opinionBy Herbert Moyo
The on-going Zanu PF annual conference which officially opens today in Gweru will have a palpable air of déjà vu about it, while being some sort of a homecoming for President Robert Mugabe who will be retracing his political footpath to the city where he started his long career in the party in 1964.
Almost 50 years ago, Zanu PF, after breaking away from the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo's Zapu, held its first congress in Gweru from May 21-23, 1964, with Mugabe being among the founding leaders.
Zanu PF had been formed the year before.
Interestingly, Mugabe will today be the only surviving founding Zanu PF leader who was at the Gweru congress in 1964.
This partly explains why the on-going Zanu PF conference is unable to discuss the explosive succession issue.
As the last man standing from the initial generation of leaders attending the conference, Mugabe is now virtually unassailable as those working with him are relative newcomers.
Zanu PF officials told the Zimbabwe Independent this week there is now an emerging consensus in the party that while Mugabe is now old and has overstayed his welcome, no one was able to challenge.
Senior party officials say Zanu PF is in a Catch-22 about what to do with Mugabe. Those vying to replace him, Vice-President Joice Mujuru and politburo bigwig Emmerson Mnangagwa, are not his political peers and are running scared.
Mujuru was just nine years old at the time of the 1964 congress, while Mnangagwa was a young cadre receiving military training in Egypt.
"There is a whole range of factors why he remains the undisputed party leader even if some people are complaining that he is now too old and has overstayed," a senior Zanu PF leader said.
"There is the issue of history. He is the only founding Zanu PF leader who attended the first congress who is still part of the leadership. He has been in Zanu PF for about 50 years now. In other words, most, if not all, of those around him are newcomers.
Besides, he has been party leader since 1977 and in power since 1980.
"Add to this his non-nonsense leadership style and fearsome reputation, you then understand why no-one can openly challenge him or question his suitability as our presidential election candidate next year."
Although Mugabe (88) is reeling from old age and associated health complications, he was endorsed in the run-up to the conference to be the candidate without question.
All the party's 10 provinces stampeded to endorse him and this has been happening since the death of the late army commander General Solomon Mujuru and the departure from the party of his fellow politburo heavyweight Dumiso Dabengwa.
"The succession issue won't be raised in any way at the conference. However, people are concerned about the future of the party and are asking whether he (Mugabe) will seek re-election at next year's congress or pass on the reins of power to a younger leader, especially if he wins the election. It's a worrying situation, but no one can speak out about it," a Zanu PF official said.
Zanu PF founder and former treasurer-general Enos Nkala recalled in an interview with the Independent this week that the 1964 congress had many luminaries including the likes of Ndabaningi Sithole, Leopold Takawira, Herbert Chitepo, Henry Hamadziripi, Trynos Makombe, Simon Muzenda, Eddison Zvobgo and vibrant youths like Edgar Tekere (all late), among others.
"Many of the founding leaders have died. Muzenda is dead, Makombe is dead, as well as Zvobgo, Tekere and (Noel) Mukono, among others, leaving Mugabe as the sole survivor with Zanu PF now tucked firmly in his pocket," Nkala said.
During last year's Zanu PF conference in Bulawayo Mugabe made an oblique reference to the fact that most of his contemporaries had died and he was the only remaining one.
At the 1964 Zanu PF Gweru congress, Sithole was elected president, Takawira vice-president, Mugabe secretary-general, Chitepo chairman and Tekere deputy secretary for youth.
As a teacher who had returned from Ghana a few years earlier before joining the National Democratic Party and Zapu, it is said Mugabe was a reluctant leader perhaps fulfilling the Shakespearean axiom of having greatness thrust upon him.
He showed his reluctance by hesitating to join the liberation struggle, leaving Zapu to join Zanu, refusing to engage Sithole at the Gweru congress to fight for the party leadership, and later resisting efforts in jail to oust Sithole through a prison coup.
In his autobiography, A lifetime of Struggle, Tekere writes: "Contrary to common perceptions, Mugabe tended to defer to his leaders right to the end. This was to happen again in the case of the sacking of Ndabaningi Sithole as leader of Zanu in mid-1974."
Although Tekere later fell out with Sithole, he observed the founding Zanu PF leader -- and not Mugabe -- was the leading light in the party at the time as he was forthright and not reluctant to lead from the front.
Given how Mugabe is now running Zanu PF and Zimbabwe, his late colleagues must be turning in their graves. As Mugabe's political contemporary, Nkala remains the only critical voice against his leadership and policy failures.