- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

JOHANNESBURG Zimbabwean exiles living in South Africa have reacted angrily to the news that President Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace, was staying at a $700-a-day, five-star Caesar's Hotel and Casino at a time of widespread poverty and suffering back home.
"It is obscene," Jay Sibanda, leader of an exile lobby group, told The Washington Times Saturday. "Millions of people are starving because of her husband's dictatorship and this woman is spending [$700] a night to stay at a luxury hotel."
A recent United Nations report suggests that two-thirds of Zimbabwe's 12 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Mr. Mugabe, 79, and his 38-year-old second wife, known as "Comrade Grace," have become the subject of wide criticism for their lavish lifestyle.
While consumers line up for hours to buy meager supplies of corn meal, sugar and soap, critics contend that groceries for the presidential palace are flown in from London.
A local radio journalist called the Caesar's switchboard late last week and was put through to Mrs. Mugabe, who identified herself then slammed down the phone after being told she was on the air.
Mr. Sibanda said his group had tried to mount a peaceful protest outside the casino over the weekend but were chased away by hotel security.
"More than two million Zimbabweans have fled to this country," he said. "At home we are being tortured, starved and beaten as part of Mugabe's desperate bid to stay in power and we should at least be able to highlight that in a peaceful demonstration."
A U.S. firm, Park Place Entertainment, which also owns Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, has a significant ownership stake in the hotel.
A spokesperson for Caesar's said it was company policy not to divulge guest information.
Mr. Mugabe was re-elected last year in a campaign marred by violence and intimidation. Most Western governments including the United States refused to recognize the result.
Human rights organizations estimate that as many as 70,000 Zimbabweans have been tortured or assaulted by government agents in the past year and that 60 percent of the population requires food aid in the wake of Mr. Mugabe's coercive land-reform program that has resulted in all but 300 of the country's 4,000 white commercial farmers driven off their land.
Last August, Mrs. Mugabe took over a large farm in the Mazowe district near the capital, Harare, even though the government had earmarked it for landless blacks.
In the past year, shortages at home have forced Zimbabwe's elite to do their shopping in South Africa, where the press has made a habit of exposing their sprees.
In January, Mr. Mugabe's information minister, Jonathan Moyo, was pictured in the Johannesburg Sunday Times packing three four-wheel-drive vehicles with groceries and luxury goods bound for Harare. A week earlier, Mr. Moyo had made a statement denying that there were shortages in Zimbabwe and accusing Western journalists of "publishing false reports" about his country.
Mr. Mugabe met his first wife, Sally Hefron, when he was teaching in Ghana in 1961. When Sally Mugabe died in 1995, it was revealed that her husband had fathered two children with his secretary, a divorcee named Grace Marufu. The couple were married in 1996.

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