MUGABE'S HOLD ON AFRICANS !
Despite an economy in turmoil, four-figure inflation and the exodus of millions to neighbouring countries, Zimbabwe's president can rely on the support of his African peers. Peter Biles spoke to one of them in a bid to discover Robert Mugabe's secret.
Mr Mugabe has been in power for over 27 years.
The photographers and cameramen had been waiting patiently outside the Mulungushi conference centre in Lusaka.
Southern African leaders were arriving thick and fast but the man everyone was waiting to see was Mr Mugabe.
He may be a pariah in the capital cities of the European Union but here in the heart of southern Africa he knows he can count on a fair degree of undying loyalty.
When the Mugabe motorcade eventually swept in there was a noticeable tightening of security.
A small pick-up truck bore three heavily armed soldiers in the back, and bodyguards surrounded the black limousine as the 83-year-old president emerged.
He smiled and stepped forward with his wife, Grace, to meet his Zambian hosts.
There was certainly no hint that this was a head of state under intense domestic pressure.
Zambia is a place that all the southern African leaders know pretty well.
On this occasion, they had come for a routine summit but, for some, Lusaka is like a home from home.
President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa lived here for years when he was an exiled member of the ANC.
Zambia has always offered a hand of friendship to refugees, especially during the days of the liberation struggle in South Africa and what was Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Robert Mugabe spent his time in Mozambique during the bush war but a warm welcome is still assured when he meets his fellow leaders.
He is the longest-serving head of state in the region - bar one - and he clearly relishes his position as one of the elder statesmen.
You have to appreciate the bonds of loyalty that defined the struggle for independence in post-colonial Africa to understand why it is that Robert Mugabe is still treated with so much respect, even when his country is collapsing around him and he is largely to blame.
African tradition dictates that he should not be criticised in public whatever private thoughts his peers might harbour.
In Lusaka, I ran across Kenneth Kaunda - independent Zambia's first president. We first met 20 years ago when he occupied State House. Having been the nation's founding father, he had led the country since 1964.
Not unlike Zimbabwe, Zambia's post-colonial era was characterised by optimism to begin with, but then came economic mismanagement, social unrest, and the emergence of political opposition.
But Kenneth Kaunda did something unusual. He fought an election in 1991, lost and stepped aside gracefully after 27 years in power.
That is exactly how long Robert Mugabe has been around.
Mr Kaunda was never the greatest leader but he was - and still is - a well-meaning man with real charisma.
As we sat talking the other afternoon, there seemed to be no better person to shed light on Robert Mugabe. Kenneth Kaunda is near enough the same age, just two months younger. They were both born in 1924.
These days, KK - as he has always been known - enjoys his retirement with dignity and seems to command genuine respect.
As we chatted a stream of passers-by - most of them young enough to be his grandchildren - lined up to greet him and shake his hand.
I tried to picture Robert Mugabe in a similar situation but, to my mind, he and Kenneth Kaunda were poles apart - the despot clinging to power and the happily retired politician, once renowned for his national ideology of humanism.
An improved spirit?
So I asked Dr Kaunda if he could help explain Robert Mugabe's popularity in the region.
"I'm glad you noticed it," he replied.
He was referring to the huge round of applause for President Mugabe during the opening session of the leaders' summit.
"People see him as a hero," he said.
"Not just in Zimbabwe or here in Zambia but across the whole of southern Africa."
And Kenneth Kaunda speaks for many in the region in blaming not Mugabe for Zimbabwe's troubles but successive British governments.
"It's no good demonising Robert Mugabe," he says.
"We should all put our heads together, talk to him, and work with him on a solution."
But that is not to say that even those closest to the Zimbabwean president want him to seek another term in office in his 84th year. Because by all accounts they do not.
My last glimpse of President Mugabe during his brief visit to Lusaka was on a wind-swept parade ground at the city's military airport.
He and the other southern African leaders had come to inaugurate a regional brigade - a key component in a new African standby peacekeeping force.
As the presidents stood shoulder to shoulder they released a bunch of green, blue, and white balloons.
It was a symbol of what this region aspires to - an improved spirit of togetherness and closer integration designed to stimulate economic growth and development.
But because of Zimbabwe, southern Africa is facing its most serious crisis in years. And love him or loath him, it is Robert Mugabe who holds centre stage.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 25 August, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.