President Robert Mugabe and his political rival, former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, are facing a dilemma of fending off rumors about the state of their health.
Analysts say the key to quelling the speculation, lies with them.
The recent video that went viral, showing president Robert Mugabe at a clinic in Singapore, and the explosion of comments on Facebook and other social media platforms, following reports that Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Tsvangirai was gravely ill, is evidence of the public's interest in their politicians health.
South African-based social commentator Mlamuli Nkomo says this is expected.
“Think to a certain level, Zimbabweans have the right to know the state of health of their leaders ... more importantly, Mugabe because he is in government," says Nkomo.
President Mugabe has long been dogged by rumors of ill health, sparked in 2008 by a leaked diplomatic cable quoting former reserve bank governor Gideon Gono saying the president had prostate cancer.
Despite assurances by Mr. Mugabe that he is in good health, and that his frequent visits to Asia are for routine eye check-ups, the public remains unconvinced. His recent absence from the state burial of Brigadier General John Zingoni as well as the cancellation of a politburo meeting due to his absence, re-fueled the speculation.
Political analyst Paul Chimhosva it’s too late to quell the rumors. “Zanu PF and President Mugabe lost credibility long ago, as far as communicating the health status of their leadership. To me that's very reckless. It’s a very simple issue. People are human beings. They will fall sick, they will turn 90-years old at some point. Their bodies will give in. And it’s only natural that they will fall sick.
“And just being honest for a change. We cannot get treatment at Parirenyatwa Hospital or at Trauma Center, the specialist is located in Singapore, and this is the diagnosis, and the president will be home. That's all."
Former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai addressing villagers in Lower Gweru's Vungu constituency, Midlands province in 2013. (Photo: Courtesy Image)
Chimvosva warns Tsvangirai, whose officials have been giving mixed and contradictory information on his health, could face the same fate.
Speculation about Tsvangirai's health surfaced when he recently failed to attend two major rallies in Harare. Speaking with reporters at his residence Thursday, he acknowledged he was not well, but dismissed reports in the state-run Herald newspaper that he was seriously ill and that he was hospitalized.
“For the MDC, it was actually a grand opportunity for them to start building credibility along those lines. They should have said, this is the problem with the president, this is the patient management plan that has been proposed by his doctors, this is what we are following. This is the problem, full stop."
Analyst George Mkwananzi, agrees, citing the case of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“If both leaders reveal the real nature of their illness, then the speculation will stop. ...in the case of Nelson Mandela, the public was informed at every stage.”
Commentator Mlamuli Nkomo adds that lack of information fuels media speculation.
“People can understand why the private media is speculating on Mr. Mugabe's health because nothing is coming out from the government officials. And then in terms of the stories that are coming out from the Herald about Tsvangirai escaping, from the hospital without paying, I don't think Zimbabweans are taking the reports seriously.”
To the contrary, says Dr. Rutendo Bonde, chair of the Zimbabwe Association for Doctors for Human Rights, health matters are personal, even for public figures.
Bonde said, “Because health is a private matter essentially, I think a lot has to do with educating the public that privacy is universal. It doesn't matter whether you are a public figure or not, because your health and your health condition are things to be guarded. It’s privileged information.
“It’s not uncommon for media to speak about the health of public figures, because sometimes when you are a public figure, the lines do blur between what is private and what is public.”
While the well-being of Mr. Mugabe and Tsvangirai is important to many, the real concern is the fate of the nation, in the event an illness leads to incapacitation.
FILE - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace wave to supporters and guests during celebrations to mark his 90th birthday in Marondera about 80km (50 miles) east of the capital Harare, Feb. 23, 2014. Mugabe turned 90 on February 21. (Reuters)
Mkwananzi explains. “Within Zanu PF itself, there are these cracks, along factional lines, one should be concerned about what will happen to Zimbabwe should the unthinkable happen. What will happen, will the country be plunged into a situation of chaos, and lawlessness now that Robert Mugabe will no longer be there, he has been holding together the different pieces that hold together Zanu-PF. So the concern about his state of health is coming from that kind of worry.”
For analyst Chimhosva, here lies the problem. “If Robert Mugabe dies today there will be pandemonium in Zimbabwe...if Tsvangirai dies today, the MDC is gone, that is exactly the problem… We have crafted our nation around people, rather than around institutions.
"The nation itself must be run by credible, democratic institutions, and the removal of an individual, yes, it should have an impact if the person is worth their salt, but if institutions are strong, it shouldn't be a cause of panic.”
In the meantime, it seems Zimbabwe’s rumour mill will continue to churn out half-baked stories, even untruths, about their leaders’ health for as long as their handlers fail to provide up to date information on the state of their health.