Robert Mugabe, on his final political campaign in eastern Zimbabwe on Friday told thousands of supporters that he had delivered political and economic freedom since he came to power in 1980.
But Zimbabwe is bankrupt – it cannot pay monthly government salaries on time and there is hardly any cash in the banks.
Mr Mugabe is standing in elections for the last time next year and is expected to win. He will be nearly 100 years old if he completes his five year term.
The ruling Zanu-PF party says the rally was for the youth, most of whom are semi literate and will never have a job.
This rally took place in shabby Mutare, capital of Zimbabwe’s eastern province and close to the Mozambique border over which Mr Mugabe’s guerrillas surged during the 1970’s war against white-ruled Rhodesia.
Three years after he won his first British supervised elections in 1980 he ordered brutal attacks against the opposition in south and western Zimbabwe. Thousands of civilians were killed and many more fled the country.
Mr Mugabe wanted a one party state. But most of those at the rally on Friday were too young to remember any of that.
Many small businesses, including the flea market, several colleges and even some schools, were closed the day before Mr Mugabe’s rally and students and unemployed people claim they were ordered to clean up the streets in this small, pretty border town which lies in a valley surrounded by mountains.
Hours before Mr Mugabe was due to arrive, the stadium in the high density Sakubva township was packed and ever more people surged forward across the fences as the huge Zanu PF political machine of cabinet ministers and party seniors arrived from Harare in convoys with police escorts.
Dressed in new canary yellow jackets, Mr Mugabe and his wife Grace were welcomed by Zanu PF youth leader Kudzai Chipanga, who told the crowd: “President Mugabe is our angel Gabriel. Vote for angel Gabriel at the elections.”
Mr Mugabe’s middle name is Gabriel. He was born into a staunch Catholic family and was educated by Irish Jesuits.
Throughout the rally, the 93-year-old walked slowly and his wife Grace, 51, was close by to make sure he did not fall.
Taking thousands of white-owned farms crashed the economy, but many believe that it was land which ensured Mr Mugabe will rule until the end of his life or if he lives, until his last term ends.
Brian Raftopoulos, a veteran political analyst, said Mr Mugabe’s legacy will be troubled: ”This is Mugabe’s farewell election so Zanu PF will be determined he will win at any cost. Mugabe is leaving behind a very problematic political and economic landscape. The land was key to him remaining in power.”
Zimbabwe journalist Violet Gonda was banned from returning to Zimbabwe after helping to set up a radio station broadcasting from London to Zimbabwe in 2001.
“Many Zimbabweans in the diaspora feel there is nothing for it is too difficult to earn a living at home – and there is still fear of unpredictable Zanu-PF. It uses violence to victimise opponents.”
She said many professionals abandoned Zimbabwe when the economy crashed post-2000 and now work in the UK or South Africa.
“They send money home to support families and friends but will only think about returning when Mugabe is gone.”
Nick Mangwana, a self employed ‘corporate governance’ consultant arrived in “Harare North”, as London is known to Zimbabweans, in 1999 and is chairman of the UK branch of Zanu-PF.
He estimates most of about 370 000 compatriots in the UK arrived after political upheavals from 2000.
“Many of us in the UK support Mugabe because he led the liberation war against white-ruled Rhodesia and restored our dignity. He also built many secondary schools and Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is high in Africa.
“Most importantly he gave about 300 000 families land (taken from white farmers) and, yes, that did hurt the economy but it was worth it and this is why Mr Mugabe wins elections. The new farmers now grow as much tobacco as before.
The “jewel of Africa,” as Mr Mugabe described an independent Zimbabwe, is long gone.
Those at his Friday rally were too young to know what was or might have been and much of the media is owned by the state. The crowds love it when Mr Mugabe punches his arm into the air and shouts: “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.”
But they do know they are short of money. Zimbabwe abandoned its currency when it became worthless in 2009 and now uses US dollars as well as Bond Notes, locally-printed small denomination cash. But it is hard to find either US dollars or Bond Notes these days, even in supermarkets, and most people survive using plastic.
Stephen Chan, Zimbabwe expert and Professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, said Mr Mugabe had genuinely wanted to distribute wealth more fairly when he came to power.
“However, he cast a shadow over Zanu-PF when he closed down debate and choice. He created a paranoid atmosphere in a Zimbabwe where even his closest allies are frightened of him.”
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