Catching them young: The launch of Zanu-PF’s poll manifesto in Harare.
'We are here to correct the grave political mistake of 2008. We failed; we failed."
And in that rueful tone, last Friday Robert Mugabe began his campaign for five more years in power. For a campaign he says is "the fight of our lives", he has launched it on a drab note and will need to rediscover the old fire-in-the-belly Mugabe to energise his divided party.
The up-tempo radio adverts that played endlessly that morning, with Right Said Fred's Stand up for the Champions as backing track, had promised a lively rally. They even said there would be "full bar and catering".
But at the same venue where 33 years ago a raucous crowd of over 100 000 had welcomed Mugabe to his first rally after the country's guerrilla war, there were fights at one gate over free T-shirts, a stampede for free food and only token cheers for his speech.
This was the Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, a township Mugabe described at the rally as a "politically sacred place". This was the township where Zanu-PF was formed but where his party, as has been the case in most urban areas, has lost in every election since 2000.
On the podium Mugabe droned on, showing some stamina by standing there for an hour and a half. But he is going to need more than that to reignite his campaign, which he describes as "do or die".
Gifts for Mugabe
A group of musicians gave him gifts of three carvings of roosters, the party symbol synonymous with Mugabe. Earlier, the singers had performed with a large poster depicting a younger-looking Mugabe behind them.
There were models there too. The leggy finalists of the Miss Zimbabwe Global beauty pageant were lined up near the stage, wearing nervy smiles under green "Vote Zanu-PF" caps.
Well-designed pamphlets were handed out, showing the party's campaign theme: "Indigenise, empower, develop."
The young people pictured on the pamphlet declare: "I am an African, not an African't."
Back on the podium, once in a while the plucky Mugabe of old popped up.
"Gays," he roared at one point. The crowd stirred with anticipation, waiting to hear what witty new barb Mugabe had about homosexuals this time. "You want to marry? OK. I challenge you: go ahead and marry, but if you don't make a baby in a year, I may have to arrest you."
Roars of laughter spread all the way to the trees at the back, near where crowds were still fighting over Zanu-PF T-shirts and caps.
On Tsvangirai and the economy
Aware that he is once again leading a divided party into elections, he pleaded with his supporters to campaign for his victory. He knew many had not campaigned for him in 2008, he said, adding: "A loss for me is a loss for you."
There is a lot of rallying of troops needed, and Mugabe is doing his best. "This is the fight of our lives, a battle for survival," he said, pounding the podium, but only gently.
There was the inevitable dig at rival Morgan Tsvangirai's scandals. "These people are only about chasing after different women; that's all they do."
Then there is the business about the Zim dollar, the one issue that makes every Zimbabwean wake up in a cold sweat and one that every candidate should really avoid.
"We cannot use the US dollar forever," he began. "We will have to look at ways of bringing back our currency sometime in the future."
There were uncomfortable murmurs. Mugabe appeared to be thinking out loud.
Should we; should we not? What if we backed our currency with all our gold, he asked; wouldn't it be strong enough? Maybe not now, of course, but sometime in the future. Maybe we will talk to [Gideon] Gono, the Reserve Bank governor, he said. More murmurs.
Just as Mugabe was tapering off into his final words, pleading with supporters to campaign peacefully, a muscular Zanu-PF militant started swinging a stick at people trying to leave. "The president has not finished talking yet. Go back."
Mugabe was finishing off: "Peace begins with you; it begins with me; it begins with all of us." And his muscular supporter at the gate just kept on swinging.
It is no secret what Zanu-PF's campaign is about: in the 108 pages of the party's election manifesto, the word "indigenisation" appears at least 156 times.
Zanu-PF is not coy about this, declaring: "Only the indigenisation and people's empowerment reform programme can meet the goals of the people. There is no other alternative."
The party has already been widely criticised for its empowerment exercise, but it plans an expanded and even more radical approach to the crusade. Under its plan, 1 138 companies across 12 different sectors would be targeted over the next five years. The party believes the takeovers would realise $7.3‑billion in assets for the government.
The value of these assets will be used as security against borrowings, which, Zanu-PF believes, will ultimately create total value of $29.2‑billion. The money will be used to rebuild the country's infrastructure, support agriculture, and fund education and health.
By Zanu-PF's reckoning, its indigenisation programme will solve virtually all the country's problems. It will fund everything from agriculture and youth projects to housing and roads, and will even create an "entertainment industry with international quality".
For a party that has long traded in stale struggle slogans, parts of the manifesto are surreal. There is a promise to set up the "IndigeNex", a stock market where locals can trade shares in "100% indigenous companies" via an automated platform that uses mobile applications.
