Looking for the colour of change at Zimbabwe’s Rainbow Towers

Rainbow Towers Hotel Looking for the colour of change at Zimbabwe’s Rainbow Towers

It’s a building just about as old as President Robert Mugabe’s 33-year rule, although the old man arguably had more face-lifts than this place.

At the door is a plaque saying the hotel, which took four years to build, was officially opened by prime minister Robert Mugabe on November 22 1985. Those were the good old days, and the size of the 16-floor structure with a vast entrance hall and marbled staircases bears witness to the optimism that followed the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence.

The Rainbow Towers Hotel hasn’t lost its stature and popularity, despite having the appearance of an architectural fashion victim trapped in the Soviet era, and despite having a misleading name. There is nothing rainbow about the interior, while the solid block-like exterior is a golden colour.

Following the country’s hotly contested polls yesterday, Zimbabwe’s eyes have turned to this hotel, which was known before its name change in 2006 as the Sheraton Harare.

It is here where all the official press conferences following the elections are taking place, and where the name of the country’s next president will be announced. All indications are that Zanu-PF’s Mugabe is set to retain his position.

The past few days it’s also been a popular spot for observer teams from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community. They have been hanging in the bar and coffee shop area in the foyer with their khaki or blue flak jackets and matching caps. In the parking lot they had been reverse-parking their 4x4s – many of them are staying in one of the more than 300 rooms.

This morning, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo was spotted travelling, sans bodyguards, to the ground floor from the luxurious rooms on the upper floors in the overcrowded lift, and he even laughed at a joke at the expense of the lifts. These have been broken for days now, with engineers seemingly unable to find a lasting solution to their tardiness.

In the adjacent conference centre, falsely proclaimed by the hotel’s website to be “certainly the largest and best equipped in Africa” (maybe this was true in 1985), the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has set up its counting centre.

Since yesterday’s voting, the focus has moved here. Police guards at the entrance to the results centre do body searches but there are no X-ray machines to check bags. Memory sticks are, for some reason, not allowed in.

Inside is a conference room where press conferences are being held, another area where elections officials are fed, and then there are two makeshift offices for elections officials, and one for the media.

The ZEC this morning said ballots have all been counted at polling stations and were being collated in constituencies, and the commission would advise when these would be announced.

Constituency results – for the National Assembly and local councils – would be announced locally, but presidential results – the race was largely between Mugabe and MDC-T leader Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – would be announced nationally, here at the Rainbow Towers.

The opposition MDC-T and a number of NGOs have claimed irregularities in the elections in favour of Zanu-PF.

Publicly there is a perception that some of ZEC’s top officials are Zanu-PF sympathisers (observer teams have given ZEC the thumbs-up, though), and some might see conspiracy in location.

Right by the gate to the Rainbow Towers is the tall, greyish-brown headquarters of Zanu-PF, which means the hotel is a popular hang-out for party bigwigs. Opposite the road from both of these is the ZEC headquarters.

All these buildings are in a somewhat run-down part of town, about a 10 minutes’ drive from the leafy suburbs where many politicians, including Mugabe, live.

Former president Nelson Mandela, former US president Jimmy Carter and Queen Elizabeth II are listed as former guests of the hotel, which is now slowly being upgraded and modernised.

Some in Zimbabwe would like to believe that a similar renewal would also soon find its way to their government.

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