Hoping Against Hope: An Interview With Andrew Meldrum

An American journalist?s eyewitness view of Zimbabwe?s slide into crisis.

| Tue Jun. 28, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

In 1980, Andrew Meldrum left his reporting job in southern California, sold his car, and packed his bags for Zimbabwe. The aspiring foreign correspondent was searching for that ever-elusive story: good news from sub-Saharan Africa. He was inspired by recent events in the southern African country formerly known as Rhodesia, which was moving from white minority rule to majority rule after nearly 15 years of civil war. It seemed like a promising place to spend a couple of years. “I found Zimbabwe to be a really exciting and positive place and I found that my work was growing as well,” recalls Meldrum, now 53. “So I just stayed and stayed and stayed.”

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Meldrum eventually became the Zimbabwe correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian. While he was enthralled by his new home, his enchantment with Zimbabwe’s new government quickly wore off. After a brief honeymoon, president Robert Mugabe revealed his true intentions to run Zimbabwe as an autocratic, single-party state. Disconcertingly, Mugabe started targeting his own citizens, starting with a scorched-earth campaign against the opposition in the early 1980s and continuing with recent campaigns to seize white-owned farms, ostracize gays and lesbians, intimidate voters, and silence the press. For ordinary Zimbabweans, the results of Mugabe’s tactics have been disastrous: In the past five years, the country’s GDP has dropped 40 percent, inflation has hit triple digits, the currency has crashed, and its once-thriving commercial farming sector has all but collapsed. In short, the country has gone from being known as southern Africa’s breadbasket to being a basket case. And just when things couldn’t get worse, the Zimbabwean government finds new ways to destabilize the country. In the past few weeks, it has driven 200,000 urban slum dwellers out of their homes, ostensibly to combat squatting and crime. Meldrum says Mugabe and his cronies are doing whatever they can to keep a grip on a tenuous situation: “They’ve run out of any new ideas of how to run the country.”

Meldrum has paid a price for such candor. For years, he had worked in relative freedom, but as Mugabe cracked down on dissent in the late ‘90s, it became increasingly risky to report on government repression. Meldrum’s unflinching stories prompted officials to label him a criminal and a traitor, and in early 2003 he was charged under a new draconian press law. He was acquitted and resolved to stay on, but soon afterward he was forcibly expelled from the country. Now based in Pretoria, South Africa, he continues to report on Zimbabwe for the Guardian. He also has written a new book, Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe, an eyewitness account of his adopted country’s slide into crisis and despair. Though he can’t imagine when he might be let back into Zimbabwe, Meldrum hasn’t lost the optimism that drew him there 25 years ago. “I am honored to stand up for human rights, press freedom, and democracy,” he writes. “I know they will win in the end.”

MotherJones.com spoke with Andrew Meldrum by phone as he started his American book tour.

Motherjones.com: It’s ironic that you went to Zimbabwe to write positive stories, seeing how the country has since gone from being so hopeful to fitting the into the script of authoritarian government, corruption, and so on.

Andrew Meldrum: It is ironic. What I wanted to show in the book is that it didn’t have to be that way. The situation in Zimbabwe is something that Americans can relate to because it’s not so different from us, in a way. The same issues that are in Zimbabwe—democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press—are here in the U.S. These are the democratic freedoms we have to guard vigilantly wherever we are. And if we don’t watch it, we too could lose them.

MJ: When Robert Mugabe first came to power, do you think it was his intention to remain committed to a fairly democratic Zimbabwe?

AM: It’s hard for me to know what his intentions were, but I don’t think his intentions were to ever give up power. [He had] a different view of democracy, a kind of Eastern European, one-party state kind of democracy, and he has remained true to that vision to this day.

MJ: In your book, Mugabe comes off as an enigmatic figure. He’s Catholic, a teetotaler who wears Saville Row suits; he’s also a fiery nationalist who’s seems oddly out of touch with his country. Do you have any more insight into what drives him?

AM: Power. He wants to hold power. Political power more than money power. He used violence to come to power, not only against the Rhodesian system but even within his own party. There were major challengers who died in car bombs and mysterious accidents. He used violence to come to power and as we have seen in the past few years, he is not afraid to use violence to stay in power.

MJ: Some of this background was known when he came into office. Can you pinpoint a time when people began to think, “We’ve rounded a corner here; things are getting worse.”?

AM: That’s easy. In 1982, Mugabe was challenged by Joshua Nkomo, the main opposition leader, who drew backing from the Ndebele people, a minority group making up 20 percent of the country’s population. Mugabe was outraged that they dared to pose a political challenge. There were some violent protests against the government and Mugabe responded with overwhelming force. He sent in an army brigade that had been specially trained by the North Koreans, and they swept through the Matabeleland countryside. Over 1983 and 1984 it’s estimated that 20,000, maybe even 30,000, rural Ndebele civilians were killed. At the time of the Matabeleland massacres, people began to say, “What is going on here?”

That was, for me, my first major challenge as a reporter. The government didn’t want us to report this, yet every time I would go down to Matabeleland I was flooded with these stories. The government denied this was happening and then they started to try and block us from going into Matabeleland to document these atrocities. I was conflicted over this issue. I could see that in three quarters of the country things were going well; people’s lives were improving. But in a quarter of the country people were suffering and going through a kind of war. It was very frustrating. It was the first time that I was confronted with a situation where I was not saying positive things about the government. I didn’t like that, but on the other hand, I felt that I had a responsibility as a journalist to report on these human rights abuses in the hope that it would hold the government accountable and bring them to an end. I believe that our international reporting helped Mugabe curtail those activities.

