Stories from the hell that is Zimbabwe

2010-11-25 00:00

ONE job Peter Godwin won’t be applying­ for is that of ghost writer on Robert Mugabe’s threatened memoirs — if he did, he reckons that he might end up as the ghost. Godwin, author of the acclaimed Mukiwa­ and When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, has recently been in South Africa to launch his latest book on the situation in Zimbabwe, The Fear. Mugabe is unlikely to be enthusiastic.

The book tells of the anxious weeks in 2008 between the Zim- babwean­ election, which Mugabe lost after nearly 30 years of rule, and the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU). They were weeks of brutality, death squads and torture, aptly nicknamed “the fear” by those who became the victims. Godwin, who was born and grew up in that country, was there, travelling with his sister, observing, reporting and trying to fly below Mugabe’s radar­.

His story combines a powerful indictment of a corrupt and evil regime with a description of incredible, almost insane bravery. Godwin describes Mugabe’s 2008 Zimbabwe as a kleptocratic state with the elite looting everything, struggling to cling on to power. “It was the fastest contracting economy in peacetime since economic monitoring was invented,” he says. “There was nothing left to steal. It wasn’t just the farms: when the Zimbabwean dollar went, pensions and savings went too. But they didn’t just disappear, they were stolen. And it reached the point where there was not much left to steal. A vampire state needs more blood — and then they discovered diamonds.”

Godwin explains that the money from the diamonds is not going into the fiscus, but is being used to revitalise the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (Zanu- PF).

One of the most terrifying chapters in The Fear describes his visit to the diamond diggings which almost had a disastrous ending. “It’s like the Wild West there,” he says. But he sees the situation in Zimbabwe not as anarchy, but as organised fascism­. The torture and violence is structured and planned. Nothing is spontaneous: violence is orchestrated from the top down.

The reaction in South Africa reaffirms Godwin’s reasons for writing The Fear. “People know what has been going on and I had to play down the torture stuff. I couldn’t just give a litany of horrors. But they are still surprised by the sheer awfulness of it. I suspect they have been numbed because it came out in little bits and pieces. But you blank it out at your peril. Zimbabwe is a worst-case scenario, the low-road portent. But if you don’t guard your liberties ...”

“I’m not suggesting exact parallels between Zimbabwe and South Africa, but look back at Zimbabwe to see where it starts to go wrong. A liberation movement becomes a government with what it sees as an eternal well of legitimacy, and it can morph into an authoritarian government. You don’t know if you are living in a democracy until the government changes.”

It is a sobering thought.

Godwin knows the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai well and saw him several times during the weeks of the fear, including at the funeral of his wife who was killed in a car accident.

“He gets a bad press. He’s a big bear of a man and suffers by comparison with the articulate and fastidious Mugabe. But Tsvangirai was a skilled trade union head, and he is bright and articulate. Everyone I know who works with him has respect for him.”

Although not the South African government. Godwin says that the African National­ Congress is allergic to the MDC.

“That’s why we can never expect South Africa to play the honest broker­. In southern Africa, where freedom movements became governments — the ANC, Swapo [The South-West Africa People’s Organisation], Frelimo [The Mozambican Liberation Front] and Zanu-PF — it is not in the interest of any of them if one loses power. It would be a bad precedent for the liberation myth, the Cuban-style everlasting revolution.

“And, in South Africa’s case, it’s made worse by a restive Cosatu [The Congress­ of South African Trade Unions­]. Tsvangirai­ was head of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions­, and it used to be inside Zanu-PF. He took it out and formed the MDC. That idea makes the ANC very uncomfortable. Before Jacob Zuma came to power, he was making more encouraging noises to the MDC and it thought he would be sympathetic, but that hasn’t been the case. I suspect it’s because of what has happened with Cosatu.”

Godwin also sees the media as having played into Mugabe’s hands. Most of the people who have suffered under Mugabe’s rule have been black — starting with the 20 000 who died in the Matabeleland massacres of the eighties, where Godwin cut his journalistic teeth. But it was when white farms were invaded that the world media took notice, and made it look like a race issue.

“It was very traumatising for the white farmers, sure, but what Mugabe­ did was get rid of a block of a million black opposition voters. They were driven off the farms, made homeless, and many died. But the whites have been a smokescreen for Mugabe and the media have helped him with the way they have reported it.”

Some of the stories in The Fear are harrowing, like an MDC supporter lying in hospital with two broken arms and trying to breastfeed her baby, but there are lighter moments and descriptions of larger-than-life characters who, as Godwin says, seem to have strayed in from a Graham­ Greene novel.

And Godwin would love to ease his exile from the country of his birth by being able to go back and spend time there. “If Zimbabwe comes right, I would love to live there for part of the year. But it’s a country hanging on by a thread. Every month of Mugabe’s rule adds another year of recovery time.”

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