Mugabe's Tightening Grip

Interview: Zimbabwean Editor Iden Wetherell

Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has been steadily tightening his grip on Zimbabwean society in an effort to silence dissent (Photo: AFP).

Iden Wetherell, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, is the 2002 recipient of World Press Review's International Editor of the Year Award. World Press Review presents the award each year to an editor or editors outside the United States in recognition of enterprise, courage, and leadership in advancing the freedom and responsibility of the press, enhancing human rights, and fostering excellence in journalism.

Wetherell is one of 13 Zimbabwean journalists charged with "abusing journalistic privilege" under a new media law and has been charged three times under the Censorship Act. He played a prominent role in student politics in the 1970s, heading the student council at the University College of Rhodesia (today the University of Zimbabwe). He took a bachelor of arts honors degree in history followed by a masters in philosophy and a Ph.D., and then lectured in the history department.

He spent the period 1976-79 in exile, mostly in Zambia and Botswana, returning home in early 1980. He returned to the University of Zimbabwe to teach but then branched out into secondary education. He lectured part time in the UZ Faculty of Education in the mid-1980s and was editor of the Journal of Social Change and Development from 1980-89. He was also an editor for Ravan Press publishers in Johannesburg and taught history at the University of Natal, South Africa. Wetherell joined The Financial Gazette as assistant to the editor in 1992. He became deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent when it was established in 1996 and became its editor four years later.

During his recent trip to New York to receive World Press Review's award at a ceremony at the United Nations, Wetherell agreed to be interviewed about the political dimensions of famine, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's crackdown on civil society and the press, Zimbabwe's role in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and how the U.S. media can do a better job of covering Zimbabwe.

WPR: We've heard reports that the Zimbabwean government was preventing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Oxfam and Save the Children from distributing food aid. This was in areas sympathetic to the [opposition] Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)?

Iden Wetherell: Yes, in Binga, an area up near Lake Kariba, and—significantly—an opposition stronghold. It's also an area which development has bypassed, not only under this government, but also during the colonial era. People from around there are among the most disadvantaged anywhere, historically. In such a situation, the politics of food becomes a primary factor. Mugabe's government has been accusing the British high commissioner [Brian Donnelly] of manipulating food aid, of phoning agencies and telling them where to distribute. In fact, Britain, the European Union, and the United States are the biggest donors of food aid and they are accountable to governments, to parliaments, for expenditure. They are in a situation where it is understood that the [Zimbabwean] regime is using and abusing food aid to favor its supporters, and to the disadvantage of opponents. The diplomats have a responsibility to ensure that their own country's donations, whether handed out directly or through the offices of the World Food Program, are properly and professionally distributed. I think that was what the British high commissioner and other European Union diplomats have been doing; they have been going in on the ground and seeing what was happening.

Then you have the incident in Insiza—a constituency in southwestern Zimbabwe, which the government just won back from the MDC in a by-election. In that campaign, the World Food Program (WFP) identified supporters of the ruling party as hijacking food supplies, and actually stealing them and redistributing among their own supporters. The WFP said we cannot continue to condone that, and they suspended their work there. And that was interesting, because in August we [at the Zimbabwe Independent] accused the World Food Program of being a little Pollyannaish about the food distribution.

They were saying, "We can't see any politicization of food supply." Various spokespeople were saying that, and we were saying, "Stop being so naïve." So I'm glad to see they've worked it out. We still have problems with various U.N. agencies being slow to speak out. But I'm glad [the World Food Program] did in this case.

To what extent do you think the causes of the famine are political and to what extent do you think the famine is just caused by the drought?

I would say, "90 percent political." We've had droughts before. One thing you must remember about these farmers who have been dispossessed is that—whatever their ancestry—they were among the most skilled farmers in Africa. And the first to admit that are the South Africans, whose farmers are a great deal less versatile and less experienced in terms of developing new varieties of seed maize [corn] and cattle production—and, above all, in pioneering work in wildlife management. You might not know that most commercial farmers had relationships with their neighbors, allowing game to cross farm frontiers freely and to conserve forest and river systems on their properties. These were called "intensive conservation areas"—a unique program in Africa. They have all gone now.

