The Zimbabwe story: from merely tragic tale to sinister agenda
Posted by CM on September 24, 2007
A recent UK visitor to Zimbabwe, writing in the September 24 edition of The Herald (Scotland) had the kind of contemplative, contextual report about the situation there I am crusading to argue has become all too rare in coverage of Zimbabwe, especially in the UK media. British media reports are suffused with an anti-Mugabe emotionalism whose causes are not hard to understand, given the present state of Zimbabwe, and Mugabe’s raw, bitter denunciations of Britain. But understandable as they may be, they distort the sad but complex reality of the implosion taking place in Zimbabwe.
As understandable as the antipathy to Mugabe is, particularly in Britain , we are now often served propaganda as much as we are served news by large parts of the UK media. Things are quite bad enough in Zimbabwe, without needing to embellish and spin them to distort that reality into making it seem even worse, as a lot of the international media frenziedly does.
Ian Whyte’s letter addresses the issue of sanctions, and whether it is correct for new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to have taken the approach of wanting no dealings with Mugabe. But the parts of it that relate to the often feverish, cleverly dishonest coverage of Zimbabwe are these:
The picture painted of Zimbabwe is of a country that has already collapsed. To go around Harare as I did is to find a city that, incredibly, is still functioning. Yes, the economy is dependent on a black market that changes daily and there are shortages (but not emptiness) in the shops. But plenty of cars move around, people go about their business and a white visitor is greeted with warmth and courtesy in a way no different from before.
I do not doubt the violent suppression of dissent, but I saw no evidence of the police and army presence on the streets that I have seen in other countries where civic society has all but broken down. I found considerable anger from my Zimbabwean friends (every one of whom strongly opposes the present regime) over press reports that imply that nothing is functioning or happening, and over some scenes shot by the media which they identify as doctored from outside.
This does a disservice to the amazing resilience that is such a characteristic in Africa, where 90% of the population struggle for food and necessities, and the allocation of farms to select “comrades” has run down agriculture. But when I visited Ghana in 1982 amid an economic crisis, worse shortages and more catastrophic breakdowns had not broken the spirit, nor paralysed activity. So it is in Zimbabwe.
This is what those of us in Zimbabwe, or outside but with umbilically close ties to it, know: there is great hardship, but not the picture of ‘collapse’ that is daily depicted. And the feeling of being picked on by certain media in some particularly ugly ways is one I hear more frequently from Zimbabweans at home and abroad.
The widely, strongly held feelings against the Mugabe regime in many quarters should not make the trash we so regularly read about even non-political issues acceptable. Just one example is the recent story that people were now resorting to eating dogs because more conventional kinds of meat are unavailable, or are too expensive. This was absurd from many angles, the strong cultural taboos against this just being one of them. But for a correspondent determined to submit his or her daily anti-Mugabe dig, these sorts of nuances are irrelevant. And yet it is quite easy to file daily anti-Mugabe stories just on the strictly factual basis of his many failures, without needing to scrape the bottom of the barrel in the manner so beloved of some correspondents.
The Zimbabwean media, which it would have been hoped would counter some of the worst excesses, is vastly out-gunned. Besides,we have become so focused on issues of politics, to almost the total exclusion of anything else, that we don’t pay much attention to how we are allowing who we really are to be caricatured in often crude terms that border on being racist.
In giving accounts of ways in which Zimbabweans are battling to cope with economic hardship and political repression, the most calamitous interpretations are used. A report about how economic hardship has resulted in the abandonment of many pets, a sad enough development, suddenly results in the crafty insinuation, “everybody in Zimbabwe is now eating their cats and dogs because they can’t find or afford beef and chicken!”
The correspondents concerned get away with this trash partly because they are mainly writing for a Western audience that does not know enough about Zimbabwe to be able to easily distinguish straight reportage from the shrill spin I complain about. Sometimes the reports merely entrench racial stereotypes that are already strongly held. The opportunity to use those reports to say ” ah, you see how tough times are forcing the natives to revert to their savage roots?” apparently often proves irresistible!
We often do not seem to notice that those reports are sometimes not just to illustrate how difficult life under Mugabe is, but to go beyond that to make broader, more sinister points about us as a people.
Zimbabweans, on the other hand, obviously do have the ability to know when what they are going through is being stretched, by either hyper-ideological or merely mercenary correspondents. Too often, the writing is not so much to inform, as it is to score points against the hated Mugabe, even if it means painting the rest of us with crude stereotypes.
It is interesting how the many Zimbabwean websites deal with some of the most crude distortions. Why does the Zimbabwean media not more robustly protest and counter the worst distortions? Apart from being out-gunned and pre-occupied with political intrigue, there is widespread fear of being accused of being a Mugabe supporter, one of the worst insults one can hurl against a Zimbabwean in the current climate. Then there is the naive, misplaced feeling that even the distorting, racist sections of the media pouring out reports of complete Zimbabwean dysfunction under Mugabe’s tutelage are somehow “on our side.” Those of our news outlets dependent on donors are also not going to be inclined to go into territory that may make their benefactors doubt the anti-Mugabe credentials that they may have peddled to get their funding in the first place.
So many find it safer to not express the widely felt Zimbabwean outrage at some of the racist takes on events that we increasingly see peddled under the guise of news. The Zimbabwean websites will, therefore, generally simply ignore the more lurid interpretations of events offered by some of the more shrilly ideological correspondents for international media. Those reports are enthusiastically featured as welcome “neutral” signs of not just Mugabe’s incompetence and repression; but also with a cleverly, thinly veiled subtext of general African “savagery.”
It is not enough for us to just ignore these frequent and damaging distortions. We must counter them every chance we get. It is in our interest to make it clear to the world that we may be politically oppressed and reduced in economic status by the mis-rule of our country, but we remain a proud, dignified people despite the many deprivations we endure. The essential fact of the firmly intact Zimbabwean humanity is being sacrificed in the shrill propaganda war, in which we are considered collateral damage.
Ian Whyte very ably captured the holistic view of Zimbabweans’ unhappiness with affairs in their country, coupled with resentment at some of the deliberately distorted depictions that have other agendas than concern for a bruised, oppressed people. Many of the correspondents for foreign media very carefully pick the many indices of hardship to write another story beneath the main story. They could easily feature the more nuanced reality that Whyte does, but that is hardly likely to impress their publications, who already have a standard “Zimbabwe story” position into which all submissions must fit if they are to be published.
More of us Zimbabweans should be seeking to use every forum available to us to tell our own tale as a people, both the joys and the sorrows. We are far too dependent on our collective experience being related by others, whether they are benign, neutral or hostile to us.
Let us relate, explain and interpret Zimbabwe’s sad reality under its present rulership without fear, favour or equivocation. But let us not be afraid to protest when that reality is twisted to make sinister distortions about our basic humanity.