HARARE – On Friday last week, I had the good fortune of being assigned to cover President Robert Mugabe’s launch of the Zanu PF election manifesto at Zimbabwe Grounds, in Highfield — and it was a fascinating, eye-opening experience.
There were various activities at the venue, with scores of buses and lorries dropping people from various farms and rural areas close to the place.
Zanu PF bigwigs started arriving, one-by-one, from about mid-morning, with the bussed supporters seemingly not caring a hoot about any of them at all, as they were waiting for the grand arrival of the “Ultimate Chef”.
After a very long wait, at about 12 midday to be precise, two police outriders entered the Zimbabwe Grounds and some excitement began permeating sections of the gathered supporters — who all knew that their last man standing, the 89-year-old party presidential candidate, was had now arrived.
Indeed, and within a few seconds, Mugabe’s state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz S600 limousine rolled into the expansive grounds.
By that time, bootlickers and praise singers had gone berserk, not just in their endeavours to prepare the stage for His Excellency — who is seeking to extend his record 33-year rule in power — but seemingly to demonstrate to the masses who was more loyal to the octogenarian leader than others.
Webster Shamu, the party’s political commissar, told the until — then — disinterested crowd, who had waited for close to three hours for Mugabe, to rise and give the Dear Leader a rousing welcome.
Amid high hopes that the party’s 89-year-old would be in buoyant election mood to galvanise fervent supporters to take on opposition forces in the coming do-or-die fight for power in the country, it was most surprising that only about seven thousand party followers were there at that point to stand and welcome him.
A far cry indeed from the hundreds of thousands that had been predicted to attend, if not exhorted, by State media.
Even more surprising — and perhaps demoralising for some Zanu PF supporters — the president looked both tired and uninspired by the relatively small gathering.
Nevertheless, the ever defiant former guerrilla leader stepped out of the posh limo, in fact, more of stumbled awkwardly out of his expensive black bullet-proof Mercedes Benz.
And even when he was out of the car, he appeared to lose balance again, getting some welcome helping hand from chief of protocol, Munyaradzi Kajese, and Zanu PF national chairman, Simon Khaya Moyo.
Some supporters looked a bit surprised at the frailty of their leader.
But, is he not nearly 90? Hallo!
With Shamu valiantly trying his very best to lift the mood by belting slogans and well-known praise chants, the delicate-looking Mugabe woke up from his initial slumber, throwing his right fist into the air, while clutching wife Grace tightly with his left hand.
Because of the jostling taking place at that point for a vantage view of the man, it was not easy to see whether the President was holding on to the First Lady out of just love or for support.
He did try to do a round of walking, greeting his supporters, but could not last the distance.
Mugabe was now looking decidedly weary and fatigued. Our indefatigable chief photographer, Annie Mpalume, captured all this drama for you readers and for posterity.
As the Zanu PF strongman made his way to the podium, which was up a fairly steep ground, he clung even more tightly onto his youthful wife and Kajese, while the myriad security details kept a close eye on his movements.
To his credit, Mugabe managed or forced himself to stand for over an hour, albeit, leaning on the podium, as he addressed a crowd which did not seem particularly interested in his speech — laced with the same rhetoric as that of the past three decades.
Whether it was by design or not, the move by those of his followers who decided to dish out bread and party T-shirts while Mugabe was speaking provided a further discomforting moment, as the dear leader did not need such a side-show.
Mugabe’s speech was punctuated by several mistakes, from dates to names of individuals who participated in the liberation struggle.
Later on, and as more and more bussed people arrived, Mugabe gained a bit of confidence and life.
Despite being famed for having a sharp memory, Mugabe forgot the name of Dr Tsvarayi, and rather hilariously mistook him for his fierce rival Tsvangirai.
“Oh, sorry, it is Tsvarayi not this name I gave him. I have wronged him. I will have to compensate him.
“This is a big mistake that I have made against him. What has he done to deserve this,” he said, as he desperately sought to use humour to compensate for the gaffe and lift the mood.
Possibly the 2008 harrowing experience of being beaten by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, as well as the prospect of losing to him again, is giving Mugabe nightmares ahead of the July 31 poll.
In 2008, most Zanu PF MPs launched a successful “Bhora Musango” strategy, which resulted in them only campaigning for themselves and leaving their leader exposed to Tsvangirai, who trounced him soundly in the first round of the presidential race.
So, given all this, can Mugabe last the gruelling electioneering period that lies ahead in the next three weeks, and deliver a resounding victory for himself and his party?
Time will tell.