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Mugabe: The odd man out in India

THERE is an image from the recently concluded India-Africa Summit, held in New Delhi, which tells multiple narratives, one of which is the subject of this article. It’s a group photo of the leaders who attended the Summit. In the picture, all, except one, are clad in colourful traditional Indian attire. That exception is Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, who stands out from the crowd in his tailored grey suit.
Oozing from this image are many stories, stories of India-Africa relations, narratives of dependence, narratives of cooperation and new partnerships and many more. But one story that sticks out too, as does its main character, who stands out as the odd man out in the picture. It is the story of Robert Mugabe, the man who refuses to conform, the story of a single-minded, defiant, stubborn, for some heroic, character with a streak of rebelliousness but who, simultaneously, is also a reluctant and unsure rebel.
Maybe he missed the dress code memo, writes Sean Mclain, blogger on the Wall Street Journal –India edition, trying to make sense of Mugabe’s odd choice of dress in a photo-call where everyone else was wearing local Indian attire http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/10/29/in-india-african-leaders-sport-modi-kurtas-but-not-everyone-gets-the-memo/
This type of group photo in local traditional dress is, apparently, not an uncommon feature at Asian Summits. It is likely the suggestion was that all leaders put on traditional Indian apparel for the photo opportunity – when in Rome, do as the Romans do, as the cliché goes. All the African leaders, including Jacob Zuma and King Mswati, went the distance and sported Indian attire. But not, Robert Mugabe who stuck to his suit. And so it is that in the picture he stands out like the kid who forgets his blazer and pair of trousers for the group photo shoot at school. Did his memo get lost in the post? Or did Mugabe simply choose to do it his way?
Most likely the latter. Even if there was a suggestion or even an offer the likelihood is Mugabe would have said, thanks but no, thanks, politely, of course as he is renowned to bear the manner of the perfect English gentleman. Because he is Mugabe and Mugabe simply doesn’t do conforming. It’s his way or nothing. And it’s not an old age thing. That’s who he is.Advertisement

