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Candid Comment

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe turned 84 this week. It is a ripe old age by any standard. There were a lot of congratulatory messages, up to 10 full colour ads in the Zanu PF party paper, The Voice.

Mugabe’s desperate young comrades

In our African culture, the attainment of such age should have been cause for celebration, particularly for someone now regarded as the founding president of independent Zimbabwe. But that was not to be. Mugabe has simply confirmed his place in the league of Africa’s “Big Man” rather than the venerable honour of world statesman.

Two remarkable things stood out in the ads in The Voice: one is that they came mainly from parastatals such as Zimpost, GMB, Agribank, Zinwa and Zesa, all of which are a huge drain on the fiscus. This can only mean that these ads have been wrung out of them against a promise of future largesse.

The implication to me is that most private companies don’t feel the same debt of gratitude to President Mugabe which parastatals are forced to express on the president’s birthday. Many operate at less than 30% of capacity.

The few private companies still able to make a profit feel done in by Mugabe’s costly policies; many have shut down or relocated to neighbouring countries. For them the 21st February Movement, the day commemorating the president’s birthday, has become synonymous with toil, economic decline and social decay and dislocation; it is a Zanu PF thing to be rebuffed by all right-minded Zimbabweans.

These images of revulsion erupt as though instinctually. They reflect how much President Mugabe has transformed from a revered revolutionary at Independence in 1980 to a feared and resented taskmaster whose legacy evokes the worst tyrannies Africa has experienced in its checkered history through slavery into independence.

The revulsion is a result of overstaying one’s welcome, and the future doesn’t look good as we enter what could prove his Waterloo in next month’s elections.

The outcome of that election will be an embarrassment Mugabe could easily have avoided by stepping aside for someone younger. The very sight of him racing against men of 50-60 years portends ill for democratic succession in our body politic. It elicits derision rather than admiration.

It has been argued in the past that Mugabe could not leave office because he was haunted by his “moment of madness” ghost called Gukurahundi. Others alleged a number of skeletons he treaded on the road to his first “landslide victory” in 1980 and thereafter.

If that were entirely true, one would expect him in his golden years to become a more gracious, lovable person. Instead he has continued to beat up political opponents, launch Murambatsvina and land reform while engineering starvation on an unimaginable scale across Zimbabwe.

To win the elections, Mugabe needs a lot of charm. He has none. He can’t use violence or his repressive laws if he wants a veneer of legitimacy. It is allegations of the same which have plunged the nation into this unprecedented economic and political crisis.

Mugabe cannot claim to be fighting for Zimbabwe’s sovereignty when he should know his victory in the March elections can’t guarantee it. That spectre can only make Zimbabweans angrier, more desperate.

It is the perception that Mugabe has overstayed and now wants power for its own sake and not to safeguard the interest of the nation that has caused the rebellion and defiance in Zanu PF symbolised by Simba Makoni’s decision to challenge him for president.

The other remarkable thing about Mugabe’s birthday is his age vis-à-vis those of the youths who will be celebrating with him in Beitbridge on Saturday. For most of them in their 20s and below, 84 years must sound like the Second Coming. They require a huge leap of faith to contemplate that age even without the Aids scourge which has ravaged the population.

Under Mugabe’s stewardship, the life expectancy of Zimbabweans has collapsed precipitously from around 60 years at Independence to below 40 years for both men and women. The excellent health and education facilities which he inherited from Ian Smith and expanded so well soon after to cater for the previously margined blacks, he has single-handedly wrecked.

With inflation above 100 580% and unemployment around 80%, the youth who will be celebrating with Mugabe have no golden past to be nostalgic about nor a future to give them hope. It is in fact a supreme irony that for the majority of them any hope in the future is premised on his vacating the political stage as soon as his birthday celebrations are over, that is on March 19, because he now constitutes a major threat to their dreams of a better future.

This on its own should be a sobering thought for any leader who wants the youths to wish for his longevity and his virtues. But they have little to admire in those who should be role models for so-called “future leaders”.

By virtue of his age, and the fact that he still wants to contest an election, President Mugabe now inspires dread rather than reverence that should go with old age, for when they look at him engaged in a fight with Morgan Tsvangirai or Simba Makoni, they can’t fathom the latter also staying in power for 30 more years before they (youths) can try their luck at the ultimate political post. Zimbabwe is indeed crying out for change. — By Joram Nyathi

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