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Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe arrives for a session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union on Jan. 31.Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Even at the age of 91, still a pariah to many Western nations, Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe is serving notice to the world that he fully intends to hang onto power for as long as possible.

Mr. Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 35 years in defiance of international sanctions, election setbacks, a collapsing economy and fleeing investors. With the sanctions now easing, he is returning triumphantly to the world stage, becoming the chairman of the African Union this year and expanding his globetrotting travel to revitalize his image.

Mr. Mugabe, now the world's oldest president, gave a bravura performance at a rare press conference in Pretoria on Wednesday, dominating a summit meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma by delivering a long and rambling lecture on the lessons of African history over the past four centuries.

He dug up his old feuds with former British prime minister Tony Blair and former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith. He defended his seizure of white-owned farms and his demand for Zimbabwean majority control of foreign-owned mines. He talked about his guerrilla days and the evils of colonialism, going back to the arrival of the first Dutch settlers who founded Cape Town in 1652.

He attacked the United Nations Security Council, defended the toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, praised China and Russia, and condemned the media for portraying him as a dictator. He compared himself to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela because he hadn't "cut the throat" of anyone after gaining power.

Mr. Mugabe insisted that his controversial policy of allowing the invasion and seizure of white-owned farms was "all constitutional," despite criticism from Mr. Blair and others. "Blair, Blair, who was he?" he said. "Just the prime minister of Britain. I'm president of Zimbabwe."

He won round after round of applause and laughter from South Africans at his press conference. Reaction to his comments on social media showed that he remains popular among many Africans.

After speaking for nearly 40 minutes without a pause and without any notes, he took pity on his audience. "I could go on and on," he told them. "I can see you are tired."

When he finally turned away from the podium and the TV cameras, he thrust his fist in the air and shouted "Amandla!" – the famous rallying cry of the anti-apartheid movement, meaning "power."

Mr. Mugabe's first state visit to South Africa in more than two decades was another step toward respectability for the man whom the West loved to hate. He was given a red-carpet welcome and a 21-gun salute in Pretoria with full military honours from a ceremonial guard and a brass band. It was a major prize from a government with which he has quarrelled in the past.

Mr. Zuma seemed anxious to mend fences with his fellow president. He addressed him as "my dear brother" and on two occasions he held hands with Mr. Mugabe as they walked chummily through the vast and majestic halls of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

At a state banquet on Wednesday night, Mr. Zuma praised Mr. Mugabe for his African Union chairmanship, saying: "You lead us in the quest for peace and stability in every corner of Africa."

Not long ago, the two leaders weren't nearly so friendly. Mr. Mugabe has long resented South Africa's post-apartheid presidents, especially Mr. Mandela, for overshadowing his own stature as an African hero for leading the liberation war against Rhodesia's white-minority regime. In a 2013 interview, the Zimbabwean President criticized Mr. Mandela for being "too saintly" and for going "too far in doing good to the non-black communities."

Mr. Zuma attempted to use diplomatic pressure to nudge Mr. Mugabe toward a more democratic future after the chaos of Zimbabwe's violence-racked election in 2008. But this backfired spectacularly in 2013, when Mr. Zuma's international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu, dared to question Mr. Mugabe's election plans. Her comments infuriated Mr. Mugabe, who denounced Ms. Zulu as a "stupid idiotic woman" and a "little streetwalker."

Mr. Mugabe has also resented South Africa's economic power, which has lured millions of Zimbabweans to leave their depressed homeland and migrate southward. South Africa is a major source of food and other supplies for Zimbabwe, and it became a lifeline when the Zimbabwean economy was at its worst. Its exports to Zimbabwe – about $2.1-billion (U.S.) last year – far outweigh the $170-million that it imports from Zimbabwe.

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