HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — A South African fast food and restaurant chain said Thursday it has withdrawn advertising that depicts the aging, authoritarian president of Zimbabwe as "the last dictator standing."
Nando's South Africa said in an announcement it noted with concern "political reaction" in Zimbabwe, including threats against managers, staff and customers at its spicy chicken franchise outlets across the country.
A television commercial shows Robert Mugabe dining alone at Christmas, his empty table set for departed dictators including Moammar Gadhafi.
Nando's says it will no longer air the advertising on South African television, which is beamed by satellite to tens of thousands of Zimbabwean subscribers.
On Tuesday, a militant youth group loyal to Mugabe called for a boycott and other unspecified punitive action against the chain unless the 60-second commercial was dropped and an apology made to Mugabe, 87, who led Zimbabwe to independence in 1980.
The announcement said the food chain took the threats seriously.
"We feel strongly that this is the prudent step to take in a volatile climate and believe that no TV commercial is worth risking the safety of Nando's staff and customers." it said.
To the soundtrack of Mary Hopkin's "Those Were the Days," the commercial shows an actor playing Mugabe reminiscing about his times with former dictators. It portrays him and Gadhafi engaging in a water-pistol fight, with Gadhafi wielding a golden AK-47 water pistol.
The ersatz Mugabe also makes sand angels with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, sings karaoke with Chairman Mao, and holds overthrown Ugandan dictator Idi Amin astride a tank in a scene parodying Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the hit movie "Titanic."
The head of Nando's Zimbabwe franchise said Tuesday it was not informed of the South African television and press campaign, and is independent of them.
Musekiwa Kumbula, corporate affairs director at Innscor Africa, holders of the Nando's franchise in Zimbabwe, said the commercial already widely seen on Zimbabwe websites and shown for the first time on television Wednesday was generated in South Africa for its market and clientele.
The Innscor group "strongly feels the advertisement is insensitive and in poor taste," he said.
It is an offense under Zimbabwe law to insult Mugabe or undermine the authority of his office.
Mugabe once maintained close ties with Gadhafi. But relations became strained over payments for a gasoline deal during acute fuel shortages and shortly before the Libyan leader befriended Western leaders such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom Mugabe harshly criticized for his policies toward Zimbabwe.
Chairman Mao's China helped train Mugabe's guerrillas to end white rule in the former British colony of Rhodesia and Mugabe has been a frequent visitor to China ever since.
Mugabe played host to Saddam Hussein at a world summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1986. And though Mugabe was a sharp critic of apartheid-era South African President P.W. Botha — depicted in the commercial being pushed on a swing by Mugabe — apartheid South Africa remained Zimbabwe's biggest trading partner.
Business tycoon Ray Kaukonde, a major stockholder in Innscor and a former provincial governor in Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, said the advertising denigrated Mugabe. He called it "a violation of business ethics" and said it was "in total disregard of African values."
Critics, Western governments and rights groups have said Mugabe became increasingly authoritarian and unleashed a decade of violence, vote-rigging and intimidation amid a breakdown of the rule of law after he ordered the seizures of thousands of white-owned farms in 2000.
Human rights activists accuse the militant Mugabe youth group known as Chipangano of forming violent gangs that roam Harare's impoverished townships and seize property from those seen as supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's former opposition party in the nation's fragile 30-month coalition government.