Everyone expected Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to show off his signature wit and fiery invective during this, his first state visit to South Africa in 21 years. After all, this is a man who has publicly disparaged everyone from former British prime minister Tony Blair to former U.S. president George W. Bush.
During a long and rambling monologue on Wednesday he delivered, Mugabe threw a few expected jabs -- like “Blair, Blair, who was he? Just the prime minister of Britain. I’m president of Zimbabwe.”
Mugabe, however, also dished up something that few expected to see on the menu: humility.
As observers noted before his visit, he might need it - many speculated that the reason for his visit was to ask South African President Jacob Zuma for help financing a regional summit scheduled for later this month in Zimbabwe.
The official reason for the visit was to cement economic ties between the neighboring nations. South Africa’s invitation could also lead to a thawing in international relations for Zimbabwe, which has become a pariah state, largely due to Mugabe’s words and actions during his 34-year rule.
Mugabe certainly appealed to Zuma’s vanity by praising the size of his economy. “South Africa is more developed than Zimbabwe and is far larger than Zimbabwe,” Mugabe said during a joint press conference. “The balance of trade could never be in favor of Zimbabwe - we shall always have a deficit because we are smaller.”
He also called South Africa an “elder brother” to Zimbabwe in terms of economic might. He said this soon after the two nations signed an agreement on issues that included trade, water management and customs.
Mugabe also defended Zuma, who is under fire from his critics for a seemingly never-ending scandal over his alleged use of some $23 million dollars in government funds for upgrades to his personal home.
“You can tarnish me - I don’t care,” he told South African and international journalists. “We are Africans. We don’t tarnish our leaders.”
In fact, Mugabe once tried to pass a law making it illegal to insult the president in Zimbabwe. It was overturned by the constitutional court in 2013.
He then apologized to Zuma for the burden that Zimbabwe has put on its more prosperous neighbor.
“We owe you not just a gesture of thankfulness which we must express, but we owe you that thankfulness for the tolerance there has been on the part of the government here as our people have really offended the system, jumping the borders and disturbing the social system here,” he said. “Where they have come as workers we say thank you for giving that work.”
South Africa has the world’s highest population of Zimbabwean expatriates. Some 200,000 of them are now trying to renew their asylum permits after fleeing in the aftermath of Zimbabwe's violent 2008 elections. Many Zimbabweans say they have moved to South Africa because of a lack of economic opportunities at home - for which many blame Mugabe - and because of the political climate in Zimbabwe - on which they blame him as well.
Mugabe even showed that he was capable of laughing at himself, thanking the media for treating him as “a real dictator.”
The assembled media laughed in delight.