HARARE – To those who know him, Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister Walter Mzembi is a big dreamer, so much that some of his ideas have set him on a collision course with his colleagues in government.
“I am very forthright and not easily intimidated,” Mzembi said of himself. In accepting to serve as minister, I swore an oath of loyalty to the president and the country itself. When I cease to be loyal, the president must fire me immediately and should not keep me for any moment longer than necessary.”
Mzembi came under the world’s spotlight when he announced his desire to bring African football’s greatest showpiece, the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, to Zimbabwe.
The costs and logistics of hosting such an event, coupled with the current appalling state of the country’s infrastructure, ultimately weighed heavily against his bid.
The proposal hit a brickwall because Zimbabwe lacks an efficient transport system, high standard training sites and at least four Fifa-approved stadia to successfully host the 2017 Afcon.
Before that, he had revealed an ambitious plan for Zimbabwe to host the 2034 Fifa football world cup.
Mzembi said Zimbabwe was “changing and rebranding” and would be “prosperous” within a few years. Roads would be rebuilt, Harare International Airport would once again buzz with foreign airlines, and the country’s massive foreign debt would be paid off, he said.
He suggested that Zimbabwe could share the hosting with neighbouring countries.
“For about 40 percent of games, we would use South Africa’s World Cup 2010 stadiums, which are now underused. I have spoken about this to my colleague in Namibia. Botswana would be involved and Zambia and Mozambique,” he said.
“All these countries have stadiums within a 90-minute flight from Harare.”
Mzembi has also controversially proposed that the queen of Britain and President Robert Mugabe sit down for tea. The UK and Zimbabwe are so much in love with each other. There has been some kind of love-hate relationship born out of what is essentially a family feud,” he said.
In May, Mzembi narrowly lost the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) secretary-general elections in Madrid, losing by only three votes in a hard-fought run-off poll.
Zurab Pololikashvili of Georgia was elected to become the next UNWTO secretary-general.
If he is confirmed in September, Pololikashvili will replace Taleb Rifai, a Jordanian, who steps down at the end of 2017 after serving two five-year terms.
The organisation’s 33-nation executive board initially chose Mzembi and Pololikashvili as nominees after the first round of voting in which the Zimbabwe minister had 11 votes and Georgia had eight, South Korea; seven, Brazil; four and Colombia; three.
Mzembi then lost the run-off vote, held after none of the candidates won an overall majority. The Zimbabwean minister had much merit for his campaign and observers said were he to hold any other nationality, he would have stood an excellent chance to be elected.
A distraught Mzembi has appealed against the election result amid accusations of ballot fraud by Pololikashvili.
Mugabe has hailed Mzembi for “excellently” representing Zimbabwe when he came agonisingly close to winning the UNWTO elections.
“On behalf of His Excellency the President, Cde R.G. Mugabe, the hon vice presidents, your colleague members of Cabinet and indeed, on my own behalf, I wish to express to you our deepest appreciation for your sterling performance during your campaign for the UNWTO secretary-general’s post,” chief secretary to the President and Cabinet Misheck Sibanda wrote to Mzembi.
“Indeed, your steadfast defence of our country and its leadership as well as your unflinching dedication to its ideals, in circumstances where some could have easily hung up their harps on the willows was quite commendable.
“You certainly did the nation proud. Notwithstanding your failure to land the post at very last hurdle on account of the incipient activities of the country’s detractors, our high esteem for your excellent representation of our country and the African as a whole remains solid and undiminished.”
Sibanda added: “In the light of your deepened experience, your principals and indeed the nation at large have confidence in your ability to attain to new frontiers achievement in pursuance of your ministerial mandate.”
A controversial minister, Mzembi has also called for the legalisation of shebeens. He has boldly stated that his ministry is putting in place structures to register shebeens and turn them into “home hospitality centres” that will complement existing hotels.
Mzembi believes the unlicensed drinking establishments have the potential to cater for a younger, trendier generation of black and white patrons as well as tourists.
Mzembi has also slammed the ubiquitous police roadblocks on the country’s roads, saying this was undermining the Zimbabwe brand. The minister has previously called for the reduction in the number of the roadblocks, which have largely been used as a revenue generation strategy by police and have also bred uncontrolled corruption.