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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 20:49 GMT


World: Africa

The real Commonwealth Summit

Mugabe: All smiles as he is greeted by his host, South Africa's President Mbeki

The BBC's Greg Barrow looks back on the Commonwealth summit in Durban

The summit agenda aimed to highlight the heavy issues of "globalisation and people-centred development" - and that did not sound like captivating headline material for the journalists.


Robert Mugabe: "You are talking the language of the homosexuals"
But luckily Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe had been invited.

And over the next few days it was what happened off the floor of the Commonwealth summit which continued to make the headlines.

Outside the executive sessions, a simmering row developed between the British and the Zimbabwean delegations.

The London incident


[ image: Inside the conference hall, Mugabe (left) looked jovial]
Inside the conference hall, Mugabe (left) looked jovial
Robert Mugabe came to Durban still seething after an embarrassing incident during a recent visit to London.

On one of his annual shopping trips to the British capital, he was accosted by a gay rights activist, who attempted to make a citizen's arrest, accusing Mr Mugabe of human rights abuse and homophobia.

The president blamed the British Government which he said was made up of "gay gangsters", and hinted at a possible conspiracy to sully his good name.

By the time Mr Mugabe arrived in Durban, he was a time bomb waiting for his fuse to be lit, and Commonwealth observers did not have to wait long.

On the first day of the summit, President Mugabe was rudely hijacked while quietly eating a beef curry in the corner of a lunch reception hosted by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku.

"Was the president satisfied by the apology proffered by the British Government after the unfortunate incident in London?" one of the members of the British press party asked.

Mr Mugabe put down his knife and fork and turned to his questioner. It was the cue he had been waiting for.

What followed was a tirade against the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and an exposition of the finer points of Mr Mugabe's view of homosexuals, who he has in the past described as "lower than dogs and pigs.".

Mr Blair, he said, was the head of a "gay government" in a "United Gay Kingdom".

He went on to describe the British leader as aloof, stand-offish, and more right wing than his Conservative Party predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The crowd of journalists around Mr Mugabe pressed forward, his beef curry went cold, and the questions came thick and fast as he snarled back like an angry leopard being bated by a pack of hyenas.

Stiff upper lips


[ image: Heading for trouble: Blair and wife Cherie arrive at the summit]
Heading for trouble: Blair and wife Cherie arrive at the summit
The British response was muted. At a news conference shortly after Mr Mugabe's outburst, Mr Blair's press secretary dodged the questions.

"Is Mr Blair the head of a gay government?" one journalist asked.

"No," came the reply, "I can assure you that is not true."

The next day, Mr Mugabe had another dig at his British counterpart, declaring him a traitor to the socialist principles of the Labour Party.

Warming to the task of dealing with an increasingly excitable media pack he developed a new response to awkward questions.

"You are talking the language of homosexuals," he would say, dismissing their enquiries, and moving on to the next question.

Mr Blair, now increasingly embarrassed by the furore surrounding the Zimbabwean president, finally showed his cards by referring to the unreasonable behaviour of some Commonwealth leaders from what he called "the eccentric end of the market".

This was about as far as the British were prepared to go. Stiff upper lips firmly in place, they ignored Mr Mugabe's heckling, and did not even bat an eyelid when the Zimbabwean leader refused to turn up for a Remembrance Day service attended by almost every other head of state.

There was a declaration issued at the end of the retreat, but its worthy pronouncements on globalisation and the negative impact of protectionism on developing nations could hardly compete with the cut and thrust of a Mugabe versus Blair confrontation which rivalled the weekend's heavyweight boxing title fight between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis.

No hangovers

Without Mr Mugabe, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting would have been a much more pedestrian affair. It had its moments, but it was not what can be termed an "eventful" summit.

As the Commonwealth leaders depart they will take with them memories of a hot and humid Durban, a few days of useful discussion on the role of their organisation in the 21st Century, and an interesting little cardboard box packed with free goodies from the International Conference Centre organisers.

Inside, they would find a packet of mints, some paper tissues, a ballpoint pen, and five capsules of a South African drug called "Essentiale" which guarantees to relieve even the sorest of heads after a night of drinking on the plane home.



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