President steals the show," the Sunday Mail announced. "Oh no, what has he stolen now?" might have been the response of many readers.
"The show" in question was the EU-Africa summit. And the Sunday Mail was thrilled that Mugabe was the centre of so much media attention. A front-page picture showed dozens of cameramen mobbing the president ahead of the opening ceremony. Mugabe complained his neck was sore from posing for them.
But state-media correspondents appeared to think this was because Mugabe was such a great statesman. They didn't tell us what headlines those pictures attracted. Those published in the Herald on Wednesday were the polite ones!
And how pathetic to hear the head of a broken-down, impoverished country boasting of having "defeated" Britain just because he was allowed to attend a conference. Was this the same statesman who used to strut with ease upon the world stage? Who people listened to and respected? The Zimbabwe he now presides over was the subject of a London Times feature headed "A journey into hell", also carried in the Johannesburg Sunday Times. It catalogued the steady decline of a once self-sufficient nation and should be required reading for all ministers. In particular it describes the fate of Bulawayo's residents.
"We are shocked by Bulawayo," Times reporter Martin Fletcher says. "It was once Zimbabwe's industrial hub, but its factories are mostly now silent. Its power station is shut. Four of its five water reservoirs are empty and shops have nothing to sell."
At first he thought supermarkets were selling shop shelves!
"Mugabe", a resident tells him after visiting the grave of Cecil John Rhodes, "is in serious danger of giving colonisers a good name."
Sikhanyiso Ndlovu didn't help the government's cause with his foolish attack on Angela Merkel, calling her a "Nazi remnant". She spoke for Europe when she said Zimbabwe hurt the image of the new Africa.
Standing only a few yards in front of Mugabe, who is usually shielded from public criticism, Merkel said: "The current state of Zimbabwe damages the image of the new Africa. Because this is so, we must take the chance here, in this framework, to put all our efforts together into strengthening democracy. We don't have the right to look away when human rights are trampled on. Intimidation of those with different opinions and breaches of the independence of the press cannot be justified. We, the whole European Union, are united in our assessment... Zimbabwe's situation concerns us all, in Europe as well as in Africa."
That must have struck a chord with other African heads of state because very few, if any, rushed to Mugabe's defence.
Germany, Ndlovu declared, needed a leader like Otto von Bismarck.
Bismarck was of course the "blood and iron chancellor" who crushed Germany's enemies and imposed harsh peace terms.
Ndlovu, despite being an educationist, knows little or nothing we suspect about that period of European history. Was he in all seriousness proposing Merkel should attack France and Austria? And can you imagine the German public reading Ndlovu's remarks? Was this somebody they should take seriously? Or was he just a caricature of a Mugabe minister -- all big mouth and no brains?
Merkel "should shut up or ship out", Ndlovu declared.
The exprssion, Cde Minister, is "shape up or ship out". Alternatively he might have said Merkel should "put up or shut up". But not "shut up or ship out". Can George help here?
A Minister of Information should know what abuse he is hurling so he doesn't look completely daft in front of the European public including 80 million Germans. And the Tom Cruise film on the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, despite protests, was eventually made in Germany. Again, Ndlovu got it wrong. And the Herald slipped in a funny little story about Merkel asking Mugabe to go soft on her because she was only speaking for her constituency. Can you imagine somebody raised in the rough-and-tumble of German politics asking for favours from Mugabe -- a kiss of death if ever there was one!
Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende said he was "honoured" to be included in Robert Mugabe's "gang of four" critics of Zimbabwe's human rights record. The president used the phrase about the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Denmark after criticism of the country for its violation of human rights at the summit. Balkenende said Mugabe's outburst was not just about the four countries, because the critical remarks came from EU foreign minister Javier Solano and commission chairman José Manuel Barrosa, who spoke for the whole EU. But he said: "I consider it a badge of honour."
Solano said Zimbabwe's problems stemmed from bad governance, not sanctions.
The Zimbabwean public was given the impression that Mugabe was the hero of the hour in Lisbon. So the following extract from a Financial Times report may help clarify the picture.
