Book review by ZWNews Title: Where We Have Hope Author: Andrew Meldrum Publisher: John Murray
HIDING behind a car, his head bleeding, as a terrifying armed band o
f Robert Mugabe supporters clubbed and stoned people taking part in a peace march in central Harare four years ago, journalist Andrew Meldrum wondered what had happened to the Zimbabwe that promised freedom and liberation. It was something that Meldrum, who was seized by police, driven to Harare airport and illegally expelled in May 2003, had cause to ponder often in 23 years of reporting in Zimbabwe.
His book, Where We Have Hope, is, however, far more than a chronicle of disillusion by an idealistic white American who arrived in the country a few months after Independence in 1980.
It is a compelling first-hand account, part personal, part political history, of what went wrong: the sheer cruelty and brutality that has enabled Mugabe to cling to power; the politicisation of the police, military and top judiciary; the strangling of press freedom; the corruption; the attacks on whites, gays, church leaders or whoever to try to bolster waning support; the rigged and violent elections; South African protection of Mugabe; and, through it all, the enduring courage and dignity of many Zimbabweans as their hopes for change were dashed by an ever-more repressive regime.
Two points stand out. First, how much worse it is now than it was even after Mugabe started seizing white-owned farms in 2000 in response to losing a constitutional referendum.
For example, Meldrum describes crowds of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) supporters booing and jeering Mugabe as he arrived at parliament after claiming election victory (any public gathering now forbidden without police permission); a news conference marked by tough questions from foreign correspondents (all now expelled); and, a bit earlier in 1999, an unprecedented letter to Mugabe from senior judges (all now removed) urging his government to uphold the rule of law and obey court orders.
Second, Meldrum’s unshakeable belief that democracy, respect for human rights, a free press and sound economic management will be restored in Zimbabwe under a new government. But when and at what cost?
“I cannot say,” concludes Meldrum, correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper and now based in South Africa. “It is not known how many Zimbabweans will be beaten, tortured and killed in the struggle to regain their freedoms. But I am absolutely sure that the country will return to its democratic ideals … The Zimbabwean electorate will emerge from the struggle strengthened and considerably wiser.”
Meldrum, a hands-on reporter, combines political and economic analysis with memorable human stories. During the killings in Matabeleland by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade in the 1980s, Meldrum went to see for himself. At a mission hospital he and three other journalists were saved from detection by troops when a brave doctor hid them in a cupboard.
On the day of the Harare peace march, with Mugabe’s men screaming Hondo, Hondo, (War, War), Meldrum was rescued by a young black computer programmer.
“They were attacking all the whites. I saw they were coming back so that is why I helped you,” the man said, driving Meldrum from the melée. “We have all got to fight this.”
Violence and human rights abuses in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe are so widespread that the words can sound threadbare. Meldrum’s descriptions, however, of individual victims and attacks are truly shocking. James Zhou lying face down in Zvishavane hospital before the June 2000 parliamentary election. With his brother, Finos, MDC candidate for remote Mberengwa West, James had been abducted by the war veteran terrorising the inaccessible area, Biggie Chitoro. Finos was tortured and died. James survived – with two gaping bloody craters where his buttocks should have been. “He had burns, cuts and bruises everywhere on his body, but his backside had been completely flayed off.”
There’s the big-spending Grace Mugabe at a Zanu PF election rally, viewing the crowd as she played with her gold sunglasses; grinning policemen waving to the killers of white farmer Martin Olds as they drove away; Mugabe in an early interview – “stiff, starchy and distant at all times”.
Meldrum sees Mugabe and his immediate predecessor, Ian Smith, the country’s last white leader, as “two sides of the same coin”, both using “similar political cunning and brutality to maintain their rule”. Smith now justifying all the wrongs of his rule by pointing to Mugabe, and Mugabe justifying his violent rule by citing Smith, and saying he is just ridding Zimbabwe of Rhodesia’s past.
This book, with its depiction of the heroism of doctors, teachers, trade unionists, housewives, lawyers and many others who refuse to accept Mugabe’s repression, makes it difficult to avoid a sense of hope. It also makes it impossible to escape a sense of dread as Mugabe gears up to claim another victory in parliamentary elections scheduled next year. – ZWNews.