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Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Aug 6, 2006 (060806)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"There is no reason why Zimbabweans today should watch our country go down the drain. Look at the time it took to build it up. That one can just destroy it overnight is something very painful. It was not about creating another dictatorship, creating another oppressive system, where you cannot exercise your rights." - Margaret Dongo

Unlike much Western press coverage on Zimbabwe, a new Public Broadcasting System feature on "Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies," features not critiques by Western leaders contrasted with defiance from Zimbabwean leaders, but rather voices from inside Zimbabwe and from opposition leaders including former colleagues and supporters of Zimbabwe's leaders from earlier more optimistic periods.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from two of the interviews and from an opinion piece by series editor Stephen Talbot from "Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies." The Frontline/World website has the video of the program, full versions of these interviews, and more features, including links to other resources (see The interviews are also available on

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains a visit report from South Africa's Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a recent report on meetings in Harare of the Combined Harare Residents Association, and a report of a survey of Zimbabwean asylum seekers in South Africa by the South African-based Zimbabwe Torture Victims Project.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Zimbabwe, visit

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Shadows and lies: Interview with Margaret Dongo

PBS Frontline/World (US)

June 28, 2006

Margaret Dongo, one of Zimbabwe's most famous freedom fighters, took up arms at the age of 15 in the chimurenga (or liberation war) against colonial rule. In 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence, Dongo joined Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF Party, and she held a number of government posts. She eventually became disillusioned with the ruling party, and in the 1995 elections, Dongo ran for parliament as an Independent, but lost to the official Zanu representative. She challenged the results in court and won, becoming the first Independent member of parliament in Zimbabwe. Dongo served until 2000.Today she is president of the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats and continues to advocate for democracy and human rights. ...

(This interview took place in Harare in February 2006. It has been edited for clarity.)

Alexis Bloom: You've had many different chapters in your life. What was your involvement in the liberation struggle?

Margaret Dongo: I was one of the former freedom fighters. The liberation struggle was in 1975. And I was 15 years old. I got training at one of the military camps.

I was trained as a medical assistant, the equivalent of a nursing assistant. In every section platoon, there has to be someone with a nursing background who could render immediate assistance - be it in the battlefield or inside the camp. You were giving first aid to the victims of the struggle. It was a very good experience because it strengthened me both mentally and physically....

Bloom: Why did you join the struggle?

Dongo: The reason that I joined the liberation struggle, my dear, was that I wanted to remove the discrimination, the imbalances in terms of economy, in terms of land distribution, in terms of social life.

I remember very well my dad. I grew up in a highly political family. I remember the early 1970s, when I could hear my dad talking about the discrimination, how they were not allowed to move in the apartments and so forth, ...

We were fighting against lack of equal access to education, lack of equal access to employment, lack of equal access to distribution of wealth. The same thing as if it's happening under a black government, people have to fight it. ,,,

Bloom: What about Zimbabwe today?

Dongo: There is no reason why Zimbabweans today should watch our country go down the drain. Look at the time it took to build it up. That one can just destroy it overnight is something very painful. There are people who perished, people who fought a genuine fight, people who wanted genuine change. It was not about creating another dictatorship, creating another oppressive system, where you cannot exercise your rights.

Today most people have to leave as a result of instability in the economy - some to Mozambique, to Tanzania, to Zambia, to Britain, some to America. If you look at the political environment, people aren't allowed the freedom to speak their views. As long as fear of the unknown exists, it becomes difficult. Where is the liberation now? We talked about exile back during the political movements - the ANC, the Zanu, Zapu times - and yet today, again, exile is an issue on the table.

Bloom: You were a member of Zanu. What were the early days like?

Dongo: As a former freedom fighter, there was a lot of hope and a lot of excitement. And people were willing to work toward rebuilding their country. One thing you need to understand is that in the early 1980s, Zanu achieved political power without economic backing. If you look at the developments made by Zanu PF during the first five years, those are the developments that you can talk about today. The first five years show that they were still eager to work for the people, they were working toward the promises that they'd made and they still had in mind how they had suffered in the liberation struggle. At that time, they were trying to build a political power base - they wanted the people to know they were the right people - that they could actually bring about change...