"We know he was there because he was invited. But it was difficult to find anyone attending the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon who had encountered Robert Mugabe, the pariah leader of Zimbabwe, close up," the paper said. "The EU may have lifted a travel ban to allow in a man accused of torture and repression so African countries attended but its leaders seem to have adopted their own personal exclusion zones. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, saw him across the table at the morning session on Saturday, but did not have the chance to shake his hand, his spokesman said. In the family photo afterwards, Mugabe was positioned next to Omar El Bashir, the Sudanese leader seen as a fellow partner in crime."
And that was the tenor of most reports emanating from the meeting. How the Herald could have found something to crow about merely underlines its capacity for invention. Mugabe was shunned in Lisbon and even African sympathisers could see that.
Irish premier Bertie Ahern said he would have preferred Mugabe not to have attended. "He has increased emigration 1 400% and halved the life expectancy of his people," Ahern said.
José Socrates, summit host and premier of Portugal, was pictured greeting him with his hands behind his back. Balkenende insisted that Mugabe was there to listen to him condemn his "objectionable regime". Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, brushed him aside: "We do Mugabe too much honour to allow seven years delay [to the summit] because of him." However, he added: "I did not give Mugabe my hand. I did not meet him."
That should put the Herald's iconic coverage in some sort of perspective!
Muckraker forecast last week that Zimbabwe's governance record would be discussed in Lisbon whether Sadc executive secretary Tomaz Salamao liked it or not. He is now whining in the media that the EU was wrong to bring up the issue. It was not part of the agreed agenda, he complained, Zanu PF-style.
"Zimbabwe was not part of the agreed agenda of the summit," Salomao told reporters.
"Our position is that we are dealing with the issue. (South African) President Thabo Mbeki is dealing with the issue.... Zimbabwe is our problem, we are dealing with it."
"Our problem"? But at least it's official now. Zimbabwe is a problem.
Mugabe wanted to know why Merkel thought she knew more about Zimbabwe than Sadc. The fact is many European countries have much better information about Zimbabwe than Sadc states who hear nothing, see nothing and know nothing! Salomao didn't know what an IMF Article IV visit was until March when he got a special briefing on it.
Among the pro-Mugabe demonstrators was our old friend George Shire who, while supporting Zanu PF, refuses to come and live in the hell-hole they have spawned, preferring the land of Gordon Brown.
"People think I am a paid supporter of Robert Mugabe," Shire told reporters, "but this is not the case. I just happened to be in Lisbon at the time of the summit."
Reading the Committee to Protect Journalists' publication, Dangerous Assignments, it is interesting to note that Zimbabwe's two main allies outside Africa, China and Cuba, are among the world's worst media-abusers. In China it is an offence to advocate political reform from a website. One such offender, Zhang Jianhong, was charged with "incitement to subvert the state's authority" and jailed for six years.
In Cuba, Oscar Sanchez Madan who wrote about local corruption for CubaNet, a Miami-based website, was sentenced in April to seven years imprisonment. His offence? "Social dangerousness"!
Would it be socially dangerous of us to point out that two recent appointees to state commissions have been struck off the legal register for helping themselves to clients' funds? Why doesn't the government give a damn about corruption? And how does Samuel Undenge earn his keep?
Answers on the back of a postage stamp please.
What is going on at the cellular phone companies? It is possible to call a number in the UK or Far East but absolutely impossible to get through to South Africa. You can dial a landline in South Africa from your cell phone but not another cell number.
Why haven't the cellular companies told the public what the problem is?
"Error in connection" is all you get which is a lie because there is no error, just an inability by the service provider to connect to the South African system -- probably to do with money.
And is the woman who says "Sorry, the subscriber you are dialling is unreachable, please try again later", on Telecel, still in the country? This or "network busy" is the standard response on 023 to any attempt to reach any of the high-density suburbs from the city centre.
We don't want to hear about ambitious plans to provide 3G or other "rollouts". We just want a cellular system that works and provides value for money.