So we have to consider a number of things. First of all, by acquiring and seizing land in a completely arbitrary, ad hoc, and untrained way, you are completely disrupting agricultural productivity. Therefore, the food no longer reaches the market internally and you are no longer able to export to earn foreign exchange in order to import essential commodities, such as fuel and power. The collapse of the commercial sector has huge implications. And don't forget that Zimbabwe not only had a record of food self-sufficiency, but also fed countries in the region—something we took completely for granted until this year. Now [the collapse] means we have an import bill to meet in foreign exchange we don't have. So the deliberate sabotage of agricultural production, the blind refusal to permit farmers to go on farming, even in the short term to get over the season, to build up stocks of maize, that has terrible implications for people who are already short of food. So I have no doubt—nor does anybody else—that Zimbabweans could well have survived a serious drought this year, if a plan had been in place and stocks had been conserved, just with elementary planning.

There's no reason at all why a drought should lead to starvation. If you look at the countries in the region, those that are best surviving the current drought are those that best manage their agricultural sectors, which are South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. If you look at the record of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, these are the countries which have least effectively managed their resources. So it is political, and it has a political cause.

You mentioned that South Africans recognize the productivity of the Zimbabwean commercial farms. How, then, do you explain South Africa's silence, or lack of criticism, of Robert Mugabe's regime, given the land crisis, given the attempts to silence the opposition, given all the difficulties that regime has imposed on the country?

I think [South African President Thabo] Mbeki is calculating the political danger to himself, the danger of being wrong-footed by the PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] and the land lobby. They have already been liaising with Zimbabwe, very much to the consternation of the Office of the President in Pretoria. There have been traditionally close relations between the PAC and ZANU-PF [Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front]. Historically, ZANU-PF didn't support the ANC [African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party]. So there is, in Pretoria, very considerable worry about the PAC stealing a march on them politically on the land issue, and therefore a need not to be seen to be resisting land reform.

Civil society in Zimbabwe is saying, "That's not the point. You don't have to oppose land reform, you merely have to fix the land reform so that it is done in a way that is legal, transparent, benefits those most in need, and doesn't disrupt agricultural production." Mbeki can't seem to find it within himself to pronounce on that. That's the problem.

Why doesn't he allow himself to be guided by South Africa's own constitution, by its own principles of the rule of law and good governance? Why doesn't he speak about the importance of good governance in the region? He is unable to do the right thing. He shouldn't make fatuous pronouncements that he's not going to invade Zimbabwe when nobody asked him to.

He seems to be paralyzed by a number of things, like he was with the HIV thing. But he has a tendency toward demagoguery, in the sense that he feels the need to express solidarity with other regional leaders who resent the pressure being put upon them to address and resolve Zimbabwe's crisis. So they tend to express themselves in nationalist terms, which is not really the point again, because nationalism doesn't have to be about expressing solidarity with the rulers in the region. It should be about expressing solidarity with peoples and their democratic aspirations, with their right not to be starved to death by a brutal tyrant. If they have a rogue ruler in their midst, whom they have allowed to carry on, that is a problem they have to address. They have to address the problem if they want to be taken seriously by the outside world. If they want to be taken seriously, they cannot ignore this problem [of Mugabe] and hope it will go away. It won't. I think that is the failure of Mbeki's foreign policy, that he is unable to tackle this issue head-on, and to deal with it in the correct way.

Have you seen the pressure on Zimbabwean civil society increase recently?

