POLITICIANS have an uncanny propensity for opening their mouths and putting both feet in them. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, called this sort of thing dontopedology. And he should know!
We had a classic example of it last week from Finance minister Tendai Biti.
For the record, we have a good professional working relationship with Biti.
However, we hold no brief for him. The Zimbabwe Independent does not at all hold a brief for any politician or anyone else for that matter. We donâ€™t even hold a brief for our publisher and paymaster on his personal political views!
Following a news report in the Independent last week that Biti had signed a US$5 billion deal with China, the minister hastily called a press conference to deny the story. The US$5 billion is part of complex calculations that Biti should know.
The Independent had reported Biti had signed a cautioned MoU with Chinaâ€™s Eximbank on condition of explicit legal documentation and declaration of the obligations of the Chinese to sort out the platinum deal.
The story was based on documents, including minutes of a meeting that was held in Bitiâ€™s office on June 8, which mentioned US$5 billion.
The meeting was attended by Biti himself, his advisor Conrad Nyamurova, and an official in his ministry, Mary Takavarasha, Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, his deputy Edward Mashiringwani and Gonoâ€™s advisor Munyaradzi Kereke.
Our story was that Zimbabwe and China are negotiating a US$5 billion deal involving the mortgaging of the countryâ€™s platinum resources worth US$40 billion which will benefit Beijing more than Harare.
The background to the deal dates back to events starting in 2006.
It involved the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation and a Chinese company Wanbao Mining for the mining of platinum in a concession known as the Selous and Northfields reserves covering 110 square kilometres.
The agreements to the deal were initially dodgy. Biti has been trying to sort out the mess, at least legally. He has signed an MoU with Eximbank to pave way for the platinum deal that is estimated up to US$40 billion.
However, Biti last Friday called a press conference to deny our story. Using his characteristically intemperate language, the minister claimed that our story constituted â€œgutter journalismâ€ or â€œsad journalismâ€, whatever that means.
â€œThat is a story without any foundation, without any credibility, without any legitimacy,â€ he claimed. â€œIt is sad journalism.â€
Biti however acknowledged that there was a deal that was signed in 2006.
â€œThat is the only, only, only agreement between a Zimbabwean interest and a Chinese interest over platinum in Zimbabwe,â€ Biti said. â€œThat resource is still to be developed. So where US$5 billion arises eludes my wisdom. Itâ€™s gutter journalism.â€ The US$5 billion figure was an estimate floated at the June 8 meeting in Bitiâ€™s office.
Now letâ€™s closely examine Bitiâ€™s remarks. Is Biti trying to deny Zimbabwe and China are negotiating a platinum deal which he himself is very uncomfortable with? Is he denying that he has signed a cautioned MoU with Eximbank deal? Did the June 8 meeting take place or not and was the Zimbabwe-China deal discussed?
We wanted to ask Biti all these questions since last week, but we could not meet him. Last week I spent almost one and half hours in his office waiting to interview him â€“â€“ in vain. On Wednesday our appointment failed due to other engagements. We have an appointment for today.
If all Bitiâ€™s answers to these queries are in the negative, does it mean then that the minutes of the June 8 meeting were fabricated? If his responses are in the affirmative, what exactly was he denying?Â Â
Trying to make cheap political capital, President Robert Mugabe confirmed the Chinese deal this week, saying it was negotiated by his previous regime, not the MDC, and funds would come in tranches. What is Bitiâ€™s comment on this?
Biti has also denied Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangiraiâ€™s announcement that Zimbabwe had obtained US$950 million from China. â€œWhile I was away, the government, through Finance minister Tendai Biti, also secured lines of credit from China totalling US$950 million,â€ Tsvangirai said last week. Mugabe also confirmed the US$950 million.
But Biti dismissed this, saying: â€œThere is no foundation at all in the press reports that we have received a loan of US$950 million from China.â€
In other words, Biti is simply saying Tsvangirai lied. Is he also implying Mugabe lied as well? But who here is really spinning a yarn? The US$950 million deal is on the table.
Initially, I was tempted to ignore Bitiâ€™s denials simply because they came across as surreal. I believe that as a journalist never chase a denial from a politician because if you let it race along, it will run itself to death!
But in the public interest as a newspaper that first wrote the story we had to respond. And this is our honest response. Frankly speaking, we think the ministerâ€™s remarks were political gibberish of Jabberwocky proportions.
We certainly think that by denying everything, Biti was being economical with the truth. If our story, which we believe is true based on the evidence we have, is â€œgutter journalismâ€, then the ministerâ€™s intemperate reaction was â€œgutter politicsâ€.
To be fair, if we are off base and off message, we would really love Biti to prove us wrong.
BY DUMISANI MULEYA