Mugabe's bizarre rant not the only bit of political theatre playing out

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe addresses media in Harare during a surprise press conference on the eve of the country's first election since he was ousted./Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP
Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe addresses media in Harare during a surprise press conference on the eve of the country's first election since he was ousted./Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

There is so much political theatre around us that something as absurd as former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe pulling an audacious stunt on the eve of his country's elections did not come across as strange.

In a world where the president of the US can threaten war against Iran on Twitter and a gallery of disgraced characters get unadulterated airtime when they pledge support for former president Jacob Zuma at his court appearances, perhaps Mugabe's press conference on Sunday was not that abnormal.

Mugabe's intention was to do two things: portray himself as a victim of President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government and alter the perception of voters, particularly those who still support him.

It is not surprising that Mugabe feels aggrieved - even if the roof of his palatial house on a 44-acre estate in Borrowdale, Harare, was not "sagging", as he claimed.

Mugabe has been the most distinctive figure in Zimbabwe's politics for 37 years, successfully subverting democracy for a large part of his term. He truly believed he would rule Zimbabwe forever.

"Only God, who appointed me, will remove me - not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me!" Mugabe said at an election rally in 2008.

As it turned out, it was the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and not divine intervention that brought an end to his rule last year.

Although Mugabe submitted his resignation after a rather polite coup, he is now making it clear he was strong-armed and is claiming that his successor is ill-treating him.

In a tortured two-hour press conference, Mugabe complained about his "tormentors" who he said were using guns to direct politics.

With a soft endorsement of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change candidate Nelson Chamisa, Mugabe delivered the kicker.

"I can't vote for Zanu-PF," he said. "I can't vote for the party or those in power who brought me to this state."

The message to Zimbabwean voters was: neither should you.

Mnangagwa responded to Mugabe's comments in a video clip, saying this was a strategy by the former president to use Chamisa as a proxy to return to power.

It is not clear how much of an impact Mugabe had on the poll and whether there is any latent sympathy for him among ordinary Zimbabweans.

But Mugabe's gamble is destined to result in more misery for him. It is unlikely that the state, whether under Zanu-PF or the MDC, will be paying for repairs to his roof any time soon and already soldiers who were guarding his property reportedly vandalised it.

While the military leaders tried to preserve Mugabe's dignity during the coup, he is likely to die a sad old man, derided by those who revered him for decades.

The turn of events north of the Limpopo holds lessons for us.

Last week, Zuma made his third appearance in court on corruption charges. In the usual post-court recital, in the presence of ANC provincial leader Sihle Zikalala, Zuma did a rather curious thing.

In acknowledging one of his chief supporters, Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama, Zuma said: "I heard many say they will vote for Mngxitama. Mngxitama is OK, he has no problems, he is right but not for the reasons you are stating. This is a clear political line, you can't not vote and let people vote for the wrong party. Vote for this man [Mngxitama] because he wants issues to be resolved speedily."

This is an extraordinary statement by the former president of the ANC, one who still attends the governing party's national executive and strategy meetings.

Jacob Zuma dances as he addresses supporters at the high court in Pietermaritzburg on Friday last week.
Jacob Zuma dances as he addresses supporters at the high court in Pietermaritzburg on Friday last week.
Image: Phill MAGAKOE / AFP

The BLF is in no way in alliance with the ANC. If anything, Mngxitama is one of President Cyril Ramaphosa's harshest critics and will be standing in opposition to the ANC in next year's elections.

Though at Zuma's court appearances there is a strange camaraderie between ANC and BLF supporters, it is bizarre that the ex-president would give the "political line" to his followers to vote for another party.

Like Mugabe, Zuma is bitter. He did not want to resign prematurely and tried all manner of excuses to delay his departure from office.

In his pre-resignation interview with the SABC on February 14, Zuma claimed he was being "victimised" and that there was a perception on the continent that he was "being elbowed out".

"We are being plunged into a crisis that the leadership will regret," Zuma warned.

In his resignation speech that night, Zuma grumbled that some people had dared to suggest that his perks and post-service benefits should determine how he chooses to vacate public office. Ironically, his legal and travel costs have become a major issue for him after he left office.

It is not easy for a person who enjoys unfettered power to have it forcibly taken from them. South Africa was lucky with its first presidential recall as Thabo Mbeki has not made any attempt to interfere in the country's politics since his departure.

Mugabe has no more political traction so perhaps this was his last hurrah.

But Zuma still has the potential to wreak havoc, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

It has been rumoured for some time that Zuma wants to engineer a split vote so that he could act as a puppet master over a coalition government and rule by proxy. The situation in the ANC and the country is too uncertain to write off Zuma's antics as political theatre or the rantings of an old leader who can't let go.

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