A review of The Fear, by Peter Godwin – part two

‘There is a green hill far away,

I’m going back there one fine day…’

Glastonbury Song, The Waterboys, 1993

The Eastern Highland village of Chimanimani used to be my sanctuary. Take a bus down from Mutare, the prettiest town in the world, and after hours of twists and turns through a magic forest landscape you’d arrive on a large open space, mostly quiet. There was an eland sanctuary close by and a large hill overlooking the town. It is not the one The Waterboys sing about but it always enters my mind’s eye when I hear the song.

Not exactly green but in my memory it was. Pic from http://www.morningmirror.africanherd.com

Chimanimani boasts an old colonial hotel and my most vivid recollection is this: a group of Zimbabwean teachers sitting around the fireplace in the evening, outdoing each other in citing lengthy Shakespeare soliloquies, from memory. Teachers used to be able to afford hotels like these. I know, because I was one. I went to Chimanimani for my Zimbabwean holidays. Peter Godwin spent some of his childhood not far from here.

Yes, I was one of those volunteers that he describes “pouring in from around to world” to help Zimbabwe attain the highest literacy rate on the African continent. In fact, at 92%, it was the envy of the world. I worked in two different schools. Work, optimism, dedication, triumph, tragedy and – more work. All in plentiful supply.

I was vaguely aware of the terror that Mugabe had let loose on the southwestern part of this new nation, a terror Godwin has described in one of his other books, Mukiwa. When I entered the country in 1988, the Unity Accord had just been signed, between Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – People’s Front, or ZANU-PF. What I understood only later was that this created a de facto one party state. There was no unity. This was Mugabe’s victory over his greatest political rival – a victory that came at the price of 20,000 deaths and many more lives scattered.

Fast forward to December 2011. Robert Mugabe’s party endorsed him to run for yet another term as president. He will be 88 this year and can live until he is one hundred. If the elections take place in 2012, then reading The Fear will give you an idea how he intends to win yet another term in office. The Fear deals with the elections of 2008.

This was the second time his God-given right to rule was seriously challenged. Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), roundly defeated him in what, unfortunately, was just the first round of the presidential elections.

Very few in the world can match Robert Mugabe’s skills of political survival. He is on a par with the late Gnassingbe Eyadema (immortalised in Ahmadou Kourouma’s seminal novel En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages). He has the crass power instincts of the Birmese generals although they seem to be loosening up these days. But most of all, he understands power in the way his mentors understand it, the ruling parties of China and North Korea (the one that recently lost its “Dear Leader”). All have used a mix of political manoeuvring, election fraud, intimidation, lies, vicious propaganda and violence on an industrial scale in order to stay in power. Peter Godwin describes how these ingredients were applied to keep one octogenarian autocrat in power in Zimbabwe.

The first round results were doctored, to make a second round inevitable. This bought the president and his henchmen enough to time to organise a huge wave of systematic political violence. The scenarios were ready; the organisers were ready. In fact, the organisers were the exact same people that still have to account for the massacre of the amaNdebele in the 1980s. In exactly the same vein, they set about, literally crushing the political opposition in 2008. Godwin documents their victims’ stories.


The patterns emerge: people who have “voted wrongly” in the first round have their homes firebombed; their bones are broken, the soles of their feet and their buttocks are whipped until they are raw and become septic; their skulls receive heavy blows. The means are crude and effective: iron bars, wooden clubs, whips, ropes, rocks, fists. And no-one is safe: men get targeted but women and children too. Even the elderly are assaulted: Mugabe’s thugs have no problems breaking towering cultural taboos. And the schools? The places where young and eager children once learned to read and write and discuss literature and debate and do sports? They became torture bases. Difficult concept for this ex-teacher to get his head around.

(Third and final part to follow shortly)

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