Yes, absolutely. It's part of a concerted campaign to crush civil society in Zimbabwe. Civil society emerged in the 1990s, when Mugabe's regime was perceived as failing in its commandist aspirations. The command economy, with its large public sector, wasn't generating jobs, or, clearly, any investment. So civil society mushroomed when it was manifest that Mugabe's policies had failed, when all Zimbabweans saw that it was time to take a new direction. So civil society strengthened and began to take liberties and freedoms to which it was entitled by the Constitution, but which ZANU-PF had been reluctant to accord and was resentful in allowing. So there was that resentment. But so long as the international community was being engaged, there was the need to be seen to be allowing those freedoms. What came about was a setback to Mugabe. Civil society was allowed [to exist] as long as it didn't affect his electoral majority or threaten his political ascendancy.

Mugabe's first real electoral defeat was the product of civil society. In 2000, civil society mobilized around the issue of forging a new constitution. Civil-society groups said they wouldn't, couldn't, support a constitution that ensconced the ruling party and the sweeping powers that it enjoyed and didn't afford the real liberties that a constitution should do.

So that defeat, I think—well, I know—led to a decision at the highest levels of the Zimbabwean government to crush the opposition, to depict the opposition as externally sponsored, and to deal with it in nationalist, revolutionary terms.

The regime embarked upon a program in which it systematically incapacitated the political opposition and then began to look at institutions which had emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s which posed a threat or a challenge to it. [The regime began] to demonize those institutions as counter-revolutionary, using Stalinist language to identify, to demonize, and to isolate [the opposition], while at the same time strengthening laws to deal with it, by introducing the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) to replace the colonial Law and Order (Maintenance) Act. Of course POSA essentially did the same thing, granted the same powers [to the government].

And then the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act [curbing the freedom of the press] was passed. So those two instruments were designed to give ministers the tools they would need to crush dissent and to continue to manipulate the media to their advantage. All that was part of a calculated policy to crush dissent.

To what extent do you think that policy has been successful?

The problem for the regime is that it is absolutely disgraced. The birth of the Movement for Democratic Change was not just the formation of a political party. It was the upswell of a democratic, grassroots movement, for the same reason civil society rose in the 1990s. The MDC was the product of a profound national disenchantment with the corrupt and misguided policies of the Mugabe regime. You cannot disable that kind of a national response, you cannot wish it away. Despite the delusional propaganda that the opposition is the product of the British and Americans, the very fact that it is rooted in massive disaffection with the regime means that they're not going to be able to sweep it away. Every day, they create more enemies, which requires them to be more brutal in containing the democratic challenge. You have a situation in which the more Mugabe's regime cracks down, the more enemies it creates, and the less likely it is to survive.

So the average Zimbabwean is not buying the government's propaganda? How prevalent are the views expressed in the government press?

Well, nobody buys the government press in the towns. Look at the size of the opposition's majority in the urban centers. Mugabe has no purchase there upon the popular imagination. You have a generation that has grown up since independence in 1980, that is not amenable to his blandishments, that doesn't buy his argument that it's all a foreign conspiracy, a generation that knows where the money's going, that sees the way he's parading his power, that sees the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between Mugabe and the rest of the country. That's why it's impossible for him to get his propaganda past the younger generation. Anybody with a bare minimum of education knows what's happening to the country and who's responsible for it. So, no, the government's propaganda has no purchase on that constituency.

All he can control are naïve, gullible, unsuspecting, peasants who are not permitted to know that there is another side to the debate. They are not exposed to it because the broadcasting system that reaches into the rural interior is entirely controlled by Mugabe. The only voice they hear is his. So long as he has a grip upon that captive, peasant fiefdom, there's not much prospect of change there.

But the demographics are against him. At independence in 1980, I would say that about 80 percent of the population were rural as against 20 percent urban. That today is a 70 to 30 percent ratio, moving toward 60/40. The demographics don't favor him.

The other big issue, of course, is whether he can successfully manage food distribution to suit that rural constituency.

I've also been struck by the rise of pro-government think-tanks in Zimbabwe.

Yes. "Phony NGOs," we call them. And they are part of the campaign [to crush dissent] that I referred to. In addition to giving the government the weapons it needs to crack down on the opposition and dissent, they are busy creating their own voices to give a semblance of diversity.