From 1980 to 1985, a number of changes came in - to the agriculture sector, the health sector, the education sector - in terms of black people, indigenous people coming into business. When Mugabe came in, he was a different man. He came in with this reconciliation policy. It was something that was envied by the whole international movement. This guy was regarded as one of the best and strongest African leaders....

Bloom: When did things start to fall apart?

Dongo: The time when he [Mugabe] moved to creating a one-party monopoly, a one-party state, that's when everything started falling apart. When the Zapu Party - which was the strongest opposition party to Zanu PF - was swallowed up by Zanu, this was the end of the multiparty democracy because it created and strengthened a dictatorship.

I'm saying this because I was in that parliament. I endured a lot of hardship under a one-party monopoly. You stand up and try to reason with him, and one tells you, "You are a bitch, go and cook in your house." Or tells you to sit down, that you are a minority...

There are certain individuals in Zanu who can't distinguish between "self" and the role they are supposed to be playing. ...

Bloom: Can you talk about the reasoning behind the razing of thousands of home recently around Harare? [Operation Murambatsvina, or "Operation Clear Out the Filth," was a government clearance program that destroyed thousands of homes outside the capital.]

Dongo: The majority of the people opposing Mugabe are disadvantaged people - people who have been created because of the economic fall in this country, the unemployed. The country can no longer create employment.

All the investors have left, and there are no investors coming in. Harare has become overpopulated because of migration from rural to urban, looking for greener pastures. But people are living in the shantytowns that have been created - the backyards and high fields of Harare. This is where it was easy for opposition to grow. Mugabe realized that the opposition controls the cities and thought, "How can I dilute that?" ...

Shadows and lies: Interview with Trevor Ncube

PBS Frontline/World (US)

June 28, 2006

Trevor Ncube is a prominent Zimbabwean newspaper publisher living in Johannesburg. He bought the Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper, in 2002. He also publishes Zimbabwe's last two independent newspapers. All three publications have heavily criticized President Robert Mugabe's government. In December 2005, Mugabe drew up a list of government critics and announced that those who "go around demonizing the country" would have their passports seized. ...

[This interview took place in February 2006 in Johannesburg.]

Alexis Bloom: How would you characterize the Mugabe government at the moment?

Trevor Ncube: What's very distinct about the Mugabe regime at the moment is that you have what appears to all intents and purposes to be a regime whose back is against the wall. A regime that has become politically bankrupt. They've painted themselves into a corner and they don't know how to get out of that corner. They're desperate. And in their desperation, they are trying to find scapegoats; they're hitting out at anybody, mostly their citizens, and blaming the Americans and the British for the problems that Zimbabwe currently experiences. It's a terrible place, Zimbabwe, at the moment. .,, Tyranny is an everyday thing; people fear for their lives. ... If you recall that only seven years ago, Zimbabwe was one of the best places in southern Africa to be in and that all that I've just outlined has taken place inside six and a half to seven years - it's quite alarming. It's a sad story of what happens when a regime gets so punch drunk with political power and there's nothing to restrain them. ...

Bloom: Why do you think Mugabe is so driven to stay in power?

Ncube: ... he's dug himself into this big hole; there's no getting out of this hole. But I think he's also made up his mind that he's not getting out of power; he's made up his mind that he's going to drop dead in office. ... Is he going to be called to account for the things he's done? For the matter of more than 20,000 people [who died] in Matabeleland in the 1980s? The abuses that have taken place over the past six years? ...

Also at play is the whole issue of power corrupts, too much power corrupts absolutely. That's the situation with Robert Mugabe. He has created a situation where he and his party and those around him are the only people standing at the present moment. He's bludgeoned everybody into submission. ... He's arrived at a place where he genuinely and seriously thinks that Zimbabwe can't do without him. And it's easy to arrive at that place where all that you have around you are sycophants. He's killed the media; he has created a situation where people are afraid to express themselves. There's over 4 million Zimbabweans that have run away - literally in exile - people who cannot stand the political situation, the economic situation and the social situation that is in Zimbabwe. And he doesn't care about that; ...

... Scholars say in theory that the power of propaganda is such that you end up believing your own lies. But I think in Zimbabwe, we are seeing that actually happening. We are seeing Robert Mugabe telling lies, big lies; and he and his officials end up believing their propaganda. They actually believe that the Americans and the British are out to get them. And they actually believe that people like me are tools and stooges of the Americans and the British. ...

