The former liberation hero, who is Africa’s oldest leader, is now
shunned by many for presiding over the collapse of a once prosperous
nation while lavishing his family with cosy lifestyles.
This disparity has been highlighted by Mugabe’s plans to celebrate his
birthday with a lavish feast on February 28 in the farming town of
Chinhoyi in his home province of Mashonaland West.
The youth league of the veteran leader’s Zanu-PF party held a
fund-raiser earlier this month and scraped together $110 000 with
promises to nearly double the amount.
The appeal, at a time when nearly half of Zimbabweans depend on food
aid, also netted 80 cattle, 70 goats, 12 pigs, dozens of loaves of
bread and five tonnes of corn-meal for the birthday menu.
An intellectual who initially embraced Marxism, Mugabe was widely
praised when he won the election that ended white minority rule in
1980, a few weeks after Zimbabwe gained independence.
But over the years he has lost the friendship of former allies in the
West and been strongly criticised for his economic mismanagement and
alleged human rights abuses.
"He has metamorphosed from what he was in the 1980s to what he is now,"
Edred Masunungure, a University of Zimbabwe analyst, told AFP.
"It appears there are ostentatious dimensions to his lifestyle which
were not present during his first two decades in office and are
inconsistent with the state of our economy."
But for Masunungure, Mugabe is not in the same league of some notorious
African dictators such as former Zaire leader Mobuto Sese Seko, who
pillaged the Democratic Republic of Congo to support his extravagant
Mugabe’s house is in the plush Borrowdale suburb of Harare, home to the
country’s rich and famous. His youngest son attends a top primary
His second wife Grace, dubbed the "first shopper" instead of first lady
and Mugabe’s junior by some 40 years, has made headlines for displaying
a penchant for retail therapy on overseas trips.
Grace Mugabe was more recently in the news for allegedly assaulting a
photographer during a trip to Hong Kong, where Britain’s Sunday Times
reported that the couple had bought a $5,8-million property.
"He has changed from the hero idolised by many to an egocentric ruler
who has developed a cult personality rewarding his cronies and those
close to him," said Takavafira Zhou, a political scientist from
Masvingo state university.
"If he had retired in the late 1980s he would be one of Africa’s greatest sons."
Born on February 21, 1924, at Kutama Mission north-west of the capital Harare, Mugabe qualified as a teacher at the age of 17.
He took his first political paces when he enrolled at Fort Hare
University in South Africa, where he met many of Southern Africa’s
future black nationalist leaders.
Mugabe then resumed teaching, moving to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia)
and Ghana, the home of his first wife Sally, before returning to what
was then Southern Rhodesia in 1960.
As a member of various nationalist parties banned by the white-minority
government, he was detained with other leaders in 1964 and spent the
next 10 years in prison camps or jail.
In his early years Mugabe was credited with improving health and
education for the black majority: services that later collapsed as his
rule descended into hyperinflation and economic ruin.
Mugabe last week swore in his rival Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister
as part of a unity government that is bidding to pull the country out
The decision, after months of delays and an elections fiasco, marked
the first time that Mugabe has loosened his 29-year stranglehold on