There were dancers, musicians, singers and flag-waving students – and, astonishingly, a break in the belts of rain that had been sweeping in across the sodden plains from the Matopo hills for days.
On the podium raised above a muddy school sports field in south-west Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe stepped up to the microphone. Wearing a white shirt, black tie, black cowboy hat and a jacket covered in his own portrait, Mugabe, in power since 1980, stood to thank his supporters for joining him to celebrate last week’s 93rd birthday which was, he said, “yet another chapter in my life”.
Yet if the tens of thousands of government supporters sent into Bulawayo city in the south-west of the former British colony to hear their leader speak were expecting his rousing rhetoric or trademark jokes, they were to be disappointed.
At the beginning of a sombre hour-long speech, delivered in a firm if halting voice, Mugabe described his life as “a long, long journey … a journey with its own joys [and] sorrows”, and spoke of his relatives who had died before him.
“When I look back I wonder why I have remained so long alone and alive. I cannot answer that, but I think sometimes I hear a silent voice saying … ‘each man, each woman, has a mission to fulfil in this world …’ I thank the Lord and say, I accept the mission,” Mugabe said to faint applause.
For loyalists, the dozens of marquees, attendance of hundreds of senior officials, multi-course feast and a vast 93kg birthday cake were barely adequate to mark the occasion. “We value our president’s birthday in a big way, just like many Christians value the birth of Jesus Christ,” Kudzi Chipang, Zanu-PF secretary for youth affairs, told NewsDay, a local newspaper.
Yet the veteran ruler, who in 2013 led his Zanu-PF party to an election victory amid widespread claims of vote-rigging, has given no indication that he will stand down before elections due next year. “You are saying I should stay, so we will be together,” said Mugabe during his speech on Saturday.
Observers say that, despite his increasingly evident frailty, Mugabe’s authority is intact. “There has clearly been some withering of his powers, but he remains the most authoritative figure, and both the party and the government wait on his decisions. He is still the boss, even if there is obviously a growing impatience … about what happens when he is gone,” said Dr Knox Chitiyo, an expert on Zimbabwe at the Chatham House thinktank in London.
Cherchez la femme:
There are two main contenders for succession, both on the stage on Saturday. One is Mugabe’s wife, Grace, who has a reputation for extravagance and fierce verbal attacks on rivals. Earlier this month Grace, 51, promised that she would push Mugabe in a wheelchair if needed, so he could campaign in the coming presidential polls, and suggested that Mugabe could be elected even if “nature claimed him” before the polls.
The president last week described his wife as “a very strong character” who was “very much accepted by the people”. On Saturday she told the crowd that Zimbabwe was “blessed to have Comrade Robert Mugabe as the leader of our country and the leader of our revolutionary party”.
Her rival is the vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Earlier this year Mnangagwa, 70, posted a picture of himself with a mug bearing the slogan “I’m the Boss”, prompting speculation that he was preparing a bid to oust the president or had already been tipped for the top post. However, opponents of Mnangagwa, a veteran of the bush war which brought Mugabe to power, say he would not have sufficient legitimacy to either quell dissent or rehabilitate the nation on the world stage.Grauniad