Rumour mill outpaces Mugabe’s spinners


By Chido Makunike


WHATEVER the truth is about President Robert Mugabe’s health, the events and rumours of the la

st week provide unexpected insights into the waning days of his power. For weeks there have been emails, SMS messages and phone calls flying all over the world casting doubt on his health and even on whether he was still alive. As Zimbabwean high commissioner to South Africa Simon Moyo said, this may all have been “wishful thinking”.


What is interesting is that there would seem to be so many people at home and abroad who would wish Mugabe ill. I suppose this is yet another widespread sentiment amongst Zimbabweans that can be explained by “imperialist machinations” that have succeeded in confusing the people, causing them to hate their president because of his heroic anti-imperialist efforts!


I don’t suppose the terrible state of Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s violent, ruinous tutelage would have anything to do with so many people all over the world wanting something bad to happen to him!


Whether he collapsed last week, whether he vomited through Sunday night as some reports suggest, and regardless of whether he was actually secretly flown to South Africa for medical attention or not, Mugabe in recent weeks has certainly not been his usual robust self. He has increasingly withdrawn from the public eye as he has become more besieged over the years, but in recent weeks his public appearances have been even fewer and far between. He has always been in very good physical form, particularly for a man of his advanced years, but lately he has had a tired, haggard look. The tough rhetoric no longer matches his formerly super-confident, even arrogant demeanour.


If he has been treated for prostate and throat cancer in various world capitals in recent years, as is rumoured, certainly his appearance and seeming slowing down could just be the natural toll of these treatments, coupled with the years. There is also the unmistakable element of the stress of witnessing the Zimbabwe he rules with such an iron fist crumble around and increasingly turn against him. For a man who once took the adoration of many of his fellow citizens for granted, there is no way this could not have a heavy emotional toll, no matter how hard-hearted he may have become.


As Simon Moyo’s comment unwittingly revealed, Mugabe may still rule, but in a manner and a result that entail the heavy personal cost of being deeply reviled the world over. Cancer, a stroke, food poisoning or not, this alone would be enough to make even the most hardened tyrant sick from time to time. So paranoid have many become about Mugabe, and so deep is the sentiment for him to go that even as he was capping university graduates last week and attending a family wedding over the weekend, many were still alleging that he was really dead!


If this was not so sadly morbid, it would be funny. The colour picture of the wedding that took pride of place on the front page of the Sunday Mail, perhaps to try to subtly rebut the rumours of his death, may have succeeded in doing so. But I was struck by the sad countenance of the four most prominent members of the wedding party who were pictured.


While rumours of death may have been premature, the royal family does not appear to be bursting with joy and happiness. If the emperor’s physical health is a matter of national interest and importance, then certainly so is his emotional and spiritual state.


Interestingly, the president did not make an appearance at the crucial time that he was rumoured to have been flown to South Africa. A staged showing, perhaps in his office with a prominent diplomat of the few remaining friendly countries, the state propaganda services present to dutifully record the event, would have been the best way to put the rumours and speculation to rest. Instead there was a suspicious silence, strangely only belatedly broken by a Zimbabwean envoy in a foreign land!


Chief Mugabe propagandist Jonathan Moyo is often quick to issue vitriolic statements on issues far less important than whether the ruler of the country is hail and hearty or dead, but this time he was nowhere to be seen, at least when it would have mattered most.


Instead it was left to his sidekick George Charamba to issue some weak statement saying there was nothing wrong with the president, although that president continued to mysteriously stay out of sight.


We see here not only the usual failure to manage events, but to manage even the news of events that have already happened.


The whole state propaganda machinery that appears so formidable at spewing vitriol under Jonathan Moyo was a mere bystander while the world speculated on Mugabe’s fate, instead of being the leading source of information on the real state of affairs.


There certainly was no “information and publicity” at a crucial time when it could be argued that the rumours, events or even mere perceptions of events, would have had far-reaching national and even international implications.


Once again we see how managing information and influencing opinion successfully involves much more than just owning or controlling newspapers, radio and TV stations and outlawing the critical media!


Politically, economically and in terms of the overall health of Zimbabwe, Mugabe may be a cruel disaster who should exit the stage as soon as possible for the good of the nation and its millions of suffering people, but on a human level I wish him good health.


Chido Makunike is a regular columnist writing from Harare.