Wilf Mbanga is editor of The Zimbabwean. The newspaper is run from his home in Britain, printed in South Africa, and distributed in Zimbabwe and among the Zimbabwean diaspora. Once a friend of President Robert Mugabe and editor of the state news agency, he became a fiece opponent and critic of the regime. He now lives in exile following his arrest in 2001.
“Emmerson Mnangagwa blamed The Zimbabwean for ZANU-PF losing the election”, Wilf Mbanga tells me. “He said we had ‘poisoned the minds’ of our readers.” Mnangagwa, currently Robert Mugabe’s Minister of Defence and chief election agent during the infamous 2008 poll, has a fearsome reputation and has long been touted as Mugabe’s potential successor. His condemnatory statement hints at two important characteristics of Mbanga and his newspaper: firstly, The Zimbabwean vocally opposes the kleptomania and brutishness of Mugabe’s regime, and, secondly, it requires a great deal of bravery and innovation to dissent in today’s Zimbabwe.
What emerged from the ashes of Zimbabwe’s last election and the shattered dreams of a popularly elected government was the fractious power-sharing agreement between ZANU-PF and the two factions of the MDC. Following protracted negotiations mediated by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, Mugabe retained the presidency, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the MDC’s larger faction and winner of the presidential ballot, became prime minister. This Unity Government was founded upon the understanding that a Global Political Agreement (GPA) would be fully implemented before a free and fair election could be held. Central conditions of the GPA were that a constitutional referendum would be held, ZANU-PF would be demilitarised, the security apparatus would become less partisan and that progress would be made on civil liberties.
I ask Mbanga if there have been developments in meeting the goals of the GPA. He is unequivocal: “Very little. Two years after the signing of the GPA, the principals have agreed there are more than 20 items still to be implemented." He expands on the role of the military in Zimbabwe. He asserts it is little more than a ZANU-PF militia. “Right now we have Henry Muchena, deputy head of the air force, seconded to ZANU-PF to direct its election campaign" he says. "They have despatched soldiers around the country terrorising people, threatening people, campaigning for ZANU-PF. Life in Zimbabwe is completely militarised. Major Generals are running everything. We even have a Major General running tourism. We have Major Generals running nearly all parastatals.” To press home the risible bias displayed by the army and police, he adds, “The MDC are preparing to have their conference in May and right now are having their provincial conferences. The police are banning them. Meanwhile Mugabe has the police actually helping him at ZANU-PF events.”
There may be slightly more positive news concerning the promised referendum on the constitution that the GPA dictates must be held before another election. Any reason for hope on this front, however, has nothing to do with Mugabe. Towards the end of last year, Mugabe began to call for an election in mid-2011 and again unleashed his coercive forces upon the population. Tsvanagirai’s reaction was to threaten a boycott. Yet, Mbanga thinks there is still a good chance of the referendum taking place. “Mugabe can’t call elections unilaterally. There has to be an agreement. He thinks that because he is president he can call an election any time, but I get the sense that he is backtracking…” Why might he be showing such uncharacteristic restraint? “No matter what happens, the South Africans have made it clear they will not support an election without the full implementation of the GPA.” Mbanga also makes it clear why it is critical that the constitution changes for Zimbabwe to have any chance of holding satisfactory elections. “If we have elections under the current constitution, then Mugabe will win. If Tsvangirai wins the most seats in the election, afterwards Mugabe can select ten governors, he can appoint ten chiefs to parliament. He also appoints military chiefs and other heads of government ministries single-handedly."
Mbanga sees a leader in Mugabe who ridicules the very idea of sharing political power. He describes a ZANU-PF which disdains the notion of using the security forces to protect Zimbabweans from arbitrary power when they can instead abuse them with it. He attributes to this grim partnership the very same cynicism and venality in its handling of the economy which it has already done so much to obliterate. He sees similarities between the land invasions that started at the outset of the last decade and the new Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act (IEEA). The argument that either scheme contained even a sliver of noble sentiment to rebalance the scales of economic opportunity in Zimbabwe, which is something he does not object to in principle, is dismissed sharply. “It is racist," he explains. "It is not well thought out, just like the land redistribution. Already you have ZANU-PF lining up to share out the best parts. They want Old Mutual, Barclays, and Standard Bank.”
In fact, ZANU-PF has recently drawn up a list of 400 European and American companies to be targeted by the legislation that requires 51% of foreign-owned companies to be ceded into Zimbabwean hands. When I propose that targeted companies will just leave the country, Mbanga’s response is cutting: “Mugabe doesn’t care. He will leave them bare. There is a scorched earth policy going on and they just want to make as much money as possible before there is a change of government." The motivation is not just greed; it is also political. “Mugabe is desperate to keep people on his side," he explains. "In the past he dished out farms to anyone in the army above Lieutenant Colonel, to police officers and so on. Now we are back to square one. He has to give them something."
