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Aging Mugabe still thunders at foes, but can he really rule forever?

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe greets the crowd upon his arrival for the official opening of the Zanu PF Congress in Bulawayo, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011. Loyalists of the Zimbabwe president's party are gathering for a party conference in preparation next year's election.

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe – Dancing erratically and singing passionately outside the conference hall, an elderly woman named Grace anticipates the arrival of the president. While many people refer to him simply as a “tyrant” and a “dictator,” she calls him “our liberation hero, Mr. R.G. Mugabe.”

His smiling face is stitched onto her outfit. She sings his name and throws her body from side to side close to the edge of the red carpet. “He is our savior, he freed us from the imperialists,” she says, referring to Britain, the old colonial power.

Suddenly she spots “His Excellency” walking toward the auditorium to open the congress of his party, ZANU-PF, where he is confirmed as a candidate for elections, expected next year. Grace joins the crowd that is following him – a mix of loyal supporters, loyal civil servants and loyal security guards.

Eventually, seven hours after he was due to begin, Mugabe delivers his speech.

Familiar rhetoric
It suddenly becomes obvious where Grace has picked up her language. Her leader defines Zimbabwe’s enemies as “the imperialists,” too – in this case, the American and European powers involved in the NATO campaign in Libya, a “bloody tragedy” motivated by “oil and reconstruction projects.” Only “a dead imperialist” is a good one, he says.

It is a long speech, and some of the slogans about the West are familiar. The apparent evil of the white world, particularly Britain, has formed part of the rhetoric of Robert Mugabe for his whole political life. The ZANU-PF party congress started Thursday with Mugabe’s appearance and continues until Saturday.

Delivering his speech wearing a bright red suit, Mugabe throws his fist around, switching between languages as he works through the address.  But the country and the world beyond the heavily armed gates has evolved much faster than the president’s favorite lines.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

Supporters of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe are seen before his arrival for the official opening of the Zanu PF Congress in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011.

For one, Mugabe’s closest enemies are no longer in foreign capitals, but a few blocks from the presidential state house in Harare.

Though he remains an autocrat in control of most organs of the state, the disputed results of elections in 2008 forced him into an uneasy power-sharing agreement with his party’s rival, the Movement for Democratic Change, led by the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. “They are a party for women,” said one delegate, emulating part of Mugabe’s speech, though he then named the older enemy, Britain, as Zimbabwe’s true foe.

With school choirs singing celebratory songs in the background, many ZANU-PF supporters are keen to highlight Zimbabwe’s successes. Literacy rates are relatively high; the economy is growing as natural resources are exploited; the terrifying days of 2008, when hyper-inflation forced the economy into free-fall, have passed. But in the run-down townships a few miles from the conference hall, it is clear that extreme poverty and disease haunt many parts of Zimbabwe.

Divisions among the ranks
There, many people no longer accept the president’s claim that they are suffering the destructive impact of international sanctions; some do not believe his proposed solution of ensuring that black Zimbabweans own 51 percent of foreign companies based within the country. And many are concerned that under Mugabe the country will never be far from another explosion of violence.

There are rumors of divisions at the congress – unheard of at previous meetings. Independent newspapers claim that delegates are worried about the ability of the 87-year-old president to fight an election campaign and they have been plotting to find a successor. One loyal supporter rolls his eyes when I mention such concerns. He is frustrated by the very suggestion, but his response suggests that it is one that he is used to hearing. Another senior supporter calls Mugabe “the fittest public figure in Zimbabwe.”

That may be a wildly exaggerated assessment for a man who appears to nod off during some meetings, but he seemed to be healthy as he stormed into the conference hall to speak for more than two hours. However, that will not have convinced some of his opponents. They claim that the octogenarian’s frequent trips to Singapore are not to visit his daughter, as his people claim, but for medical treatment.

The now banned South African Nandos "Last Dictator Standing" ad. The ad was deemed offensive by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and his supporters - so out of fear of violent reprisals, the ad was pulled from the airwaves.

'Last dictator standing' ad
Then there’s one unexpected issue that has cropped up as a last-minute talking point on the fringes of the congress – a controversial fast food commercial that many see as a humiliating attack on the president. When I mention it to one delegate, he gulps and warns me that “‘Nando’s’ is a dirty word here.”

We’re talking, in hushed tones, about a TV commercial for the restaurant chain that stars an actor depicting Mugabe as “the last dictator standing.” To the soundtrack ‘Those Were The Days’, the look-a-like recalls the president during happier times – laughing uncontrollably during cozy moments with the dictators of the world – playing in the sand with Saddam Hussein and sharing the microphone with Mao Tse-tung at a raucous karaoke evening. After the reminiscing, a lonely “Mugabe” is seen sitting mournfully at the head of a presidential dining table set for his fallen foreign friends. “No one should ever have to eat alone” the voiceover guy tells us, with the final pitch for a family-size portion of fast-food chicken. 

The ad, broadcast across southern Africa, was pulled because of fears of attacks on Nando’s restaurants in Harare, but only after raising many laughs and a few questions about Mugabe’s future after this year of revolution.

For Mugabe, heading into a likely election year, the Arab Spring simply teaches Zimbabwe to beware of the West and to consolidate sovereignty. His opponents worry what that might mean. They believe that the pace of democratic reform must accelerate, and the president must accept the need for change.

But Grace, his singing, dancing elderly supporter outside, believes “He must rule forever.”

According to the feverish rhetoric of the Congress, there can be no Zimbabwe without him.