Reality TV turns surreal as Robert Mugabe and family open their doors to the cameras
The Guardian in Johannesburg
Flowers, silverware and a box of tissues adorn the spotless white tablecloth. The family say grace and "bon appetit!" before tucking into their vegetables. Sitting at the head of the table, dad worries aloud about his son's schoolwork and his daughter's boyfriends, while mum chortles about confiscating the PlayStation.
This is lunch with the Mugabes, a surreal glimpse of Zimbabwe's first family as no one has ever quite seen them before. Before the TV cameras Robert, wife Grace and two of their children declare their love for each other, discuss philosophy and religion, and laugh about the time Grace punched a British photographer. The result is compelling and at times jaw-dropping.
The gates of Harare's secretive State House were thrown open to interviewer Dali Tambo, flamboyant son of South African liberation hero Oliver Tambo. He gives Mugabe a sympathetic hearing and admits he is "totally" braced for the charge that he is sanitising and glorifying a dictator just months before Zimbabwe holds crucial elections.
Indeed, those who blame Mugabe's 33-year rule for their suffering may find it hard to stomach the climax of the two-part documentary, which finds the president, dapper as ever in suit and grey tie, lunching with his wife and children in a stately room that once hosted the Queen. In a routine familiar to fans of his long-running People of the South series, Tambo asks them to look at each other and express their feelings.
Grace Mugabe, more than four decades younger than her husband, takes his hand and declares: "You're very loving, you're kind, you're generous, you kind of like brought me up and you know that I appreciate everything that I've been able to do."
Dubbed "DisGrace" by headline writers for an allegedly profligate lifestyle, she continues: "I've tried to use [my position] to benefit the less privileged of this country, and whatever I do, I do it to complement the work you're doing. I'm really happy to be your wife and I feel blessed to be part of your family."
Mugabe warmly describes daughter Bona, 24, a postgraduate student in a pink-tinted leopard-pattern dress, as "very obedient" and "absolutely trustworthy" but chides Bellarmine, whose studies at a private school came to an abrupt end this year.
"He has not made me happy in the way he takes to his studies. He should be more serious than he is at the moment," he says.
Tambo touches a raw nerve by asking Mugabe what qualities he would look for in a husband for his daughter. Brow furrowed and voice gruff, Africa's oldest leader would be enough to strike fear into any potential suitor.
"Regarding such approaches, one from a wolf who has come to seize one of my lambs - that's the feeling," he says.
Tambo's late father was close to Mugabe but it took three years to land the interview, which will be shown by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) on Sunday.
During the two-and-a-half-hour interview, the 89-year-old Zanu-PF leader says the coming election will be peaceful but does not sound like a man ready to let go.
"The British are calling for regime change, that I must go. That call must not come from the British. My people still need me and when people still need you to lead them it's not time, sir - it doesn't matter how old you are - to say goodbye."