/ 9 March 2008

Despite economic woes, Mugabe reigns in rural Zim

Accompanied by a village choir, waving fists and miniature ruling party flags, the crowd of several thousand thunders out four words in a constant refrain: “Long live comrade Mugabe.”

A poet punctuates his recital with long pauses before chanting a string of praises for the man he credits with “getting us back our land, our birthright” and “restoring our dignity” — Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

“Mugabe is Right,” proclaimed a banner at Mahusekwa, where Mugabe held a rally ahead of joint presidential, legislative, senate and council polls later this month, while another described him as “tried and tested”.

Despite being isolated by his erstwhile allies from the West and presiding over a crisis-ravaged economy with the world’s highest inflation rate of more than 100 000%, Mugabe continues to command a huge following among the rural population.

“President Mugabe has his all-weather supporters in the rural areas,” says Joseph Kurebga, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe.

“The ruling party had a close relationship with the rural population during the liberation struggle and the relationship has persisted. The other reason for his popularity is that the president is a gifted orator who has a way of relating with his audience.”

When Mugabe travelled to Mahusekwa — a two-hour drive south-east of Harare — this week, the usually sedate service centre was bustling with life as villagers from surrounding areas converged at the venue of the rally.

At a local bar waitresses donned ruling party regalia as they chatted with patrons, most of whom were wearing ruling party T-shirts.

“What unites us is our history, our struggles,” Mugabe told about 7 000 people on a playing field at Mahusekwa secondary school as the crowd nodded in approval.

“We were slaves in our own country. We were not allowed to vote. We were banned from walking along some streets or shopping in certain stores such as Barbours and Saunders.

“Chiefs were appointed by the minority white regime. The railway line that stretches to Beira was built with forced black labour while our people were driven off their fertile lands to sandy places like Mahusekwa where you live today.”

Augustine Timbe, a political analyst who contributes an occasional column in the government-owned Chronicle newspaper said: “He has a way of identifying the issues affecting his audiences and showing them the efforts his government is making to address them, despite the stubbornness of the challenges.

“In the end, they can see the genuine intent to address the problems and give him the benefit of doubt.”

Despite their hardships, including food shortages and large-scale unemployment, the villagers pledge their loyalty to Mugabe.

“2008 Elections: Mugabe Alone,” said a poster at Mahusekwa, while another proclaimed: “I vote for the fist.”

The fist is the ruling party symbol of strength. Mugabe usually waves his when he arrives at a political gathering.

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, winning re-election in 2002 in a vote that Western observers and the opposition said was flawed.

He had said that he would be ready to step down when his term ends this year but later reversed his decision and will stand for a sixth term on March 29.

He faces a challenge from his former finance minister, Simba Makoni, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party.

Mugabe has come under criticism in recent years for presiding over a failed economy characterised by the world’s highest inflation rate, unemployment of about 80% and chronic shortages of goods like fuel and the staple cornmeal. — AFP