A dire shortage of drugs and basic equipment have spawned many horror stories of unnecessary deaths
Typhoid and cholera are never far from the headlines in Zimbabwe. In 2008, the country lost more than 4,000 citizens to one of the worst outbreaks of cholera the world has seen. It was not the first occurrence, nor the last.
Many people have resorted to using dirty, untreated water in cities where utilities, worn down by years of neglect, fail to deliver services. Many citizens in the capital, Harare — where the worst outbreaks of disease have been felt — have not had municipal water for more than a decade.
The problems are worsened by widespread and growing poverty, with unemployment above 90% as economic hardship continues to bite.
So the outrage over the aborted appointment of President Robert Mugabe as a World Health Organisation goodwill ambassador is appropriate, despite the government’s attempts to dismiss it as a western plot.
Mugabe has presided over the steady destruction of a health system that was once one of Africa’s best. A dire shortage of drugs and basic equipment have spawned many horror stories of unnecessary deaths.
Although Mugabe’s appointment related to noncommunicable diseases, a point his supporters have vociferously pointed out, this cannot be seen in isolation of the broader health system. It is a system in which the president seems to have little interest.
Like many of his peers across Africa, he prefers not to use it. While the government claims it has no money to spend on public health, Mugabe freely and regularly spends the country’s scarce foreign exchange on medical trips to Singapore.
First lady Grace Mugabe would not even deign to use local facilities to treat a sprained ankle earlier in 2017. She jetted to Johannesburg, where she could deal with her luxury property portfolio simultaneously.
Just a few months ago, Mugabe hosted the 67th session of the WHO’s regional committee meeting for Africa at Victoria Falls. He was feted by delegates who were well shielded from Zimbabwe’s hardships during their visit to the resort town on the edge of the country.
It is probably easy in an environment of back-slapping and mutual-admiration junkets that pass for UN conferences to think that Mugabe is a hero; that the suffering of his citizens is not important or that tales to this effect are exaggerated.
That Mugabe was head of the AU when the organisation endorsed Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s former health and foreign minister, as Africa’s first WHO director-general in May could have also informed the decision to make such an inappropriate appointment.
Mugabe still has many fans and admirers who have not had to live under his authoritarian and bankrupt rule. His name carries weight in many circles — although less as the years roll on — and he undoubtedly enjoys the international attention.
But Mugabe has got away with his harmful political shenanigans for so long that he, unsurprisingly, believes himself to be invincible
At home his popularity is at a new low. But he remains all-powerful and uninterested in the damage he has wrought on his people.
Political expedience is his main driving force. Always looking for a new angle, Mugabe has started courting the youth vote for the 2018 elections, undaunted by the fact that his self-serving and destructive policies have robbed at least one generation of a decent future in their home country.
Mugabe and his wife have been travelling around Zimbabwe, addressing a succession of “youth interface” rallies arranged by the governing party’s youth league.
The rallies are a distraction for a leader dealing with ugly succession battles and serious economic problems. But young people are an important voting bloc, especially now that the president’s previously loyal war veterans have gone cold on him.
And the league’s sycophantic leaders offer the kind of rhetoric Mugabe welcomes.
It is hard to imagine why the young people of Zimbabwe would support this ageing autocrat. Many have left the country with or without their parents, millions have no jobs and even more have no prospects under a government that has not had a new idea in decades.
But he has got away with his harmful political shenanigans for so long that he, unsurprisingly, believes himself to be invincible. Many of his supporters, who have assimilated years of unrelenting rhetoric and excuses about the causes of their increasing poverty, also think that he is invincible.
He prizes his image as an elder statesman and saviour of his country. So the WHO reversal will have come as a blow, no matter how his spin doctors play this and whoever they choose to blame for it.
Meanwhile, the recent visit to Owerri, capital of Nigeria’s Imo State, by President Jacob Zuma is still mired in confusion and speculation.
It was tucked in between two state visits — one to Zambia and the other to Democratic Republic of Congo — and might have escaped the attention of the media but for the array of honours and gifts bestowed upon SA’s disgraced president by a Nigerian governor whose morals and spending are equally questionable.
Not only was Zuma given a chieftainship and a larger-than-life statue of himself by governor Rochas Okorocha, he also had a road named after him. What was this really about?
Zuma clearly welcomed the jamboree in a foreign country that offered some relief from being harangued back home.
A brief media statement from the Imo state government said a memorandum of understanding was signed between the governor’s Rochas Foundation and the Zuma Foundation. But Zuma’s foundation is bankrupt and philanthropy does not seem to be high on either man’s priority list.
Sources say he combined the visit with official business, opening a visa office in Owerri for Nigerians in the east of the country to get visas for SA and signing a partnership between South African Airways and Imo International Cargo Airport. None of this has been verified.
Okorocha, who has been described as a narcissist, spent R19m on the statue of Zuma even though in 2016, he did not pay public servant salaries for eight months.
Nigerians are not amused at the wasteful expenditure at a time of severe economic hardship. Many on social media lambasted Zuma for his tardy handling of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in SA, asking why Nigeria was spending money on him at all.
The Zuma statue in Owerri stands as a symbol of moral bankruptcy. The relationship between SA and Nigeria needs decisive and mature leadership to take it to the next level. That seems a long way off.-FinancialMail