HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s longtime President Robert Mugabe says he doesn’t want anyone to be fooled by his impeccable Western style of dress and his precise, teacherly use of English: He is African through and through.
“I am not British, I am not a colonial product because I am a complete Zimbabwean,” he told graduates at Great Zimbabwe University near the remains of the 13th Century walled city, for which Zimbabwe, the former colony of Rhodesia, is named.
Addressing the students earlier this month, Mugabe had typically harsh words for Africa’s former white rulers.
“They think their right is to rob others of their resources,” he said. But black Africans have the right to their own natural wealth and must “remain true” to local values after centuries of colonial rule that brought foreign cultures to the continent, he added.
The ascetic, austere Mugabe is a tough critic of the West, but he has been described as an anglophile and is known as a stickler for ceremony and detail. At the graduation, he wore a sash, robe and mortarboard, academic regalia used in some of Britain’s most conservative universities.
Mugabe warns, however, that his Western appearance can deceive. He said the nation’s former British colonizers thought he admired all things British and had a British “way of thinking.”
After Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, “they said publicly the problem with Mugabe is that he thinks like us,” said the 89-year-old former teacher who was handed power as Zimbabwe’s first black leader by heir to the British throne Prince Charles and the departing British colonial governor in 1980.
“Goodness me! How can I think like them?” said Mugabe. “I would be a rotten thinker to think like them.”
But he does dress like them, and requires other Zimbabweans to do so, too. Since 1980, Mugabe has insisted on a strict suit and tie dress code among ministers and lawmakers in the Harare parliament. The former guerrilla leader quickly abandoned Chinese-style Mao jackets in favor of tailored business suits with color-coordinated neckties, breast pocket handkerchiefs and matching accessories, sometimes including flowers in the buttonhole of his lapel.
Other post-colonial African presidents have observed Western dress codes but few as elegantly as Mugabe. President Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, who died in 1997, appeared in three-piece suits and a homburg hat but always carried an African chief’s flywhisk, made of lion’s hair. Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya switched between regular suits and leopard skin shoulder wraps and headgear and also habitually carried a flywhisk. Former South African President Nelson Mandela broke the mold, preferring bright batik-style casual shirts, even on formal occasions.
Until Western travel and banking bans were imposed on Mugabe and his party leaders to protest human and democratic rights violations about a decade ago, Mugabe regularly visited the upscale Harrods department store in London’s Knightsbridge district and Savile Row in Mayfair, the home of Britain’s best bespoke tailors. Now he takes vacations in Malaysia and Hong Kong, Asian clothing and tailoring hubs, and shops on trips to United Nations meetings in New York and Geneva which are excluded from the travel bans.
At the annual state opening of parliament, Mugabe rides in a vintage British convertible Rolls Royce, escorted by police on horseback wearing colonial-style pith helmets carrying upright lances bearing flags and service insignia. The nation’s judges attend the ceremony in scarlet robes, wearing traditional British wigs of bleached horsehair in the parliament house originally built as a copy of the British House of Commons legislature at Westminster, London.
Most Zimbabweans see no contradiction in Mugabe’s love-hate relationship with Britain and the West which he stridently criticizes and calls racist at most state functions.
Top personalities mostly follow his sartorial example and defend the use of large cars in the largely impoverished nation.
“There is status involved here. It is a mark of authority. How can you be taken seriously and command respect if you are not properly dressed and if you don’t have a proper car?” said Harare business leader Edward Nyathi.
Mugabe is a keen sports fan and remains patron of Zimbabwe’s national cricket team though he no longer attends matches at the colonial Cape Dutch-style Harare Sports Club across the street from his offices.
He once described the quintessentially British sport of cricket as “a game every young Zimbabwean should learn to play. It is a civilizing influence.”