Mugabes in gilded cage

Forlorn Mugabe laments life in his gilded cage

The Times (UK) by Aislinn Laing, Harare

March 17 2018, 12:01am, The Times

Mr Mugabe bemoaned his isolation and was delighted to have visitors AISLINN LAING/THE TIMES

Grace Mugabe handed out homemade pizza and juice at the opulent home she shares with her husband in Harare. Wearing a brown and pink floral dress, she smiled and talked easily, concerned for her guests’ welfare as we waited for her husband to grant a rare interview to a small group of journalists.

Few could have imagined a day when the Mugabes would invite foreign media into their home to call for respect for democracy. The family dog was shooed away affectionately before we were ushered into the library.

Mr Mugabe, 94, sitting behind a large walnut desk, seemed delighted to have visitors. He said that he felt “isolated”, adding mournfully: “I am glad that you have come.”


Mr Mugabe’s libarary includes an apparently unread copy of Tony Blair’s autobiography and Unpeople, a radical critique of Mr Blair’s foreign policy AISLINN LAING/THE TIMES

He is clearly missing the political life of which he was at the centre until the army intervened in November to end 37 years of his rule. In the past he has described British reporters as “bloody idiots”, intimidated opponents to win elections and bankrupted the country. Now he says that he would be willing to “assist” Emmerson Mnangagwa in guiding Zimbabwe to democracy.

His wife seemed keen to set her own record straight after decades of being called “Gucci Grace”. She asked not be quoted or photographed but said that she never intended to take the presidency. “They sent 40,000 soldiers after one woman,” she scoffed. “Am I that dangerous?”

The “Blue Roof” mansion is surrounded by tall walls, an electric fence and 44 acres. Wealth is evident at every turn: topiary hedging, a large lake and an infinity pool. In the entrance portico stuffed lions jostle with stone statues and carvings. Every light is a gold-encrusted chandelier and every desk is adorned with objets d’art.

It is like a gilded cage. The Mugabes draw their curtains to hide from the binoculars of military intelligence officers trained on them. There is a pall of gloom over Mr Mugabe’s face and Mrs Mugabe’s eyes dart nervously; she appears to have lost weight.

Getting to the interview involved a high-speed journey in a Landcruiser to shake off any tails, with Mrs Mugabe issuing instructions to the driver by carphone. We were told to duck to avoid the soldiers at the gate, who were expecting a group of architects. “I’m taking a risk, smuggling you in,” Mrs Mugabe said. An aide added: “The soldiers could come any minute.”

The Mugabes were given 19 full-time staff as part of their retirement package, including at least six bodyguards, three housekeepers, two gardeners, two waiters, two cooks and two laundry workers. However, the staff were rounded up this week after Mr Mugabe launched a party to rival the ruling Zanu-PF. Mrs Mugabe’s adopted son drove the Landcruiser, her sister served the drinks and she herself acted as media handler.

In his library, Mr Mugabe said that his successor was “illegal and illegitimate”, having won power “not through politics but through the gun”.

“People must be chosen in the proper way. I am willing to discuss and assist in that process but I must be properly invited for that discussion,” he said.

He outlined his liberation struggle, the comrades in arms now long departed and his appreciation for Margaret Thatcher. On a bookshelf, jostling with Brideshead Revisited and The Idiot’s Guide to Learning Latin, was Tony Blair’s autobiography A Journey. Mr Mugabe blamed him for reneging on the land compensation deal agreed with Thatcher which he says led to violent farm seizures, sanctions and Zimbabwe’s economic implosion.

Regrets? He has none, except for the way he was made to leave. “The way I was forced to quit was unpalatable. A better way could have been found. Our people had not experienced such an environment before, we had prided ourselves on being very democratic.”

Mr Mnangagwa’s office has rejected Mr Mugabe’s offer to play a future role, saying the nation has moved on. “Our focus shall remain on preparing for free, fair and credible elections,” it said.