabe’s policies — such as the seizure from 2000 onwards of white-owned farms which devastated a key anchor of the economy — as well as a law requiring foreign firms to have majority local shareholding.
On Saturday, Mugabe — in power since independence in 1980 — strongly suggested he has a life-long mandate, emphatically dashing any hopes he could retire soon and allow the country to take a new economic direction.
“Some say Mugabe must now go. Where? I ask,” he said, supporting his head with the heel of his palm.
In a rare outward display of emotion early in his speech, Mugabe reflected on how he had lost all but one of his siblings.
“It’s a long, long journey I have walked. A journey with its own joys, own grief, its own pleasures, its own sorrows. When I look back I ask; Lord, why were these taken before me? I can’t answer that,” he said, striking a sombre tone.
“But I think I sometimes hear a silent voice saying each and every man and each woman has a mission to fulfill in this world,” Mugabe added, leaning against a lectern a security aide had animatedly told an official was a little low.
“You have a mandate, that mandate might run a short time. Other mandates run long. But your mandate I have allowed to run as long as you live,” he said, channeling the ‘silent voice.’
“And, therefore, the mission which I have is the mission which has to do with the interest, needs, demands of those who have given you the position – elected you,” Mugabe paused, before continuing: “I accept the mission.”
Mugabe said if he eventually retires, his successor would have to be one committed to maintaining his policies.
At the end of his speech, Mugabe proceeded to cut each of the four massive cakes presented to him by some Zimbabwean brands.
One, baked by Lobel’s one of the biggest bread manufacturers in the country, was a version of the Matopos Hills. The second, presented by Zimoco, Zimbabwe’s main Mercedes Benz dealership, depicted Mugabe’s presidential Mercedes limousine and motorcade.
The third, an ice cream cake traditionally handed over by the country’s biggest dairy firm Dairibord, was personally handed over by managing director Anthony Mandiwanza. The fourth had a Zimbabwe flag design.