It seems unbelievable today, but at independence in 1980 the Zimbabwe dollar was stronger than the British pound.

Incredibly, the country’s level of industrial sophistication was comparable to that of South Korea. Zimbabwe boasted the best infrastructure and the most diversified economy north of the Limpopo.

In a dramatic turn of events, in 2009 the hyperinflation-ravaged currency became so worthless that the poverty-stricken public abandoned it, forcing President Robert Mugabe’s government to seek refuge in borrowed currencies.

How did a country described by Julius Nyerere 36 years ago as the jewel of Africa degenerate into the biggest exporter of economic refugees in southern Africa? To answer that, one must look into the life of Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the enigmatic grandmaster of Zimbabwean politics who casts a long shadow over the republic.

At last month’s AU summit in Addis Ababa, the world’s oldest president, dispelling rumours of his death amid an unrelenting grip on power, took to the podium and thundered: “I will still be there until God says, come join the other angels. But as long as I’m still alive, I’ll still have the punch.”

With those two sentences, Mugabe, then 91, was effectively declaring himself president-for-life.

Last Friday, his increasingly ambitious wife Grace told villagers at a Zanu-PF rally that when Mugabe can no longer walk, she will place him in a wheelbarrow and take him to work. Her reasoning: he’s the only person who can unify and develop the nation while safeguarding its sovereignty.

Mugabe is a complex character and those who have interacted with him find it tricky to pigeonhole his personality with any measure of precision. He is often caricatured as the archetypal African tin-pot dictator, the freedom fighter who became a predatory tyrant.

But those who have interacted with him face-to-face are often left puzzled. Contrary to perceptions they had before meeting him, they must now grapple with a stark realisation that although Mugabe is a wily authoritarian, he is shrewd enough to bewilder his critics not only by brawn but also by brain.

Opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai used to denounce Mugabe as a murderous tyrant. But when he was given the post of prime minister in 2009 and began enjoying afternoon tea with Mugabe every Monday, he emerged from the presidential palace giggling like a besotted school girl. Mugabe gave him $3 million to buy a mansion and the largesse is now a poisoned chalice which hampers the opposition leader from robustly confronting the strongman.

Zanu-PF is accused of promoting the politics of impunity as reflected in massive corruption and looting of public resources by senior officials

Far from being the bloodthirsty bogeyman which white Africans are in the habit of invoking, the Zimbabwean leader has been described by The Economist as “brutal but clever”. Visitors to State House have often remarked that he portrays a well-mannered gentleman who dons Saville Row suits and speaks impeccable English. To really understand Mugabe the man, you must go back to his early childhood. Born in the Kutama area of rural Mashonaland on February 21, 1924, the young Robert was described by close relatives as a shy but touchy boy who never hesitated to part ways with fellow cattle herders who crossed his path. As he grew up, under the tutelage of Jesuit priests, he began showing glimpses of intellectual brilliance, which would later enable him to earn seven university degrees.

He trained as a teacher, married his Ghanaian sweetheart Sally Hayfron, spent 11 years in a Rhodesian jail for political activism and eventually scraped his way to the leadership of the Zimbabwe African National Union liberation movement in 1977. He was elected executive prime minister of newly independent Zimbabwe and remained in the post until 1987 when he became executive president.

In 1982, just two years into independence and after pronouncing a policy of reconciliation which saw his global stature soar as he received nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, he deployed a North Korean-trained army unit which massacred about 20 000 mostly ethnic Ndebeles. Decades later, Mugabe would describe the killings as “a moment of madness”.

Despite the atrocities, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and Western institutions showered him with accolades. This raises an important point: when Mugabe was massacring black Zimbabweans, Western governments did not accuse him of violating human rights; instead, they rewarded him handsomely. But as soon as he grabbed white farmers’ land, they ganged up on him.

At the turn of the millennium, as Mugabe faced growing opposition from disgruntled veterans of the liberation struggle who bore the brunt of a collapsing economy, he encouraged the invasion of white-owned farms. In 1997, the British government refused to continue funding the “willing seller, willing buyer” land reform programme. Relations were frayed, culminating in Mugabe’s angry withdrawal of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

The nation’s economy – already weakened by an ill-fated experiment with International Monetary Fund (IMF) “structural adjustment” programmes, Mugabe’s costly deployment of troops to rescue the Democratic Republic of Congo government from a rebel onslaught and a huge lump sum payout to war veterans – collapsed spectacularly. The British and US governments and their allies withdrew financial aid, imposed economic sanctions and mounted an international campaign against Mugabe.

As the economy plunged into a tailspin, Zimbabwe clocked up the highest rate of inflation since the Weimar Republic. In the “lost decade” from 2000 to 2010, poverty, political repression and hopelessness forced more than 4 million Zimbabweans into the diaspora.

In the 2008 elections, Mugabe was defeated in the first round by Tsvangirai. The electoral commission called a run-off which was won by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF amid a bloodbath of political violence. Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round in protest but Mugabe was declared winner.

However, the international community rejected the blood-tainted election, forcing Mugabe to share power with Tsvangirai in a “government of national unity” from 2009 to 2013.

Although his prolonged stay in office has sparked fierce factionalism in his governing party Zanu-PF, Mugabe is still the most influential player in Harare politics. So pervasive is his reach that he has come to personify Zimbabwean nationhood itself.