Sanctions on Zimbabwe
In another section, Zanu-PF for the first time puts a figure to the economic impact of Western sanctions on Zimbabwe.
That figure is $42‑billion, the party claims, comprising lost donor support and foreign investment, loan withdrawals and the higher premiums on commercial loans that Zimbabwean businesses had to pay due to the country's high risk profile.
But the real Zanu-PF inevitably bubbles to the surface as the manifesto wanders back into more familiar territory.
It reminds voters of "the enduring and unforgettable fact that it is Zanu-PF which liberated Zimbabwe" and is "a solemn call from the wailing bones that lie in many places known and others yet to be discovered".
Even land, long a centrepiece of the party's campaigns, is now also wrapped in the new indigenisation mantra.
The party has "indigenised" 12.1‑million hectares of land previously held by "3 500 beneficiaries of colonialism and illegal and racist Rhodesian rule".
In their place, the party claims to have resettled 276 600 families and created over a million jobs.
"Today land is the most indigenised resource in Zimbabwe, with 91% now owned by the indigenous population," it says.
Call to urban voters
There is a direct call to urban voters to back the party: "Urban voters – especially those on the growing housing waiting lists – have a clear and urgent reason to vote for Zanu-PF to ensure that they benefit from the indigenisation of land from peri-urban farms that have been earmarked for massive housing development."
Even more familiar territory is the long list of scapegoats. For instance, Zimbabwe's foreign debt of $10‑billion is all Ian Smith's fault.
"[The debt's] unjust origins date to a $700‑million debt incurred by Ian Smith's illegal Rhodesian regime, ironically from some Western countries … to enable Smith and his racist cabal to fund their brutality and atrocities during the liberation struggle."
Debt must be cancelled "to redress [its] unjust origins". Without a hint of irony, Zanu-PF says it introduced the US dollar to defend the country against imperialism.
"On 29 January 2009, Zanu-PF introduced the multicurrency system to protect the people from the runaway hyperinflation that had become uncontrollable and the effects of the collapse of the Zim dollar that had been precipitated by the runaway hyperinflation, which had become a potent tool for illegal regime change."
The "collapse of the Zim dollar was a shameful development not worthy of celebration," Zanu-PF concedes, but it was "poetic justice, given that the same US dollar had been used to kill the Zim dollar by merchants of regime change".
The Zimbabwe dollar would only be reintroduced "at an appropriate time when the economy has reasonably recovered and stabilised", the party said.
Exhausted, improperly dressed Mugabe
As soon as President Robert Mugabe alighted from his black bulletproof Mercedes-Benz limousine at Zimbabwe Grounds in the old township of Highfield in Harare last Friday, it became evident that age is finally catching up with him.
Mugabe (89) held on to the door of his car for balance, while his chief of protocol, Munyaradzi Kajese, walked very close to him, occasionally lending him support when he appeared to be losing balance.
After struggling to get on to the stage, Mugabe, who was flanked by his wife Grace and Vice-President Joice Mujuru, appeared to be uninterested in the event, spending much time with his eyes shut and his head resting in his right hand.
When it was finally his moment to address the huge crowd, which had turned out to witness the Zanu-PF campaign and manifesto launch, a clearly exhausted Mugabe resorted to leaning on the podium for balance.
Embarrassingly, he began his address wearing his cap the wrong way round, unsettling ministry of information and protocol officers. The launch was being beamed live on national television and there were hordes of foreign journalists and photographers covering the event.
After caucusing for a few minutes, a director in the ministry of information, Regis Chikowore, went on to the stage and told Mugabe's aide-de-camp that the president was improperly dressed.
The aide-de-camp hesitated for a moment before taking a step forward and telling the president: "Shefu, hanzi gadzirisai cap yenyu iri paside, saka hamusi kubuda mushe muTV, (Sir, please fix your cap, you are not appearing nicely on television)."
Although he was whispering, his words were heard by many people nearby.
A series of blunders
Mugabe promptly fixed his cap, but his speech was incoherent and slurred – a far cry from the sharp, eloquent man Zimbabwe has known over the years.
Rather uncharacteristically, he also made several mistakes as he ventured into his usual lessons about the liberation struggle, among them that the National Democratic Party was formed in 1977.
He noticed his error and said the year was 1967 before finally recalling it was actually formed on January 1 1960.
After a series of blunders, Mugabe signed off with yet another when he mistook a pamphlet that he was holding for his party's 108-page manifesto, waving it in his hands to indicate he had officially launched the manifesto.
Mujuru and his wife quickly corrected him.
Some in the crowd saw the funny side of Mugabe's blunders, but for others these were enough signs that Zanu-PF's number one candidate is not the fiery leader he once was.