A sad story is told of the harrowing experience of an old man who decided to take a short-cut through Chancellor Avenue next to State House in Harare recently. It is said upon finding a horse pipe watering the shrubbery outside the heavily guarded presidential premises, the old man, innocently, decided to quench his thirst. One of the presidential guards, characteristically armed to the teeth, approached him demanding to know what he was up to. Suspecting nothing untoward in the question, the old man responded that he was thirsty and thought he could help himself with a drink of water from the horse pipe.
That was the beginning of his nightmare.
The soldier ordered the old man to continue drinking the water, even after he said he had had enough. With the soldier brandishing his weapon menacingly, the old man realised he was in serious trouble. The guard was not joking and insisted he continue drinking the water. He did, until he was almost chocking on it. The soldier then, in an act of inexplicable meanness, directed the horse pipe into the old man’s jacket pockets, telling him he should carry some of the water in case he became thirsty again on his journey. With his jacket dripping wet, the old man continued on his way wondering what it is he had done wrong to deserve this sadistic treatment.
Many other citizens passing along Chancellor Avenue, which is closed to public traffic between 6pm and 6am daily, or motorists who have failed to give way to the presidential motorcade, have their own tales of woe to relate. Many speak of being subjected to unprovoked savage beatings and humiliation at the hands of soldiers, many of them barely out of their teens.
In many countries State House is a source of pride for the nation always open even to foreigners. In the UK, Buckingham Palace where the British monarch resides, is a source of pride for the British and is routinely made accessible to foreign tourists. Tour guides are on hand to explain its historic significance as an enduring monument of the British legacy and this endears the monarch to the British citizens and visitors alike. In South Africa Nelson Mandela’s residence was a tourist attraction where taxi drivers were proud to take their passengers on the way from the airport. In Zimbabwe, statehouse is the exact opposite. The president’s residence is a no-go area that engenders fear and trepidation.
Consequently, is it any wonder that President Mugabe is feared rather than respected? It is sad that a leader who came to power through sacrifices made by the generality of Zimbabweans taking up arms to fight the colonial regime now lives in isolation from the very common men and women who voted him into power. Many people only see the President from a distance at public rallies like Independence Day celebrations or in the news on television. The heavy security that surrounds Mugabe creates the impression of a reclusive and paranoid leader who believes everyone is out to get him.
Many ask the question that if President Mugabe is the popular leader that he claims to be on the basis that he has been voted into power by the majority of Zimbabweans over the past 32 years, then why does he feel the need to be protected by ruthless armed guards? The First Family must surely know that the company they keep has a bearing on how they are perceived by the general public. The ordinary man in the street cannot be blamed for thinking that the President approves of the impunity of the bodyguards who watch over him. The ordinary citizen cannot be faulted for thinking that when the soldiers harass and torment passersby along Chancellor Avenue, they do so with the full knowledge of their superiors including the President himself.
As things stand, President Mugabe’s reputation and legacy are already seriously tainted by decades of political violence and unbridled impunity. The President’s own ill-advised comments a few years ago boasting of “degrees in violence” will not have done his reputation any good, and when acts of torture are committed in his name, that invariably makes him, in the eyes of the public, complicit in the violence and impunity.
But the reality, and President Mu-gabe should try and get used to it, is that State House, like Munhumatapa Building, where his offices are located, and any other government office are public places to which all citizens should be entitled access if they have legitimate business to be there. It is wrong that any citizen should be harassed or tortured for passing through Chancellor Avenue as long as they have not shown any disrespect for the President nor committed any crime.