Chirpy Mugabe plays to the gallery and lays into Blair

Robert Mugabe has launched a withering attack on Tony Blair over his handling of Zimbabwe’s land reform programme, declaring: “Blair, Blair, who was he? Just the prime minister of Britain. I’m president of Zimbabwe.”

The 91-year-old, who was on a rare state visit to South Africa this week, spoke off the cuff in a 35-minute monologue that varied from pointed to rambling to witty. His speech appeared to charm a room full of ministers and journalists, at times provoking outbursts of laughter.

Mugabe has long accused Blair’s Labour government of reneging on promises of funding land redistribution in Zimbabwe made under the 1979 Lancaster House agreement. Critics, however, say it is an attempt to shift blame from his supporters’ violent seizures of white-owned farms that crippled Zimbabwe.

“We want peace, and peace does not mean you must have a lion’s share and others have a baboon’s share,” he said. “No, you are all together and let’s be equal. Inequality can breed other problems in the future.

“We did not send away whites. We took away land in accordance with what the British and ourselves had agreed upon, Margaret Thatcher’s government. That … land shall be taken from the farmers and be given to the Zimbabweans. So, it was all constitutional.

“If Blair’s England was no longer willing to pay for the land, should we have just folded our hands and said: ‘Oh, Lord almighty, I pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost?’ Goodness me, no!”

One of Zimbabwe’s major farming exports is now tobacco, the president noted. “We don’t smoke much of it. The Chinese smoke most of it. My health minister advises against smoking, but he doesn’t advise against growing.”

Political theatre
Mugabe has been condemned for orchestrating political violence and rigging elections, and remains under European Union and United States sanctions. But South Africa rolled out the red carpet for him and his wife Grace, greeting them with a brass band and 21-gun salute at the colonial-era Union Buildings. President Jacob Zuma introduced him as a “dear brother”.

The host was then reduced to a mere bit part as Mugabe put on a piece of political theatre reminiscent of a generation of post-independence African leaders who, irrespective of their moral standing, could deploy an easy charisma and informal manner seldom seen in today’s scripted, stage-managed era. He even parodied his notoriety as an autocrat.

“Thank you for the publicity you have given me, those of you who have focused on me as a real dictator,” he said. “A dictator who never cut the throat of [Rhodesian prime minister] Ian Smith the first time he came.”

The world’s oldest leader left the stage, one hand clasping Zuma’s, the other raised in a fist. “Amandla!” he cried, playing to the gallery to the last. – ©?Guardian News & Media 2015

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David Smith
David Smith is the Guardian's Washington DC bureau chief. From 2010 to 2015 Smith was the Africa correspondent for The Guardian for which he was based in Johannesburg, South Africa
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