Mr. Mugabe goes publicly shopping in New York...but not in Harare

Sep 28, 2010

As he loves to do every year, President Mugabe and an entourage of reportedly dozens went to the UN General Assembly last week. He delivered his now standard address, among the highlights of which are, “whatever problems we may have in Zimbabwe, I am not responsible; they are all the fault of my many enemies and their conspiracies against me.”

So in that regard there was nothing unusual about his latest trip to Manhattan. Nor was there anything strange about his decision to briefly go shopping at a pharmacy there.

The eagerness of Mugabe and his hangers-on to make the annual pilgrimage to the UN General Assembly has become a sort of sad joke. Despite the UN being technically exempt from the US travel ban that Mugabe and many of his close liuetentants are under, the scramble to go there smacks of desperately going where one is not wanted.

In a tough economy, the reportedly generous per diems enjoyed by the members of the traveling delegation can make a big difference to a government official's budget. Then of course there is the chance to shop in one of the Western world’s premier centers of consumerism, with the added attraction that it is unlikely that Customs officials are going to ask any questions of members of the president’s traveling party on their return to Harare.

Unremarkable as Mugabe’s dash to the New York pharmacy might have been, there were some interesting things about it. I do not recall Mugabe ever being pictured walking into a shop in Harare and carousing the aisles like any other shopper.

It would be very odd symbolism for a self-declared champion of poor countries against the West’s perceived ‘machinations’ like Mugabe to feel safer and more free to go shopping in New York City than he does in his own capital city! 

A couple of years ago, at Zimbabwe’s arguably lowest point economically, there was a period during which video shots and photos of empty store shelves were regularly beamed across the world. The relationship of the ‘international media’ to Africa, and specifically Zimbabwe, and particularly Mugabe being what it is, they ‘forgot’ to go back more recently to show those same store shelves full of goods.

So the ‘collapsed’ country image sexily, graphically shown by empty store shelves is the one many across the world still have of Zimbabwe. Therfore it was not a big stretch for some of the ‘international media’ to suggest that Mugabe was shopping for goods he couldn’t find in his 'collapsed' country of empty store shelves.

Many news outlets relished having some fun at Mugabe’s expense, with one UK paper carping, "Mugabe was spotted at the lipstick counter." A New York-based shopper said to have family in Zimbabwe is quoted as saying, "He was hunched over a display of lipsticks and blushers, staring intently, as if uncertain about which colours to choose."

Mugabe’s propagandists were caught napping again, delivering an easy goal to his “detractors,” of whom they should have expected to be many in New York! No shopping trip of Mugabe’s, in NYC of all places, was going to be ‘innocent’ and uneventful.

Mugabe has become such an omnipotent super-demon in some sections of the 'international media' that it is difficult to tell if there is any truth to the story as told, except perhaps that he did walk into a pharmacy.   But apart from the lightweight aspects of the story, the president of a country that is trying to project an image of recovery could have done a lot to further that goal by being pictured shopping for whatever he was looking for in NYC in Harare. 

Instead the hapless Mugabe's NY shopping excursion only seemed to bolster the impression of rulers who say one thing while doing another, of rulers bothered more by ‘sanctions’ excluding them from Western shopping centers than for any harm they might be doing to the ordinary citizens of the country, which was one of the main points of Mugabe’s UN speech.    


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