Not so Great Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has to be the only country in the world where helping the aged is a clandestine activity. One March morning in Bulawayo I received a cryptic SMS announcing “washing up liquid will arrive at 10.30am”. This was code for meeting the man who delivers food parcels to white pensioners.

Everyone in Zimbabwe is terrified of being picked up by President Robert Mugabe’s secret police, the CIO – and with good reason. In March the government brought in the Interception of Communications Bill giving it authority to intercept text messages, phone calls, e-mails and post.

Even so, it seemed somewhat elaborate for a group of volunteers handing out soup packets and toilet rolls to needy OAPs to be quite so cloak and dagger. For those unfamiliar with Zimbabwe, it is easy to be complacent. With its bright sunshine, perfumed jacaranda trees and people lingering in cafes over cappuccino, it does not look like a police state.

But then you hear of the man arrested after being overheard complaining about prices on a bus and find that everyone you visited in a township that morning was later questioned by CIO. Zimbabwean journalists who dare denigrate Mugabe in their stories face up to 20 years in jail. In fact, Zimbabwe is classified by the World Association of Newspapers as one of the most dangerous places for the media in the world.

The notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), under which journalists must register with the state’s Media and Information Commission, has been used over the last three years to arrest more than 100 journalists and close four newspapers, including the Daily News, the largest circulation paper.

But at a recent event in Bulawayo to mark World Press Freedom Day, the Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga, a former BBC journalist, insisted “there is nothing wrong with the law”. For foreign media, the penalty for being caught “practising journalism” is two years in jail. No one wants to end up in one of Mugabe’s crowded prisons rife with TB, AIDS and cockroaches.

Over the last four years, I have made 13 clandestine visits into the country and still don’t sleep easy while I am there. One night I drove out of the electric gates of the place I was staying to see a street full of flashing blue lights. I froze. “That’s it,” I thought. Then I realised that the vehicles were actually fire engines and there was smoke billowing out of the house next door.

As a white journalist it is hard to be low profile. There are not many whites in Zim anymore and certainly not wandering around townships or villages. But while we hopefully can jump on a plane out at the end of the day, Zimbabwean journalists have to stay and face the consequences, as do those we interview. This means weighing up the risk before going to a place and protecting almost everyone’s identity.

One man was so worried that I would write about his organisation’s charitable activities that he even called my head-office in London and denied they existed. The first time I really appreciated how much fear people were living under was a year ago when Mugabe switched his attention to the cities, targeting the urban population who had dared vote against him in successive elections.

I watched in shock as police bulldozers demolished thousands of homes, market stalls and small businesses. Operation Murambatswina or “Drive Out the Filth” turned the country into an apocalyptic landscape wreathed with plumes of smoke and scattered with refugees clutching the scant belongings they had managed to salvage in bundles on their heads or in wheelbarrows.

Nothing in all my 19 years of foreign reporting has affected me so profoundly as wandering through the smoking ruins of Mbare, the southern suburb of Harare that sprawls around Zimbabwe’s oldest and largest market. My Lonely Planet guidebook recommends it as a highlight of Harare and the place to see “colourful crowded scenes typical of Africa”. Instead, it looked as if a tsunami had passed through, reducing the famous market into drift-piles of smashed wood, twisted metal, broken bricks and trampled tomatoes.

Amid a pile of pink concrete and some torn magazine photos of J-Lo and Mariah Carey sat a large woman with elaborately beaded hair and silent tears rolling down her face. She tonelessly explained that this was all that was left of the beauty salon, Glory’s Hair Palace, where she had braided hair and dispensed advice about the male species with equal skill.

None of these people were beggars or criminals. Like Glory, they had all been working years to feed and school their children, only to find their homes and workplaces crushed to rubble in the name of “urban beautification”.Past the National Foods factory, I came to Kambu Zuma suburb where police and militia had just arrived on their trucks and bulldozers. I stared aghast as people sat and did nothing while police took axes to their homes. Impatient with their slow progress, the police lit large fires and started ordering residents to throw on their possessions.

I watched hundreds of Zimbabweans, one of Africa’s most educated populations, obediently smash and burn all they had ever worked for, leaving them with nowhere to live, no means to feed their children or pay their school fees.I had made repeated trips to report on Zimbabwe since 1999 when the first farm invasion took place.

Throughout the subsequent intimidation of the population and three rigged elections, I had never understood why Zimbabweans did not rise up against their leader as people had in Yugoslavia or Ukraine. It irritated me that they kept asking why the outside world did nothing, when it seemed they were unwilling to help themselves. But at that moment in Kambu Zuma, watching people meekly burn their own belongings, I realised for the first time just how much 25 years of Mugabe’s rule had oppressed the population.