Today, as President Mugabe drives along the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway in the countryside, he sees acres of once lush farmland, now fallow. The road wends past vast squatter camps where people dig for roots to survive. Some defiantly wave the openhanded salute of the MDC. Mugabe has banned the salute, as well as any "suspicious movement or gesture" within sight or sound of the presidential motorcade.
He knows that he has outlasted all the Big Men of his generation: Mobutu Sese Seko, Kenneth Kaunda, Idi Amin, and, most recently, Daniel Arap Moi, the former president of Kenya, who lost in a landslide election last December after 24 years of autocratic rule. Moi, another 79-year-old with a taste for English suits, formally ceded power at Nairobi's Uhuru Park. Upon sighting his limousine, Kenyans threw mud balls and jeered and later rejoiced while Moi sat stoically on the podium.
Now, as Mugabe grows increasingly isolated within the walls of his empire, rumors of his own demise – as well as insanity and ill-health – swirl around him. Haunted by the specter of his enemies, enslaved by his vanity, he is reviled and yet iconic, until suddenly he is gone – like every Big Man in history.
Janet Reitman is a writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Los Angeles Times Magazine. This is her first article for Men's Journal.