So it came as a surprise to Zimbabwe’s main opposition when they discovered that President Robert Mugabe has the manners of a Victorian English gentleman.
The Movement for Democratic Change, led by prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, is more than three months into a fraught power-sharing agreement with Mugabe’s Zanu(PF)party.
The MDC has been criticised for taking a naive approach towards Mugabe, who has retained control of most key ministries in Zimbabwe. The MDC’s calls for the removal of the central bank governor, Gideon Gono, and the attorney general, Johannes Tomana, have been flatly refused by the 85-year-old president.
Biti’s account was echoed by journalist Heidi Holland, author of Dinner with Mugabe, who conducted the first in-depth interview with him for nearly 30 years. “When you get there, he’s just immaculate and understated,” she said. “His whole environment is redolent of his attempts to be a British gentleman.
“Mugabe grew up in the colonial era. One of the reasons he’s been so angry and is still so angry is that he’s been rejected by the British. When I interviewed him in 2007 he had tears in his eyes when he mentioned the British royal family. The real problem is that he tries to be both an African and a Brit and he can’t pull it off because they are parallel people and they despise each other.”
Speaking from Johannesburg, Holland said she believed the MDC had judged Mugabe’s character well. “I think Morgan Tsvangirai has played him very cleverly because he has treated him with respect, and if there’s one thing Mugabe wants it’s respect for what he describes as his sacrifice and suffering.”
She said that when Mugabe and Tsvangirai first had dinner together last summer “they got on famously”.
Questions remain over how much power Mugabe still exerts over the internal factions of Zanu(PF). A local news agency reported last week that Zanu(PF) had finally set up a committee to oversee the process of finding his successor. It said senior party members were shocked at the prospect of the end of the Mugabe era, which threatens to plunge the party into civil war.
He also responded to critics of the power-sharing agreement, who point to farm invasions and arrests of lawyers and journalists. “This is a coalition government,” he said. “Any coalition government, like any marriage, goes through its pendulum-setting period. You’re trying to find the balances. That’s what we’re going through at the present moment.”