Soft-focus documentary catches Robert Mugabe over lunch with his wife and children, talking of love, family, politics and Tony Blair
Flowers, silver cutlery, and a box of tissues adorn the spotless white tablecloth. The family says grace and “bon appetit!” before tucking into their vegetables. Sitting at the head of the table, dad worries aloud about his son’s schoolwork and his daughter’s boyfriends, while mum chortles about confiscating the PlayStation.
This is lunch with the Mugabes, a surreal glimpse of Zimbabwe’s first family as no one has ever quite seen them before. Before the TV cameras Robert, wife Grace and two of their children declare their love for each other, discuss philosophy and religion, and laugh about the time Grace punched a British photographer. The result is compelling and at times jaw-dropping. Some might describe it as car crash television.
The gates of Harare’s secretive State House were thrown open to interviewer Dali Tambo, flamboyant son of South African liberation hero Oliver Tambo. He gives Mugabe a sympathetic hearing and admits he is “totally” braced for the charge that he is sanitising and glorifying a dictator just months before Zimbabwe holds crucial elections.
Indeed, those who blame Mugabe’s 33-year rule for their suffering may find it hard to stomach the climax of the two-part documentary which finds the president, dapper as ever in suit and grey tie with folded handkerchief in breast pocket, lunching with his wife and children in a stately room that once hosted the Queen. In a routine familiar to fans of his long-running People of the South series, Tambo asks his subjects to look each other in the eye and emote.
Wearing dreadlocks and a blue patterned dress, Grace Mugabe, more than four decades younger than her husband, takes his hand and declares: “You’re very loving, you’re kind, you’re generous, you kind of like brought me up and you know that I appreciate everything that I’ve been able to do.”
Dubbed “DisGrace” by headline writers for an allegedly profligate lifestyle, she continues: “I’ve tried to use [my position] to benefit the less privileged of this country, and whatever I do, I do it complement the work you’re doing. I’m really happy to be your wife and I feel blessed to be part of your family.”
In a somewhat cringeworthy moment, a stilted Mugabe, who married Grace in 1996, responds: “When I said I wanted to marry her, I meant it. I said to her from that moment on if I had any girlfriends, I would leave them and that’s what I have done to recognise you and you alone as my partner. Whether you believed it or not, that’s what it has been.
“And I valued her, I valued the transformation that you brought to my life and the kids that you gave me and the happiness that they brought and the happiness you brought, and I remain very grateful for that. And that is why sometimes perhaps when you tend to be angry with me or perhaps I’ve not acted as quickly as you thought I should on certain matters, I have not reacted, I just kept quiet and allowed that to win.”
Mugabe has not finished pouring out his heart for the cameras yet. The 89-year-old goes on: “This is how we have lived. I do hope we continue that way and that our children also benefit from our oneness and that you also benefit from the little that you can learn from me, that interaction, and also even our relatives can learn from us how marital life should be, and especially the younger ones, so please continue to love the children but of course, above all, to love this boyfriend called Robert Mugabe.”
There is laughter around the table and Grace rises to give the president a chaste kiss. Earlier in the programme, of which the Guardian has seen a near-complete edit prior to broadcast, the couple share similar exchanges with their children. Son Bellarmine, who bears a striking resemblance to Mugabe and wears a suit and tie to match, says his father always makes time for him. “I also love the fact that if I sleep and I’m outside the blankets, he’ll come and tuck me in.”
Mugabe warmly describes daughter Bona, a postgraduate student wearing a pink-tinted leopard patterned dress, as “very obedient” and “absolutely trustworthy” but chides Bellarmine, whose studies at a private school came to an abrupt end earlier this year. “He has not made me happy in the way he takes to his studies. He should be more serious than he is at the moment.”
Tambo touches a raw nerve by asking Mugabe what qualities he would look for in a future husband for his daughter. Brow furrowed and voice gruff, Africa’s oldest leader would be enough to strike fear into any potential suitor. “Regarding such approaches,, one from a wolf who has come to seize one of my lambs – that’s the feeling.
