Harare - President Robert Mugabe charmed delegates at the close of his ruling party conference Saturday with one question: Would his wife Grace let him drink his bottle of vodka? The 91-year-old leader raised laughter from the 6 000-strong crowd meeting in Victoria Falls when he confessed he didn't show his wife the "one little bottle of vodka" a local company had given him."I said I must not take it before the conference," he admitted to rippling chuckles from an attentive crowd crammed into a marquee on the golf course of the plush Elephant Hills resort.In a closing speech on Saturday afternoon peppered with anecdotes and grandfatherly advice, Mugabe showed once again how he can work an audience, and why he still has what appears to be fairly widespread support among a nation battered by economic challenges.True, Mugabe - who was confirmed at this conference as Zanu-PF's presidential candidate for the 2018 elections - glossed over those economic challenges. He promised that things would be better in Zimbabwe next year. "You will see many more things which were about to die will become alive again," he vowed, without explaining exactly how. He spoke of Zimbabwean companies that "are now back on their feet... they have revived, or survived the hard times." Those may be words that are hard to swallow for the thousands of Zimbabweans believed to have lost their jobs in 2015: 20 000 of them were rendered jobless in a short less-than-two-month period in July and August.But there were other topics he touched on that will strike a national chord: his scorn for those he called "non-sadza eating people" and his insistence that Zimbabweans teach their children the local Shona and Ndebele languages as well as English. Sadza or cooked mealie-meal porridge is Zimbabwe's national staple.Tapping into Zimbabweans' pride of their local languages, he criticised nationals who refuse to speak Shona at home. "I am a teacher," he said. "It's just wrong psychologically."And there were cheers too when Mugabe publicly praised Joseph Chinotimba, a once-straw-hat-wearing war veterans' leader who has become an extremely popular member of parliament in the Buhera district of eastern Zimbabwe. Speaking in a voice that fumbled only very occasionally, the president had harsh words for those promoting factionalism in his bitterly-divided party. He also maintained his tough stance on black empowerment, promising that in 2016 "we will not accept a company which refuses and rejects our policy of indigenisation".But no-one could say that this was the speech of an angry leader. Instead it was the speech of a family elder professing care, at least towards his faithful supporters: urging them to travel safely home, for example, and to share a message of "hope" with their families and neighbours. Hope and rice, to be precise. Grace Mugabe (who did not address delegates at this conference) had prepared "just some little things" for the 6 000 delegates to take home, the president told the crowds Who cheered again.