Departing from a prepared speech to mark Zimbabwe’s 32nd anniversary of independence in Harare yesterday, president Robert Mugabe, 88, said he was looking back on his past – and acknowledged his party had “done wrong.”
“We say to ourselves we have done wrong to our people because we were violent among ourselves,” Mr Mugabe told crowds bussed in to the National Sports Stadium from outlying townships.
After a surprisingly friendly handshake and pat on the shoulder for his bitter political rival prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who was at the stadium, a sometimes faltering Mr Mugabe said that he’d agreed to hold a constitutional referendum before elections.
His words represented a major climbdown on the part of the former guerrilla leader, who earlier this month made another trip to Singapore for medical attention.
Mr Mugabe did not repeat his recent claim yesterday that he is “as fit as a fiddle” and kept his speech to just 50 minutes in contrast to the fiery two-hour long monologues he has been known to deliver at public events.
The president has been locked in a coalition government with Mr Tsvangirai since 2009 after violence-wracked elections left more than 200 opposition supporters dead. He had previously insisted he would hold the polls under the old constitution, ignoring protests from the prime minister and rights groups who say political violence is rising.
The veteran leader – Mr Mugabe has been in power since April 1980 – also said Zimbabweans should not be forced to join his party, following press reports sales of ZANU-PF cards are at an all-time low.
“People must freely belong to the party of their own choice and freely vote for the party of their own choice,” he said. “It is now that we must take absolute care and caution and ensure that the fights of yesterday remain buried in the past.”
University of Zimbabwe lecturer John Makumbe said: “I think he’s trying to play the father figure and appease the MDC. But until this message is preached at the village level, you need to take it with tonnes of salt.”
First lady Grace Mugabe smiled appreciatively throughout her husband’s speech. With her rapacious appetite for luxury, she has been credited with driving many of Mr Mugabe’s controversial economic policies.
Ahead of elections the president’s party is enthusiastically championing a black empowerment programme that will see all white-owned companies forced to hand over 51 per cent of shares to black businessmen.
In a statement, Mr Tsvangirai said the programme – led by a cabinet minister who boasts he is “Hitler tenfold” – amounted to looting.
Mr Mugabe’s insistence yesterday that every Zimbabwe had a right to life was horrifically undermined by a claim in independent newspaper Newsday that two men had been shot dead in police custody in Harare.
Suspected robbers Tendai Dzigarwi and Emson Ngundu were alive when they were arrested last month but their bodies were located in a mortuary two days later, according to the mother of one of the pair.