VICE-President Phelekezela Mphoko is desperate to stamp his identity on Zimbabwe’s political landscape where he had hardly featured prior to his shock appointment by President Robert Mugabe in December.
The little-known vice-president is trying to portray himself as a responsive, populist and government reformer.
He, however, is given to gaffes that expose how much he is out of sync with developments that have been taking place in the 25 years he has been living outside the country.
Since his appointment last month ahead of former Zanu PF chairperson Simon Khaya Moyo, politburo member Kembo Mohadi and former politburo member Naison Ndlovu, Mphoko has hit the ground running, as he embarked on his meet-the-people” tours that have taken him to Bulawayo and Matabeleland North and South provinces.
During his tours, he spoke about underdevelopment in the region, devolution and the Gukurahundi massacres — topical issues in Matabeleland region.
With his hands up in the sky, Mphoko forcefully denied any involvement in the 1980s Gukurahundi in which as many as 20 000 people were killed by security forces as they battled dissidents in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.
“There is a woman called Nomazulu Thatha based in the UK … She alleges that I joined CIO in 1980. I have killed no one. I repeat, no one was killed by these hands,” Mphoko said.
The vice-president then proceeded to sing from the same hymn book as ordinary residents, who have perennially complained of marginalisation by government from mainstream economic development programmes.
In all this, he painted a picture of a man who is not afraid to ruffle feathers — even at the risk of being labelled controversial.
He chided able-bodied people for engaging in vending, an occupation he says should be left to physically challenged members of society and proceeded to display an ignorance of government programmes, innocently asking his audience, “What is Beam?”
Beam is an acronym for the Basic Education Assistance Module, which was established in 2001 by the government to provide educational assistance to vulnerable and under-privileged children.
Afraid of further exposing his detachment from reality, Mphoko quickly changed topics and moved to the thorny issue of devolution — much to the delight of Zanu PF supporters at the packed Zanu provincial headquarters.
“Can you tell me why Bulawayo’s factories and industries have closed down,” Mphoko asked the crowd.
Dismissing the “it is sanctions and MDCs” answer, Mphoko laid the blame at the feet of government through Zesa and Zinwa for depriving Bulawayo of electricity and water, both of which are critical for industrial production.
“Without water and without electricity we are only joking, there is no development that can take place,” Mphoko said in response to his own question.
“Bulawayo power station must come back to Bulawayo. It should not be run by Zesa. Zesa was not even there when it was constructed,” Mphoko said amid ululations.
“Zesa must only be there for national programmes, but not in my home. Bulawayo is a standalone city like Harare. And don’t give our roads to Zinara; they must be given back to the Bulawayo City Council (BCC).
“Those who pay rates must pay them to BCC which has its own departments for such things and not to Zinara which must concern itself only with national roads. There is no need to confuse things siyezwana bantu bakithi (do we understand each other my kith and kin).
He also demanded that the BCC be given control of the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority farms around the city because the agro-based parastatal was failing to manage them efficiently to ensure productivity and benefits to residents.
Mugabe’s Zanu PF has strenuously denied marginalising the Matabeleland provinces and was resolutely opposed to total devolution during the constitution-making exercise.
Government was supposed to set up provincial councils in accordance with the new constitution, but this has not happened.
The new constitution creates eight provincial councils and two metropolitan provincial councils that are supposed to spearhead local development. The provincial councils are established to accommodate growing calls from Zimbabweans for a devolved state since the 1999 constitutional review exercise.
Mphoko promised concrete action and results and even implored the people to “phone me and take me to task if I fail to deliver”.
Mphoko tasked former Bulawayo mayor Joshua Malinga with organising meetings to revive Bulawayo’s fortunes.
Malinga was part of an early 1990s triumvirate that included late politicians Sidney Malunga and Welshman Mabhena, who courted controversy for their protests against the region’s under-development.
Malunga was a fiery legislator for Makokoba, the very suburb Mphoko chose to begin his Bulawayo tour while Mabhena was governor of Matabeleland North.
Nevertheless, Mphoko appeared to have struck the right chord in the Matabeleland provinces.
His knowledge of local languages and customs, which was reflected in his ability to reel off the praise names of the Moyos, Ndlovus, Masukus and many others who stood up to speak.
But the question now is whether he will be able to deliver where other leaders from the province have failed.