By Nkosana Dlamini
Harare, February 20, 2014-For much of the world, the date “February 21st” passes unnoticed. But for Zimbabweans, the day marks President Robert Mugabe’s birthday, and the contradictions which underlie the accompanying festivities are just too conspicuous to ignore.
While business leaders, state firms and others who owe their lives to Mugabe’s generous rule fill newspaper pages with flattering advertorials, a sly but enterprising part of the aging leader’s
followers see more than just a birthday. They see opportunity.
During this time marauding youths, the mostly partisan veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation war and corrupt community leaders visit villages, schools and small businesses to extort villagers for cash and petty gifts for Mugabe’s bash.
Even vegetable and secondhand clothes vendors operating in Harare’s city markets are caught in the net. It remains unclear whether Mugabe is aware that militant party supporters are using his name for their own financial gain.
Meanwhile, official organisers have sought to raise US$1 million for Mugabe’s 90th birthday celebration, an often televised festivity usually staged in his stronghold of Mashonaland East province.
Absolom Sikhosana is in charge of party youth affairs – owners of the 21 February Movement organising the celebrations. He denies that corrupt community leaders are fleecing ordinary Zimbabweans.
“We don’t expect anyone to be doing that because we are fundraising through properly organised and supervised dinner dances throughout; we have not had situations where people will walk into any shop in Harare, walk into any factory [saying] they are representing us and wanting to fundraise for the President,” Sikhosana said.
But the situation on the ground is different.
The Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe, a vocal group within Zimbabwe’s organised civic movement, reports that its members in rural Mashonaland East Province are being accosted by militant Mugabe followers demanding contributions towards the veteran leader’s bash.
“That is very criminal and those people should be nowhere else other than in prison,” Sikhosana said when quizzed about the happenings. “Zanu PF does not condone corruption and that is the height of corruption when some individuals can abuse the name of the president to enrich themselves.”
Sikhosana insists he has only deployed a few and easily identifiable party functionaries to fundraise towards Mugabe’s bash.
Catching the small fish
ZANU (PF) may claim to have dealt with petty corruption by cheeky grassroot leaders making riches using the president’s name, but the corruption that has been unveiled by a salary scandal by top bosses running state firms has not seen a similar swift reaction.
Recent exposés, curiously enough by state media, have revealed that most executives running the country’s lossmaking state firms are paying themselves obscene amounts running into hundreds of millions while some of their employees have gone months without pay.
Analysts say Mugabe has been walking a tight rope since he gave in to demands by gluttonous followers to ignore the plunder of national resources in exchange for political support.
Social and political commentator Fambayi Ngirande says Mugabe has lost the revolutionary sting to effectively deal with the corruption.
“Corruption in Zimbabwe is systemic and endemic,” says Ngirande, “Dealing with it requires social and political transformation. That is something so revolutionary that I do not think Robert Mugabe in his current state has the energy or the drive to pursue. I believe his revolutionary moment came and went when he fought against the colonial enterprise.”
A wedding fit for a Princess
Meanwhile, his daughter, Bona (24), a holder of a Master of Science degree in Banking obtained at a Singaporean university, also has a big celebration lined up when she ties the knot with a pilot on 1 March.
Mugabe’s loyalists have been doing everything towards making the event befitting that of a daughter of the State President. A local weekly reports that, at the cost of one million dollars, a stretch of road that has been riddled with potholes for years will finally be mended for the comfort of regional leaders expected to grace the ceremony.
But for all the lavish lifestyle that Mugabe and his family command in this sea of poverty, his loyalists insist he deserves this.
“For us President Mugabe’s birthday should not only be a million but twenty or forty million seeing the things that he’s done for this country and for humanity in general,” says Sikhosana.