I still have a postcard my father sent to my elder sister when he was working in Africa. The year was 1968, and it shows a street in Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia. When he came home, I remember how much I loved hearing his stories, especially the ones about him being charged by a bull elephant. As a child I was fascinated, too, by this picture.
More than three decades later, I stood in the same spot as the photographer did when he took that picture, but now the name of the city and the country were different. In front of me was a view of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, and I recognized the spot because it looked so much the same, yet the fortunes of the people who lived there had changed beyond recognition. In 1968, the country—transitioning from one name to another—was proceeding on its journey from colonialism through white minority rule and war, moving toward independence.
When I first went to Zimbabwe two years ago, I arrived as a British journalist working for The Observer, a publication effectively banned from the country. Zimbabwe was in a state of long-term and devastating economic crisis—one that showed no promise of being turned around—and I had a hard time persuading my editor there was much new to write about this failing African state.
This year a hotly contested presidential election and a real desire for change among an oppressed people breathed life into the Zimbabwean story. And the wave of murderous violence that followed the March election, won by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, has kept the world’s attention on this beleaguered country, even as up to a third of its population has fled overseas, its economy has deteriorated even more, and its aging president, Robert Mugabe, has transformed himself into the continent’s stereotypical despotic madman.
There has been criticism, expressed certainly by several of The Observer’s readers, that the British press gives a level of coverage to the Zimbabwe crisis that it would never dream of giving to other African countries, especially places like Sudan and Congo, where substantial loss of human life is occurring. Conflict in Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea is almost ignored by the Western news media. Undoubtedly the British colonial link and a historical familiarity with Zimbabwe (and Kenya fits the bill here, too) piques the interest of both the British reader and journalist.
There is recognition and ease of communication between cultures when there has been an historic connection. But the downside—as a reporter working for a publication in Great Britain—is the impossibility of reporting the Zimbabwean story in a vacuum. For us, our nationality is the first thing every Zimbabwean with whom we speak wants to know, and once this information is given it taints any interactions we then might have.
There are some big, lingering grudges and, as a British journalist, Zimbabweans expect me to know and understand these festering issues of contention. They stretch back over the decades and involve the duplicity by the British authorities that have enabled the Mugabe regime to be so forthright in its rejection of international criticism. In its dealings since it first annexed Shona land to create Rhodesia in 1890, Britain has made mistakes of an eye-watering order, and the Blair government’s belief that it could simply put the past behind and get on with a new era in its relations with Mugabe, the hero of independence, was naive in the extreme. There are many Zimbabweans who fervently believe that the British government promised to compensate Zimbabwe over land stolen by white farmers—a pledge that, in all probability raised behind closed doors, was never made anywhere near public enough to be taken as a serious political commitment.
Working in Zimbabwe
Of course, there are the practical difficulties of working there. To start with, Mugabe and his regime have banned most foreign press from entering or reporting from Zimbabwe; to enter the country, then, is to be an illegal. (I think the prison sentence is six years, but it changes.) It’s not safe to stay in a hotel because police raid them frequently, looking for foreign journalists. Just staying there on your own or having a laptop in the room puts you under suspicion, so someone has to be willing to let you stay in their home. And though an astonishing number of people I have met have been willing to do so, that kind of hospitality puts their safety and security at risk.
Working in Zimbabwe is a risky business, but it is not a war zone, nor is there anything remotely heroic in just keeping your wits about you and maintaining as low a profile as possible. It’s the Zimbabweans who run the real risk—those who house and feed foreign journalists and talk with them. Several opposition party members I’ve interviewed have later been subject to beatings, and one man was killed.
The possibility that talking to a white journalist in any way raised their profile among their neighbors and made them more identifiable to their enemies preys on my conscience. It’s those kind of issues that are the hardest to deal with. Perhaps this is why I’ve found it offensive when a minority of British and American TV reporters, notably John Simpson of the BBC, tacitly present their presence in the country as some kind of extraordinary news event in itself. With the suffering going on in Zimbabwe, with people struggling for basic food and medicines, with the dozens daily swimming a crocodile-infested river to swap one kind of destitution for another, those Western journalists who manage to get past the poorly staffed and noncomputerized immigration authorities at Harare airport have a duty to go easy with the self-congratulatory attitude.
I don’t dismiss the dangers that exist in Zimbabwe for all journalists. Those dangers are very real. Foreign journalists must take enormous care inside Zimbabwe to avoid arrest and imprisonment, and I know several who have spent a far from pleasant few days in a Harare cell, including one who was lastingly traumatized by the experience. And I’ve had a few adrenalin-pulsing run-ins with police and an encounter in the bush with a trio of armed war veterans with the hardest eyes I have ever seen. That moment left me with a recurring nightmare and a strong sense that I had a lucky escape.
Zimbabwean reporters and editors who’ve tried to work in their country as independent journalists have faced much harassment, including arrests and beatings, with police raids and abrupt closures and fire bombings of presses and offices. The threat to their lives—and their families—is very real, and the struggle to keep independent newsgathering in operation has been a courageous business. The Zimbabwean, the newspaper edited and produced by exiles before it is smuggled each week into the country, is an extraordinary operation of defiance and bravery that has without question held up the spirits and hope of many tens of thousands of people trapped by the grip of Mugabe’s oppressive regime.
As I look at the risks this story holds for me, I always return to the fact that I choose to go to Zimbabwe. There have been a lot of places I’ve worked as a journalist and many people I’ve met with whom my engagement has been fleeting; I’ve written a story and moved on. But in reporting on the humanitarian and political crisis afflicting Zimbabweans, I’ve developed a deeply emotional as well as professional interest in the story. I’ve fallen hard for the country and for its people and ache to go back. And when I am there, I feel more challenged as a reporter than I’ve felt anywhere else. It’s an addictive feeling, and sometimes it is hard to sort out whether my impulse to return is driven by my love of the place or by an adrenaline-related response to the challenges of working there, which makes this feeling akin to the attraction war correspondents develop to working in conflict zones.
Resident foreign journalists also have faced the constant threat of harassment and harm. A few years ago, The Observer’s Andrew Meldrum was beaten by Mugabe’s forces, jailed for two days, and put on trial for two months, where he faced a two-year jail sentence if found guilty of “crimes” related to his work as a journalist. He was also abducted, held captive with a hood over his head for 12 hours, then illegally forced onto a plane and taken out of the country. With his departure, Meldrum became the last resident foreign journalist in Zimbabwe. Then there is the exceptional, dogged determination of my journalistic colleague, The Guardian’s Chris McGreal, who spends months at a time illegally inside Zimbabwe. Several times McGreal has been named by Mugabe’s mouthpiece newspaper, The Herald, as an “enemy” of Zimbabwe. His calm, informative reporting has earned him the deep animosity of many within Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, Mugabe’s political party, who have the power to do him gross harm.
This kind of unobtrusive, intrepid and honest reporting is an essential force in trying to prevent Mugabe and his forces from hiding from the international community’s eyes the desperate plight of ordinary Zimbabweans. In this kind of effort, journalism, too, assists its own reputation at a time when such a lift is so desperately needed.
Tracy McVeigh became foreign editor of The Observer in 2002. This year she became the newspaper’s chief reporter and has covered stories throughout the world. Africa, and Zimbabwe, in particular, hold special interest to her. She has also produced short news videos for Guardian Unlimited, The Observer’s Web site, including those about Zimbabwe.