“PEOPLE say I’m extravagant because I want to be surrounded by beauty. But tell me, who wants to be surrounded by garbage?”
By Hazel Ndebele
These are the words of Imelda Marcos, widow of the 10th president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who reportedly owned 3 000 pairs of designer shoes.
Well-heeled Imelda served as First Lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. For more than 20 years, she was known for her extravagant and opulent lifestyle, including her extraordinary taste for shoes.
Marcos is largely remembered for corruption, brutality and dictatorship. Forced out of office in 1986, he fled the country.
The luxurious lifestyle of the Marcos family came at a hefty cost to the ordinary Filipino and yet throughout his rule the couple never thought twice about squandering huge sums of money to fund his extravagance.
In Zimbabwe, for a long time now, the lifestyle of President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, nicknamed “Gucci Grace” or “The First Shopper”, resembles that of the Marcos family. This is despite the fact that Mugabe is presiding over a country whose economy is crumbling and facing numerous problems.
A fortnight ago, Mugabe, also known for being heavy-handed like Marcos, splurged more than US$1 million when he chartered an ultra-luxurious Boeing 767-200 Extended Range aircraft to Singapore and Ghana at a time government is struggling to raise salaries for civil servants as well as rescue flood victims.
The aircraft — described by its owners as designed for “heads of state, royal families and business leaders” — is the epitome of luxury.
With a capacity for 63 passengers, it has state-of-the-art equipment on board, including a humidifier, playstation, blue-ray and GSM/free wi-fi broadband.
“Fitted with a head of state VVIP cabin, fully refurbished end of 2013, the aircraft has always been maintained at the highest standards of the industry. The efﬁcient cabin of the 767 BBJ allows the principal and his executives to travel in extreme comfort and privacy at the front, while a spacious section at the back is fully dedicated to his delegation and entourage,” reads the Comlux website where Mugabe hired the plane.
“With its new 767BBJ, Comlux offers to the top-of-the-range charter market a unique and exclusive product dedicated to heads of state, royal families and business leaders.”
Satellite phone charges, wi-fi charges, any additional war risk insurance premiums, de-icing of the aircraft, limousine cost and car escort to the aircraft are not included and are charged additionally at cost.
“With limited data on the dual engine wide bodies, it appears that the Boeing 767 costs around US$9 138 per hour to operate,” An aviation expert told this paper last week.
While Mugabe is enjoying a life of glitz and glamour, the United Nations says more than 72% of Zimbabweans are living on less than US$1 per day. The ailing economy is characterised by a tight liquidity crunch, cash shortages, company closures and retrenchments. The country has an unemployment rate of 95%, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Mugabe’s globetrotting saw him spend US$36 million on foreign and domestic travel in the first 10 months of 2016.
This comes at a time the cash-strapped government is failing to deliver basic social services. The country’s hospitals, including major referral institutions such as Parirenyatwa and Mpilo, are crippled by a shortage of basic medication and have been forced to suspend vital surgical operations. Hospitals are failing to dispense the most basic drugs such as painkillers.
In January, this paper reported that Mugabe splashes up to US$500 000 per annum on one of the posh villas in the opulent Emirates Hills of Dubai. The amount translates to US$42 000 per month. All this happens at the cost of a poor and suffering Zimbabwean taxpayer.
Mugabe’s opulent lifestyle is in stark contrast to the lives of most Zimbabweans who are suffering from the consequences of his misrule.
Like Imelda who had thousands of expensive shoes, Grace loves finer things in life as evidenced by the ongoing US$1,35 million diamond ring feud between her and Lebanese businessman Jamal Ahmed.
Grace, who earned the nickname “First Shopper” due to her shopaholic adventures, was once a regular at London’s famous designer clothing store, Harrods. At one point she reportedly demanded that the department store shut its doors to other customers to enable her to shop in privacy.
In early 2002, before European Union sanctions on her family and its cronies, she blew US$120 000 while shopping in Paris, according to French and English tabloids at the time.
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said the opulence confirms that the country is led by “jesters”.
“It confirms Mugabe’s lack of touch with reality. It shows thoughtlessness and political buffoonery. The act of hiring a US$1 million plane is a gesticulation by a regime that takes people for granted. A phantasmagorical regime of clowns and pranksters that is wallowing in a fool’s paradise,” said Saungweme.
“They live in obscene opulence and sumptuousness amidst poverty. A regime that gives snacks and bottled water to internally displaced people who need shelter, clothing, real healthy meals and healthcare. A president who squanders millions in birthday cakes, flights and ceremonies yet donates packets of crumbs to vulnerable displaced persons. It’s callous.”
Social commentator Blessing Vava said it is ironic that Mugabe complains about Zimbabweans who are migrating to the diaspora yet he himself has all but become a foreign-based head of state.
“Mugabe is rarely in Zimbabwe, he now visits. If he suffers from a mere headache he flies out of the country using taxpayers’ money. The extravagance is way too much and they do not care at all about the ordinary person, the looting and levels of corruption for self-aggrandisement have reached unprecedented levels.”
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said the Mugabes have become associated with extravagance.
“Their actions are clearly out of sync with the economic situation and yet the executive lives a lavish lifestyle.
However, it is not something new, it has been going on for a while and that is a cause for concern,” said Masunungure. “Their opulent lifestyle is at variance with the state of the economy, the lavish lifestyle is insensitive to the plight of an ordinary person and yet they are not at all sympathetic.”