There are two Robert Mugabes, according to the US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. One is a frail "crazy old man" who has a young helper kneel at his feet during high-level meetings so he can wash his hands on a silver tray. The other is a physically fit, mentally agile and "charming" leader in full control over all factions in his party.
Contradictory descriptions of Zimabwe’s 86-year-old leader show how the man blamed for his country’s calamitous political and economic policies remains an enigma to regional and international diplomats tasked with trying to understand him.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the criticism levelled against it for its approach to Zimbabwe, the most withering assessment comes from neighbouring South Africa.
Late last year the US ambassador to Pretoria, Donald Gips, met Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s international relations and co-operation minister, who expressed her exasperation with Mugabe, referring to him as "the crazy old man". In an admission that South Africa’s approach in trying to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe had not succeeded, she said: "We cannot do quiet diplomacy forever."
Nkoana-Mashabane’s assessment of Mugabe’s mental state was given weight in a cable from Brussels in 2009, which mentioned talks with a European delegation that had just made the first high-level visit by an EU team to Zimbabwe in seven years.
"In both meetings with our EU interlocutors, they told the same illustrative anecdote: during the delegation’s meeting with Mugabe, a strong, young man entered with a bowl and pitcher of water on a silver tray. He knelt in front of Mugabe, who made a show of washing his hands with this subservient man at his feet.
"The delegation thought Mugabe intended it as a show of his strength and power, but instead, as Clancy [John Clancy, spokesman for the EU trade commissioner] put it, ‘it showed that Mugabe has lost the plot of normal human interaction and the responsibility of leaders toward their people’."
Yet in the same cable, Mugabe was described as "superb debater, always looking for proof and asking his underlings regarding details". EU officials said he appeared physically fit, mentally sharp, and was "charming". His political power was undiminished, though he was surrounded by hardliners who were "dodgy", "cold", and who lacked "Mugabe’s intelligence". But the EU team also reported being cautioned by Zimbabwe’s deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara that Mugabe "was the worst hardliner there is".
Another cable, this time from Harare in December last year, quoted a European diplomat who said Mugabe was "the spider sitting at the centre of this [the ruling Zanu-PF party’s] web and has full control over all the factions. Without him, many of them would be nothing and would have nothing. Even most in the MDC recognise that he is key to the future of politics here."
Zimbabwe’s prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, provided an alternate view of Mugabe’s role within Zanu-PF, saying he was attending meetings unbriefed and unaware of the content, and was being "managed by hardliners". An unnamed Zanu-PF MP later told the US embassy that the party was badly fractured and "like a stick of TNT, susceptible to ignition and disintegration".
"He [the MP] likened Zanu-PF to a troop of baboons incessantly fighting among themselves, but coming together to face an external threat," the cable said.
Around the same, Mugabe proved he had not softened in his views when the new US ambassador, Charles Ray, presented his credentials. Ray was on receiving end of "history lesson" from Mugabe, stretching from the independence struggle to US sanctions imposed by President George W Bush, which Mugabe said were designed to reward Tony Blair for supporting him on Iraq.
The cable from Harare said Mugabe remained fixated on land reform and sanctions, and said he discussed these subjects in a "trance-like (monologue, soft voice)" manner. US officials at the meeting painted a very different picture of Mugabe’s health to that of the EU delegation, describing him as frail.
"He [Mugabe] appears uncomfortable when seated – he slouches and frequently turns his body as if to find a better position, and then sits straight up and speaks in a louder voice for a few seconds before lapsing back into the barely audible soft voice." – The Guardian (UK)