Alex T Magaisa
When the rumour of what had happened in Harare began to filter through the social networks yesterday and then the images of the fall began to emerge, I deliberately held back on commenting publicly on the matter. The fall of President Mugabe, as he descended the steps of a podium, has generated a lot of excitement and commentary quite apart from the large number of memes on social networks.
But I kept my thoughts private. I am a boy from the village. And in the village, there were many elderly people. I grew up with the elderly around me and learnt to respect old age. In that part of the world, there is a saying that when an elder farts, the child does not shout that he has farted, even if it is a loud fart. You maintain a stoic silence and get on with it.
However, I observed with great fascination, the mixed reaction provoked by the incident. Social networks were awash with news, pictures and memes of the Presidential fall. Typical of anything that goes on around the person of President Mugabe, opinion was sharply divided between those who found cause to laugh and those who were more sympathetic.
The sympathisers were also disgusted by the behaviour of those who were taunting and laughing at Mugabe. For the laughing group, this was evidence to confirm what they have always argued – that Mugabe is now too old to rule. It seemed like a vindication of their view. But for his sympathisers, there was nothing abnormal or newsworthy – any person can fall.
I suspect there were many others like me – those who had their opinions on what had happened, but chose to keep them to their private spaces.
This morning though, I woke up to read the papers and what I read changed my approach to the incident. I was shocked by what I read in The Herald.
In an article entitled, “President in carpet mishap”, The Herald tries hard, too hard, one might add, to sanitise the incident. It is not a very good effort. I had not laughed at the fall. I had felt sorry for the President, as a human being. But I did laugh at the comical attempt by the state media to put a spin and white-wash the incident.
And, in some ways, I suspect it is these comical efforts that cause people to end up laughing at things that they really should not be laughing at. It reminded me of Comical Ali, Saddam Hussein’s propaganda chief who, at a time when pictures were showing that Baghdad was already under siege, spoke with a straight face, claiming in bombastic fashion, that the ‘infidels’ were facing imminent defeat.
The Herald says “President Mugabe yesterday tripped over a poorly laid-out carpet at Harare International Airport, but remarkably managed to break the fall before walking to his car, evidently unscathed”.
They quote the Government information chief, Professor Jonathan Moyo, trying hard to put a coat of sugar on the incident, “What happened is that the President tripped over a hump on the carpet on one of the steps of the dais as he was stepping down from the platform but he remarkably managed to break the fall on his own. I repeat that the President managed to break the fall”.
This is classic propaganda, certainly one for the archives, and years from this day, students of propaganda will use this as a classic case study. The object of all this is to deny and dilute the negative news that the President suffered a fall.
Therefore, according to them, no, he did not fall. It had to be said and indeed, it had to be repeated, that instead, he “broke the fall”. The idea is to draw a positive out of this unfortunate incident – to make lemonade from a basket of lemons. Hence avoiding the negative messaging that he fell and instead promoting the positive messaging that he “managed to break the fall”.
“Managing to break the fall” therefore becomes some act of heroism; some extra-ordinary feat which the President managed in a situation of adversity. But it is precisely this kind of behaviour by people who claim to be acting in the President’s best interests, that causes people to laugh when they really should not be laughing.
Because most people understand and appreciate that the President is human. He falls sick and he can fall, like any of us. Yet the propaganda machinery would want everyone to believe that the President is infallible, that he does not get sick and indeed, that he does not fall and that even if he trips over, he does not actually fall but he is so super-human that he “breaks the fall”, whatever that means.
But normal people understand that President Mugabe is human and that at almost 91 and after a hectic career, he is at an age where he will be susceptible to problems related to old-age They understand that the body is not as strong as it was before, and that he is bound to lose balance and this is why people at that age usually walk with the aid of appropriate equipment. There is nothing wrong or abnormal with that. What people hate is for someone to pretend that President Mugabe is an exception to these rules of nature.
Those around the President and the media have spent years creating the illusion that he does not get sick and when he does, it’s just a minor ‘eye operation’. People do not trust this information. They think the State is in the business of withholding information about their leader. And so when something like this happens, even if it is an accident, people get excited by the news which really should be normal and they should be sending their sympathies and best wishes.
Now they want to pretend that the President did not fall, that instead, he “managed to break the fall”, when all pictorial evidence before the world suggests otherwise.
This is a problem they have created themselves. They have created this mythical character that they must deify – a super-human figure who never gets ill and who is forever young and fit.
But the problem with creating a mythical figure based around a living person is that while the mythical figure remains young, vibrant and super-human, the real person ages, gets tired and becomes susceptible to limitations of old age. At some point, the real person ceases to match the mythical figure.
The mythical figure is the one that does not get ill, that has the bones of Peter Pan, and never falls. But the real person ages, he gets sick and sometimes, he loses balance and falls. Then when you want to use your image of the mythical figure to explain the conduct of the real person, people see though it and they find cause to laugh – not at the incident but at the clumsy effort sugar-coat an otherwise unfortunate incident.
People around President Mugabe must get used to the fact that he is human and that these things happen, especially at his age. They cannot pretend that this is not happening because the more it happens the more it exposes the President to unnecessary ridicule.
I have previously referred to these as the “Kamuzu Moments”, after the founding President of Malawi, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who led his country till he was a nonagenarian. Twice in December, the President had these “Kamuzu Moments”, when he made some embarrassing gaffes. On one occasion he said Morgan Tsvangirai had won the March 2008 election by 74 per cent, before he was corrected by the security chiefs that he was addressing.
On another occasion, also at Congress, President Mugabe ingloriously chanted “Pasi neZanu PF!” (Down with Zanu PF), a slogan that is normally reserved for the opposition, leaving his admiring audience bemused. And back in February last year, during his birthday interview with the ZBC, he described events of the 1980 election although he had been asked a question about the 2013 elections.
Now, like Kamuzu Banda before him, also in Harare, he has suffered an unfortunate fall. People understand that these things happen and that they are associated with old age.
But no, the state media would rather sugar-coat that incident and paint him as some sort of super-hero who does not fall but instead manages to “break the fall”. President Mugabe deserves better.
In trying to explain and dismiss the incident, the Government information Tsar says, likely to the chagrin of the flock of believers that “even Jesus, let alone you, would have also tripped in that kind of situation”.
It is typical of Zanu PF politicians to invoke the name of Jesus in their descriptions of Mugabe. But as one colleague quipped today, the Professor must have forgotten that Jesus actually walked on water and that he issued commands, which even the wind obeyed.
I said at the start that back in the village, a child does not shout to the elder that he has farted. But in the village, elders or those around them, do not go around claiming that they have not farted when they have. The state media does not have to tell people that the President did not fall. Because in this information age, the whole world can see from the pictures what really happened. Gone are the days when newspapers were the exclusive source of news. By the time The Herald went to print last night, the world had already seen pictures of the incident. Which makes the whole attempt to sugar-coat the incident very comical and a source of derision.
I could not laugh at President Mugabe’s fall, no. But those around him are creating a circus which is causing a great amount of laughter.