MJ: Ever since the Matabeleland massacres, there’s been a pattern of Mugabe singling out groups as scapegoats—first the Ndebele, then gays and lesbians, white farmers, journalists, the opposition. That seems like his standard M.O.

AM: He’s a divisive politician who thrives on pointing at outside groups and saying, “They are the cause of our problems.” Very rarely do you see him saying, “Let’s all group together and become part of the solution.” He did that briefly at independence, but the way he’s operated since then has been very divisive. I think part of it comes from his period as a guerilla leader. If you weren’t in the guerilla camp, why then, you were part of the enemy.

MJ: Yet you write that these attempts at scapegoating haven’t resonated with most Zimbabweans. You argue that the average Zimbabwean is more interested in unity than ethnic or racial divisions.

AM: That’s correct. I shy away from the word “unity,” because Mugabe uses that. His idea of unity is that everybody be a member of ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, Zimbabwe’s ruling party] and everybody be told by the ZANU-PF central committee what to do and then they do it. That, for him, is national unity. My feeling is that most Zimbabweans will accept other people coming from a different ethnic group, having different sexual preferences. I think they also have a belief in order, the rule of law, in having things done the right way.

MJ: A few years ago, Mugabe mobilized so-called war veterans to seize white-owned farms. The move addressed calls for land redistribution, but at a huge economic price. Do you think it ultimately backfired?

AM: I don’t think it backfired, but I don’t think it worked. What he’s done with the land is further consolidated his power. And it’s not because he turned the land over to poor black Zimbabweans. He evicted the white farmers and turned over the land to his influential supporters—judges, army officers and other people he wants to keep happy. Most importantly, he has shown that he has the power to bestow people with land and even when they get the land, they are there at his behest. If he decides, he can have you thrown off. That’s what we’ve seen in the last year or so. People in several parts of the country who had been used to invade the land and started farming there have been moved off and then an army colonel or an air force commander moves in. What people have learned is not that the land is for them, but that ZANU-PF will control who has access to land.

MJ: It seems that there is going to be even more pressure on the land due to the current campaign to raze urban shantytowns. I recently heard an opposition politician say that she believes this move is a Pol Pot-type tactic of clearing people out of the cities and into the countryside where they are easier to control. Do you see it as having that effect?

AM: Absolutely. I hesitate using Pol Pot. Although we haven’t had the killing fields, when you tear down the homes of thousands of families, in winter weather, force people who are already in poverty to live in the open, it won’t be long before people start dying. The whole idea of reducing the population of the cities and sending them back to the rural areas where they are more easily manipulated is exactly what Mugabe is trying to do. However, what we can see here is one of these situations where Mugabe is trying to turn back the hands of time. Urbanization is a historical trend in Zimbabwe and Africa. Very few leaders can try to turn that around. He may well be overstretching himself.

MJ: Do you think Mugabe’s attitude is, “Well, if I’m going down, you’re going down with me?” Or is this just survival tactics?

AM: It’s “I’ll take what I want and you’re left with the crumbs. I don’t care how you survive; I’m going to stay in power. My party’s going to stay in power and we can do what we want with this country and its resources. But don’t question us.”

MJ: That brings us to the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. In response to the demolitions, it called for a nationwide strike, which appears to have failed. What’s the next move for the MDC?

AM: They have really responded ineffectively to the challenge of ZANU-PF and Mugabe. They have been completely ineffective. They lost the June 2000 parliamentary elections—narrowly; they lost the March 2002 presidential election; and then most recently, in March, they lost the parliamentary elections. They responded in just the past few weeks with outrage, saying these elections were stolen, that there was rigging, violence, intimidation. The most surprising thing is that the MDC did not have something in place to challenge that. They should have been planning that from 2002.

MJ: Can you describe the circumstances that led up to your deportation from the country?

AM: I felt it was my duty to report on human rights abuses, on torture, on rape, corruption, on the stealing of millions from state coffers. This brought me into conflict with the government, and I was arrested and thrown in jail for 48 hours. I eventually wrote a story that the government charged was not true. Then I was put on trial for two months, and in the end I was acquitted of those charges. So I continued carrying on my work. At the time, my friends told me, “Be very careful.” So the government abducted me, took me away and put a hood over my head, held me for 12 hours, and then forcibly put me on a plane. My lawyer had court orders saying it was completely legal for me to stay in the country. But [government officials] said flat out, “We don’t care about these court orders. We know what we’re doing.”

MJ: Do you think that being a white American afforded you some degree of protection?

AM: I do think it afforded me some degree of protection. I wasn’t beaten to a bloody pulp and I wasn’t tortured, which has happened to Zimbabwean journalists. I don’t think that a lot of people thought of me as a white American journalist; they thought of me as a fixture on the scene in Zimbabwe. If I had felt that the average Zimbabwean felt that I was an “enemy of the people,” as the Mugabe government had said, then I would have thought, “Well it’s time for me to go.”

MJ: Was it hard to separate your professional role as a journalist from what was happening to you? After all, you were being attacked by some of the very people you were trying to write about.

AM: I became the focus of the story, but I never took it personally. I tried to use what was happening to me to illustrate that this was happening to other Zimbabwean journalists and to ordinary Zimbabweans. A lot of American journalists think there’s two sides to every story and you give 50 percent to one and 50 percent to the other: “The government says this, the opposition says that, that’s the end of the story, you be the judge.” I don’t think if you’re reporting on human rights abuses you have to spend 50 percent of your story saying what the government says about the situation. I don’t think that that kind of reporting is giving the reader the benefit of your knowledge of a country. I think the reader wants to know what is really going on.

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