By Geoffrey Nyarota
On Saturday, April 14, 2001, Saviour “Tyson” Kasukuwere, then legislator for Mt Darwin and an upcoming entrepreneur in Harare’s increasingly shady business environment, hosted a lavish function in his constituency.
Among the guests in attendance were two protagonists, Sandra Nyaira, a gutsy 27-year-old political reporter, and Professor Jonathan Nathaniel Moyo, the Information minister in the government of long-serving president Robert Gabriel Mugabe and an avowed opponent of her paper, The Daily News.
Given the prevailing political polarisation in Harare and the hostility then obtaining between the Information minister and the newspaper of which I was the founding editor-in-chief, it took enormous courage on the part of Nyaira to undertake the 200-kilometre trip to this inexorable Zanu PF stronghold.
At that time our reporters were classified as enemies of the people by both ruling party politicians and activists.
They were routinely harassed, molested and even arrested on spurious grounds.
Our offices had been the target of a grenade attack; while our printing press was totally destroyed in a bomb explosion.
I was worried about Nyaira’s trip to Kasukuwere’s rural domain, in an area known to be a hotbed of political violence against opposition MDC supporters.
The Daily News was regarded in ruling Zanu PF circles as a veritable MDC mouthpiece.
“I will be careful, Mr Nyarota,” she said.
On the Sunday, before she crafted her article, Nyaira briefed me.
Honourable minister Moyo had confronted her at the party.
He warned her rather ominously that individual journalists were henceforth to be targeted for certain unspecified action.
It wasn’t long before Moyo delivered on his portentous threat. Nyaira and I were arrested.
We were charged with criminal defamation of Mugabe.
The charge arose from a then five-month article by Nyaira in which we made allegations of bribery and corruption during the process to award the tender for the construction of the new Harare Airport, now renamed as the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.
A month after our arrest the police claimed that our docket had been transferred to the Attorney- General’s Office.
We never heard another word about our case.
In December 2000 the intrepid and enterprising Nyaira had come across authentic information that the construction of Mugabe’s new and palatial palace in Borrowdale Brooke, known as the Blue Roof, was a spin-off of massive corruption surrounding the new Harare International Airport.
Nyaira had obtained sensitive information with regard to corrupt transactions surrounding the awarding of the tender for the construction of the airport to a Middle East company, Air Harbour Technologies (AHT).
The CEO of AHT was Yani Hamani, son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian oil minister.
He wrote a long and lavishly detailed letter to President Mugabe in which he revealed that he had been forced to pay millions of dollars in bribes to various government officials.
Hamani offered his cooperation to the president should he wish to deal with the many corrupt officials, including ministers, allegedly involved.
Surprisingly or typically, Mugabe declined the offer.
Meanwhile, the well-connected Nyaira laid her hands on Hamani’s devastating letter all the way from Saudi Arabia.
We now had indisputable proof of the allegations that we had published.
Truth is the most dependable defence for journalists in cases of defamation.
Unsurprisingly, the docket of the case against us on charges of defaming the president of Zimbabwe suddenly suffered a mysterious disappearance en route to the Attorney-General’s Office.
Nyaira survived to investigate other stories.
When we launched The Daily News in 1999, gender was not a major factor in our recruitment exercise.
We head-hunted for the best available talent on the basis of qualifications and experience or track record.
Talented female journalists, therefore, found their way onto the team that launched Zimbabwe’s most successful privately-owned daily newspaper then and it became the best-selling newspaper in the country.
Sandra Nyaira was recruited from Ziana, the national news agency, to join what we called the “A-Team”.
She was a fearless political reporter with a long list of useful sources across the polarised political divide, that is in both the ruling Zanu PF and the opposition MDC.
We soon promoted her to political editor.
Other female journalists who made it to the “A-Team” were deputy news editor Eunice Mafundikwa, Thandi Kapambwe, women’s editor, Reyhana Masters-Smith on the features desk, sub-editor Viola Zimunya, Leonissah Munjoma (environment), and Lindiwe Mhunduru on the sports desk.
