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Tuesday, December 1, 1998 Published at 16:56 GMT


Meeting Mr Mugabe

Mr Mugabe: Still steely

Southern Africa Correspondent Jeremy Vine interviewed Robert Mugabe earlier this year in Harare. Here he recalls their meeting:


Robert Mugabe talks to Jeremy Vine (March 1998)
They made us stand in a line when the President was walking down the corridor, and as we heard his steps and all shuffled into position, the producer and the cameramen and so on, I thought: I know exactly how this is going to go.

Robert Mugabe, in the middle of a crisis the like of which he hasn't come near to experiencing in all his years at the top, will stroll in, I imagined, and look straight through us.


[ image: Jeremy Vine]
Jeremy Vine
As if he can't believe we actually thought we could compete for attention with his in-tray.

I threw a glance around the office we were in. Green wallpaper. A large desk. Mr Mugabe's working room - Zimbabwe's equivalent of the oval office.

His press people had allowed us in early to set up lights and microphones, and we'd rearranged all his furniture, moved out tables, taken pictures down and closed the curtains.

And coming down the corridor, right now, it struck me, is a president who, ever since he took power in 1980, has seemed hell bent on stopping his world being turned upside down.

Mr Mugabe wants his tenure to go on forever despite everything, it sometimes appears. He will throw the biggest wobbly I have ever seen, I thought, when he comes through that door and finds a bunch of broadcasters have done what all the opposition parties in Zimbabwe have failed to do: forced him to clear his desk.

Family values

Robert Mugabe is 74 and something of an enigma. He's recently married a woman called Grace, who's 34 and who's born him his two children.

The president is heavily into family values and has given strident speeches attacking homosexuals.

He has not as yet made a speech attacking himself, despite the fact that his two children by Grace were born while his first wife Sally was still alive. She died after a long illness and remains something of a heroine in Zimbabwe; adored for her charity work and lack of pretension.


[ image:  ]
Grace, though, is not popular, something to do with a sense of self-importance and a lack of charity work, so Mr Mugabe is not just being blamed for his choice of economic policies, but for his choice of wife as well. The corridors of power can never have felt so lonely to him.

His steps drew closer, then he appeared at the door. And the first thing that happened was that the wobbly wasn't. There was no rage at the way his office had been dismantled, not even impatience - just a genial meaningless joke, in a quiet voice, something about "what have you done, I don't even recognise the place."

And for a man whose presidency could be about to end in tears, he was remarkably clear-eyed as we introduced ourselves.

Mr Mugabe may be clinging on by his fingernails, but they remain rather well manicured. He is keeping his cool.

'Sharp as a razor'

We sat down and I asked him questions: questions about his management of Zimbabwe, about why he'd not seen this economic collapse coming even though his profligate spending in the 80s was the main cause of questions about whether he appreciated that many of his compatriots wanted him out of the office we were sitting in, were disgusted at the rises in tax and prices, and thought he'd totally lost touch.

The president's composure was notable. But he may well be in denial.


[ image:  ]
Mr Mugabe is still as sharp as a razor, and you can see every syllable of every question being processed in the instant before he answers, but how extraordinary for him to say, when asked whether he knew how unpopular he'd become, that most people actually wanted him to stay - what they were really complaining about were his ministers, who'd brought in policies that he might now have to reserve or drop and how remarkable that when he was asked whether he would resign, after nearly 18 years at the head of what is effectively a one-party state, he replied: "Resign? Why should I resign? You only resign when things have got so bad you feel you can't go on...it would be a sadistic way to behave."

Body language

He stressed the word. The point is, things have got that bad, and maybe the President's body language acknowledged it.


[ image: Something of an enigma even after 18 years in power]
Something of an enigma even after 18 years in power
As he asked why on earth he should go, he pushed himself back into his office chair, slumping down slightly, and intertwining his fingers in front of his chest, as if subconsciously putting distance between himself and a response he must have known was otherworldly.

The guerrilla leader was here though: the man who staunchly refused to accept compromise agreements that would have seen the old Rhodesia only modified, not revolutionised.

Mr Mugabe's intransigence in the late 70s eventually got him everything he wanted, with the white minority regime of Ian Smith flushed down the wastepipe of history as independence came the president is showing that same intransigence now.

When I asked whether it hurt him to send troops against his own people, when they rioted in protest at the hardship they were suffering, he simply said, "No, why should it?"

The answer would be that the last time Mr Mugabe used armed forces it was to free his people, not tear gas them: but he is on a new agenda now, fighting for himself, staying in office despite his people, not for them, and however out of touch he may be, his is steely.

When we'd finished we slid the sofa in his office back into position and replaced the pictures and finally he was straightening up the items on his desk, before shaking us firmly by the hand and showing us out.

And then we were exiting down the corridor he'd entered from, and I wondered when Robert Mugabe would walk along it for the last time, and whether, sooner than he expects perhaps, that big desk will be cleared without his permission.



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Meeting Mr Mugabe

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