He doesn't do this back home. Zimbabweans never get to see this jolly, engaging side of their president. It was an effective public relations exercise, and it softened the perceptions of several among what started as a highly critical audience.
When he does use humour at home, it is to instil fear. As in February when he wisecracked to Kudakwashe Bhasikitai (Shona for "basket"), one of his provincial governors, that he was "in the wrong basket." Bhasikiti could only gibber in terror. He knew he had just been sacked from his job for supporting the "wrong" faction in Mugabe's ZANU(PF) party and had become an enemy of the state.
Or late last year when he was told that the party's constitution had been changed to remove a troublesome section. "Oh," said Mugabe. "I thought we just ignored it." So much for the bedrock of the party's principles.
And in 2013, when he was presented with the final copy of a new constitution that would have clipped his wings significantly, he made a few remarks about respecting the people's will and then summed up, laughing, with "…but I can't refuse to rule." The relevant sections of the new constitution remain in mothballs and Mugabe has vowed to stay in office until death.
While he was charming his audiences in South Africa and receiving the adulation of President Zuma's ministers, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace In Zimbabwe coincidentally issued a statement that revealed the terrifying reality of Mugabe's rule that Zimbabwe's people have had to live with for the last 35 years.
The Catholic Church is Zimbabwe's largest and most powerful church, and counts Mugabe among its members. The Commission is the country's longest-serving and most highly respected human rights organisation. It incurred the wrath of the Rhodesian government in the 1970's for exposing its security forces' atrocities, and has continued to speak out against the brutality of Mugabe's security services and party militias since independence in 1980.
A full-page statement published on Thursday in the country's independent newspapers commented on two by-elections held in March in constituencies in the Mount Darwin area north-east of Harare, and the Chirumanzu district in the country's midlands, both heavily controlled by ZANU(PF). The party was returned overwhelmingly.
The statement began by expressing its concern over "the `excellent' management and activation of electoral fear accrued since 2008," when Mugabe reversed a first round loss in presidential elections with a campaign of political terror that saw at least 200 murdered and thousands tortured. The commission's use of the word "excellent" is deliberately ironic.
It quoted an unnamed politician as telling voters before the election: "This time, no-one would be beaten , but if we lose, you know what we would do." In fact, the speaker was Emmerson Munangagwa, the vice-president and formerly a security minister held responsible for the organisation and mobilisation of campaigns of violence and chicanery since every election since 2000. He appears to have been unaware that a reporter from one of the independent papers was present.
Munangagwa went on to detail what he required: "Everyone will vote at their polling station and we know who will vote at which polling station. Headmen (senior traditional village officials) should lead their folks to the polling station while party chairmen at that level follow behind and watch that all their people vote. Those who choose to vote for those who are not known and have no history (the opposition), we will build a fence to shut them out."
These are ZANU(PF)'s established techniques for voting, mostly in rural areas. The voters arrive in groups at the polling station in a state of dread, that their every move is being watched, and are told that the village elders and party agents "know every voter's choice in their communities," the commission said.
Not mentioned in its report is the widespread practice of "assisted voting" where a policeman or party official stands over a voter suspected of being an opposition supporter while he or she is marking the ballot paper, under the pretext that the voter is illiterate. In some constituencies in the last election in 2013, 60 percent of voters were "assisted."
"Party political agents [ZANU(PF)] dominated the polling stations," the statement said of the by-elections. In many places, there were no independent election observers.
These were areas where "political slogans [ZANU(PF)] are known more than the Ten Commandments, more than the social teachings of the Church and more than the constitutional rights."
"Punishment is predicted whenever a `wrong' vote is detected in a ward," it went on. People suspected of being opposition supporters were threatened with isolation, eviction from their homes and farms, and denial of famine relief. Some were ordered to fill in forms detailing their political choices.
"Some of the voters we talked to said, `we are exposed'; `we are alone'," it said. "We saw some who were trembling as they tried to mark or put their marked ballots in ballot boxes. We noticed institutionalised fear because some people were saying, `I just want to dip my finger in the ink as evidence that I have voted.'
""These are some of the fearful incidents that have been maintained and are continuously recited in communities, especially whenever we have elections," the commission said. "We know you have been hurt over years and some of the wounds have continued to be opened with continuous threats and intimidations over political choices."
The by-elections were neither free nor fair, the commission concluded. Further, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, recently established in terms of the new constitution as an "independent" body, "cannot facilitate a free and fair election in the current context. No free will could be exercised in an environment of intimidation, fear and threats." It called for "a comprehensive national peace and reconciliation process which would remove people's fear and panic" – otherwise any further by-elections and the next national elections in 2018 "would be just a constitutional formality."
These were by-elections in unimportant rural communities where ZANU(PF) has been solidly entrenched for decades. The party faces no significant opposition since the MDC party of Morgan Tsvangirai has shattered in internal power struggles earlier this year. Yet ZANU(PF) exerted the full "management of electoral fear." This is not a government interested in ending the "panic and fear" of its people.Post published in: Opinions