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Bearing Witness: The tragedy that is Zimbabwe

 The Big Issue South Africa 17 January 2019

"I was bloody cross when I wrote this book. If South Africa had the political will to do it, it could fix Zimbabwe in a matter of months." When former policeman, lawyer and well-respected journalist Peter Godwin talks about Zimbabwe, you’d best listen. (1358 Words) - By Leanne Farish

BI South Africa_ zimbabwe

Zimbabwean refugees demonstrate against delayed results from Zimbabwe's presidential election on the streets of Cape Town April 17, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Godwin is the author of the acclaimed memoirs Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, about growing up in Zimbabwe, his exile and his many returns to the country of his birth. He recently visited South Africa to promote his new book The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe; a harrowing account of what he calls "a particularly dark time, even for Zimbabwe".

Entranced by his eloquence and gift of storytelling, the crowd stood hushed as Godwin read aloud from The Fear at his book launch in Cape Town. The warmth of his easy manner and the cosy atmosphere of the bookshop, however, did little to dispel the chill of his words as he related the story of Grace Gambeza, a victim of Zimbabwe's so-called "post election violence" in 2008. When Godwin met Grace at a clinic in Harare, a severe beating by Zanu-PF-backed thugs had left her with two broken arms and septic haematoma on her back and buttocks. Unable even to hold or feed her infant child, Grace's condition was utterly heart-wrenching.

And it is only one harrowing account in this painful story of one of Zimbabwe's darkest times. In April 2008 Zanu-PF lost an election. In an act of vengeance bent on intimidating the electorate, Mugabe reacted by launching a campaign of terror and appalling torture on the people of Zimbabwe. The Fear chronicles not only the horrors, but also the moments of hope and courage witnessed by Godwin on his journey through the country during this period, told with his characteristic unsentimental style and evident love and empathy for Zimbabwe and its people.

We caught up with Godwin in Cape Town to talk about his latest book and the continuing problems faced by his homeland.

[The Big Issue] What is 'the fear' in the title of your latest book?

[Peter Godwin] It's a name that was given by Zimbabweans to the period in 2008 between the first and second rounds of their elections; a two to three month period where Mugabe's people launched a campaign of torture on an industrial scale to basically intimidate the electorate. It was really, really severe, and on a very large scale. His challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, pulled out of the second round because it got so violent. They call that period 'The Fear'.

[TBI] How important is the idea of 'bearing witness' to the continuing struggle of the people of Zimbabwe?

[PG] It's crucial. That's what I'm trying to do in this book, to amplify what happened. It's weird, you'd think that South Africans would be watching Zimbabwe closely, not only because it's right on their border but also because it's a country that's had a not dissimilar history and sequence of events. I'm amazed by the number of South African readers who've said to me, 'God, we had no idea that it was that bad, that it was on that scale'. South Africans ignore Zimbabwe at their peril. It's important that people know. And hopefully after they read this book, they will.

The Big Issue South Africa_ Peter Godwin

[TBI] How would you describe the tone of your latest book? Is there a hopeful aspect to it?

[PG] I promised myself I'd try to be optimistic, but in electoral terms, Zimbabwe's prognosis right now is somewhat gloomy. The prospect of getting Zanu-PF out of power and of having a proper democracy is not that terrific at the moment. They've found all these diamonds and that's somehow revivified Zanu-PF and Mugabe's people because they've now got this big source of income. Zimbabwe's long since crossed a moral line into something where the situation is so terrible that you've got to call it like you see it. I was bloody cross when I wrote this book. I was, I think, completely justifiably angry and frustrated at the fact that this was all going on and nobody really cared about it.

"But I think that there are lots of redemptive aspects to this book, and you come out of it really admiring the people there and realising that it's not all bleak. Ultimately, underlying all this, there's a country and a people that can really come right quite quickly if only they were allowed to.

[TBI] What's your opinion on how the international community, and South Africa in particular, has dealt with the situation in Zimbabwe?

[PG] Badly, badly, badly. They've ignored it. The South Africans haven't played an honest, open role in all of this. I think that the ANC wants Zanu-PF in some form - possibly a kind of reformed 'Zanu-PF-lite' - to stay in power, because they're all fellow liberation movements in southern Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and here. They're all still in power and none of them wants to see any of the others fall out of power because it would puncture the liberation foundation mythology. In many ways what the ANC has actually done is protected and enabled Mugabe, allowing Zanu-PF to stay in power for an artificially long period.

Also, the leadership of the opposition party in Zimbabwe, the MDC, all come from the trade union movement, and I think with the tension now between Cosatu and the rest of the ANC…that it looks too similar. The MDC were like Cosatu, and they've pulled out of the ruling party and set up an independent party and challenged the ruling party. So for that reason I think Zuma is kind of allergic to the prospect of the MDC coming to power.

[TBI] So what do you think should be done going forward?

[PG] All that we're asking of South Africa is to intervene for Zimbabwe to hold a free and fair election. The fact is if South Africa had the political will to do it, it could fix Zimbabwe in a matter of months. Zimbabwe is overwhelmingly reliant on South Africa for trade links and so many other things, so it's very easy for South Africa to put subtle pressure on the government in Zimbabwe. That's why it's really important that it's South African readers, South African citizens, who follow what's going on in Zimbabwe and put pressure on their own government.

[TBI] Why have the people of Zimbabwe been so patient, in a sense, and why hasn't there been a more violent uprising to overthrow Mugabe and Zanu-PF?

[PG] People say, 'Oh, Zimbabweans are so passive.' Well, not exactly. We've been to war before [to unseat white rule]. But the paradox is that having been to war before, we know what war entails and we don't want to go to war. I think that the Zimbabwean opposition hasn't been given enough credit for being non-violent. From the very beginning that was one of their founding core values. Having said that, even if they were to protest in great numbers, the guns they would be faced with won't have tear gas or rubber bullets in them, they'd have real ammunition, and they know that. I don't think Tsvangirai wanted to have the blood of an entire generation of youth on his hands. So it's very difficult for them to know where to turn because no-one's prepared to intervene on their behalf.

[TBI] In the book you speak of how your mother longs to return and how she wishes to be buried in Zimbabwe - do you feel the same way?

[PG] I would love to spend much more time there and to take up the mantle of being a Zimbabwean again. There's this very big diaspora, a mostly overwhelmingly black diaspora, but whites too, who remain very emotionally and culturally committed to Zimbabwe.

I would love to have a base there, especially if we were busy reconstructing the country - that would be something I'd love to be a part of.


Originally published by THe Big Issue South Africa ©

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