UPON his return from his annual holiday in the Far East last Thursday — where he and his family underwent medical check-ups — President Robert Mugabe pleaded with restive civil servants to be patient with his government which is struggling to pay salaries on time.
In what many saw as an admission the Zanu PF government was struggling to turnaround the economy, Mugabe went on to ask civil servants to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country.
“To our workers, civil servants, we are truly sorry and when we say we are experiencing difficulties in paying you, please bear with us because these are difficult times which call for sacrifice from all of us,” Mugabe said.
The irony of Mugabe’s plea, though, was that it was made a few minutes after arriving from the Far East where he had gone for a holiday at a time the economy is on a downward spiral.
Zimbabweans have a right to question Mugabe’s duplicity of asking civil servants to be patient and understanding because “these are difficult times which call for sacrifice from all of us” while he and top government officials are not sacrificing.
The Office of the President and Cabinet gobbled US$38,3 million on travel and residences between January and October last year up from US$29,2 million.
Government spends millions of dollars every year to buy state-of-the-art vehicles for top government officials, who continue to enjoy luxurious lifestyles. This is typified by Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko’s refusal to live in a “cheap” US$3 million house when the government is broke.
Mugabe told Zanu PF supporters his family had taken the opportunity to go for medical check-ups, with Grace undergoing an operation to remove her appendix — a procedure that can easily be done locally.
Government sources also indicated that the president had undergone an operation, although he did not mention it.
Like many top government officials, Mugabe and his family shun local medical institutions in favour of prestigious foreign ones where they get first-class treatment, which is no longer available locally thanks to Zanu PF’s ruinous policies over the years.
Ordinary Zimbabweans are however expected to go to the badly-equipped health institutions, shunned by their leaders.
The same scenario is replicated in other sectors where the chefs’ children go to private schools where they sit for Cambridge University examinations, which will allow them to have easier access to foreign universities. By contrast, the politicians expect children of ordinary Zimbabweans to write examinations run by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council, which is not widely acknowledged outside Zimbabwe.
A social commentator Dumisani Nkomo says Mugabe’s action shows that he has not only given up on the economy, but he no longer cares for his people.
He said Mugabe’s action showed that he is both “careless and callous”.
“A leader is supposed to lead by example. Going out of the country at a time teachers and other civil servants have not been paid is not exemplary,” said Nkomo. “You would expect the government to cut down on trips and other trinkets, cut down on cars allocated to the ministers and so on, to show that they are aware that we are going through a difficult period. We have not seen that with our government. The only example we saw was David Coltart who refused an expensive car (during the inclusive government era).”
Nkomo said the fact that Mugabe went for an extended holiday while the economy is on the ropes was also testimony that he did not have an idea of solving the economic crisis.
“He can go for a lengthy holiday because he knows that even if he was at home he can’t offer solutions to fix the economy,” he said. “The fact that he has to go overseas for health check-ups and operations is a vote of no confidence in the economy. It’s a vote of no confidence in the health delivery system. It’s an admission that the health delivery system has collapsed.”
Nkomo’s sentiments, ironically, mirror those of the late Nathan Shamuyarira, a long-time ally and confidant of Mugabe who once wrote: “A good leader travels less and spends more time with his people.”
Shamuyarira was writing for South African magazine Drum in 1963 on the reasons Mugabe and others had split from Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu to form Zanu that year.
Gwinyai Dzinesa, a senior lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa said it was not surprising to see Mugabe using his retreats to undergo medical check-ups, as he has always done so, even during times when the country was experiencing serious economic problems.
“The attacks on the presidential vacations are not new as President Mugabe has received flak from the left, over his frequent Far East trips even at the height of the 2000-2008 economic decline,” he said.
“The recent trips play into the hands of critics of President Mugabe as disengaged and fiddling while the country, particularly its economy, burns.
“Indeed, there is a common trend of African leaders seeking medical treatment, and even taking their last breaths on hospital beds in affluent foreign countries far removed from the run-down health care systems back home. The most recent cases include Umaru Musa Yar’Adua of Nigeria, John Atta Mills of Ghana, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Malam Bacai Sanhá of Guinea Bissau and Zambia’s Michael Sata.”
Dzinesa said Mugabe and other African leaders seek medical attention abroad possibly because “they can afford the best medical treatment that money can buy”.
He also said the need to maintain a veil of secrecy around their health and fitness to stay at the helm was also the reason for seeking foreign treatment.
“There remains concern that some of these leaders have presided over the collapse of public services such as education and health in their countries leaving their struggling citizens to the caprices of these shambolic systems,” Dzinesa said.