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Zimbabweans don’t deserve democracy

By Bill Saidi

AROUND this time last year, I was at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, watching Wayne Rooney score a briliant goal against Southampton. Thirty years earlier, I had watched George Best mesmer

ise the Liverpool defence in a game they drew 1-1 with their perennial rivals.

For that game, I was in the VIP section at Old Trafford, a guest of my favourite club.

Last year, I was in the terraces, courtesy of a ticket offered to me by a colleague.

I was in Manchester to make a modest contribution to Visions of Zimbabwe, an exhibition at the Manchester City Gallery, featuring such famous Zimbabwean artists as Voti Thebe, Tapfuma Gutsa, Berry Bickle, David Brazier, Chikonzero Chazunguza, Alice Tavaya and Chaz Maviyane-Davies.

I was one of three journalists taking part in the exhibition, with an improvised shebeen den, which I said was popular as a meeting place for journalists and politicians in the 1960s, when nationalist organisations were banned.

It had genuine 60s furniture, an old radiogram and the music of the Dark City Sisters, from my own record library.

It was a hit with many visitors to the exhibition.

The other journalists were Grace Mutandwa, formerly of the Financial Gazette, and Andrew Meldrum, correspondent of The Guardian who had been based in Harare for 22 years, until his deportation a few months earlier.

My contribution in the catalogue of the exhibition was on the plight of the journalist in Zimbabwe. It was a rather personalised account of a career in the trenches, beginning with my induction as a cadet reporter at the African Daily News in 1957, and almost ending with the shut-down of The Daily News in 2003.

The exhibition was put together by Raphael Chikukwa, who wrote in his introduction to the catalogue: “When words fail, art speaks.”

Most of the pieces were critical of a Zimbabwe in real turmoil, with itself, with the rest of the world – almost – and with its unfulfilled promises of freedom after independence from colonial rule.

There were controversial photographs by a former colleague at the Daily News, Tsvangirai Mukwazhi, some of which we had published. They illustrated, in stark, graphic detail how the promises of 1980 had been ignored by Zanu PF.

All the participants had to fend off questions from the local media about the presumed danger of returninng to our homeland after taking part in an exhibition so critical of the government of President Robert Mugabe.

Most of us said we had no hesitation in returning home. “Would we not be bundled off to prison as soon as we landed at the airport?” we were asked.

To be sure, among the visitors to the exhibition, in the heart of Manchester, were people from the Zimbabwean embassy, disguised either as indigent Zimbabwean exiles anxious for any handouts or news from home, or as journalists from the thriving black-conscienceness media in the UK.

At the time, it did not occur to me that the government would worry about us to the extent of actually arresting us on our return.

Months later, of course, the government announced there would be a new law under which citizens who travelled abroad and spouted criticism of the government would have their passports withdrawn.

I should be thankful for small mercies, it would seem.

I doubt that any vigorous campaign will be launched to force the government to abandon this heartless assault on the freedom of the citizen to travel. Recently, I have come to the sad conclusion that we Zimbabweans really don’t deserve democracy. Certainly, we don’t deserve a free press. Although most of us fought colonialism to bring democracy to our country, once Independence was achieved, we lacked the cojones to fight for that democracy and even for a free press.

This may sound farcical, but I am always reminded of an old reggae hit by Third World: “Now that we have found love, what are we gonna do with it.”

For “love” substitute “Independence”. Since 1980, the government has trampled recklessly on the people’s fundamental rights without so much as a whimper from the citizens. There is much evidence that we lack the courage to stand up to the government when it introduces such legislation as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), and the Constitutional Amendment No 17 which created the monster called the senate – a glorified junkyard for disused politicians.

Since I am naturally concerned with the rights of the journalist, I want to refer to a recent attack on the media by the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono.

In his latest quarterly monetary review, the most strident he has delivered so far, he chastised the media for joining the alleged enemies of the state. In short, he assailed their tendency of not accentuating the positive in the now headless-chicken turnaround programme.

Not once did he acknowledge that, as facts are sacred to journalists, accentuating the positive is possible and plausible only when the facts do so.

If they don’t, the journalist who creates a positive spin in the absence of the facts knows what his colleagues call him.

There is a chasmitic difference between journalism and public relations, although there are people, particularly politicians and civil servants, who tend to confuse the two for their nefarious purposes.

Gono, as the typical “establishment praise-singer” he has become, would not acknowledge that the media in Zimbabwe is under siege. He would not mention the ban on four newspapers: the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, the Tribune and the Weekly Times. He spoke as if the media landscape was perfectly normal.

The jackboot of Aippa has squashed the life out of newspapers. There is a tight rope around the necks of all editors and reporters. One small mistake and that rope could be tightened enough to squeeze the life out of them.

Gono is not alone in viewing the media landscape with equanimity. A recent workshop on the fight against HIV and Aids featured activists advising journalists on how to be more effective in their coverage of the pandemic.

Not one of them decried the absence of four soldiers in the fight – the newspaper banned under Aippa.

Not one of them would acknowledge that under Aippa a journalist could be jailed for five years if, in the opinion of the custodians of that law, he had published a “falsehood” relating to the campaign against HIV/Aids.

Not many people appealing to the media to do this or that acknowledge that since Independence, journalists have been terrorised by this government. Not many mention the terrible fate of Willie Musarurwa, an outstanding defender of the country’s right to Independence and the right of the people to enjoy that Independence to the full.

Hardly any of them mention the name of Mark Chavunduka, a young man in his 30s, who may have died of natural causes, but like Musarurwa, had been thoroughly traumatised by the government terror campaign against journalists.

Citizens who know that the fight against colonialism was waged so relentlessly because they too wanted to enjoy the freedoms enshrined in the United Nations Charter are silent when those same rights are trampled underfoot with breathtaking impunity by the government.

The same citizens will not raise a hue and cry when the government promulgates laws such as Posa and the Constitutional Amendment Act No 17.

In the late 1980s, before the tenth anniversary of Independence, Edgar Tekere complained that “Democracy was in the intensive care unit.” His outrage led him to speak out so loudly against the government Zanu PF expelled him from its ranks. When I read he had been picked as a Zanu PF candidate for the senate election, I was alarmed. I have known the man for more than 30 years and I wondered what had happened to him.

When it was announced he had been “dropped”, I was massively relieved.

Zimbabwean democracy, by now, is not only in the intensive care unit but has challenged the most qualified physicians in the world to help it evince even a spark of life.

The men and women in charge of Zimbabwe can be described as inveterate party animals. To celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Independence, they pulled out all the stops.

Later, it was publicly acknowledged that the government had spent so much foreign currency during this bash there was not enough left over to buy any more fuel.

So, in planning the celebrations, the government sat down and decided that even if it meant there would be no money left over to buy fuel, this shindig had to be the biggest since 1980.

And that is how it happened. Nobody raised a finger in protest. How do such people deserve democracy? Or a free press?

* Bill Saidi is editor of the banned Daily News on Sunday

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