VICE-PRESIDENT Phelekezela Mphoko took with him an entourage of 29 people — including relatives, on taxpayers’ funds — on a two-week visit to the Far East to meet with President Robert Mugabe, who is expected back today from his annual vacation, at a time government is struggling to meet salary obligations for its bloated 500 000-strong workforce while more than 10% of the country’s population faces hunger.
Zanu PF sources this week told the Zimbabwe Independent that Mphoko, who travelled via South Africa aboard an Air Zimbabwe plane, took with him a delegation of 29 people on the trip, which includes stop-overs in Dubai and Austria, before he returns next week on Monday.
Sources said Mphoko was accompanied by his wife, Laurinda, his children, their spouses and grandchildren, one of whom he stays with at Rainbow Towers Hotel in Harare.
However, sources close to the Vice-President insist he had a 10-member delegation which included his security aides, permanent secretary, personal assistant and daughter.
The sources said Mphoko’s children and their spouses and kids went ahead of the Vice-President.
“Mphoko left last week on Monday and was expected to join President Mugabe and his family in Dubai before flying to Austria,” the source said.
The Vice-President’s trip comes at a time Zimbabwe requires at least 700 000 tonnes of maize from neighbouring countries to avert a food crisis.
Mugabe extended invitations to his two deputies to visit him and his family while he enjoyed the sunny-side of life with his family.
According to Zanu PF sources, “the (Mphoko’s) visit to Dubai is at the invitation of the First Family, just like the invitation which was extended to VP (Emmerson) Mnangagwa.”
“He joined the President and they had time to reflect, share notes and know each other as families. Mugabe is playing a balancing act as factionalism is tearing Zanu PF apart.”
The two VPs are understood to be aligned to different factions in Zanu PF fighting to succeed Mugabe. One faction is linked to Mnangagwa, while the other is reportedly led by a group of young Turks calling itself Generation 40 (G40) and enjoys First Lady Grace Mugabe’s support.
Mnangagwa, his wife Auxilia and son Sean were in Dubai with the First Family while Mphoko was Acting President two weeks ago. Mnangagwa took over the acting presidency last week on Monday.
“What is strange is that Mphoko has invited close family members and a number of his security aides to accompany him,” said the source.
Minister of State in Mphoko’s office, Tabetha Malinga-Kanengoni, however dismissed the reports, saying her boss travelled with his wife.
“I don’t know where you are getting those lies (from). The Vice-President travelled with his wife and is still on holiday,” she said.
Last year, government, which is currently financially crippled due to lack of budgetary support, overspent by 25% in the eight months to August, with the cost of foreign travel ballooning, while revenue collection missed targets due to poor economic performance.
Foreign travel expenses exceeded the budget allocation by nearly 240% while employment costs and capital works overshot the target by 16% and 23%, respectively.
Mphoko has in the past courted public outrage after he gobbled close to US$300 000 in public funds to cater for food and accommodation expenses, at a time the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.
He has been booked at the Rainbow Towers Hotel since December 14 2014, shortly after being appointed to the vice-presidency. His luxurious lifestyle has angered civic society groups and opposition parties with some holding demonstrations protesting Mphoko’s extravagancy. Besides his presidential suite, Mphoko has an office at the hotel, where he meets guests after hours and has rooms for his close aides and grandchild.
According to staff at the hotel, the presidential suite, located on the 17th floor, costs US$403 inclusive of bed and breakfast for two per night, while lunch and dinner cost an average US$15 a meal.
In January last year, Mphoko and his wife rejected three houses, among them a mansion in Harare’s affluent suburb of Ballantyne Park worth US$3 million, claiming that it was “too small”.
At the time, sources told this paper that Mphoko was initially scheduled to move into a house left by late Vice-President Joseph Msika in Harare’s leafy suburb of Mandara, but his wife refused, saying they wanted a house of their own, not one previously occupied by other deputies.
She has since started shopping for another house. Only last week, she viewed houses in Glen Lorne, Borrowdale Brooke and Ballantyne Park, failing to settle on any of them for various reasons.
While Mphoko continues to drain the fiscus, massive de-industrialisation continues to accelerate due to limited access to cheap funding to upgrade local factories, most of which were built in the colonial era.'