In his latest book “The Fear”, Peter Godwin describes torture, violence and crimes in the name of power in the country that was once a prototype of the “rainbow nation”. Why did the paradigm never happen? Where did Zimbabwe go? Godwin spoke to Daily Maverick's EMILY GAMBADE.
“I get these emails from people saying: ‘We feel so ashamed that this was happening on our doorstep and we didn’t do anything. And yet it was right there. We are the next-door neighbours, we are the most important country affected by it and we didn’t do anything.’
“At one session at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (13-15 May 2011), I was asked by a white South African, and it was quite a poignant question: ‘Here we are, a minority now in a black-ruled country… Can you tell us, given what’s happened in Zimbabwe, and what happened to white people, can you tell us what you think you did wrong, and what we should be doing down here to safeguard our own future, to be able to live and for our children to be able to live in this country?’’ Peter Godwin shrugs his shoulders.
A former foreign and war correspondent who now writes for Vanity Fair and the National Geographic, the author of five non-fiction books, he is no politician and has no ready answers to questions such as that one. But ask him about his views on Zimbabwe and the parallels it has with South Africa, and he will make you listen carefully.
‘I think… I sort of know what we did wrong, but the awful truth is, was there anything we could have done differently as a community that might have safeguarded us? Or are we just a footnote to something that would have happened anyway?
“I found myself saying that what happened in Zimbabwe, was that there was an implicit social contract once Mugabe came in, which was namely that white people could stay. They could enjoy their nice houses because they were a privileged elite, that wouldn’t be taken away, their farms wouldn’t be nationalised. They would become technocrats. Mugabe specifically made that appeal; we were the prototype of the ‘rainbow nation’, we were going to show that we could do this; and the whites were invited to stay and contribute, and they did, or so they thought. But the implicit social contract was: We could do all that, but we shouldn’t involve ourselves in politics now because we had had our turn and there were historical injustices and imbalances that needed to be figured out. It’s one’s luck that you come along in a cycle of history where your group, for whatever reason, has had some kind of privileges. Now if you lost them tough, you know, bugger off.
“So whites, by and large, became expats. They withdrew into their houses and behind their TVs and their sport clubs and stopped being citizens in the full sense, where you play a very active, full role on every level of the society. Democracy is not something that only happens when you go (and) vote and that’s it. It has to be guarded with jealousy all the time and it is guarded by people participating in it and by being well-informed and by reading about it and by holding politicians accountable. (Democracy) has to be policed by citizens. And if you stop, if citizens withdraw, the danger is that you become an isolated ethnic minority, better off than the average person. When there is an economic downturn, the politics envy can kick in and you become very vulnerable.”
In the South African post-election era, where democracy was the big winner, one has to remember that merely voting means nothing if one completely withdraws from the civic scene.
“South Africa is facing serious challenges. This transition is not over, this country could go in any number of directions – and I’m not saying it’s going to become like Zimbabwe. There are many differences between South Africa and Zimbabwe, but there are dangers and there are many parallels,” explains Godwin, pointing out how the two neighbouring countries have to build a democracy out of what he calls “liberation” governments.
“What essentially happens in these countries, these liberation countries, is a revolution. It’s not just a change of government, it’s a revolution. And in any revolution, the power that comes in has that enormous authority, credibility and legitimacy. It tends to seem messianic, to feel it should enjoy a kind of monopoly on power because they were the people who sacrificed themselves to free the country, and they tend to feel that other parties are not even legitimate ones. So they need the checks and balances in place in society, whether it’s the media or the courts or opposition parties, to say ‘hold on a minute’.”
Godwin’s words, while describing the Zimbabwean experience, are getting ever more relevant with the Protection of Information Bill looming and an apparent call made by ANC’s Nceba Faku to burn down a newspaper.
