Mugabe thrives on his past laurels

Many blame the Zimbabwean president for ruining a prosperous country, but to his supporters he remains a liberation hero.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, left, and his wife Grace, right, greet delegates at Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party's 10th annual Congress in Bindura, Zimbabwe, Friday, Dec. 19, 2008. Mugabe said Friday that "Zimbabwe is mine" and vowed never to surrender, saying no African nation is brave enough to topple him.(AP Photo)
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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // Brian Raftopoulos, a Zimbabwean academic, wrote in a 2004 paper that the prevailing economic crisis might not necessarily deflate people's support for the ruling party, Zanu-PF, or conversely benefit the opposition. Mr Raftopoulos, then an associate professor at the University of Zimbabwe's Institute of Development Studies, wrote that although the party used coercive tactics, it still had considerable support.

"However," said Mr Raftopoulos, now director for research and policy at Solidarity Peace Trust in South Africa, "this assessment needs to keep in mind that Zanu-PF has combined these coercive measures with a skilful articulation of historical grievances, such that it has presented its vision as a daily part of people's lives, and in some sense speaking 'for the people'." Although the reasons for its apparent resilience are contentious, as Mr Raftopoulos hinted, little has changed fundamentally since then regarding support for Robert Mugabe and the president's 46-year-old, left-leaning Zanu-PF, despite the party's shortcomings and the economic crisis largely blamed on his policies.

Mr Mugabe's supporters view him as a principled liberation hero being targeted by the West because he grabbed farms from whites, mostly descendants of British settlers. His opponents said he is a power-hungry despot, who has ruined what was once a prosperous country. "Zanu-PF is a party that brought us independence," said Khumbulani Mahlangu, 50, a peasant farmer in Mawabeni, 50km east of here, echoing Mr Mugabe's revolutionary rhetoric.

"It is a home-grown party, which has the national interest at heart, despite the bad economy. It has done a lot for the country too." Ezekiel Mathe, 40, a Zanu-PF supporter, said: "We support him [Mugabe]. But his only problem is the economy. If it continues worsening, it would be a bigger problem and a source of disaffection." Mr Mugabe, who often flaunts his liberation credentials, spent 11 years in the 1960s and 1970s in jails for his nationalist activities before escaping to lead an armed struggle against the settler administration. Independence from Britain came in 1980.

The Zimbabwe chapter of the International Socialist Organisation said in an analysis of the results of elections in March last year that although the pro-western opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, performed well, it was no serious threat in the rural areas, where Mr Mugabe's party largely retains much of its support. "Our analysis remained valid in so far as the results show the continuing support for Zanu-PF in the majority of rural supporters. Zanu-PF still remains a substantial party in Zimbabwe despite the unprecedented economic crisis," said ISO Zimbabwe.

That election, declared substantially free and fair, was held amid rising inflation, now estimated at 230 million per cent, shortages of food and energy, and an unemployment rate of about 84 per cent. Zanu-PF still won 99 seats in the House of Assembly, one less than the mainstream faction of the divided MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai. It even won a majority in the Senate. In the presidential poll, Mr Mugabe, 85 next month, was outpolled by Mr Tsvangirai, but denied him an outright win. This necessitated a second round of voting between Mr Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai, which the octogenarian won after polling more than two million votes. Mr Tsvangirai boycotted that rematch, citing violence against his supporters.

Mr Mugabe also has support among exiles who have fled the decade-long economic crisis. Reason Wafawarova, a Zimbabwean political writer based in Australia, makes pro-Mugabe contributions to government-owned newspaper The Herald. "I do not personally support President Mugabe much as I recognise him as an outstanding hero of our liberation struggle and a founding father of our independence. President Mugabe still enjoys a lot of support as a victim of imperialism," he said by e-mail from Sydney.