It's like watching a man go crazy and you really don't know what to do with him. You read the kind of things that are coming out of Zimbabwe and say, "Are these people out of their minds? What's the point of destroying your own country? Because you want to make a point to the Americans and the British?" ...

Bloom: I've heard people say things like, "Under Smith the laws were bad, but under Mugabe they're worse."

Ncube: You understand why a lot of people feel Zimbabwe was better under Ian Smith than it is at the present moment. I think in all honesty, the situation in Zimbabwe has degenerated to the extent that comparison between Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe becomes fair game. I'm embarrassed to actually admit that. But what's the difference between Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe? I'm saying now that because there are 4 million Zimbabweans who are in exile. There are in excess of 2.5 million Zimbabweans who are in South Africa. Were there that many Zimbabweans during the liberation of Zimbabwe who are outside Zimbabwe during Ian Smith's regime? The extent of poverty that you experience at the present moment - can it not be compared to the extent of social destitution that there was during the Ian Smith regime? Sentiment aside, let's look at what Ian Smith did and let's look at what Robert Mugabe has done. What makes this whole thing criminal is that this is another black man doing this on his own black people. To me, that just worsens the crime. ...

Bloom: Would you say that Mugabe is as much a brilliant strategist as he is a political thug?

Ncube: Robert Mugabe is a very bright man, very streetwise. He has outmaneuvered the Brits, the Americans and the South Africans again and again. They don't know what to do with him. The man understands politics, knows how to manipulate African leaders, render South Africa totally ineffective. ...

From Liberator to Tyrant: Recollections of Robert Mugabe

Stephen Talbot, PBS Frontline/World (US)
June 29, 2006

Frontline/World series editor Stephen Talbot interviewed Robert Mugabe twice in the late 1970s. In this personal essay, he looks back on that pivotal time, just before independence, when he met "an eloquent, direct and impressive man" who promised to turn Zimbabwe into a model for African democracy. ...

When I first met and interviewed Robert Mugabe, he was still the exiled leader of an African nationalist movement trying to end white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. It was July 1977 at the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I was a 28-year-old freelance reporter, he was a 53-year-old "terrorist" or "freedom fighter," depending on your point of view. He had recently spent 10 years in a Rhodesian prison, now he was commander of a guerrilla army. In the United States he was virtually unknown.

My first impressions, jotted in a yellowing notebook: "Mugabe: straightforward, eloquent, direct, to the point; ironic, barbed sense of humor. Impressive. Not in the least bit jive or phony, no posturing." "We are fighting for a democratic state, for self-determination, for an end to exploitation," Mugabe told me. "All countries should help us. There is no reason why the American people should not come to our aid." ... A formal man, dressed casually in an African print shirt, he conveyed the dignity of a well-educated teacher, his previous profession. ... After all these years, it's still difficult and painful to reconcile my memory of this man with the tyrant he became.

Today, Mugabe is one of Africa's longest-reigning dictators, routinely denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for abusing his people. "A disgrace to Africa," says Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning author. "A caricature of an African dictator," says Desmond Tutu, South Africa's Nobel laureate. And Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, says he prays for "a popular uprising" to topple Mugabe's regime. Of all the depressing statistics about Mugabe's broken country, the one that gnaws at me the most is that life expectancy has declined in the last two decades from 62 years to a mere 38 years. It wasn't supposed to be this way. When he came to power in 1980, in a landslide election victory after a negotiated settlement of the war, Mugabe was greeted as a national hero, at least by Zimbabwe's black majority. And at first, Mugabe delivered on promises of peace, reconciliation with the white minority, and social development. Yet even as early as the 1980s, there was an ominous turn of events [when thousands were killed in Matabeleland by Zimbabwean government troops]. ...

Frontline was one of the few media outlets in the United States to sound the alarm, in the 1983 documentary Crisis in Zimbabwe, reported by Charlie Cobb, an African American journalist, who, like me, was dismayed to see Mugabe acting as brutally and repressively as the white-minority rulers he had replaced. Should I have seen signs of what was coming? Had Mugabe deceived me? ...

