HARARE – President Robert Mugabe appeared in public for the first time in several weeks yesterday to mourn the death of his sister, ending speculation that he may be bed-ridden, in declining health or even dead.
Mugabe’s health, who at 89 has ruled the country since independence from Britain in 1980, has spawned endless speculation among Zimbabweans.
Zanu PF is struggling to keep a lid on a battle over succession and there are fears it could implode in a bloody factional fight that might even suck in the army if Mugabe dies without resolving the issue.
Mugabe, who spent two weeks of his annual leave in Singapore, appeared at State House to accept condolences for his 79-year-old sister Bridgette, who died in Harare after three years in a coma.
Mugabe appeared downcast over his bereavement but showed no visible signs of ill health as he greeted senior party officials and spoke about his sister’s life.
Rumours sparked by his recent absence from the spotlight have been swirling around Harare in the last two weeks, some suggesting that the veteran leader was seriously ill and others even suggesting he had died.
As with previous rounds of speculation, his lieutenants dismissed the rumours as baseless.
Mugabe has denied that previous trips to Singapore were for prostate cancer treatment.
Joice Mujuru, Mugabe’s vice-president both in government and in Zanu PF, is frontrunner in the race to succeed the president. But her main rival, Justice minister and former Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, has not given up, analysts say.
Mugabe himself maintains there is no crisis, arguing that the party is strong and organised enough to choose his successor at the right time. His critics say he wants to die in office.
In an editorial on Saturday, the Daily News called for more transparency about his health.
“Perhaps one way of mitigating the speculation around the President’s health is for the government to be as transparent as possible about his travels and his health, obviously balancing this against his rights as well as the interests of his family,” the newspaper said.
Senior government officials said Equatorial Guinea President Mbasogo Theodore Nguema had cancelled a planned visit to Harare on Monday following Bridgette’s death. Mugabe had been expected to cut short his holiday to host Nguema.
Meanwhile, Mugabe’s sister Bridgette Zvenhamo, who died at Parirenyatwa Hospital on Sunday, will be buried at her Zvimba rural home today.
Bridgette, who was the president’s only surviving sibling, suffered from breathing complications.
She was on life support for the past three years until the time of her death.
She collapsed during the funeral of her sister Sabina at the Heroes Acre in August 2010.
In a telephone interview with the Daily News yesterday, Zanu PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo said the party’s supreme governing body, the politburo had not met to deliberate on her a national heroine status, and she would be laid to rest at their rural home.
“She will be buried tomorrow afternoon in Zvimba,” Gumbo said.
The late Bridgette, who was a trained science teacher, was actively involved in the liberation struggle.
She is said to have even assisted the seven heroes who fought in the first Chimurenga battle in 1966.
The mother and grandmother, who died at the age of 78, was reportedly tortured by Rhodesians for at least a month.