“But it must be a person of her own choice. My hope would be first, qualities of a good husband will live with her, because he loves her through thick and thin and not just look at her now as she still is that flower, attractive, blooming. She will have kids and quite a lot of what is now the real charm will disappear and the face will start having wrinkles. So he should not pit her at that time against up and coming younger ones, which is what most people do and as a result we gets lots of divorces.”
During the lunch, Mugabe takes out the rosary beads that he always carries – “I went to war with it” – discusses God and claims he is still a Marxist, though not in “absolute terms”.
Grace, meanwhile, makes merry as she recalls thumping a British photographer outside a five-star hotel in Hong Kong four years ago. “They saw us and started running towards us. I said, ‘No, enough is enough, why are you treating us like this? What wrong have I done?’ … So I ran after him and I caught him. I started beating him. He was pleading with me to get the camera, please, I didn’t answer so I kept on punching him.” There is mirth at the table.
Tambo’s late father was close to Mugabe but it took him three years to land the interview, which will be shown in South Africa on the SABC3 channel at 8.30pm on Sunday 2 June. His style might strike critics as fawning and sycophantic. But it does win unprecedented access and enable him to question Mugabe on everything from the 1980s massacres in Matabeleland province to starting an affair with Grace while his first wife, Sally, was terminally ill.
Asked what attracted him to Grace, who was a typist in his office, Mugabe blinks often as if holding back tears and offers a most unorthodox reply: “It was not just the fact that one was attracted. After Sally was gone it was necessary for me to look for someone and, even as Sally was still going through her last few days, although it might have appeared to some as cruel, I said to myself well, it’s not just myself needing children, my mother has all the time said, ah, am I going to die without seeing grandchildren?
“So I decided to make love to her. She happened to be one of the nearest and she was a divorcee herself, and so it was. We got our first child when my mother was still alive.”
Tambo asks if Sally, who died from kidney failure in 1992, accepted the new relationship. “I did tell her and she just kept quiet and said fine but she did ask, ‘Do you still love me?’ I said yes. And she said, ‘Oh, fine’.”
Sitting on wooden chairs in the gardens of the colonial era State House, the pair run through Mugabe’s life story, from cattle-herding as a boy with a whip in one hand and book in the other to dancing the quickstep and waltz with student nurses. As a freedom fighter against white minority rule, he was jailed for 11 years. “When you’re in prison, you say ‘OK, when we get out, these bastards, we are going to deal with them’,” he recalls.
Initially, when he came to power at independence in 1980, Mugabe preached reconciliation but his reputation rapidly crumbled with the violent seizures of white-owned farms from 2000. For this he blames then British prime minister Tony Blair for reneging on promises of funding land redistribution made under the 1979 Lancaster House agreement.
“Mrs Thatcher, you could trust her,” Mugabe continues. “But of course what happened later was a different story with the Labour party and Blair and company, who you could never trust. You couldn’t compare them to Thatcher and the others … Oh, who can ever believe what Mr Blair says? Here we call him Bliar.”
Asked about the condemnation he still faces for the way land reform was handled, Mugabe responds with a South African comparison: “They will praise you only if you are doing things that please them. Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of them … That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
During the interview, which lasted two-and-a-half hours, the Zanu-PF leader claims that upcoming elections will be peaceful but does not sound like a man ready or willing to let go. Banging his fist on an armrest, he unleashes the old fiery rhetoric: “There is a fight to fight. The British are calling for regime change, that I must go. That call must not come from the British.
“The sanctions are still on us and what man is there who, when his own house is being attacked, will run away and leave the family and the children still under attack? It’s a coward … My people still need me and when people still need you to lead them it’s not time, sir, it doesn’t matter how old you are, to say goodbye. They will say you are deserting us and I am not a deserter, never have been, never have thought of deserting people. We fight to the finish: that’s it. I still have it in me here.”
People of the South makes no mention of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and will do no harm to Mugabe’s attempts to rebrand himself, which have already led to signs of a softening in western opinion. Tambo, who grew up in exile in north London, said his show is “not Hardtalk” and he makes no apologies for humanising a man he believes has long been demonised.
Describing Mugabe as “warm, charismastic and very humorous”, he said: “I feel, honestly, a pride in that man and I think that he has been misunderstood and ill-judged by a lot of the press. He’s made mistakes but in general he’s going to go down in history with a very positive perspective from Africans.”