Who gets to tell the Zimbabwe story?


For more than a decade it has almost been impossible to get a positive story about Zimbabwe published in the Western media, especially if it was written by a black Zimbabwean and appeared to be favouring the country’s president Robert Mugabe.

Things seem to be changing. First there was a book by Ian Scoones and others-Zimbabwe’s land reform- myths and realities – which rubbished claims that Zimbabwe’s land reform was a disaster.

This was followed by another book by Joseph Hanlon and others,- Zimbabwe takes back its land- also on land reform.

Andre Vltchek questioned whether Harare was really the worst city on earth in a lengthy article in Counterpunch.

Though Scoones and Hanlon had Zimbabwean co-authors, the Zimbabwe story is still being told by non-Zimbabweans, which reminds me of a New York Times series in 2000: How race is lived in America.

The story that caught my attention and relates closely to what is happening in Zimbabwe was the one entitled: Who gets to tell a black story?

This was about an HBO documentary based on the book: The Corner by David Simon. Simon was a white journalist. He wrote about black inner city drug addicts in Baltimore.

Charles Dutton who grew up in Baltimore was the director. Dutton’s sister and brother were both drug addicts. Dutton therefore doubted that Simon, despite his good intentions, could honestly tell a story about blacks.

He was quoted as saying: “I know the pulse of this. I know what people think the minute they walk out them doors. I know what mothers feel when their sons and daughters walk out of the house to go to school. I know what it feels like to kill somebody. I know what it feels like to get shot. I know what it feels like that people be looking to kill me. I don’t have to show up as a crime journalist after the fact.”

I have kept the entire series which I was given by Gerald Boyd, then managing editor of the New York Times, in October 2000 when I was a fellow at the Poynter Institute because it reminded me of how the Zimbabwe story has been, and continues to be, misreported.

As a black Zimbabwean journalist, I felt, and still feel, the same way as Dutton. I believe I know Zimbabwe better than any visiting journalist or academic. I have lived the life. I feel the pulse. And having lived in Rhodesia for 28 years before it became Zimbabwe, I know what life was like before the country changed its name.

So I have always asked myself the same question the New York Times asked: Who gets to tell the Zimbabwe story?

I went to Poynter when the land seizures were at their peak. Several people were killed during the land seizures. Every white farmer that was killed was identified by name and his or her picture appeared in the local media and internationally.

But not one black farmer was identified by name- even in the local media owned by blacks- yet more black than white farmers were killed.

As a Zimbabwean, I agree that Mugabe has overstayed. But at the same time, I also believe it is the people of Zimbabwe that must vote him out of office. The moment an outsider starts demanding that he must go, I start asking questions. Why? What is in it for the outsider? There are no free lunches in this world.

What irritates me most is when writers start distorting history, like saying Mugabe has presided over 33 years of misrule. This is a damn lie. I was there when Mugabe won the first elections. I was there when he was sworn in and Bob Marley performed at Rufaro Stadium.

Those were also the best times of my life. I bought my first car for cash within six months of Mugabe being sworn in. Well it was only Z$450 but then I earned the princely sum of Z$360 a month as assistant editor of a weekly newspaper. But, at the time the Zimbabwe dollar was worth US$1.50.

I covered the Commonwealth conference in Melbourne in 1981, just a year after he assumed power. I went to the United States on a World Press Institute fellowship in 1983. On my return I was able to take my wife and child on a Flame Lily holiday to Kariba- flying and staying at the lovely Caribbea Bay Hotel.

I was now earning Z$925 a month as a senior reporter for a daily, but I was able to buy our tickets for cash. The Zimbabwe dollar was now at par with the United States dollar.

Yes, there were the Chitungwiza and Entumbane uprisings and Gukurahundi during the same period, but the economy was ticking and life for the majority was improving. So surely, when we talk about misrule we must subtract those years.

Zimbabwe currently has the highest literacy rate in Africa. Mugabe deserves credit for this. However, I do not want to fall into the Western folly of blaming everything on Mugabe by crediting all the good things to him. Mugabe is just one person in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. It is the party that did so.

Mugabe is not bigger than the party. If he was, he would have stepped down after his defeat in 2008. He wanted to, according to former United States ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee.

As a media practitioner, what hurts me most are the double standards applied when it comes to reporting about Zimbabwe. I know some reporters who have been fired in the United States for not acknowledging that part of the information they used in their story was from a stringer.

But when it comes to Zimbabwe, people can write anything, from anywhere. You still find stories in some respected newspapers in the United States with footnotes saying some of the information in the story was contributed by a Zimbabwean journalist who cannot be named for security reasons.

Is this really true- four years after the formation of a government of national unity- or the reporter just wants to remain anonymous because he or she is not allowed to freelance by his or her employer?

Worse still I hurt it when some Western writers take us local journalists for fools. Having just marked World Press Freedom Day, I appreciate that everyone has freedom of opinion, but does that include opinions that are not based on fact?

An article in the May issue of the National Geographic for example says: “In 2005, after the MDC won several parliamentary seats, Mugabe retaliated with Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clear Filth).”

True, Mugabe launched Murambatsvina after the 2005 elections. But the Movement for Democratic Change had not won several seats. It had in fact lost 16 seats that it won in 2000, dropping from 57 seats to 41 seats in parliament, giving Mugabe a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

So surely the argument that Mugabe embarked on Murambatsvina because the MDC had won several seats is not true. Yes, Mugabe might have launched Murambatsvina to destroy the MDC base, but the writer ought to get a more valid reason.

The list of distortions is endless. But the question remains. Are black Zimbabwean journalists not capable of writing good, balanced stories for the Western media? Are they only good when it comes to writing stories that denigrate their own people and their country, especially Mugabe?


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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