Mugabes of make-believe

Mugabe tells of 'great betrayal' in 'secret' interview

Holed up in their Harare mansion, Robert and Grace Mugabe arrange a furtive visit by our reporters, then hand out pizzas and pastries before an interview full of self-justification

25 March 2018 - 00:01 By MZILIKAZI wa AFRIKA and RAY NDLOVU
PRIVATE CITIZENS: Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika flanked by deposed Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace. Pictures: Aaron Ufumeli
PRIVATE CITIZENS: Sunday Times reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika flanked by deposed Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace. Pictures: Aaron Ufumeli

If Mugabe's account was anything to go by, his rule of 37 years in Zimbabwe, which was marked by dictatorship, human rights violations and the wrecking of the economy, was ended by "antiquated" military equipment.

"They were as ancient as uMzilikazi," he said, breaking out into a chuckle. Mzilikazi ka Mashobane was an Ndebele king buried on the outskirts of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe.

"[The equipment] had never been used anywhere and nobody is using tanks any more nowadays; they use armoured cars, which are faster."

His wife, Grace, joined in the laughter. The couple still seemed stung that their rule was ended by old tanks. Perhaps the laughter provided them with relief from having been pushed out of power.

Cloak and dagger

Since his ouster, the Mugabes seldom have visitors to their Blue Roof mansion in the upmarket suburb of Borrowdale, in Harare.

That they have journalists as visitors is even more uncommon. During his rule, Mugabe's administration kept out foreign journalists. A local journalist, Itai Dzamara, disappeared without trace for calling on Mugabe to step down. In 2009, Grace was involved in a punch-up with a journalist in Hong Kong.

Setting up the interview was secretive. A call came to Wa Afrika via a third party. The attempt to reach out to Wa Afrika was curious because in 2003 he had been declared persona non grata in Zimbabwe in 2003 by a Mugabe loyalist, Jonathan Moyo. Wa Afrika had exposed Moyo's assault on his [Moyo's] wife at a hotel in Bedfordview, Johannesburg.

The offer of an interview seemed too good to be true. Was it genuine or a hoax?

The rendezvous was a food court in Pomona, across the road from the swanky Sam Levy's Village shopping complex in Harare. Two black Toyota Land Cruisers were sent to collect our reporters. One of the drivers was continually in touch with Grace, who sounded anxious that the right people had been picked up.

Her instructions were simple: "Try and hide everyone in the car because we aren't allowed to do interviews or bring journalists to the house."

The driver explained: "There are soldiers guarding the house and minding the gates. I told Amai [Mrs] Grace that it would be impossible to hide you and she must come up with a plan to convince the soldiers."

"But how are you going to hide a big man like me in this car?" asked Wa Afrika.

Entry to the sprawling 44-acre property was through a back gate. The soldiers appeared uninterested and did not search the vehicle or ask the occupants for identification. Grace later admitted that she had told the guards she was expecting "architects".

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe speaks about the events leading up to the 'military coup' that saw Emmerson Mnangagwa replace him as president.

Grace, wearing a brown African dress with red, white and yellow embroidery, met the guests.

"Hurry, hurry, before the soldiers see you," she said.

As she led the way inside, she asked that no pictures be taken of the manicured garden where a soapstone statue of Mugabe stands.

Grace disappeared and returned with pizzas, pastries and juices.

"Please eat while I am preparing my husband for the interview," she said.

Hint of frustration

This was the first time that the couple had spoken about the events of about four months beforehand that ended Mugabe's 37-year-old grip on power. We were led into another room where a frail Mugabe in a light-blue jacket and black trousers greeted us with a grin. He went to sit behind his large wooden desk and leant back in the chair.

Mugabe's successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has called Mugabe "father". Mugabe says Mnangagwa is a "son", but stops short of calling him disobedient. He likened Mnangagwa to a son who did not always listen.

"A great betrayal" was how Mugabe summed up his feelings towards Mnangagwa, whom he said was "illegal and illegitimate where he is".

A day after the interview, Mnangagwa's office responded with a brief statement. It said Mugabe was now a private citizen and entitled to his views.

"The nation has moved on. Our focus is on preparing for free, fair and credible elections," the statement said.

There was a hint of frustration in Mugabe, perhaps fuelled by anger at how the region and the international community had embraced Mnangagwa. This might also have been why foreign journalists were invited in, so that the Mugabes could tell their story.

