In the build-up to her assuming the position of Zanu PF Women’s League boss mid-last year, Grace addressed meetings at her sprawling Mazowe farm, with all events beamed live on national television.
Traditional chiefs, the Women’s League, Youth League and veterans of the country’s liberation, all trooped to “Queen Mother” to pay homage and show their support, to entreat her to “please accept to lead us”.
All this was beamed live on ZBC TV and aired on radio, by a state broadcaster barely able to pay salaries, let alone suppliers of content and musicians, who for years, have toiled for nothing.
ZBC scoffed at questions on why Grace’s rallies were televised live.
“Just so we illustrate this point, while the question is being asked why ZBC covered the rallies, it is not accurate to suggest that every media organisation was represented at both the Rushinga and other rallies held by the First Lady. In the context of this factor alone, it is absolutely misplaced to ask ZBC to justify coverage of these events,” ZBC spokesperson Gladman Bandama said.
Experts say commercial rates for an outside broadcast van hiring range between $80 000 and $90 000, excluding the crew and their allowances.
“It will set you back at least $80 000 and $90 000, to hire an OB Van for a two-hour broadcast. Then there is the crew that includes technicians, anything from 25 people, at least four cameras and the whole gamut. For that, it is another $30 000. That would take you to about $120 000 for each event,” The Standard heard.
There is also the cost of a satellite link every time an event is broadcast live.
An official at the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe who spoke on condition of anonymity said; “A temporary satellite uplink would require a $2 500 non-refundable fee and at least $1 500 for each event”.
It would add at the very least another $60 000 to $70 000 on the costs to ZBC.
But Bandama argued that questions pertaining to how much the state broadcaster could have made or lost are “strange and inappropriate”.
“You[r] question relating to how much ZBC has earned and who is paying for this coverage is both inappropriate and strange. Inappropriate in that it posits a position that gives right to anyone to demand to know how ZBC operates and how it generates its revenue,” he said.
“Strange in that it seems oblivious to the national mandate of the ZBC and fails to recognise that the activities of the First Lady, both in terms of the charitable work she has done and is doing, as well as her placement as wife of the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, notwithstanding that she is Zanu PF secretary of the Women’s league, a constituency that represents a significant proportion of Zimbabwe; is newsworthy,” he said.
After at least three broadcasts from her Mazowe Children’s Home that also incorporates Gushungo Dairies, Grace accepted nomination as secretary of the Women’s League, after which all hell broke loose.
The First Lady then began a whirlwind of nationwide tours, “to meet and thank the people” for propelling her to power. From Harare, Manicaland (Mutare), Masvingo, all two Matabeleland provinces (Gwanda and Lupane), Bulawayo, Midlands (Gweru), Mashonaland East (Marondera) and West (Chinhoyi), as well as Mujuru’s home province of Mashonaland Central (Bindura).
That would bring the cost to a minimum $1,5 million — an amount that could have changed the fortunes of the workers and the public broadcaster overnight.
Zimbabwe Music Rights Association (Zimura) in June this year was forced to write-off royalties that ZBC should have paid to musicians between 2011 and 2014. The High Court had granted Zimura an order to attach 15 ZBC vehicles to pay off the 2009-2010 debt which had accumulated to $707 421,13.
Towards the end of last month, ZBC had to use soldiers who provide security at its premises in Highlands to ward-off the Deputy Sheriff after the Harare City Council obtained an order to attach the broadcaster’s property for a
$300 000 debt for unpaid bills.
In the meantime, Grace has embarked on another set of rallies, also being broadcast live. So far, she has been to Chimanimani (Manicaland) and Rushinga (Mashonaland Central).The First Lady travels in presidential helicopters even as Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko had to follow her by road to Rushinga. More rallies are planned and Grace has declared:
“As long as I have [the] energy, I will continue working and connecting with people kusvika vaputika matumbu iwayo [until their tummies burst].”
Most cabinet ministers and lawmakers are bunking Parliament sessions to be with her as she asserts her power. So while, the costs pile on, for Grace the foundation has been laid. No state actor can refuse what- ever she says or demands. As Mphoko revealed last week, she should be addressed as “Her Excellency” and “I introduce her because I took an oath to serve the country and the President. You cannot separate her from the President”.
It costs an average of $2 000 to charter a flight to Manicaland or Matabeleland South, thereby adding costs to an already bleeding fiscus.
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week was at pains to explain Grace’s actions, following questioning from opposition MPs who wanted to know why the First Lady was “abusing” state resources and misrepresenting them as donations.
“She has not donated anything but [is] handing over equipment as identified by the ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development,” Mnangagwa said.
The media has reported that Grace is doling out equipment acquired under a $98 million deal with Brazil. But the State broadcaster has gone to town presenting Grace as a philanthropist and “caring mother of the nation”.
Bandama in his response also claimed that it was the private media that had sought to misrepresent Grace’s rallies.
“Sections of the media have also, whether by design, or the lack of journalistic ethics, chosen to misrepresent, misquote and/or misdirect some of the First Lady, Dr Amai Grace Mugabe’s remarks,” he said.
“As the public broadcaster, we have sought to capture live the comments and remarks of the First Lady to enable Zimbabweans to hear and understand these remarks directly from her,” he said. “In that context, when the First Lady, Amai Dr Grace Mugabe, by virtue of her title — the First Lady, wife of the president of Zimbabwe, mother to the nation — is addressing ‘thousands of Zimbabweans’ whether they belong to Zanu PF, MDC-T, MDC-Y or MDC-C, by virtue of being the public broadcaster, we are compelled to cover that”.
Until government was forced to chip in and assist, ZBC at one time went for nearly a year without paying its workers as revenue streams dwindled. While Bandama claimed the coverage was also inspired by the fact that Grace was leading a pack of cabinet ministers, including Mphoko, the state broadcaster last week failed to beam parliamentary debates due to a clash of dates with the First Lady’s Rushinga rally.
Even so, not all rallies addressed by Mugabe have been screened live, let alone those addressed by Mnangagwa or Mphoko, other cabinet ministers or senior Zanu PF officials. The ZBC has also been slammed for “refusing” to broadcast live opposition events such as conferences and congresses.
Bandama said while private media houses could be driven by the profit motive, the ZBC had a national obligation to inform, educate citizens on national development events like Grace’s “developmental rallies”.