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No regime change, Mugabe vows at birthday bash

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe celebrated his 84th birthday on Saturday at a rally aimed at boosting support before elections next month.

The bash in the southern town of Beitbridge on the border with South Africa cost Z$3-trillion — the equivalent of about R1,9-million at the dominant black-market exchange rate.

Mugabe’s actual birthday was on Thursday, but the celebrations — attended by ruling-party members, chiefs, diplomats and government ministers — were moved to Saturday to allow schoolchildren to participate.

Flag-waving party supporters and schoolchildren greeted Mugabe with loud cheers when he arrived at the venue, accompanied by his wife, Grace, and their children.

A laughing Mugabe, wearing a garland of flowers and surrounded by supporters, was seen punching the air with his fists. He hit out at the country’s ”enemies” who have criticised his presidency, including the United States and Britain. ”There will never be regime change here … Never,” he said.

Mugabe also urged ruling-party members to tell the truth about the country’s economic woes, even as he attacked his critics.

”Let’s tell people the truth about the economic hardships they are facing,” he told thousands of party supporters. ”The truth about what government is able to do and what it is not able to. We are going to work hard to address the problem.”

While the autocratic leader, one of Africa’s longest rulers, was eating cake, his country was facing its worst political and economic crisis with inflation rocketing past the 100 000% barrier this week.

Across the border, a few hundred Zimbabweans held a protest in the South African town of Musina. They launched a giant helium balloon with banners reading: ”Elections free and fair or just hot air?” and ”Bob, you’ve had your cake. Now beat it.”

Mugabe faces his greatest electoral challenge since he led the nation to independence in 1980. The presidential vote on March 29 is being contested by former ruling-party loyalist Simba Makoni and the leader of an opposition faction, Morgan Tsvangirai, who launched his campaign in the eastern town of Mutare on Saturday.

In a nationwide television broadcast on Thursday to mark his birthday, Mugabe verbally attacked Makoni (57), calling him a ”prostitute” and a ”deviant” from the ruling-party principles that built the country.

In his remarks on Saturday, the president took another swipe at Makoni, likening him to a frog. ”He is like frog trying inflate himself to the size of a frog,” he said.

He could face a run-off presidential poll for the first time if he does not win 51% of the vote.

Makoni, fired by Mugabe as finance minister in 2002 in disagreements over economic policy, is expected to attract votes from disillusioned members of the ruling party and the fractured opposition.

Economic hardship is a key issue in the national elections. The former regional breadbasket is facing acute shortages of food, hard currency, petrol and most basic goods.

The economic meltdown is blamed on disruptions in the agriculture-based economy after the often-violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms began in 2000 accompanied by political violence and turmoil.

The state central statistical office has said the official rate of annual inflation rose to 100 580% in January — the highest in the world. The new official figure was still well below the rate calculated by independent analysts who estimate real inflation is closer to 150 000%.

Inflation, food shortages and the crumbling of power, water, sanitation, roads, phones and communications and other utilities have fuelled deep divisions in the ruling Zanu-PF party. — Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP

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