Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe: Dictator, Fashion Mogul, Or Both?

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Of all the international media outlets where you might hope to catch the latest news regarding  autocratic Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Vogue magazine -- a high-fashion glossy -- would probably be one of the last places you’d look.

But the dictator of one of the Africa’s most repressed countries turned up in a Vogue UK news headline on Wednesday. As it turns out, Mugabe, an 89-year-old who has held power in Zimbabwe for 33 years and counting, is venturing into the fashion industry.

If you keep an eye on any one of the many busy streets in the capital city of Harare these days, there’s a good chance you’ll spot a hat or T-shirt with Mugabe’s signature emblazoned across the front. The apparel belongs to a new label called House of Gushungo, which is owned by the company Yedu Nesu. CEO Justin Matenda is a big fan of Mugabe, as is label designer Saint Mahaka.

“The young guys are into fashion. They talk about label, label, label ... [Mugabe] is already a brand himself,” said Mahaka, according to the BBC.

"We decided, there is Versace, there is Polo, there is Tommy Hilfiger -- people are putting on these labels, but don't know who they are and what the story is. We know President Mugabe's story, we know who he is. And those who resonate with his story and what he stands for -- there is something only for the older guys but for the young guys as well."

The clothing doesn’t seem to have exacerbated political tensions so far, but the Harare is home to many who would like to see Mugabe lose his post. A presidential and parliamentary election is expected to take place later this year, and the atmosphere is tense -- but voters on all sides are keen to avoid a repeat of 2008.

Then as now, Mugabe was running against Morgan Tsvangirai, who represents the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC. It wasn’t a fair fight; Mugabe waged a campaign of vote-rigging, violence and intimidation. Polls had revealed that he was losing to MDC, but Mugabe's aggressive tactics eventually forced Tsvangirai to drop out.

Uncontested, Mugabe won the vote. But international pressure later resulted in a power-sharing arrangement; Mugabe now acts as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. Since that agreement was brokered, Tsvangirai and many MDC members in Parliament have reported being harassed, persecuted, even arrested.

This time around, MDC supporters are on the lookout for foul play. Party spokesperson Luke Tamborinyoka had a mildly censorious reaction to the apparel from House of Gushungo.

“It's an attempt to seduce the young, first-time voters who are believed to be almost a million -- a very big number considering Zimbabwe's voting population,” he said to the BBC, adding that “no amount of fashion labels will save [Mugabe] in the next election."

But in fact, polls have shown that Mugabe can expect to win. One survey conducted last year by the Freedom House showed that his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, has 31 percent of popular support. The MDC commands only 20 percent of popular support. (Many voters refused to indicate their preference.)

Still, ZANU-PF officials aren’t leaving anything to chance -- not even a T-shirt. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa is now trying to patent the signature used on House of Gushungo apparel.

"It's an intellectual property which we have to maintain. We have allowed every Jack and Jill to do what they like about the whole thing,” Zanu-PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo said to the BBC. “The main reason why the brand is so popular is that he is a highly intellectual leader, but we want to control it to make sure whoever is going to use it will have to pay something. So we are going to restrict it as a party.”

Restriction is not a new theme for Mugabe, who is known for intolerance of dissent. He has presided over decades of corruption and mismanagement. Zimbabwe has made little developmental progress since its independence; poverty and hunger are widespread throughout the landlocked country. Zimbabwe has huge mineral assets, including diamonds, which could be used to finance the public sector and necessary infrastructure projects. But reports indicate that these funds are regularly embezzled by ZANU-PF officials.

As the polls indicate, Mugabe nonetheless enjoys support from much of population. He was a public hero when he was first elected in 1980 due to his prominent role in overthrowing white minority rule during the 1960s and '70s. He has continued to champion black ownership of land and businesses, but his poor execution of land-distribution policies and company-proprietorship regulations have only restricted growth.

During 33 years of autocracy, prospects for change have been dim -- but there is a sliver of hope. This weekend, citizens will vote in a national referendum to approve a new constitution. It would lessen the power of the executive branch, and seems likely to pass at this point.

The general election is expected to follow just a few months later -- until then, some of the people of Harare will use their T-shirts to broadcast their affiliations, unless ZANU-PF takes gains and strictly enforces a patent on the presidential signature.

“We all came from families that went through the liberation struggle,” explained Yedu Nesu CEO Matenda to the BBC.

“Our upbringing has been mentored by the concept and principles of empowerment and upholding the ideals of black Zimbabweans. We are just there to propel [Mugabe’s] identity, to maintain his legacy.”

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