And we know the names of those organizations: The Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions, to rival the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions; they've set up a student body; they've set up cultural foundations. This is part of the program to counter civil society.

Including one led by fugitive Ugandan rebel David Nyekorach-Matsanga?

That's Africa Strategy, based in London. Nyekorach-Matsanga was formerly a spokesperson for the Lord's Resistance Army [an armed rebel group in Uganda accused of massacres against the civilian population]. The Ugandan authorities tell us he's a wanted man in Uganda. He has popped up in London. The first we heard of him, he was an accredited "observer" during the presidential election.

Our correspondents have reported increased pressure on the press in Zimbabwe. What form has this taken? Have you felt it at The Independent?

Yes. I've been arrested and charged with abusing journalistic privilege under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Usually this is a form of harassment whereby the police will come to the offices, pick us up, take us down to the police station and make us sign a warned and cautioned statement... It's enormously time-consuming. These things don't seem to be going to court. And the police are clearly acting on the instructions of the president's office. The attorney-general seems to be paralyzed. He doesn't seem to be performing his correct role in authorizing these prosecutions. It is a form of harassment. But as I have said before, we don't want to make that the story when people are being brutally kidnapped, beaten, and tortured on a daily basis by thugs, militias belonging to the ruling party, funded by the state. That's the story.

Surely an independent press is important in getting that story out?

Yes. We'll continue to do so. We're driven by our public, by the population that reads our paper in the towns, as well as the parts of the countryside where it's possible to access. Those people expect us to tell them what's happening. This is the only insight they have. You must understand that the propaganda offensive—all the newspapers the government owns, the radio stations, the television stations—they're all unrelenting in their assault on the NGO/opposition sector. It's a torrent of abuse and disinformation.

And I suppose, as with so many similar campaigns, there comes a time when people just stop believing what they're being told and want to know the truth. So at a time when newspaper readership is receding elsewhere in the world—particularly in South Africa with its lively radio stations—many more people are coming to us to find out what's happening.

Oryx Natural Resources, the diamond mining firm that operates the Mugabe regime's diamond concessions in the Congo, has made headlines recently because of its libel suit against the BBC claiming damages for a report it aired linking Oryx to Al-Qaeda. And a recent U.N. probe found that "elite criminal networks" from Zimbabwe are participating in the plunder of the Congo. You've said that you believe Mugabe's decision to get involved in the Congo was driven by political concerns, not by greed. Why?

I'm quite sure it was [politically motivated]. I think Mugabe was resentful of South Africa's growing regional influence, particularly when South Africa was seen to be assisting the Rwandans in a number of ways. And Mugabe felt that this was a challenge to his authority as chairman of the regional organ on politics, defense, and security. The regional formation SADC, the Southern African Development Community, had something called an organ on politics, defense, and security, which Mugabe chaired at the time of his Congo intervention. One reason that South Africa never ratified the organ protocol was because they suspected the organ would be used as an instrument of Zimbabwean foreign policy. So when in August 1998 Mugabe exercised his authority through the organ—which was to make the intervention in the Congo a SADC exercise—it confirmed the worst fears of the South Africans.

It also represented an assertion, by Mugabe, of primacy in the region. It was an attempt to put the South Africans in their place. And, once in, it became necessary to pay for the exercise. But it wasn't primarily aimed at deriving wealth for Zimbabwe's ruling class; it was designed to promote Zimbabwe's position vis-à-vis the South Africans in the region. Once in, they had to immediately get involved in extraction, so we had companies being formed in which the military played a role—and you've probably heard of some of them, such as Osleg, and these were in collaboration with the Congolese authorities—designed to underwrite Zimbabwe's intervention and the sustenance of 12,000 Zimbabwean troops.

The U.N. probe suggested the Zimbabwean proxies did better than pay for the troops.

