Stuffed leopards and a grand piano: Meeting Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's State House

Rohit Kachroo meets Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe's State House. Photo: ITV News

I am led towards Zimbabwe’s State House – around a presidential limousine with ‘ZIM 1’ number plates, past the stuffed leopards and lions perched on the veranda and through a set of white pillars.

Although ornamental animals and exquisitely dressed staff are not the preserve of Empire, the grandeur of this building certainly feels colonial.

A scrum of security staff clears to reveal the small figure of 89-year-old Robert Mugabe, leaning back in his chair, hands crossed, wearing a grey suit and blue tie.

At this point, I am surprised that this interview is happening at all.

This is the first time for ten years that the Zimbabwean president has agreed to speak to British television.

And although this is the man who more frequently than almost anyone else in the world is described as a “tyrant”, “dictator” or “authoritarian”, no subjects are banned, no questions vetted.

As the cameraman prepares to roll, I make small talk with Mugabe, discussing the grand piano in the corner of the room.

He doesn’t play it but likes to listen, he says. Then, one of his aides, referring to me as ‘Kachroo’, urges me to get going. And so I do.

Mugabe’s energy is surprising. After a gruelling election campaign, he responds to each question with enthusiasm - his fists clenched at several points.

In Zimbabwe there are constant rumours that his frequent trips to the Far East are to manage his fading health. But there is no sign of it here. And he makes no attempt to avoid the topic of his advancing years.

Robert Mugabe prepares to cast his vote in Highfields outside Harare. Credit: Reuters

Another surprise is the nuance of his approach towards Britain.

He rails against Tony Blair’s government, rolling his eyes when I mention his name, and spitting far more venom about him than he does his domestic political opponents.

But there is, perhaps, the hint of the Anglophile in the anti-colonialist.

He speaks of his warmth towards Margaret Thatcher and of his respect for the Royal Family.

“We’ve said nothing about Her Majesty, the Queen… We have great respect for the Queen; we have great respect for Prince Charles and the other princes there, and princesses,” he told me.

He dismissed claims of ‘vote rigging’ – a term that he says is “foreign”, and he says that he will accept the result of the election, whatever it is, “because he is a Christian”.

Many of his opponents in Zimbabwe and abroad aren’t so sure.

Then our interview is brought to a close by one of his staff.

With hours to go before the polls open, Mugabe seems relaxed but concedes that “tonight is not like any other night” as he wanders off.

He disappears past his beloved piano and into the depths of the State House.

There are momentous days ahead for all Zimbabweans - for him, perhaps more than any other.

More on this story