Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe made enemies in world politics during his 37-years at the helm, thanks to his sharp tongue.
Following his fall from grace, the veteran leader now has the task to pick on a ‘retirement home’.
At home, and in many other countries, he is reviled for running down an economy once rated as the continent’s breadbasket, his clampdown on freedom of expression and the massacre of the Ndebele people in the early 1980s, in what is popularly known as Gukurahundi.
Over the years, Mr Mugabe has sought treatment in Singapore and had his children attend school in countries like Singapore, China, Dubai and South Africa.
“He ran down our country and stopped using our hospitals and universities because they were dysfunctional, yet he didn’t want to step down,” said Mr Liberty Nkuna, a Zimbabwean residing in Pretoria.
And as his lengthy spell as Zimbabwe president came to an unforeseen end of Tuesday, the million-dollar question was where he would spend his retirement.
The Mugabes reportedly own properties in South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore and Zimbabwe‚ and could choose to live in any of those countries.
But, even before he stepped down, South African political parties were already dabbling with the idea of hosting him and his family.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led those calls, saying, “We call on the South African government to prepare to welcome President Mugabe for political asylum. He must be allowed to come to South Africa so that a peaceful transition can indeed take place.”
EFF’s call has been backed by the African Diaspora Forum (ADF).
“Mugabe needs to leave Zimbabwe. I think he should be granted refugee status in one of the African countries and South Africa is well placed to host him because of its leadership role in the SADC,” said Mr Marc Gbaffou, the ADF chairperson.
However, there have been dissenting voices – the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Congress of the People (COPE).
With the hostility he faces back home, his stay in Zimbabwe may not be a rosy one.
Prof Lucky Mathebula, an international relations expert, believes that South Africa would be the safest haven for the 93-year-old leader.
“It would be the safest because South Africa has better systems to protect him and his family. South Africa has a constitutional framework guaranteeing their rights,” Prof Mathebula said.
He noted that South Africa has previously given refuge to former heads of state.
“Experience tells us that they did that to the president of Haiti during Thabo Mbeki’s era. They provided similar asylum to other presidents,” he said.
Ousted Haitian president‚ Jean-Bertrand Aristide‚ and his family were hosted in 2004 for seven years. That cost the country approximately $285,000 (R5 million) a year.
“The monthly costs related to his accommodation‚ transport‚ office staff and security are similar to the cost associated to a South African cabinet minister‚” the Department of International Relations said at the time.
Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane spent his two-year self-imposed exile in South Africa. He fled his country after an army commander he fired threatened to kill him.
“On the basis of that track record, South Africa might not be hostile to hosting Mugabe until the situation in Zimbabwe is friendlier to come back,” said Prof Mathebula.
Political analyst Thulani Ndlovu believes if Mugabe and his family choose to move to South Africa‚ the government may not necessarily have to provide them with a house and state security.
“Aristide was in South Africa for about seven years‚ meaning about R35 million (about $2 million) of taxpayers’ money was spent on him and his family. But I doubt [the] government would have to do the same for the Mugabes. They will have the rights and privileges of any citizens‚” Mr Ndlovu said.
Interestingly, Mugabe‚ the former Zimbabwe first lady Grace who was born in Benoni, South Africa, has a pending court case in the country.
And Mr Ndlovu warns it may not be a quiet and peaceful asylum.
GRACE MUGABE CASE
“Their stay here may be made a bit uncomfortable because of the Grace case, because AfriForum will go all out to pursue private prosecution. People want her to stand trial,” he added.
However, Prof Mathebula believes the case will not be resuscitated.
“The case is buried under diplomatic immunity provision given to Grace Mugabe, if you open it you’re questioning her immunity at the time the crime was committed.”
Mrs Mugabe was granted diplomatic immunity by International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, a move that sparked outrage in some quarters.
Prof Mathebula also believes international human rights activists were unlikely to come after Mr Mugabe to force him to stand trial for crimes he committed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“It’s quite tricky because if you’re to prosecute Mugabe, you’ll have to prosecute Mnangagwa as well.”
The Mugabes already have their two sons‚ Robert Junior and Chatunga‚ residing and schooling in South Africa.
Dr John Akokpari‚ an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of Cape Town‚ is convinced it would be wise for South Africa to host the Mugabes.
“Opposition parties have in the past suggested the simple toppling of Mugabe to decrease the high number of migrants in the country‚ but South Africa needs Zimbabwe more than Zimbabwe needs South Africa‚” said Dr Akokpari.
Zimbabwe and South Africa have a shared history of economic relations and are big trading partners.
He believes “the chances are higher that they will come to South Africa‚ and South Africa will most likely accept Mugabe”.
The South African government on Wednesday said it had received no official request for political asylum or refugee status for Mr Mugabe.
Deputy minister for International Relations and Cooperation Luwellyn Landers said, “At this point there is no indication he or anyone else has requested asylum.”
It remains to see where the loathed leader will spend his retirement.