While the newspaper was performing exceptionally well on the streets, I was summarily and mysteriously dismissed from The Daily News at the beginning of 2003.
I found refuge in the United States. Nyaira followed suit soon afterwards.
She followed the well-beaten track established by hundreds of her compatriots fleeing from the turmoil in their motherland to seek sanctuary in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, following the departure of several others of the paper’s original journalists, The Daily News buckled under the destructive pressure of Prof Moyo and the cunning machinations of its chief executive officer, Sam Sipepa Nkomo.
It disappeared from the streets in September 2003.
In London, Nyaira became a correspondent for various news organisations, both electronic and print.
They included the BBC and the Voice of America, The Guardian, The Times and AFP news agency. She also studied at City University in London.
In 2008 she relocated from the UK to the United States after she was awarded a fellowship at the Joan Shorenstein Centre for the Media, Politics and Public Policy.
This is a research centre in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
It is “dedicated to exploring and illuminating the intersection of press, politics and public policy in theory and practice. The centre strives to bridge the gap between journalists and scholars and between them and the public.”
After a year at Harvard, Nyaira then joined the Voice of America (VOA) full-time.
A statement from VOA management on Friday said Nyaira was a valued member of its Zimbabwe service team since she joined as a stringer reporting from London.
“She joined the Washington team in 2009 as a reporter and host,” the statement said, “bringing a lot of star power to the service. During her time in Washington, she also hosted special segments on women and health and was a member of the VOA Africa Health Network team.”
Nyaira was said to have risen through the ranks to become editor of the English desk.
She became the first Zimbabwean to receive the Courage in Journalism Award in 2002.
The award is sponsored by the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation.
Nyaira left the VOA in January 2016 and relocated once more, this time back to Africa in Ethiopia.
At the time of her death she was working in the office of the executive secretary in the external relations and communications section at the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa headquarters in Addis Ababa.
With the outbreak of Covid-19, she was working from home back in Harare since February 2020. Last week she succumbed to the deadly scourge.
Sandra was the eldest of six children born to Enias and the late Rose Nyaira on August 13, 1974.
She grew up in Harare’s western suburb of Glen Norah B.
She attended the local Ruvheneko Primary School before she enrolled at Glen Norah 1 High School for her secondary education.
She played volleyball and was captain of the school team.
Sandra trained as a journalist at the Harare Polytechnic School of Journalism and Media Studies, from where she graduated in 1995 at age 21.
Sandra had become part of our family especially when she was at Harvard. She was like a daughter to us.
So it was that on Tuesday morning, July 13, Mrs Ursula Nyarota sent an early morning message to her to pay her condolences on the occasion of the passing away early that day of Mr Winston Bonakele Matabela.
He was one of the stalwarts of St Luke’s Parish Church in Greendale and Sandra’s uncle.
Uncharacteristically, Sandra did not respond to the message.
Then the heartbreaking news circulated later that day. Sandra Nyaira had passed away.
She had been admitted at St Anne’s Hospital for two weeks. It was painful news. It was unbelievable.
The Lord takes away the best ones from among us.
Violet Gonda, a London-based Zimbabwean freelance journalist, who is the president of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, says she shared an apartment in Washington DC with Nyaira during the two years that she also worked at VOA.
The two co-presented the Studio 7 English news bulletin.
“Never met a more humble, gentle and generous soul,” Gonda said.
“Her faith was strong and she was such a fountain of support for me and a great mentor to many journalists.
“Sandra was a silent philanthropist who gave without beating her own drum.
“She was a gracious soul who has left indelible footprints in our hearts.”
In a message of condolence, Monica Mutsvangwa, the Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services minister, said Zimbabwe has lost a remarkable example of how women are equal to any task tackled by their male counterparts in the media.
“Nyaira’s legacy is that of a hard-working trailblazer who executed her duties in a professional yet warm manner,” she said.
Go well, VaChihera. May your soul rest in eternal peace.