HARARE – Zimbabwe was abuzz yesterday after President Robert Mugabe was given a “special massage chair” by his ministers, as part of gifts to mark his 93rd birthday celebrations.
The gift immediately raised eyebrows — sparking both mirth and frenzied debate, especially on social media, about its “meaning” and symbolism in light of Mugabe’s advanced age, declining health and his wife Grace’s recent controversial statement that he could rule from a wheelchair.
At the brief chair presentation ceremony in Harare, which was exclusively covered by State media, Mugabe was also given a 9-carat gold watch and pen by his lieutenants.
But it was the chair which set tongues wagging after the gaffe-prone State broadcaster, the ZBC, described the chair in its initial online reports as a “special mobile chair” — giving the erroneous impression that this was a wheelchair.
The much-derided broadcaster later changed this to reflect that this was “a massage chair”, although by then the damage had been done.
“The ministers presented president Mugabe with a special mobile chair. He was accompanied by the First Lady Grace Mugabe.
“ . . . Mugabe thanked the ministers for putting their heads together in coming up with the idea of the gift, saying the move is a manifestation of the team spirit which should always prevail at all times in the delivery of services to the nation,” the ZBC said in its initial report.
The only leader Zimbabweans have known since the country gained its independence from Britain in April 1980, Mugabe — who is also the world’s oldest elected leader — has in recent months appeared very tired and jaded.
This much became more evident during the nonagenarian’s 93rd birthday celebrations held in Matobo, Matabeleland South, in February.
While still very sharp mentally, especially given his age, Mugabe also struggled with his speech during his earlier annual birthday interview with the ZBC-TV, in which he frequently paused for breath in between his answers.
Meanwhile, and speaking during a rally at Murehwa Business Centre in 2015, Grace warned Zanu PF heavyweights that she was going to design a special wheelchair from which Mugabe would rule until he was 100 years old.
“We are going to create a special wheelchair for president Mugabe until he rules to 100 years because that is what we want. That is the people’s choice. We want a leader that respects us,” she said then.
And in February this year, the powerful first lady stunned Zanu PF supporters at a rally in Buhera when she said if Mugabe were to die, Zimbabweans would vote for his corpse.
She said Mugabe was irreplaceable, adding that Zimbabweans would find it difficult to get someone after him with his qualities.
“There can be miracles. If God decides that Mugabe should go and we put pictures of his corpse on the ballot paper, people will still vote for him and he will win the election,” she said.
Mugabe’s health has over the past 10 years or so become a major topic of discussion both at home and abroad.
This has been more so as the nonagenarian has in recent years been making regular visits to Singapore for medical checkups — amid wild speculation about his real state of health in the absence of official information.
In February this year, Mugabe once again visited his doctors in the Far East in what his office said then was a scheduled trip, even as this came on the back of another visit during the festive season for what was also described at the time as a routine checkup trip.
The nonagenarian has suffered a number of public mishaps in recent years, including his widely-reported tumble at Harare International Airport in February 2015, as he walked off a podium.
This happened after he had just finished addressing his supporters after returning from Ethiopia where he had gone to take over the rotating chairmanship of the African Union.
Although he appeared unhurt after the fall, the incident — which occurred in the full view of gathered bigwigs, Zanu PF rank and file members and journalists — triggered panic among senior government officials and security chiefs, who all scrambled to help him get on his feet, and to ensure that he was alright.
Mugabe also later stumbled in New Delhi, at an India-Africa summit, and had to use a wheelchair at the 60th Asian-African Conference Commemoration that was held in Indonesia.
Offensively, the nonagenarian has also had to endure sickening jokes and false reports about his alleged death — prompting him to put down these sadists by saying that he had “died” many times more than Jesus Christ.
“I have died many times. That’s where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once. I am as fit as a fiddle. At this age, I can still go some distance, can’t I?
“There are things one must do for oneself. Don’t drink at all, don’t smoke, you must exercise and eat vegetables and fruit,” he said in an interview with the ZBC, ahead of his 88th birthday in 2012.
Despite his advanced age and deteriorating health, as well as the growing pressure within his ruling Zanu PF for him to step down, Mugabe has thus far not dropped any hint of his retirement plans — moving recently to effectively shut the door on his lieutenants in his fractured party who are angling to succeed him.