Cellphone in hand and speaking street lingo, a cool Zimbabwean president is appearing in music videos in an attempt to woo young voters
Robert Mugabe, iron-fisted, anti-imperialist revolutionary, is getting an extreme makeover.
He has been appearing in music videos, talking on a cellphone to teenage rappers and rattling off street lingo over booming house beats.
Still pushing for unpopular elections next year, he is targeting a youth vote that has long rejected the old-fashioned, revolutionary rhetoric that has been the hallmark of his party’s previous campaigns.
It is Mugabe’s youth militia that have helped him retain power for years, but his handlers are now looking to young musicians to help charm young voters away from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
In one video, played frequently on state television, Mugabe sits in his office, picks up a cellphone and asks the young singer at the end of the line, “Zvirisei-sei?”, the Zimbabwe equivalent of “Wassup?”.
In another song a speech Mugabe once made mocking exiled Zimbabweans doing deadbeat jobs in foreign lands has been autotuned over a throbbing dance beat.
“You run off to England, you get there and you get a job cleaning old white folks’ behinds,” Mugabe’s voice booms over the track in Shona. “Who are you running to?”
The music is by a group called The Born Free Crew, a reference to those born after independence, known locally as “born frees” and much criticised by the older generation for discarding the values of the struggle.
A glowing review of the new Mugabe album in the state-controlled The Herald newspaper said the music “paid tribute to President Mugabe for advocating the total emancipation of not only Zimbabwe but also the continent at large”.
The songs on the album, the reviewer wrote, speak about “the need for people to stay connected with their country as well as the leadership, with President Mugabe at the helm”.
Ear to the ground
A member of the group, Chancellor Majoka, said: “To the youths, let’s put our heads together and enjoy the freedom our fathers and mothers fought for.”
Mugabe has his ear to the ground. Last month he jumped on the frenzy surrounding the Big Brother Africa television reality show and gave the losing finalist, Munyaradzi Chidzonga, $300 000.
After 30 years in power, Mugabe remains a mythical figure to many Zimbabweans, so some are surprised to find that he too uses an everyday gadget like a cellphone.
His handlers hope that showing him as an “ordinary guy from the ‘hood” will soften his image, though some feel the new campaign may only expose him to ridicule.
Rebranding Mugabe is a tough marketing job. His handlers have tried to make him look cool before. In 2008 they invoked Tupac, using lyrics from the Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z album, to send the message to voters that their troubles were only temporary.
Using Tupac’s lyrics from the song Keep Ya Head Up, one banner declared: “Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that. So no matter how hard it gets, stick your chest out, keep ya head up.”
Old or new
As he went into a run-off boycotted by the opposition, drab posters showing an angry old revolutionary, trademark fist in the air, were replaced by brightly coloured banners of a Mugabe wearing a playful smile.
The irony is that the youths in Zanu-PF itself, apart from being used as militia fodder, have little say. It was noted for years that one did not need to be young to be a youth leader in Zanu-PF. But at Zanu-PF’s congress last year the party grudgingly agreed to change its rules to let younger member lead the Zanu-PF Youth League—it can now be led only by someone younger than 30. But it kept in office its secretary for youth affairs, Absalom Sikhosana, who is believed to be in his 50s.
At the weekend Mugabe was back in more comfortable territory. At a meeting of mostly ageing traditional chiefs, who still revel in their colonial-era, ankle-length red robes, huge gold pendants, white pith hats and canes, endorsement came a lot easier for Mugabe.
He alone could lead the country, they declared, and they would back him in the next election.