President Robert Mugabe is an all right guy with a wicked sense of humour. Sometimes I think the man who’s been described as a tyrant, a dictator and a crocodile is tempted to say “boo” to startle journalists and to have a good giggle about it. We would jump, too.
In fact, when he called a press conference at very short notice, we all jumped – and then the old man made us wait a whole hour.
The message came to myself and photographer Herman Verwey via the grapevine at about 2.30pm yesterday that there would be a presser at State House at 3pm.
We dropped the colour story we were working on and made a U-turn to Borrowdale Road, the grand avenue where men in camouflage lurk in the gardens with guns ready.
The reception at State House was surprisingly friendly, except for the fact that our precious accreditation cards from government were taken from us and kept by the gate. It was an ever-so-subtle reminder of who is in charge here.
Then we had to present our equipment to some police dog, who gave the unappetising cameras one disinterested look. I cracked a little joke with the dog’s owner about my bag being full of sweeties and of potential interest in the dog. To my astonishment, they laughed.
We were sat down on plastic chairs with white covers over them, in front of the stoep of State House. The style of the building is colonial, held up by large white pillars and decorated Cape Dutch-like gables. The grass was ridiculously green for the middle of winter and the grounds were neatly kept, if a little in need of a face-lift.
On the stoep, by the entrance to the house, were a stuffed lion and two stuffed cheetahs on either side of a red carpet leading out of the building. Some ancient African-style statues also stood there. At the end of the red carpet, staring at the press contingent, was an old-fashioned desk where Mugabe sat and spoke.
He was flanked by his defence minister and presidential wannabe (of the one faction in Zanu-PF) Emmerson Mnangagwa but assured journalists it wasn’t a show of support for Mnangagwa’s wish to become president.
Rather, the defence minister was at State House for another meeting and invited himself to the press conference, as villagers in Africa are in the habit of doing when there was a wedding, Mugabe said.
Mugabe’s voice was a little soft sometimes, and sometimes we’d lose a crucial word or two.
Ever so often he would trail off into a history lesson (his tales about working with the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher made me want to preserve him in a museum) and then at the end of it drag himself back to the present. But he remained razor-sharp throughout.
Questions like whether he wasn’t conflating the party and the state too much (answer: Zanu-PF is the one that conducted the revolution, the other parties are mere outsiders, and Zanu-PF is what the people want for government) and what he thought of British prime minister David Cameron (answer: the British prime ministers are all right, but Tony Blair was the devil) were what brought on the history lessons.
The press conference was a rare one – according to a local journalist, Mugabe had only given one presser since 2008 – and obviously meant to show the election observers and the Western world (with their pesky sanctions) that Mugabe is a reasonable and open leader.
“Yes, sir, we are not here to make enemies, we are here to make friends, and if the British are open to friendship, we will be too,” he said to the question of relations with the UK.
Listening to his responses to questions (he’s been doing this job for 33 years now), it struck me that being 89 must be rather cumbersome at times. Compared with Mugabe, most of us journalists are toddlers, and if I were an autocrat that age, I’d pretty much tell everyone where to stick it. At least that’s the impression I got when a journalist asked Mugabe how he’d spend his time if he lost the elections.
“You are asking a man who is 89 years old how will you spend your time. How did I spend all these years? I will spend my time the same way as I did all these years. I am an educationist, I am an economist, but I am also now a good storyteller,” he said half jokingly, not quite like a man who is planning a retirement.
His wry sense of humour shone through when a foreign journalist asked him about intimidation of voters by chiefs in rural areas. She was non-specific about where, specifically, which gave Mugabe the upper hand.
“You know, the rural areas have also lions and elephants and you might have mistaken them for chiefs,” he said.
It was rather impossible to have a comeback to that one, even for this woman, about one-third his age.
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