"It was a coup d'état. It was truly a military takeover. I don't know what you would want to call it," Mugabe thundered in the way he used to do, smacking his hands together or pounding the podiums.

Over the past few months, the couple have watched regional and global leaders recognise Mnangagwa's authority and praise him for managing Zimbabwe's political transition. Mnangagwa has been welcomed by South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mugabe said there had been "evil contradictions" in claims that the ex-president's legacy was being preserved while his family was being harassed.

Mugabe dismissed the notion that he was plotting some sort of comeback to the political arena either by personal involvement or by backing new political party the National Patriotic Front, led by Ambrose Mutinhiri.

But would he accept an invitation from the NPF to attend any gathering when it officially launches?

Mugabe chuckled again.

"I would have to see before I can go, because there may be others who will also want to go, so I think that I would better not go," he said.

Mugabe said he had no intention of returning to the helm of Zimbabwean politics.

Widely thought to be one of the richest people in the country, Mugabe said he owned only one farm and not 21 as claimed.

"I only own one farm, which I bought with my own money," he said.

He still blamed former British prime minister Tony Blair for being the catalyst in the s0-called land reform programme of 2000.

He said South Africa had also disapproved of his country's land reform programme, with former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki expressing their feelings to him.

"Mbeki wrote me a letter and threatened to denounce me unless I reversed the land reform programme, but I didn't," he said.

Night of coup

During the interview it emerged that the coup caught the Mugabes by surprise. Grace was sent video clips on her mobile phone of Constantino Chiwenga, then chief of the country's military, flanked by senior officers. Her reaction was disbelief. She only believed it when her husband later left Chiwenga's statement confirming the action in their bedroom upstairs.

Mugabe said he thought the general [now Vice-President Chiwenga] would at least have informed him directly, and told him of issues that he was unhappy about.

"I thought he [Chiwenga] would have listed all the problems and tabled them before me and informed me of the dissatisfaction which he had," Mugabe said.

At about 11pm on the night of the coup, the police commissioner, Augustine Chihuri, who was sacked by the plotters, called Mugabe. "The soldiers are at ZBC [the national broadcaster], they have taken over and they are already making a statement that they have taken over the ZBC," Chihuri said.

Chihuri called Mugabe again at 2am. "This is a real coup, there is a coup already taking place in Zimbabwe."

At about the same time, Grace said she received a call from Moyo, who pleaded with her to help him. "Mama, help us, please save us, we are going to be killed," she recalled a tearful Moyo telling her.

A vehicle was sent from the Blue Roof to rescue Moyo and his family and that of Saviour Kasukuwere, another Mugabe loyalist. The families arrived at about 4am and Mugabe asked Moyo and Kasukuwere to leave, but that he would keep their families on "humanitarian grounds".

The Mugabes did not know where Moyo and Kasukuwere went. He still doesn't.

A good man

The political landscape has changed since Mugabe resigned. Relations with the West have thawed and Britain has been at the forefront of working with the new administration. Mugabe's arch-rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, died last month.

Mugabe said he was saddened by the passing on of his former prime minister in the government of national unity.

"I saved Morgan's life; he lived longer because I paid his medical bills. When he was diagnosed [with cancer], one of his kids came here and asked me to help with money for a specialist and I gave without asking questions. Morgan was a good man and I enjoyed working with him as my prime minister. It was unfortunate I couldn't attend his funeral, but I sent his family my letter of condolence," he said.

Bombshell

Mugabe, for the first time, admitted that Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change had won the 2008 Zimbabwean election.

"Tsvangirai won the 2008 election but he didn't have majority votes as prescribed in our constitution. I was willing to accept the results and step down as the president but we called for re-election, as per our constitution, and Tsvangirai pulled out."

Mugabe vehemently denied that he had rigged the elections and allowed his militia to attack and intimidate members of the opposition.

If Mugabe did not want to return as president or back any political party, what did the 94-year-old want? He has been given a pension and is being taken care of by the state, with little benefit from becoming a rabble-rouser.

"I don't hate Mnangagwa and I want to work with him. But he must be proper to be where he is. He is illegal. We must undo this disgrace we have imposed on ourselves. We don't deserve it. Zimbabwe does not deserve it. We want to be a constitutional country. We must obey the law," Mugabe said. "I am willing to discuss and I am willing to assist in that process, but I must be invited properly. Currently I am isolated."

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