HARARE - The First Family’s holiday break in the Far East has already been branded a PR disaster after the couple allegedly salted away millions for the annual jamboree after scaling back financial perks for public sector employees, and as First Lady Grace Mugabe is under fire for purchasing a $1,3m diamond ring through a Lebanese dealer Jamal Ahmed.
The ring was said to be the couple’s 20-year wedding anniversary present.
News reports claimed that the first family has spent $6 million of Zimbabwe taxpayers’ money on the latest vacation, which has seen it shuttling between Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong and China.
Branding her “a vacation junkie”, analysts and opposition parties said the 51-year-old mother-of-four has been indulging in jet-setting, five-star hotels, and splashing out on expensive trips.
While the 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his wife do pay for some of their personal expenses from their own pocket, the amount paid by the couple is “dwarfed by the overall cost to the public”.
She is also often criticised for her pricey, high-end wardrobe, and is considered one of the best-dressed ladies in the country — with the price tags to prove it — with her sartorial spending inviting ridicule.
Her backers flatter her as a “fashion icon” on a “mission to make the world a better place for orphaned children.”
She runs the Amai Grace Mugabe Children’s Home in Mazowe housing 98 homeless and orphaned children.
“If we are to nurture the children into good citizens, then it means we have to do all we can to give them necessary support,” she said in a recent interview.
But some believe Grace’s lifestyle is lavish at the cost of the people of Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries in southern Africa.
To her supporters, she is glamorous, beautiful, charitable and royal, but to many of her citizens, she is extravagant, meddling and possibly off-rails.
Political commentators claim Grace and her husband Mugabe, purchase “swanky stuff ... constantly” and “on Zimbabweans’ dime”.
Speaking on the $6m for the trip and the diamond ring, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, Piers Pigou said: “Both examples reflect different aspects of profligacy by the first family and a related lack of accountability that, at a time of profound and widespread deprivation among ordinary Zimbabweans and much-needed austerity, further damage their image both domestically and internationally.”
The jaunts come as Mugabe has skirted the issue of bonuses for government workers in one of the most drastic measures yet to save money at a time of one of the worst financial crises that has seen government racking up a record budget deficit.
It also comes as the economy is collapsing; cash and fuel supplies dwindling, and State coffers dry that the regime struggles to pay salaries or bonuses, with public-sector strikes, street protests, and desertions by key allies.
Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London told the Daily News: “Now is not a moment for conspicuous consumption by leaders or their families in any part of the world.
“Whether the money involved was earned by legitimate business or not, examples of modesty are important to a struggling population.”
The first lady has drawn comparisons at home to Imelda Marcos, who fled the Philippines at the climax of the army-backed “people power” revolt in 1986 and left behind staggering amounts of personal belongings, clothes and art objects at the palace, including at least 1 220 pairs of shoes.
Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) vice president Kucaca Phulu said: “It shows the gross disrespect for the common people and the extent to which a party that purports to be a revolutionary party is actually exploiting us just as we were exploited by the colonial masters.
“They will face the fate of Imelda Marcos and others who have taken their people for granted in the past.”
One such purchase by Grace was a ring encrusted with diamonds and costing almost $1,3 million which she later rejected, opting to have a refund.
The matter came to light after Ahmed dragged her to the courts as his properties were confiscated by the first lady over the issue.
Last week, the High Court ordered Grace off Ahmed’s three properties which are in Harare’s leafy suburbs within 24 hours.
The first lady’s lawyer, Wilson Manase, has said he would challenge the provisional order but Ahmed’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, insisted that the first lady was in contempt of court, arguing a provisional order cannot be appealed against.
“The first lady’s defiance of a court order clearly shows that the political system in Zimbabwe, especially the State institutions that must hold politically-exposed persons accountable and prevent them from pursuing naked, self interest, have collapsed,” said academic Maureen Kademaunga.
“The system has atomised and chaos has become the new normal and because of this individualistic and unaccountable people like the first lady can get away with murder.
“The first family’s unchecked excesses have for long contributed to the intractable poverty of our people. Without a complete change of government and an aggressive programme to reform State institutions, we will forever be at the receiving end of this abuse.”
A social commentator who declined to be named said Grace’s diamond ring story is a tale of arrogant extravagance in the face of a starving nation.
“Her behaviour has shown how the nation has been dehumanised and taken for granted by an elite bent on milking Zimbabwe to the last drop.
“She represents a class that has turned Zimbabwe into a lucrative fish pond where only she and those facilitating and protecting this patronising pillage can catch the fish.
“The net result is the trickling down on corruption to all sectors of the civil service and the poor will suffer to eternity,” he said.
MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said Mugabe and his family want to lead a swanky and fabulous lifestyle of billionaires or some other such filthy rich celebrities when in actual fact they have successfully managed to ransack and loot the national economy of Zimbabwe; in the process leaving more than 90 percent of the population living as destitute and tramps in their own country.
“It really boggles the mind how the first family can have the audacity and temerity to go on a $6 million State-funded extended holiday in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Dubai when millions of Zimbabweans are wallowing in abject poverty.
“These people are shameless. They have got absolutely no conscience. The Zanu PF regime, fronted by Robert and Grace Mugabe, is a disgrace to all of us Zimbabweans. These people should simply go!”
Peter Maregere, a peace and security analyst and doctoral researcher, said beyond the mere condemnation, extravagance and intransigence that goes with these obscene expenditures, the broader issues around the designing and implementation of institutions of governance that are transparent, accountable and responsive with clear and unadulterated recall mechanisms, remains a yawning gap in the country’s democratic endeavour.
“That such astronomical figures can be spent without remorse, without having regard to the context and the predicament within which the country finds herself in, is a serious indictment to ‘our’ leadership model as a nation,” Meregere told the Daily News.
“Inevitably reproving the individuals and not viewing this as a societal misnomer with the audacity of condemning the futures of our children needs careful trading.
“Invariably, this demands our collective effort in designing sustainable democratic solutions — a systemic process that is more heuristic and holistic in nature to accommodate both individualistic and societal approaches in the promotion of thought leadership located within the institutions I alluded to above.”