ZIMBABWE – LONDON – Sometime in the 90s, I and a former colleague, Lovemore Ngoma, went to visit a friend at a block of flats in the Avenues.
As we walked in the courtyard, we passed a woman wearing black tights, and well behind her, a young girl.
It all seemed a mundane encounter until a quick succession of elbow nudges to my ribs from Lovemore.
For a moment, I thought he was just drawing my attention to a pretty and curvaceous spectacle I had missed. Until he whispered: “Grace, Grace…”
And as I gently craned my neck backwards, the woman called out to the trailing child: “Bona!”
The call had that English intonation that now so often adulterates Shona names.
The child then walked hurriedly to join her.
By then I had figured out the real source of Lovemore’s guarded excitement.
Grace Marufu was then the subject of a secret affair with President Robert Mugabe, whose revelation had led to the arrest of some journalists.
The child, Bona, was the first product of the liaison. The rest is history.
In the courtyard encounter, Grace appeared, and for some years, all inauspicious.
Having swapped the ignominy of flat residency for the opulence of State House, and tights for renowned fashion brands, she has suddenly blossomed into a vocal and influential figure in Zimbabwean politics.
She has understandably taken every opportunity to extol what she sees as her husband’s virtues.
Last week, she warned that we would miss her husband after he’s gone. We would expect her to say so, wouldn’t we?
Plucked from the obscurity of the presidential typing-pool to the lap of power and riches, her recent birthday interview revealed the “blessings” that have flowed from catching the eye of the Zimbabwean strongman.
Riding on the crest of matrimonially-transmitted power, she now styles herself as the wrecking ball — demolishing political opponents and their reputations with carefree abandon. She has built a significant business portfolio.
But the presumption that the majority of Zimbabweans will be tearfully nostalgic about Mugabe’s departure smacks of fatuous sentimentalism detached from present reality.
Nothing will erase his war record but his rule has left little to be rueful about his exit.
Mugabe announced himself on the political scene as an eminently educated politician and a magnanimous statesman.
A seemingly demure intellectual, he inherited a sound economy with robust infrastructure.
Within a few years, he had morphed into a vindictive and egotistic politician.
For most Zimbabweans, it is this mutation from liberator to brutal tormentor, who can take life without an ounce of compunction, that brought a bitter sense of betrayal.
Grace may brush it aside. But those who have suffered at the hands of his vicious rule, since the early 80s until today, will not miss Mugabe.
Neither will the majority of citizens who have been reduced to paupers, vendors, jobless, failing to pay for drugs, school fees, without electricity and so on.
Those who fled to the Diaspora will not either; he is the reason they left their motherland.
There are no brutal rulers missed today.
Leaders are missed when they protect citizens, when they improve citizens’ lives and not impoverish them.
There is no doubt that, under Mugabe’s rule, Zimbabwe is operating well below its potential.
Yet this is a country which has it all — diamonds, gold, platinum, coal, land, tourist attractions and so on.
If it is sanctions, then it is an indictment on Mugabe’s lack of diplomatic acumen.
His unproductive radicalism, epitomised by thoughtless agrarian reforms and laws, has left us — 15 years on — still importing food, as recipients of food aid, with thousands of shut companies.
Mugabe’s liberation heroics of yesteryear may have been subsumed by a recent legacy of brutality and poverty.
Only Grace, benefitting from marriage, and senior Zanu PF officials and partisans, reaping the rewards of his patronage, will miss Mugabe.