... the authoritarian impulse was probably there in Mugabe from the beginning, but I chose to see his pragmatism and his political skill. After that first meeting with Mugabe in 1977, I interviewed him again in 1979 at an Organization of African Unity conference in Liberia (just before Liberia descended into civil war) and filmed him later that summer at his exile headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique. Looking at that old interview just now, I am immediately struck by Mugabe's apparent sincerity, his baritone voice, his reassuring manner. At the time, the fighting across the border in Rhodesia was fierce. Ian Smith's white-minority regime was aided by a crude assortment of white mercenaries from around the world, and there was always the threat that South Africa's apartheid leaders might intervene to save their ally to the north. But Mugabe seemed cool and calm, even in the midst of his rundown guerrilla compound.

The offices of Mugabe's Zanu Party were located in a funky high-rise building. Mozambique had only recently emerged from its own war of independence against Portuguese colonial rule and was a poor, struggling - if momentarily euphoric - country. The offices were spartan, the elevator not functioning. We lugged our camera equipment up many flights of stairs to the roof of the building, where we interviewed Mugabe against the city skyline. He joked that having to climb the stairs kept his staff in shape. "In the West, many consider you a terrorist," I began. "We are fighting an unjust system," he replied. "We are not fighting the whites as whites. ... We are not terrorists. ... We are fighters for democracy." Political rhetoric, of course. Even in my 20s and sympathetic to his cause, I could recognize that. But it also meshed with my own experience. Back home, I had become friends with a number of Zimbabwean students studying in the States who were members of Mugabe's Zanu. The thing I remember about them most was how nonracist they were. For people engaged in a struggle with Ian Smith's notoriously racist government, they were themselves almost incomprehensibly free of animosity toward whites. Of course, the guerrilla war in Rhodesia was brutal, with atrocities on both sides. But the Zanu people I knew in the United States and those I was meeting in Mozambique defied the Mau Mau image prevalent in much of the West. ...

Mugabe's 26 years in power have turned out to be a textbook example of Lord Acton's famous dictum, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." ... When Mugabe felt firmly in control, he was relatively benign, running Zimbabwe like a ward boss in old Chicago, handing out patronage to his friends. But whenever Mugabe felt that his power was threatened -- by Nkomo, by white farmers, by the Movement for Democratic Change -- he lashed out. Usually his brutal crackdowns were timed to upcoming elections he thought he might lose. Mugabe's confiscation of white-owned farms in the last six years has been highly political. Zimbabwe inherited an inequitable agricultural system from colonial Rhodesia. A quarter of a million whites owned most of the fertile, productive farm land in a nation of what was then 7 million blacks. The farms were efficient and bountiful, producing tobacco as a cash crop and more than enough corn to feed the country and to export. African demand for land reform was strong, but Mugabe did not want to jeopardize the economy, and despite some militant talk, he did almost nothing to redistribute land until he was challenged in the polls. ...

Mugabe, now 82, has virtually achieved his one-party state. Zanu controls most of the seats in parliament. When Mugabe needs to, as in 2002, he rigs elections. His party, which only needs a 75 percent majority (which it has) to change the constitution, does so on a whim. He has silenced what used to be a robust and free press, jailing and torturing reporters. And he has become increasingly mercurial and brutal. Last year he launched his own version of slum clearance, called Operation Murambatsvina ("Clean the Filth"), evicting some 700,000 people from their homes in Harare and other cities -- mostly desperately poor people who, he feared, might support the opposition or stage food riots. When condemned by the international community, Mugabe hisses back, claiming he is the target of a Western conspiracy. Paranoia has replaced the openness with which, 30 years ago, he solicited international support for his rebel cause.

All of this has caused me, and others, to wonder what exactly transformed Mugabe from a promising national hero to a tyrant. Is it simply that he has remained in power far too long? Or was there some other trigger? ..

I have pondered the enigma of Robert Mugabe countless times - and questioned my own na‹vet‚ in taking him at face value. It's unnerving when you misjudge someone so profoundly. ... I can still remember my excitement at meeting Mugabe and filing my first radio story about him. This was history - a man leading one of the last anticolonial struggles in Africa. He seemed to measure up - a tough, university-educated African leader with British flourishes. When I asked him how he would describe U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe, he deadpanned, "A mixed grill." What happened to the Mugabe I knew in the late 1970s still bewilders and disturbs me. Even if he lacked Mandela's transcendent humanity and compassion, Mugabe could have been an esteemed statesman and a popular president. Instead he has run his country into the ground, one more tyrant on a long-suffering continent, his people waiting for him to die.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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