Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

The “Cold War” of Harare

By Alex T. Magaisa

On Tuesday 21st October 2014, President Mugabe and his entourage flew into Harare from the Vatican, where he had travelled a few days earlier, to attend a Catholic ceremony. He was accompanied by his wife, Grace Mugabe.

Dr Alex Magaisa
Dr Alex Magaisa

On arrival at Harare International Airport, his Vice President, Joice Mujuru, a number of Cabinet Ministers and security services chiefs were, as has become customary, waiting for him on the tarmac. They stood in a long line in order of rank and seniority, to welcome him home.

This ritual may sound odd to most people elsewhere in the world, and understandably so, but then this is Zimbabwe, and in Zimbabwe, as is the case with most of African countries presided over by long-serving strongmen, these ceremonial shows are designed to augment and reify power. That is the protocol and those who offend against it face the spectre of political oblivion.

On this occasion, as President Mugabe disembarked from the plane, he received the extended hand of his deputy, who as the senior politician was standing, as she has done for many years, at the beginning of the line. Then he went on to greet the others. Usually, Grace Mugabe, as First Lady, would follow her husband in greeting the waiting delegates.

But on this occasion, Grace Mugabe stood with arms folded and a visibly unhappy demeanour, as VP Mujuru extended her hand. She flippantly rejected the VP’s hand, offending not only protocol, but a basic custom of a people, which compels that upon meeting, people are expected to greet each other, and to do so by way of a handshake.

It is fair to say that the conduct of the woman who wears the cloak of the nation’s First Lady has left many people shocked and appalled. There is cause to suggest that whatever her misgivings about the Vice President of the country, this conduct is not only disgraceful but is unbecoming of a person occupying her lofty station, a station that compels observance of protocol, indeed, a station that respects an office, even if one has little regard for its actual occupant.

Joice Mujuru is the Vice President of the country and the offensive gesture is not against her as an individual but the Office of the President, which she represents.

President Mugabe is a man who is many things to many people. To his admirers, he is a heroic, larger-than-life, revolutionary figure. To others, he is a cruel and evil character who has caused more harm than good. To say he divides opinion is as obvious as it is an understatement. But those who have been in his company – friends and foes alike – often confess that the man is host to a form of charm that is quite disarming.

That he is a man of incredible intellect has probably been helpful. Mugabe himself has in the past expressed a preference for most things gentlemanly. He has declared his passion for cricket, which he believes to be a game for gentleman, indeed a game that, in his view, transforms men into gentlemen. “I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen” he is often quoted as having said.

He is renowned for his sartorial tastes, which bear towards the English style of Savile Row and likes to be seen as an abiding gentleman. They say he is an incredibly polite man. Against all this, it is hard to think, however much he would dislike an individual, that he would publicly reject his or her hand, against protocol, in the fashion that his wife did on Tuesday.

But she had done the same a few days earlier, as they left for the Vatican, rejecting the hand of VP Mujuru, as the ministers bade them farewell on their way to the Vatican’s religious ceremony.

It is hard to believe that the behaviour of Grace Mugabe has the sanction of her husband. It is difficult to imagine that he, a man who has previously shaken hands with his avowed enemies, from Josha Nkomo in the 1980s to Morgan Tsvangirai after 2008, has not spoken to his wife and dissuaded her from adopting the course that she has taken.

Mugabe once described Nkomo’s PF Zapu, his party’s then nemesis, as a cobra that enters a man’s house of which the only way to deal with it is to crush the head – that head of course being a metaphorical reference to Joshua Nkomo.

Mugabe has said the most unkind words to describe Morgan Tsvangirai, his bitter opponent since 2000 – Tsvangirai was bludgeoned by Mugabe’s security forces in March 2008 and Mugabe responded by saying “chakadashurwa” – a harsh Shona word to describe the gratuitous violence that had been meted on his rival. It was harsh and cruel. But when protocol demanded, he shook the hands of both men, one as his Vice President and the other as his Prime Minister.