Well, we don't know. It is said that the Zimbabweans were naive and gullible in terms of running businesses, compared to interests already at work who were more accomplished at extracting things. When we were speaking earlier, you mentioned [controversial Zimbabwean business mogul and close associate of Mugabe John] Bredenkamp. I'm not entirely sure that the Congolese were satisfied with the role he played. So there have been problems surrounding these companies and this exercise.

Between the Congolese and the…

Between the Congolese and individual Zimbabwean players.

Like … ?

Well, I don't want to get into speculation about individuals. But certainly former Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa did promote business in the Congo. Just as Cecil Rhodes once said, "Go North, young man," Mnangagwa said the same thing to what we call the indigenous business sector—young, black Zimbabwean businessmen; he opened the door for them into the Congo, by himself taking a business mission there and by promoting it as an investment destination. So on the one hand, you had the Zimbabwean military involved in less-than-transparent extracting companies, in alliance with Congolese parties and involving one or two prominent Zimbabwean business individuals, and then you had the political initiative to open the door of Congo to Zimbabwe businessmen. None of this has proved particularly profitable. So if it is safe to say that Zimbabweans had been involved in plundering the Congo, I don't know that they had much to show for it.

I also wanted to ask you about [former MDC Secretary for Information and Publicity] Learnmore Jongwe [Jongwe was arrested after his wife was found dead on July 20, 2002; on Oct. 22, he was found dead in his cell]. Have you heard any news about his case?

Not since I left. I think the most shocking revelation to come out of that was the fact that at the time of his death, he reportedly shared a cell with 80 other people. And I think that tells us something about the administration of justice by the present regime. But also let it be understood that at the time of this episode, the government, in its newspapers, said the death of his wife was typical of the violence of the MDC, which was the most disgraceful and opportunist attempt to exploit a personal tragedy.

How can the American media improve their coverage of Zimbabwe?

I think what all our friends can do is to remain as well-informed as possible, because I really believe that accurate information is the most powerful tool in the hands of those who are seeking freedom of expression, democratic rule, and an end to tyranny. So I would encourage people to remain as well-informed as possible to digest information and to manage information effectively. I have said that there are some very incisive columnists working for the American media, but that here we also have writers, newswriters, who have been taught about the importance of balancing a story. And, of course, that is a very important part of a journalist's training, to reflect all sides of an argument, of a story. But we have an attempt by American newspapers reporting on Zimbabwe to try and balance things that are not equal. You cannot say that President Mugabe—who controls all the levers of repression, uses and abuses the security apparatus and the defense apparatus to maintain himself in power, who manipulates the media—we cannot say that his forces and those of the opposition are equal and should be given equal consideration in the writing of any story.

So stories that start off saying, "Whilst President Mugabe is demonized as a tyrant, he is a hero to many." That sort of approach fails to explain anything—that more than 1 million Zimbabweans voted against him in the 2002 presidential elections. It obscures the fact that it is Zimbabweans who are saying this man is a tyrant, not just the West, that the allegations of abuse of power, of misallocation of funds, come from well-documented sources within Zimbabwe. To situate him as "under fire" from forces in Washington mistells the reality that he is being widely criticized as abusive within Zimbabwe itself.

So there's much in how American journalists abroad and in Zimbabwe write stories that mislead. And only a very well-informed approach would disabuse people of those sorts of perspectives. I think they're simply a habit of the tradition when you're reporting what the Democrats say and what the Republicans say. And then the same reporters go to Zimbabwe and do the same thing with Mugabe and [MDC leader Morgan] Tsvangirai. It distorts the facts and does not tell the story accurately.

Yet you seem very optimistic.

Oh I think democracy will win over tyranny. I'm quite sure that good will prevail over evil and that the will of the Zimbabwean people for a better future is one that will eventually see the removal of a regime which has manifestly pauperized its own people, which has sabotaged the economy, which has destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. I just believe that everywhere that those sort of regimes in the end fail because of their own misanthropy, and that people who are committed to something better will eventually triumph. I have no doubt of that.