I was on the anchor desk on Sunday at CNN on the night of Robert Mugabe’s non-resignation speech. Earlier that day I had anchored a broadcast where he had been fired from his ruling party, Zanu-PF. It seemed the page was turning for the only president that I, as a 34-year-old born and raised Zimbabwean, had ever known. And I could not have been more excited.
As a journalist we are trained, and it is customary, to try to keep personal feelings, views and opinions out of our reporting. Usually I do quite well on it, but I really struggled with this story. Because for me, and millions of other Zimbabweans, those living inside the country and the millions who have been politically, socially or economically displaced due to Robert Mugabe’s despotic and painfully long rule, it is about so much more than politics. I struggled not to use the word “we” instead of saying “Zimbabweans” when I asked our correspondents in Zimbabwe and our guests about the situation there.
When Mugabe entered the room to give his speech, frail and small in stature, I almost felt sorry for him. I wasn’t sure I could watch him be humiliated. He was still seen as a liberator to some. A hero even, the person who made sure schools and clinics were built when he first took over. However evil his reign had become, he didn’t start out that way. Besides, he had lauded over us all these years, would we be able to watch him utter these words? Would he say sorry? Would I cry on air?
But as he began his speech any feelings that were remotely sympathetic quickly dissipated. When he ended the rambling diatribe without a hint of resignation or contrition I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I continued the broadcast, bewildered and robotic. Afterwards, driving home, I cried like someone I had known dearly had died. He would never give up power, I thought. He has fooled us again. He will form another government of unity like he did after he lost the 2008 elections and nothing will change. Zimbabwe has disappointed us all again.
Mugabe has used the tactics of divide and rule for a long time. He has pitted blacks against whites, tribe against tribe, ruling party supporters against the opposition, to name just a few examples. Our government-controlled broadcasts were always full of hateful propaganda to incite groups against each other. It was an awful time, because as his angry vitriol was spewed, other than the unfortunate acts of a few, life continued pretty normally for ordinary Zimbabweans. We just wanted peace and jobs. We kept our heads down and hoped for change, but rarely spoke about it.
One person told me on Twitter on Tuesday, “You cannot eat propaganda.” And Zimbabweans are starving. When you see the average Zimbabwean their shoulder blades show through their T-shirts and their collar bones and pelvic bones stick out. My mom remarked some years back that you rarely see pregnant Zimbabweans any more. But it goes beyond that – we are also starving for knowledge. Starving for the freedom to say what we want and do what we want. Starving for jobs and the chance to use the brilliant education that we all had the privilege of receiving. There is 94% unemployment in Zimbabwe. Grocery store shelves are bare. HIV rates and maternity morality rates are soaring. There is very little money in the banks.
Mugabe had caused me to change the way I remembered Zimbabwe, and I hated him for it. When I thought of my home that day during the car ride home, I didn’t think about the wonderful schools I went to, where black children and white children studied happily side by side, and built friendships that have continued well into our 30s. I didn’t think about the immense, untapped wealth of the land that we grew up in, from the minerals in the ground to the wild animals in the Hwange National Park or the beautiful Victoria Falls. I didn’t think about how, no matter where you are in the world, when you meet a Zimbabwean, or a “Zimbo” as we affectionately call one another, you are instantly a sister or a brother, albeit displaced by a monster who won’t relinquish power.
Instead I remembered an incident in 2007, when I, as a very young journalist, was beaten by Zimbabwean police on the streets of my home town of Bulawayo for filming innocent women protesting that they had no money to send their children to school, and no power to cook their families dinner at night. The memory of one policeman lifting me off the ground by my ponytail, and then backhanding me across the face, is one I have never been able to suppress. It is those sorts of incidents, that anger, that so many thousands, maybe millions of Zimbabweans, cannot forget. Patients in Zimbabwe have been sent home to their rural areas with cancer, with HIV, and told to take aspirin and rather die at home. Educated young women, with university degrees, have been forced to take jobs as nannies or cleaners in faraway countries, or even turn to prostitution to pay bills.
I cannot pretend that I don’t have a view or an opinion about Zimbabwe. That I wasn’t upset that he didn’t resign that night. When I see his face, when I think about what he has done, or ordered his secret police to do, at times I am overwhelmed with anger. I had never even been able to tell my story publicly for fear my family would be targeted. I was lucky I wasn’t arrested that day by those same policemen. I was never able to lodge a complaint, no one ever apologised to me.
It’s beyond political. Mugabe has put my country, and my people, through decades of disrespect and pain.
On Tuesday, when Mugabe’s letter of resignation in parliament was confirmed, I couldn’t believe it. I’m still not sure, as I write this, if the gravity of the situation has sunk in. We have a long way to go before the divisions he sowed are healed. We have a long way to go before we are truly free.
But maybe, just maybe, this is the first step. A Zimbabwean constitutional lawyer told me live on CNN International on Saturday evening that the best way to describe how people felt on the streets protesting against Mugabe was like “a massive group of people who were in jail finally set free”.
A wise friend of mine from my home town of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, messaged me the night after CNN’s mammoth broadcast of him stepping down. She said:
“I cried when I first saw you on CNN news desk, and now, as you tell our story – I know it had to be. You, like all of us, have a Mugabe story of how the system he presided (over) sought to break the humanity in anyone. For us it is clear why we act the way we do but we needed one of us to tell our stories and to explain our actions to the world.”
It was my pleasure and my privilege to be a small part in telling the Zimbabwean story and I agree wholeheartedly with her words. Mugabe “sought to break the humanity” of his people.
He failed. DM
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Born and raised in Bulawayo, Robyn Kriel is a CNN International anchor and correspondent currently based at CNNs worldwide headquarters in Atlanta. Prior to joining CNN, Robyn was South African television station eNCAs Chief Africa Correspondent. Robyn established and managed eNCAs East Africa bureau from 2011 to 2015. From 2008 to 2011, Robyn was an anchor and reporter for eNCA based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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