Milking Mugabe as a tourism drawcard

Robert Mugabe's old house will soon be a tourist attraction. (M&G)

Robert Mugabe's old house will soon be a tourist attraction. (M&G)

The walls need a fresh coat of paint and the asbestos-tiled roof has turned an unpleasant brownish grey, an eyesore compared to the pristine red of its glory days.

Sections of the plaster on the white walls are crumbling and the paint is peeling off. Dubbed the "home of nationalists", Highfield is set to become Zimbabwe's next big tourist attraction, according to the ministry of tourism and hospitality.

The ministry has roped in Mugabe's former home and his liberation struggle credentials as a launch pad to promote tourism in the country when it co-hosts the United Nations World Tourism Organisation general assembly with Zambia next year.

Under its township tourism programme, launched by Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi last weekend, Mugabe's former home has been turned into a national monument and declared a national heritage site.

"It is ... fitting that the houses that housed the early nationalists and provided meeting venues during that period be enshrined ...
for posterity's sake," said Mzembi.

Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara has urged unemployed youths in Highfield to start business ventures and prepare themselves for the expected cash windfall from delegates attending the world tourism conference. The visitors will be urged to visit Mugabe's old house.

Zanu-PF was formed in 1962 in Highfield in a house owned by Enos Nkala. "We were actually in my bedroom when the decision was taken to form Zanu-PF and rebel against Zapu, which, at the time, was led by Joshua Nkomo," Nkala told the Mail & Guardian this week.

It is understood that Zimbabwe's township tourism drive took its cue from South Africa, where the houses in Soweto that sheltered early ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and his generation were upgraded to national monuments and have become huge drawcards for tourists. Although Zimbabwe tourism officials maintain that the programme is only geared towards encouraging tourists and locals to recognise Zimbabwe's rich political history, political observers said the programme had inadvertently provided political mileage for the 88-year-old Mugabe to further spice up his image ahead of elections, which are expected to be held next year.

As Mugabe takes centre stage, there are rumblings of discontent that the heritage of other veteran nationalist leaders, such as the late Nkomo, Zanu-PF founding father Nkala, Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira and Jason Moyo is being deliberately ignored.  

The issue of Nkomo's legacy and honour is an emotive one, especially for people from the Matabeleland region – where Nkomo came from – who feel that there is a deliberate ploy by Mugabe and Zanu-PF to undermine Nkomo's contribution to the country's liberation history.

Several projects named after Nkomo remain unfulfilled 13 years after his death in 1999. Zanu-PF has given unconvincing explanations of its failure to honour Nkomo, who signed a unity pact with Mugabe in 1987.

Work on the airport in Bulawayo, renamed the Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport, is still incomplete. The Ekusileni referral hospital, which is also meant to honour Nkomo, has not opened since its completion a decade ago and statues of him that were meant to be erected in Harare and Bulawayo are yet to be put up following an uproar over their dimunitive scale and the North Korean links to the statues. The North-Korean-trained Fifth Brigade executed an estimated 20000 civilians in the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland.

Nkomo's legacy
The renaming of the busy Main Street in Bulawayo to JM Nkomo Way also appears unlikely to take place any time soon. Dumiso Dabengwa, the president of Zapu and a former Zanu-PF member, said: "I have been following all these projects and I have concluded that the real aim is to ensure that nothing is credited to Nkomo's legacy. It is strange, indeed, that nothing has ever been completed. I have tried to push wherever I can, but up until now nothing seems to be moving."

Ignatius Chombo, the minister of local government, rural and urban development and a Mugabe ally, appears to have been instrumental in blocking efforts to rename Main Street to recognise Nkomo. He issued a circular last week to local authorities to stop discussions on the matter – a warning of the bureaucracy that hampers the process.

"Government appreciates the quest by local authorities to recognise the invaluable contribution by some of the nation's prominent citizens through naming streets, institutions and places after them. It is instructive, however, for all local authorities to note that matters pertinent to such changes are appropriately handled via a designated Cabinet committee on change of place names …" reads a part of the circular.

Political analyst Charles Mangongera said it was evident that the tourism ministry had decided to use Mugabe as the focal point in marketing Zimbabwe ahead of the world tourism conference. "It certainly seems that there will be an intensifying of such plans around Mugabe as we approach the ... conference. No doubt all the other nationalists and struggle icons will play a lesser role to him," he said.

In August, Zanu-PF claimed that Mugabe had been picked as the tourism ambassador for the global event, but it later backtracked after the Spanish-based organisation denied that there was such a title available.

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu

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