“You only really know if you live in a democracy when a government loses its power, loses an election and leaves office; until that point you can vote, and only (when) democracy wants to take power away from you, then we see whether you are really interested in democracy or whether you are interested exclusively in power. And when it stops delivering that, you’ll hear ‘We don’t believe in democracy anymore, we want a different system.’ Then there is danger. In Zimbabwe, we had a de facto one-party state for 15 years and all those checks and balances, those other independent institutions that should check the power of the government, they wilted away, until there was just nothing left. Only despair.
“But the good news of why South Africa is different is that you are already into your fourth presidential term. We never got beyond our first one. The power in Zimbabwe became very concentrated in the figure of one person. Also you had a relatively extraordinary thing which was Thabo Mbeki being rejected by his own party while he was still a president. Well that’s extraordinary, there’s clearly some democracy within the ANC, maybe rough and ready, but ZanuPF is not a democratic institution even internally.”
Godwin goes on, “I also think that you at least, made an attempt after the end of apartheid, to speak about what happened. You had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission where people could stand up and look at themselves in the mirror as a nation. The TRC was based on the idea of the Catholic confession, but whether you agree with it or not, there was an attempt to have a sustained national self-reflection… In Zimbabwe, we never did that. Each time we moved on, from the Rhodesian war, the terrible crimes committed by both sides against civilians, we didn’t even talk about it; the 1983-1984 Gukurahundi where 20,000 Matabele citizens were killed. No one has been arrested, we are not even allowed to report on it, nothing. Then there was Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 when they did the so-called slums clearance, but they just threw hundreds of thousands of people out of the cities and many of them died. They did it in the middle of winter with no accommodation. Nobody talked about it. And then the terrible violence and torture campaigns in 2008 – nobody arrested, nothing. So what you get is a culture of impunity developing where it becomes part of the national culture that you can get away with political violence. Nothing ever happens to the perpetrators; so you absorb, you internalise that kind of thing and it becomes part of a culture of political violence which is what we have now. ZanuPF’s default reaction to political opposition is a violent one. That’s what they do, that’s what they’ve always done.”
After years of violence and indifference, it remains impossible to know where the country is headed. Godwin adds, “In many ways, ‘The Fear’ is my invitation to the International Criminal Court to check it out. Please, check it out, do something. This is what you are there for.”
On the future of the country: “There are two things going on: There is the fact that the MDC wants the power, that ZanuPF doesn’t want to give up, and that South Africa, which is supposed to be a kind of honest broker in the process, hasn’t actually played that role. It has protected Mugabe in many respects from the international community by saying ‘Oh, we’ll fix Zimbabwe,’ and what they are actually trying to do is tinker with ZanuPF so that it’s kind of reformed and it can carry on like this for a while. They don’t want the opposition to take over. But the other thing that’s playing out at the same time is the transition of power within Zan PF. Who takes over from Mugabe? It’s quite a complicated thing to predict. And they are cocking up the transition. I was joking in Franschhoek saying I think that when Mugabe dies they are going to send him to a taxidermist and stuff him and put him on a throne with glass eyes so they can keep on saying ‘Mugabe said this and Mugabe said that.’
“Mugabe won’t nominate a successor. And mostly I think it’s because dictators have that thing that they don’t want to confront their own mortality. But also because there are now two factions fighting for succession; and there isn’t an ethical factor that if you choose one over the other, the other will split the party and that’s the more rational reason why they haven’t nominated a successor yet. On a bad day, I feel like ZanuPF will never ever give up power. On a good day I think perhaps, with a soft landing they may be phased out. But my worry now is, because of the discovery of this huge mine of diamonds in the east of the country, in Chiadzwa, which is controlled by ZanuPF and Mugabe and the money is going into their coffers, that’s revived the party. And it’s a glittering prize that they don’t want to lose.”
The glittering sheen of diamonds may bring more darkness to the country. There is no certainty about the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for sometime in 2011 or 2012, depending on who you’re talking to. Zimbabwe is a country in quick sand. And this is, as Godwin sums it up, a cold reminder that democracy is a fragile paradigm that needs constant checks and balances. Failing to do so is way too high a price to pay for a whole nation. DM
Photo: Peter Godwin by BooksLive.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas