I HAVE been inundated with calls this week and last from radio stations in South Africa and Europe enquiring about President Mugabe’s health.
There have been reports of serious illness and even of his demise – in Libya this week. He travels with a urologist in attendance at all times, the reports suggest, and has been receiving treatment in Iran, among other places.
Although we reported in the Zimbabwe Independent last week what the South African press was saying, I have had to pour cold water on most of these speculative stories. There is very simply no evidence of Mugabe ailing. He is to all intents and purposes remarkably fit for a man of 79, alert, agile, and although profoundly delusional about the country’s problems, otherwise fully compos mentis.
In fact, the only evidence we have of any ailment was when he collapsed in his hotel room in Malaysia a couple of years ago. That accident was difficult to conceal because of bandaging. But it is the solitary indicator that anything might be amiss.
Harare has been awash with rumours. The most persistent one concerns not a urologist but a prominent neuro-surgeon. He clears his surgery of all waiting patients, we have been told, so as to afford the president some privacy during his regular visits.
It’s all “absolute rubbish”, the specialist has told anybody who bothers to enquire. He is not treating Mugabe. But you will find people who insist they know somebody who was asked to clear the neurologist’s waiting room ahead of a presidential visit.
It is never of course the actual person who provides the story who was asked to leave, always somebody they know.
One reason why Harare is such a rumour mill is the unwarranted secrecy surrounding the president’s health. His staff very simply will not tell us about any treatment he might be receiving, even where it is minor, instead creating a smokescreen such as last Friday’s upbeat statement about Mugabe and Vice-President Simon Muzenda.
While there may not be any truth to the rumours currently circulating about Mugabe, Muzenda’s health does give cause for concern. If he is on the road to recovery as the President’s Office suggests, why not publish a photograph of him sitting up in bed and receiving visitors?
Like Joshua Nkomo, Muzenda has not been allowed to retire for fear of upsetting the balance of power at the top. Officials will argue that the health of the president and his deputies is a private matter. I disagree. They hold public office and are paid from public funds. Their health is of legitimate concern as it relates to the nation’s health. Can individuals with life-threatening illnesses be expected to manage the day-to-day business of government?
There have been shocking cases elsewhere of unelected officials and spouses usurping executive power during the illness of their employers or husbands.
US President Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith made key decisions for 17 months in 1919/20 after her husband suffered a stroke while campaigning hard for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.
His exertions left him half-blind and semi-coherent. Edith communicated his “instructions” to the outside world with the help of his doctor and private secretary. Vice-President Thomas Marshall felt unable to take over so long as orders continued to flow from Wilson’s bedside.
In the event, Wilson lost the battle for ratification of the treaty in the Senate and thereby doomed the League of Nations to impotence.
In 1953 Sir Winston Churchill’s stroke was kept secret from the British public. Even the cabinet was not informed. His parliamentary private secretary Christopher Soames (26 years later, the last Governor of Rhodesia) managed the Prime Minister’s office while RA Butler presided in Whitehall and Lord Salisbury ran the Foreign Office. The system continued to function despite the absence of the PM.
Then, closer to home, there was Kamuzu Banda, John Tembo and Mama Cecilia Kadzamira. Who really ran Malawi during Banda’s twilight years?
In all such cases officials argue the need for continuity and stability. I shudder to think who might really be running the country from Munhumutapa Building or Borrowdale Brooke in the event of presidential infirmity!
The current succession race will have fuelled, and in turn been fuelled by, the rumours of ill-health at the top. It will add to the pressure on Zanu PF to allow new leaders to emerge from the party’s annual conference in December.
These could be two new vice-presidents – the most likely scenario that would see Emmerson Mnangagwa and John Nkomo filling the shoes of Muzenda and Joseph Msika respectively – or a new party boss taking over from Mugabe who would remain as long as he could as president, be it in a more ceremonial role.
Whatever the case, it is inevitable that the public should want to know the health status of their leaders. Nearly 50% of men over 60 have a urological complaint of some sort or prostate problems.
Instead of dissembling, Mugabe’s officials should try telling us the truth. It is usually the most effective antidote to rumour and speculation. And it generates confidence in the system of government, something desperately needed right now.