AT 11.30AM on
Wednesday I completed my flight from Zimbabwe. After 30 years in Harare, and a
final, frantic overnight drive to the border, I had left the sad, wrecked
country that I love, and I don’t know if I will return.
For years President Mugabe’s regime had been making
it increasingly difficult to work in Zimbabwe as a journalist, and of the
foreign press corps I was one of the last survivors. But this week it become
obvious that with an election looming, and Mr Mugabe wishing to steal it with a
minimum of prying by the outside world, my time was up as well.
intimidation had begun at 2.30am on Monday with loud banging on the locked gate
to my home. Two men tried to force it open. I kept my light off and waited until
the car finally drove off.
Later that morning two young plainclothes policemen
appeared at the run-down office I shared with Angus Shaw, of the Associated
Press, and Brian Latham, of Bloomberg — what we called “the Old Gentleman’s News
Co-operative” in No 20 Birdcage Walk.
They said that they were investigating a tip-off that
there were spies inside. Beatrice Mtetwa, my indomitable lawyer, laughed when
she heard this, and told the young policeman: “My friend, if you are looking for
spies, you should go to Zanu (PF) headquarters.” He guffawed, gave her a
high-five and left.
An hour later, three more detectives arrived in a
large white Toyota with no numberplates. They were not friendly. They refused to
identify themselves and tried to chase Beatrice away. They said that we were
working illegally as journalists — an offence that carries a maximum penalty of
two years in prison.
We had applied for accreditation, but the state Media
Commission had sat on our applications for the past three years.
On Tuesday the authorities stepped up the pressure. A
gang of ten policemen arrived for an intensive search while none of us was
there. A young computer hacker was digging into Angus’s hard drive when Beatrice
arrived. She asked whether they had a warrant, and was told to go to hell.
When the telephone rang the hacker answered: “This is
the new receptionist.” Later, believing that she had found details of foreign
currency transfers ordered by Angus, she shouted: “Now we’ve got him!”
For three days they poked around our office and tried
out four possible offences. It was obvious that they were looking for anything
they could stick on us. On the third visit, they were led by the head of the
CID’s “Law and Order” section, suggesting that the orders to raid us must have
come from the very top.
The consecutive raids had made me begin to turn over
the vague emergency plans we had all discussed as the repression increased over
the past five years.
Then a colleague who talks to tame operatives in the
Central Intelligence Organisation, Mr Mugabe’s secret police, asked me to meet
her urgently. In my car, she said she had been told that they were “gunning for
She went on: “This time they are going to be rough.
You must get out now.” She was crying.
Shortly after Beatrice telephoned to say she had
information that they wanted to lock all three of us up.
The warnings induced the sensation of having a large,
cold knife pushed down the middle of my stomach that I get when seriously
|Since Monday I had
not slept at home, and was talking in code over the telephone. I was alarmed by
the sight of strange cars passing slowly outside. At times like these, making a
distinction between paranoia and reality is hard. I made up my mind. I had to
Officials at the South African Embassy promptly
processed a visa for my Zimbabwean passport. I parked my car at a friend’s home,
and borrowed his to slip home.
15 minutes I had packed clothing for a week, toiletries, personal documents, my
laptop, shortwave radio, binoculars, camera, penknife — most of which would be
pounced on by zealous policemen as a standard espionage outfit — and Z$1.5
million. A few years ago that would have bought several houses. Now it is worth
I revealed my plans only to my closest friends, and
then only face-to-face, and set off through the night for the 342-mile (550km)
drive to the border, exhausted and in a state of acute anxiety.
At the Plumtree border post into Botswana, I held my
breath as the Zimbabwean immigration officer rifled through the pages of my
passport, stamped it forcefully and smiled back at my frozen grin.
He sent me to a door marked CID to present my police
vehicle-clearance certificate. The officer asked where my name came from, and I
said that my Dutch ancestors had settled at the Cape 300 years ago. “You are an
African,” he said pleasantly.
Mr Mugabe had for the past five years been telling me
and all other whites to “go back to Britain”.
I drove slowly away towards Botswana, and at the
first opportunity telephoned my girlfriend, Sarah, in Cape Town. She burst into
tears of relief, but my own relief was tempered by immense sadness at what had
become of my country.
When Mr Mugabe was first elected in 1980, he was
unlike any African leader. He spoke with a plummy accent and won my heart with
his policy of reconciliation between whites and blacks, and between the two
sides of the seven- year guerrilla war against the minority rule of Ian Smith’s
But gradually, as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the
new regime grew more repressive and authoritarian than the one it replaced. In
2000, Mr Mugabe was challenged for the first time, and very nearly beaten. Since
then his Government has become blatantly tyrannical, determined to stamp out any
opposition, and a byword for misrule.
Most white farms have been seized in the name of land
redistribution, and left to rot. Millions of black Zimbabweans now live in
hunger and abject poverty, with the country’s dwindling food supplies used as a
political tool to reward supporters.
Unbridled inflation has left the currency worthless.
The independent media has been silenced. Those who can have abandoned the
country in droves.
There has been no joy in recording Zimbabwe’s steady
descent into a subsistence economy.
Changing view of a state in
How Jan Raath cronicled the rise of a tyrannical
|The economy remains the most
sophisticated in black Africa, and the Government, headed by President Mugabe,
represents a leading political and military force in one of the world’s most
complex regions, holding the key to a wide range of vital issues . . . the
predictions that “the wheels will fall off” five years after independence have
been more than disproved |
Friday, September 2, 1988
The party political side of Mr Mugabe is the
enigma in his character, and in direct contradiction to the erudite, articulate
diplomat, negotiator and efficient technocrat who has adhered meticulously to
the restraints imposed by the Lancaster House Constitution, retained the vigour
of black Africa's most sophisticated economy, and acceded readily to appeals
from the genuinely aggrieved if they are unrelated to party politics.
Thursday, March 29, 1990
The bullet-proof black Mercedes-Benz comes to a halt and from behind the
limousine’s black curtains emerges President Mugabe, acknowledging the adulation
. . . A plainclothes policeman notices me counting the number of vehicles in the
motorcade, and demands to know why. ”So you want to report negatively on
Zimbabwe,” he says. The contents of my wallet are minutely scrutinised, and the
group of men in sunglasses swelling around me writes down details of my press
card and my blood donor's card. An hour later they let me go.
Monday, March 11, 1996
Coins have become a nuisance. The only useful unit of currency is the
Z$500 note, which is called the Ferrari because it is red and goes fast. Ask
after the health of any Zimbabwean below the rank of executive and invariably
the reply will be: “Hungry.”
Thursday, September 5,
My maid, Nyarai, failed to turn up for work yesterday. There was no public
transport and private minibuses have doubled their charges since a 283 per cent
increase in petrol prices a month ago. She was unable to call because the
telephone boxes no longer work . . . Zimbabwe is a country rich in resources and
with great potential . . . but it has now reached the point of collapse.
Friday, May 16, 2003
“Anybody who can get a job overseas has left,” said John Mufakare, the
director of the Employers' Confederation of Zimbabwe. “The spark that
distinguished Zimbabwe from the rest of Africa has gone.”
Monday, August 16, 2004