Even at 92, many members of Zanu-PF cannot imagine a Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe. In the past two years, there have been growing calls to declare his birthday a national holiday.

By far his single greatest achievement in post-independence Zimbabwe is his commitment to an “education for all” policy, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s when he defied instructions from the World Bank and IMF to cut back the education budget.

Taking arable land from 4 000 white farmers and allocating it to 350 000 black families is another prominent accomplishment.

Last year, newly empowered black tobacco farmers earned the country $600m in exports. But his agricultural policies have impoverished a country that has more than 10 000 dams which the government is failing to harness for irrigation.

A fortnight ago, Mugabe declared a national disaster and appealed to the international community to donate $1.5 billion to feed 2.4 million Zimbabweans who face starvation.

Zanu-PF is accused of promoting the politics of impunity as reflected in massive corruption, the looting of public resources by senior officials and the stark failure by the party to make the necessary transition from a liberation movement to a democratic governing administration.

Last week, the Ministry of Finance told parliament that government departments could not account for $830m last year, a fifth of the national budget. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is complaining that it does not know the quantities of diamonds being mined and exported. About $20bn in diamond money has been stolen since 2006.

But Mugabe is staying put. His wife announced last week that he was running for office in the 2018 election, vying for an eighth term.

GRACE ... looming large and definitely in charge!

By: Barnabas Thondhlana

'I'M IN CHARGE': Zimbabwe’s First Lady Grace Mugabe.
When former Zimbabwe War Veterans’ Association chairman Jabulani Sibanda warned about a bedroom coup taking place in President Robert Mugabe’s house, he was hauled over the coals, fired and arrested for criminally abusing the name of the president.

He was accused of utterances to the effect that “leadership is not sexually transmitted”, at the height of the Zanu-PF succession battle that saw former vice-president Joice Mujuru being expelled from the party in December 2014.

And Grace has not disappointed.

“They say I am being propped up because I want to be in charge,” she said. “I am already in charge, I am the first lady… with Mugabe and myself at the top.”

Today, Sibanda is more than vindicated as events unfold in the liberation party. Zanu-PF is divided into two factions; one backing Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and G-40, which reportedly has the backing of the First Lady.

The G-40 faction is said to include Mugabe’s nephew, Patrick Zhuwao, and Local Government Minister Savior Kasukuwere – all said to be backing Grace against Mnangagwa in the succession race.

Grace is effectively running the country as age takes its toll on Mugabe, who turns 92.

Commentators have said Mnangagwa must resign to save his name; others say the whole debacle is just Mugabe’s modus operandi. One said Mugabe had flushed his rich political legacy down the cesspit by aligning himself with “a cabal of selfish self-centred crooks” hell-bent on elbowing out Zanu- PF’s founding members.

Grace’s ascent has thrown a grenade into the bitter succession battle within Zanu-PF.

She has now turned her attention to Mnangagwa who, until recently, was considered to have firmly put his foot in the door to taking over after Mugabe.

Grace accused him, among other things, of deception, faking love for Mugabe and working feverishly to topple him from power.

Addressing thousands at her latest rally in Mashonaland Central, Grace, who referred to herself as mafirakureva (Shona for truth teller), said all those senior party officials who were angling to succeed Mugabe would be disappointed. “Those who say Mugabe is old and therefore must relinquish power are not young themselves,” she said in remarks that senior party officials said were directed at Mnangagwa, 74.

Mujuru believes Mnangagwa is getting a taste of his own medicine. The former vice-president, who on Friday registered her own political party – Zimbabwe People First – said she did not pity Mnangagwa.

“I have no advice that I would give him,” she told The Standard. “I don’t feel pity for him or anyone there. That is what they wanted.”

Mujuru said Mnangagwa was welcome to join her party, but he had to start from grassroots.

University of Zimbabwe lecturer Eldred Masunungure said the stage was set for Mnangangwa’s ouster.

“Clearly, this is a repeat of history in a short space of time. It’s barely two years after Mujuru was disposed using the same methods.”

Former Midlands provincial governor and liberation stalwart, Cephas Msipa, said G-40 was out to destroy Zanu-PF from within and bury Mugabe’s legacy. “What’s happening now is traumatising. Is this what thousands of our colleagues died for in the liberation struggle? Why are we allowing the party to take this trajectory?”

Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said Mugabe had failed to properly manage his succession plans.

“Mugabe has really failed to deal with the succession issue and it could degenerate into anything, unless something happens,” he said.

Opposition People’s Democratic Party leader Tendai Biti warned that the fights within Zanu-PF could trigger civil unrest.

“I smell blood in this country. I smell war. I smell disaster. I am not a prophet, but I see dark clouds, I see a hurricane, a tsunami. If one plants a whirlwind, he will reap a tsunami. This country will go the Rwanda way,” he said.

Political commentator Vince Musewe described it as a classic Mugabe tactic to conceal the country’s deepening economic woes: “To me, Grace is just a pawn. There’s no way she’s going to be anything after Mugabe dies. She’s not educated; she doesn’t understand the complexities of taking Zimbabwe forward… She doesn’t have the gravitas to lead Zimbabwe.”