As he turns 90, Zimbabwe’s plundering president is still adept at feathering his family nest, writes Peta Thornycroft.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who turns 90 on Friday is busy with two matters close to his heart: his daughter’s wedding, and the game he has played all his political life: ensuring those most likely to succeed him are at each other’s throats. That game is proving a tad more troubling than usual.
His daughter Bona’s wedding early next month will be lavish and important for his family.
So Mugabe flicked a switch at the Harare municipality to ensure all potholes on the way to the residence where the wedding reception will be held are filled.
The garden at the Mugabes’ mansion is huge and lovely, with two lakes. An army of civil servants maintains it. It is surrounded by kilometres of high wall, with a stripe at the top painted in Grace’s favourite colour, turquoise.
Zimbabweans learnt about this “palace”, as it is known in the streets, in 2003. An architect’s bill of quantities showed it cost more than Mugabe has officially earned since independence.
This was the first real inkling Zimbabweans had that Mugabe, a self-proclaimed socialist, was wealthier than should have been possible, even with canny investing.
There was hardly any formal opposition to Mugabe and his Zanu-PF until 2000 when the nine-month-old Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came within a whisker of defeating Zanu-PF at parliamentary elections.
Mugabe was caught off guard and turned to what had worked for him before. After independence Mugabe wanted to wipe out the rival liberation movement Zapu, led by Joshua Nkomo.
So he sent a North Korean-trained brigade to root out opponents in remote parts of the two Matabeleland provinces.
The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe later established that about 20 000 people had been killed and Mugabe blocked the findings of the commission of inquiry he set up to investigate.
In 2001, before the presidential elections, violence, mostly around invasions of white-owned commercial farms, was stepped up and hundreds of MDC supporters and activists were killed.
Relations with the West, long testy, broke down. Aid (apart from food) was curtailed and Western travel and financial sanctions were introduced against Mugabe and Zanu-PF heavyweights. The army ran the presidential elections and Mugabe’s victory was disputed by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Political analyst, academic and lifelong Zanu-PF supporter Ibbo Mandaza says Mugabe wants to rule until he dies.
“He will stay in power until the end. He has monarchical tendencies, like many other African leaders. He sees himself as a king.
“He is the illustration of the pathology of power.”
At independence Mugabe inherited an education system with the best outcomes in Africa.
He re-opened schools that had been closed in the war, trained more teachers, and expanded secondary schools, with massive help from churches and western aid.
Within five years of independence all children were at school, and it was free. But educationist Mary Ndlovu wrote a paper recently on Zimbabwe’s education history since independence called: “Zimbabwe’s education legacy. Was it all so rosy?”
Ndlovu wrote that “through the 1980s, on average more than 60 percent of the pupils left school before completing Form 4… of all the children who entered schools, only about 6 percent had a clear road ahead of them when they left.”
Zimbabwe’s literacy has not been measured in more studies and the UN’s statistic is based on school attendance, not literacy. Her paper shows that education, particularly at rural schools, was not nearly as rosy as many believed.
During the hyper inflationary period after 2000, most children at government schools were not taught, as teachers were unpaid.
The inclusive government, massively helped by European donors, got the schools open again and funded about 13 million textbooks.
Mugabe did support MDC minister David Coltart as he battled to uplift dereliction at so many schools.
Health services that did so much via the UN’s referral system after independence crashed along with education after 2000.
Zimbabwe saw its Annual Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) shooting from 300 deaths per 100 000 births in 1990 to 960 in 2010.
The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) remains high at 28.23 deaths per 1 000 live births. Hospitals were world-class at independence but are now in shocking disrepair.
Last week a sick woman at Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital fled the emergency section when she realised the man on a stretcher across the room was dead. No one had noticed.
The inclusive government brought a brief improvement in health care.
Driven by donors via the UN, and overseen by an MDC minister, the supply of drugs improved and nurses and doctors again received their salaries.
However, there has been a dramatic slippage in all public services since last year’s elections ended the inclusive government.
So what did Zimbabweans get from Robert Mugabe?
He and Zanu-PF frequently hail the country’s sovereignty from western interference. They have kept the revolution safe from invasion.
So far there is no proof that any country, including South Africa in the 1980s, would invade independent Zimbabwe even during diplomatic shouting between Harare and London after land invasions began in 2000.
Two hundred thousand Zimbabwean families – about a million people – did get small chunks of land taken from white farmers since 2000.
But it’s a tough road for those new farmers and most are not growing food but are, at terrible ecological cost, producing tobacco.
This year, agriculturists estimate that farmers may for the second year produce only half the maize needed, but will harvest about 75 percent of the levels of tobacco production before land invasions.
Before his chaotic land reform programme, Mugabe bought one farm but took five more adjoining that one from about 2004.
The state financed and ran those farms at least until the 2009 inclusive government.
The latest scandal to emerge in Zimbabwe is so-called “salarygate” – staggering salaries paid to senior officials in parastatals. Mugabe has not yet spoken of new scandals emerging weekly.
Analysts say that until salaries in mining parastatals are exposed, there is only one reason for the revelations: a vicious fight by proxies loyal to presidential hopeful Emmerson Mnangagwa against vice-president Joice Mujuru to succeed Mugabe.
The liberation war hero Judith Todd, whose father was a liberal prime minister in the former Southern Rhodesia, said from Bulawayo this week: “As birthday celebrations take place amidst the turmoil of Zimbabwe’s ‘salarygate’ scandals, I can’t help remembering the final words of my late father, Garfield Todd, on President Mugabe. ‘What I cannot forgive is how many people he has corrupted’.”
So how did Mugabe and others make their money?
When Mugabe travels internationally the law allows his aides to go to the treasury and take what he wants for himself and about 30 to 50 aides who depend on per diems for foreign travel to maintain their lifestyles.
He sometimes spends tens of millions of rand per trip – and this has been the case for decades.
Former finance minister Tendai Biti in the inclusive government warned of Mugabe’s travel costs. But there was nothing he could do to stop him.
When Mugabe returns from medical treatment in Singapore to enjoy his 90th birthday at the weekend, he will feel comforted his revolution is safe and his family’s financial future is secure. But most of the population is poorer than ever.
Around 2007, when the central bank largely ran the country and printed trillions of worthless Zimbabwe dollars, some Zanu-PF leaders made money by exchanging Zim dollars for US dollars at the official rate of exchange, Z$54 to US$1. The real rate changed by the hour, but on the streets the rate of exchange was several trillion Zimbabwe dollars for US$1 million.
At that time the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe sent R10m to South Africa for Grace Mugabe to buy four commercial trucks.
The central bank was and still is the Mugabes’ bank.
When the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned, some financial stability returned, but after Zanu-PF won disputed elections last year about R7 billion was withdrawn from banks, mostly by Chinese investors, and the economy is on the ropes again.
Independent Foreign Service