And when an uncouth group of his supporters booed Tsvangirai at a public ceremony during the tenure of the Coalition Government, Mugabe rebuked them and demanded that they show some respect. He may not have liked Tsvangirai, the man who had defeated him in March 2008 and almost wrested power from him, but he recognised that he was the Prime Minister of the country and that his office demanded respect.

After the GNU, Mugabe could have been vindictive and chosen to throw Tsvangirai out of the government property in which he still lives. He could have been harsh and chosen the path of vengeance and humiliation particularly since he was contesting the process and outcome of the elections.

But he did not do that. Mugabe may have seen the political purpose of maintaining moral leverage over his rival, and chose, therefore, to avoid the path of vengeance. Mugabe is a master of the long game – in dealing with his rivals, he sees far, very far, so that he chooses to sacrifice the immediate gains of vengeful acts and retain the longer advantage. Clearly, this is not a quality given to his wife.

It is easy to say Grace Mugabe’s conduct has the blessings of her husband, but it is equally probable that Mugabe is facing the same problem that spouses face in their daily lives, when the wife or husband will not associate with the friend or relative of his or her spouse. Many people face these challenges – the wife will not welcome the husband’s mother into her house because she does not like her or the husband will not associate with the wife’s friend because he thinks she is a bad influence.

These are the travails faced by everyday men and women in their ordinary lives. The difference is Mugabe has to deal with it on the national stage and, for a man of his age and station, it must be a cause of huge embarrassment.

Some will say Mugabe himself carries a hard heart. They will cite the fact that he never forgave his erstwhile comrades in the war whom he believed had caused offence. Among them, are the likes of Henry Hamadziripi, Ndabaningi Sithole, Dzinashe Machingura – all late and all of whom were refused recognition as National Heroes.

But then there is also Edgar Tekere and Enos Nkala, with whom he fell out in the end, who seem to have been forgiven. No doubt, he is a complex character, President Mugabe, a man of contradictions who can be obnoxious when he chooses. But when it comes to protocol, he, more often than not, leans towards than against it.

To receive the hand of the person who wishes to greet you is good protocol but far more than that, it is what decency demands. It is what custom, passed from generation to generation, demands of us. It is what good human beings do. It is an element of that great gift bequeathed to us by generations before us – Hunhu, known more popularly as Ubuntu.

By her conduct, Grace Mugabe has shown that this is something beyond her but in the process, she has shown disrespect not just to Joice Mujuru as a person but her husband who is her appointer and the entire Office of the President. That conduct is a serious assault on the integrity of that office.

Anyone else acting in her manner would be ridiculed, not least by the state media, for bringing the highest office in the land into disrepute, contrary both to convention and the Constitution of Zimbabwe. If it was VP Mujuru who had behaved so indecorously, she would have been vilified by The Herald.

But instead, The Herald describes VP Mujuru as “wayward”. President Mugabe has an obligation to uphold that constitution and to protect the integrity of his office but unfortunately, it is the person with whom he shares holy matrimony, who is trashing it.

One day, sooner or later, the First Lady and the Vice President will be brought together. I’m certain mediators are working round the clock to find settlement to the cold war and bring the embarrassing episode to an end. They will be shown on ZBC TV, shaking hands and smiling – doing a ‘mini-Unity Accord’, but the truth is, what has transpired will neither be forgotten nor forgiven. It will leave a deep scar – one that no amount of surgery will conceal.

Dr Alex T Magaisa studied law at the University of Zimbabwe (LLB) and the University of Warwick (LLM & PhD) in Great Britain. He is a former adviser to the then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Dr Magaisa has worked at the University Warwick, the University of Nottingham and is presently based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. 

You can visit his blog: NewZimbabweConstitution.wordpress.com. You can email him on waMagaisa@yahoo.co.uk