When Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station was launched in 2000, just before the contentious parliamentary elections, I was among a group that worked through most of the night putting it all together, grubbing about on the top of a skyscraper, plugging in wires and hoping the transmitter would work. Journalist Andrew Meldrum was there, with a news bulletin describing the latest atrocities of Mugabe’s increasingly tyrannical regime. The station only lasted six days before being shut down by armed police brandishing a presidential order along with their obligatory AK-47s. When we had left and relaunched it on short wave from Britain, Meldrum was one of the first people we interviewed. He was not just an observer but an active participant in the unfolding events in the country. Three years later, he was to follow us into exile, having been declared an enemy of the state and strong-armed onto a plane. ‘This is not the action of a government that is confident of its own legitimacy,’ Meldrum declared. ‘It is a government that is afraid of a free press – it is a government that is &d of independent and critical reporting.’ His words echoed around the world the day he was deported from Zimbabwe, his home for over twenty years. Watching the footage I was enormously impressed by his composure, his ability to present the press pack with a neat soundbite, even as he was kicked, beaten and manhandled into a car.
Meldrum arrived in Zimbabwe from his native America just after independence in 1980. As a radio and print journalist, currently for The Guardian and The Economist, he has followed that country’s decline from the heady heights of its post-war days to the desolation which we see now. Now, a year after his expulsion from the country, Meldrum has published this book looking back on his life in Zimbabwe – from his arrival and pro-Mugabe stance at independence to his deportation twenty-three years later at the hands of the same government he once supported.
Meldrum’s first impression of Zimbabwe was that ‘it was a country in transition’, and, he writes, ‘it was that process of change that I was challenged to cover’. Rising to that challenge, his work reflected the mutating land and his growing disillusionment with its leaders. From the first intimations of trouble (when Mugabe proposed a one-party state) to the massacres in Matabeleland, the rise of HIV/Aids and , the corruption that spread through the country as the ruling elite amassed personal fortunes: he reported on it all.
The thieving finally defeated Zimbabwe’s fledgling economy in 1997, when veterans of the war for independence demanded, and received, huge payouts and pensions. Predictably, the currency collapsed. The country suffered days of food riots and people became very angry at the military’s involvement in the war in Congo. That distant battle prompted reports in a local paper, the Sunday Standard, alleging that army officers opposed to the war were planning a coup, which led to the arrest and torture of the journalist concerned and of the paper’s editor. It seemed that media freedom was now almost nonexistent.
Despite the restrictions, Meldrum kept writing: reporting on the emergence of an opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change; on the historic ‘No’ vote, when citizens refused to endorse Mugabe’s new constitution: and on the seizure of commercial farmland. The torture and intimidation surrounding the elections in 2000 and 2002 yielded many horrendous stories. Meldrum writes: ‘My conviction that my work was useful &d not make reporting any less troubling. I would return home haggard from these harrowing interviews.’
There have been many books on Zimbabwe, and on the dictator Robert Mugabe, but for me Meldrum’s work is the first to tell the story of the country’s recent decades in an accessible and comprehensive way, bringing it right up to date. It gives a cogent overview of the destruction of a nation and of the forces that have driven it. Meldrum’s vivid and insightful reflections will enrich any reader’s understanding of this sorry chapter of African history.
As the international community shies away from any definite action to end the misery of those living under Mugabe, books like this are important. However, I think the title may be unduly optimistic. A starved, frightened population, with little support from outside, is unlikely to effect change and finds it difficult to keep hope alive. Meldrum ends by saying that human rights, press freedom and democracy will win in the end. I wish I had his faith.