There is another reason ZANU-PF can be unfazed about slicing up companies that have come to invest in Zimbabwe: Chinese money, and lots of it. Mbanga is ambivalent about China. However, he concedes that: “They used to give guns to ZANLA (military wing of ZANU) during the war with Ian Smith which was a great thing to do." Nonetheless he hardens when faced with China's current influence. “China’s presence in Zimbabwe is destructive. They are supporting ZANU-PF, not Zimbabwe. They are raping Zimbabwe. Mugabe has given concessions to the Chinese. He is literally mortgaging our country." I ask if the MDC plays any role in Sino-Zimbabwean relations. “None. If you have ever seen a Zimbabwean minister going to China, they are always ZANU-PF." A further indication of China’s hold on Mugabe is evident in the exemption of Chinese firms from the IEEA.
Mbanga’s comments on China make clear his scepticism about the MDC’s ability to exercise any serious control under the current governance arrangement, which facilitates a ZANU-PF monopoly on the levers of economic and security power. But there are also stipulations in the GPA intended to unshackle a largely state-dominated media. The deal demands the establishment of a new Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) to license newspapers, television stations and radio stations. It was supposed to replace the Media and Information Commission (MIC) that oversaw the creation of draconian censorship laws and the closing down of five independent newspapers. One of the newspapers which the MIC shut down in 2003 was The Daily News, founded by Mbanga in 1999 and at the time Zimbabwe’s best-selling newspaper
Could ZMC's issuing of five licenses to independent newspapers in the last year be grounds for optimism. “[ZMC has said] Yes, to newspapers, but not to radio or TV stations. If you don’t have an education, you can still listen to a radio. The majority of Zimbabweans get their news from radio and TV [over which the state maintains its monopoly].” Fortunately for public debate in Zimbabwe, Mbanga cannot be constrained by the country’s oppressive media laws since he works from Britain and prints in South Africa. This, however, neither means that it makes journalism any easier nor that Mugabe does not try to cause him as much difficulty as possible. The authorities have burned one of his delivery trucks, along with its stock, and targeted the newspaper with a ramped up ‘luxury’ import tax. They also threaten him personally despite the thousands of miles between Mbanga and Harare. Last winter an arrest warrant was issued for him for ‘publishing falsehoods’ despite the offending article appearing in another newspaper two years previously. “They wanted to scare me and didn’t do their homework," Mbanga says. "They know I have a printing press in South Africa. Zimbabwe has an extradition treaty with South Africa, so now I cannot go to South Africa.” He says he has also seen his name on lists, deliberately ‘leaked’ by the Central Intelligence Organisation, recording the state's assassination targets.
In spite of these bullying tactics, it is his staff in Zimbabwe for whom Mbanga reserves his fears and admiration. “The police have been arresting my reporters, they have been arresting my distributors. In some towns my vendors have been chased by soldiers." He stresses that in 2008 the newspaper sold “over 200,000 copies a week, and in Zimbabwe each copy is read by 12 or 15 people”. So the staff of The Zimbabwean must be doing a stellar job of eluding the censorious authorities. Mbanga talks me through the clandestine process of story gathering: “They send stories to me by email. We give each of our reporters a laptop and a dongle. Some are accredited. Some write for other newspapers and for me. I also have some who are staff at state papers, who write what is wanted for them, but then also write for me under pseudonyms." As if to prove that The Zimbabwean really is embroiled in the midst of a dangerous game, Mbanga adds: “They arrested my chief reporter in 2008. They knew who he was. He was very badly beaten and we didn’t know where he was for five days." Mbanga reminds me that you do not have to beat the hell out of many people, especially many chief reporters, to send a chilling message to other potential trouble-makers.
Mbanga’s public stance – from hope to anger via disillusion - has closely mirrored the history of independent Zimbabwe since its inception in 1980. He spent nearly twenty years at the heart of the establishment as a confidante of Zimbabwe’s first president and editor of the state news agency before severing his ties when evidence of corruption and brutality became overwhelming. Yet, despite his transition from Mugabe's committed footsoldier to exiled enemy of the state, in the face of Zimbabwe’s current fragility, he retains a steely positivity at the core of which is the press. Mbanga sees a free press – and therefore the implementation of the GPA – as indispensable for two reasons: the first is to reveal the fallacies of state propaganda to the uneducated rural support that Mugabe still claims. “We need to inform the people - who are lied to on TV and radio 24 hours a day - about what is really going on in our country. I think once that happens they will abandon him." The second reason is both optimistic and wary: Zimbabwe must not make the same mistake again. Asked for his opinion on Morgan Tsvangirai as a future leader of Zimbabwe, in light of Mbanga's learning of lessons from Mugabe, he shrugs. “He might turn out to be a monster. But we need an independent press to keep these guys in check from day one."