Those of us who follow Zimbabwean news more closely were not surprised by the image of Mugabe as the odd one out in the group photo. Rather interestingly, his official spokesperson, who speaks through a weekly column, called The Other Side, written under the pseudonym, Nathaniel Manheru in the state-run daily, The Herald, had already prepared us for this moment.
Writing last in last Saturday’s issue, Nathaniel Manheru mocked the British establishment for kowtowing to the Chinese during the recent State visit to Britain by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping http://www.herald.co.zw/china-creating-facts-on-british-ground/ In that article, the subject of dress code was carefully inserted, preparing us for Mugabe’s refusal to conform in New Dehli. Manheru chided the British for trying too hard to please the Chinese, saying Royals and Government officials went out of their way to wear “Chinese red” and “banished” their “Royal blue”.
“And throughout the visit, the Chinese stuck to their dark suits popularised by the late Chairman Mao. They would not concede ground, even sartorially”, said Manheru, praising the Chinese for refusing to conform to the dress code of their British hosts. Instead, said Manheru, it was the members of the British establishment who “adopted Chinese red” in an effort to ingratiate themselves with their visitors.
And then Manheru reminded us of how his boss, Mugabe, had also refused to kowtow to the British when he had his State visit to Britain some years back. Says Manheru:
“I recall a big row some years back when our President paid a similar State visit [to Britain]. Our Mission tried its “damnedst” to insert President Mugabe into British sartorial banqueting tradition: white tie, black, tailed coat that recalled Dickens’ comical Guppy. He snubbed the recommendation, much to the chagrin of our grovelling diplomats who turned out for dinner all British, in dress and deed, in the process cutting perfect parodying effigies representing grotesquery of the culturally beaten and smitten”
The Zimbabwean diplomats had prepared a British-style dress code for Mugabe but he had refused to wear it. He would not wear the tailed coat. Instead, he chose to wear his usual suit. The irony, of course, is that there is nothing that is traditional to Zimbabwe about the suit that he would have worn on that occasion. The suit that he wore would probably have been tailored in Savile Row, that iconic London street of high-end British tailors, known for their sartorial excellence.
“We can’t be masters for as long as we exhibit such psychological vassalage. Those that fight masterdom, revolt all the way, to become a new people” says Manheru, without any hint of irony. “We have to learn to create new facts on the ground, if ever we are to rebuild.”
Fighting talk, indeed. You wouldn’t imagine that on the occasion of State events, such as Parliament’s opening, Mugabe’s Government mimics everything British. The entire procession, all the traditions and protocols, resemble those of Westminster – including hordes of policemen on horseback, clad in colonial-style breeches, a vintage, open-top Rolls Royce, from the colonial times. Judges of the superior courts will be there too, donning odd horse-hair wigs in the sweltering heat. The chiefs proudly wear their uniforms, relics from the colonial era.
It seems this fighting talk against “psychological vassalage” that Manheru speaks about is forgotten on these State occasions, 35 years after independence. If Mugabe is serious about challenging “psychological vassalage” how is it that 35 years after independence Zimbabwe still apes the British and colonial ceremonial traditions and customs in such blatant fashion? Refusing to conform in private dinners but happy to conform in public processions? Sounds like a contradiction.
But this is not surprising. It’s a hate/love relationship with the former colonial power – a mixture of colliding emotions. Government Ministers will scream at the British at public ceremonies, using all the nasty words, but afterwards they will jump into their British cars – the Range Rovers and Land Rover Discoveries, if they are not hopping into their German-made Mercedes Benz luxury cars. And down the pecking, the MPs and ruling party officials prefer, not the locally-assembled Mazdas, but the big, fuel-guzzlers from that very American of institutions, Ford. It is an ever-present contradiction, which baffles the ordinary people.
But in his mind, Mugabe will also have been making an important statement to the Indians – saying that yes, we can work together, but you will not force us to conform to your ways. The issue of dress code might seem innocuous to most people, but to Mugabe the symbolism matters a great deal. He does not believe limited economic power must mean kowtowing to the powerful.
In this regard, he finds himself in a lonely lane, isolated from the rest of the African leaders who will ask how high when instructed to jump by the more powerful. Mugabe has on occasions criticised particularly the former French colonies, which he believes are still heavily controlled from Paris. Thus what might look like stubbornness to critics, is also applauded by his admirers as a mark of self-respect. For them, the symbolism is that he will not compromise his principles for the sake of enticements, that he refuses to be bullied.
All of which sounds good and noble, except that it then looks rather vacuous when seen against the fact that when he and his family require treatment, they will hop onto the next flight to seek help in the Far East, leaving his own inadequate medical facilities. Or to send his kid to study abroad despite being the proud Chancellor of all state universities in Zimbabwe. In other words, the heroic principles-based rhetoric is not always matched by conduct in real life. It is these contradictions that baffle people and in most societies there would also be an outcry if Government leaders chose to educate their children outside the country or to seek medical treatment beyond borders.
Observing the group photo from the India-Africa Summit, and the fact that Mugabe is out of sync with the dress code that is common among all participants, I was reminded of literature that explores his character from early childhood experiences. “Aloneness and the inability to co-operate are the dominant features in all the descriptions of Mugabe’s childhood”, says Heidi Holland in an unofficial biography of Mugabe, an extract of which appeared in the British Independent in 2011 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/young-mugabe-the-making-of-a-despot-852789.html
And one of his relatives who grew up with him from an early age, James Dambaza Chikerema, marked out stubbornness as one of the defining aspects of his character.
“… if anyone argued with him while herding, Chikerema remembered Robert simply detaching himself from the group, selecting his own beasts from the herd and driving them into the hills far away from the other boys. He never sought reconciliation or compromise in an effort to fit in with those around him” says the Independent.
And the last part of that statement finds perfect illustration in that picture at the India-Africa Summit. Mugabe is not fitting in in terms of dress code. He chose his own way. It is not in his nature to “fit in with those around him”. He was refusing to concede ground sartorially, to use the words of Manheru, even it meant sticking out in the picture like a sore thumb in a Western-style suit.
Taking Nathaniel Manheru’s pre-emptive piece from last week, his refusal to conform was well in line with the notion that the Chinese had stuck to their fashion sense rather than seek to conform to British dress code for dinner the week before, just as he had also done on the occasion of his own dinner in Britain in 1994.
Yet back home, when Parliament opens, there will be a long, colourful and extravagant procession, complete with police in breeches, riding horses and judges in white horse-hair wigs, in true colonial style tradition. And Mugabe will, of course, be in a smart suit, probably straight from the tailors of Savile Row or similar.
But when all is said and done, that image encapsulates the image of Mugabe: to his critics, he is a stubborn old man, yet to his admirers, he is a principled man who refuses to follow the tide.

This article was first published on www.alexmagaisa.com Follow on Twitter @wamagaisa. Contact Alex at  wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk