THOUSANDS of people — certainly not 45 000 as claimed by the master of ceremonies — thronged Rudhaka Stadium in Marondera last Sunday to celebrate President Robert Mugabe’s 90th birthday, amid pomp and fanfare punctuated by song, dance and food galore in a country where millions struggle daily to get by.
Owen Gagare/Elias Mambo
While there was a carnival atmosphere enveloping the stadium as Mugabe celebrated becoming a nonagenarian — somebody between 90 and 99 years old — and being one of the longest-serving and oldest leaders in the world, there was also a sobering reality among the crowd that Zimbabwe is entering the home stretch of his protracted rule.
The generality of Zimbabwe were perhaps mainly concerned, not with Mugabe’s birthday as such but their own lives and what life would be like after his long rule which may end at 38 years when he would be 94 if he finishes his current tenure.
At 90, Mugabe is currently the oldest African leader and oldest president in the world. Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Perez is the oldest leader at 91.
While Zanu PF youth league leader Absalom Sikhosana competed with hired praise-singers and school kids coached to chant stage-managed tributes to Mugabe, his deputy Edison Chakanyuka, giving a vote of thanks at the end of celebrations and merrymaking, struck the right code with public opinion at the moment when he said government must come down like a tonne of bricks on incompetent and corrupt officials.
Initially, it seemed the lavish, US$1 million birthday bash, characterised by noisy hype and razzmatazz, would be just another grand occasion exclusively for Mugabe sycophants to shine as delegates — including well-coached schoolchildren — seemingly competed to outdo each other in praise-singing, but there was a serious message to come right at the tail end of the event.
At the beginning, it was all about paying homage to Mugabe, with praise-singing scaling dizzy heights. Huge cakes were on display in the stadium while the crowd wore red scarves, as is traditional on his birthday, and waved national flags.
“Just as demons are afraid of Jesus so are imperialists afraid of you,” a child praise-poet said to wild cheers from some of those in attendance.
Not to be outdone, Sikhosana, hardly a spring chicken in his 60s but still a Zanu PF youth leader and one of the youths’ representatives in the Zanu PF politburo, gave competitors in the praise-singing race a good run for their money.
“I know of people with titles like Idi Amin Dada who gave himself the title Conqueror of the British Empire, but we celebrate the birthday of the genuine Conqueror of the British Empire,” Sikhosana said.
That was the highlight of breath-taking praise-singing at the Mugabe jamboree.
Dozens of public enterprises, government ministries and supporters showered praises on the veteran leader on the eve of his birthday, with more than 20 pages of adverts in the state-controlled Herald.
Bordering on hagiography, one tribute read: “Long live our president!”, while others hailed Mugabe as an “icon and pillar of inspiration”, “beacon of excellence” and “selfless leader”. The Herald also dedicated acres of space to Mugabe’s quotes over the years, from the liberation struggle to his digs at the West and gays.
Acknowledging cheers and praises, Mugabe, accompanied by his wife Grace who stood at the back of a truck as they drove around the stadium, gave his trademark clenched fist salute to those gathered.
He showed no signs of rumoured ill health as he released 90 red balloons.
“I am made to feel youthful and as energetic as a boy of nine,” Mugabe told the crowd following his visit to Singapore, where officially he underwent eye surgery, although rumours of prostate cancer persist.
In a speech that lasted more than an hour, Mugabe told the crowd that the election win for his Zanu PF last year had confounded his critics in the West, while he battled to fight off accusations of vote manipulation and rigging.
While Sikhosana delivered the main speech on behalf of the youths, his much younger deputy Chakanyuka set tongues wagging and stole the limelight when he rather surprisingly articulated popular issues while giving a vote of thanks.
“President, if there are jails, corrupt officials must find their way there,” he said.
Chakanyuka’s message had an immediate effect as ministers and senior Zanu PF officials shifting uneasily in their seats, while some could be seen whispering to each other gawking at him with faces betraying displeasure and incredulity.
Some interpreted Chakanyuka’s message a challenge by youths for Mugabe to walk the talk on delivery and corruption.
In recent weeks, the media has been awash with exposures of rot in public institutions.
The poverty gap between ordinary people and top officials attending the birthday bash — one of Mugabe’s negative legacies among many — was unmistakable.
If VIPs’ designer suits and other expensive attire did not give this away, then their luxury vehicles certainly did. All sorts of top-of-the-range vehicles, ranging from the latest models of Mercedes Benz, Range Rovers and all-terrain vehicles, were on display in a sea of poverty at the stadium, a microcosm of the situation in society.
One youth who, among many Marondera residents, stood by the roadside watching in awe as the spectacle of a convoy of top-of-the-range cars glided past out of the stadium could be heard saying: “Zanu inemota vakomana (Zanu PF officials have many luxurious cars)” to a friend, who promptly replied, “Taura hako (definitely)”. That said it all.