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Meeting Someone Truly Amazing

Six years ago, I was working as a news producer for CNN. Each day, it was my job to decide the content of an hour-long, live news show, and as part of that job, I had to determine which guests we’d interview live on air. On a daily basis, I would ask various ‘guest producers’ to book me politically relevant and interesting guests. Around about this time, I noticed that Zimbabwe was beginning to undergo some serious political turmoil, and I turned my attention to telling our viewers as much as I could about it.

It’s strange that although it was a difficult and historically significant time for Zimbabwe, the media were hardly giving it any attention at all: nobody seemed to notice that this desperate situation was unravelling like a bad Orwellian dream in a recently ‘liberated’ Africa. With so much attention focusing on ‘sexy’ news, nobody wanted to give yet another African problem much air time.

Back then, I realise that in the space of a few years Zimbabwe had seen some rapid economic decay. President Robert Mugabe had turned into a dictator of the worst kind, and was beginning to encourage young black men with no jobs to run amok, taking over white-owned farms. He said that whites had no business being in the country – despite the fact that the white-owned farms successfully employed much of the country’s population, and produced most of its food. Zimbabwe used to be one of the strongest economies in the continent, known as “the bread basket of Africa”, but it was about to head down a different path entirely, and it was plain to see – for those who were watching.

Six years later, and Zimbabwe is now Africa’s worst economic performer – because the people who took over the farms had no idea how to actually run them. The result is no food, which in turn has caused rampant hyperinflation, which then means there are hardly any goods or services available, except on the black market at ridiculous prices. People are constantly trying to flee to South Africa to find basic necessities. Meanwhile, Mugabe and his cronies are trying to pretend nothing’s wrong – and anyone that contradicts him, tries to vote against him, or tries to leave the country, is immediately badly beaten, or killed.

The results of Mugabe’s mission have been devastating, and the country has been described as one of the worst humanitarian crises since independence. Zimbabwe faces mass starvation, has the lowest life expectancy in the world (37 years for men, 34 for women,) and more than 80% of the population are unemployed, living below the poverty line. Serious allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing surround the shadowy figure of Mugabe (with the killing of 20,000 innocent civilians in his early days) and have led to calls for his arrest and prosecution.

Still, six years ago, nobody was paying attention to the unfolding situation, and with this in mind, I set about finding a spokesperson who lived in Zimbabwe, who could tell the world what was going on there. My first port of call was the MDC. Now, eight years ago this new party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was created with one aim in mind: to end Mugabe’s rule. They would have won elections many times over, except that Mugabe rigs them all. In the 2002 elections, for example, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party received a suspiciously high turn out in many areas and were accused by the international community of vote-rigging, through means of violence, propaganda, and the manipulation of the voter’s roll. The result was of course that the MDC lost the vote and Zimbabwe was plunged back into darkness as Mugabe’s regime snatched back its tight reins.

I was well aware of the significance of the MDC and so I asked their President, Mr. Morgan Tsvangirai, to appear on the show and speak about the atrocities in his country. He was more than willing. Tsvangirai is a man who speaks plainly, and is extremely articulate (he also has a fine sense of humour, actually) and most importantly – he’s fought real and economic battles for his people. As he spoke passionately about the situation in his country, the studio staff was hushed in awe. His charisma is unmistakable, but reassuringly gentle – after all, he’s a man dedicated to non-violence and the peaceful relations between whites and blacks in Africa.

For several years, Tsvangirai came on the show quite regularly – and Zimbabwe was finally getting some of the coverage it deserved from other news channels, too. The result is that throughout Mugabe’s recent time in power, there has been widespread international reaction to the continuing violence of the country’s government, and applause for Tsvangirai’s cause (in March this year fresh criticism of Mugabe came in from all sides, condemnation came from several governments, including those of Britain, The United States, Canada, Australia, and The United Nations).

The downside of Tsvangirai’s increasing worldwide popularity, is that he becomes even more of a target for Mugabe’s violent henchmen. Predictably, he, along with other opposition officials, was recently brutally attacked, then kidnapped and beaten almost to death. It was an attempt to intimidate the MDC. Television news shows aired footage of the opposition leader walking to the courthouse with a deep gash to his head and using a walking-stick. I felt sick when I heard what they’d done to such a courageous individual.

Fortunately, the MDC are defiant, and Tsvangirai is not a man who gives up easily. Personally, I’m not surprised: he came across as an indomitable figure. What’s perhaps more surprising is that he’s a man from humble origins; the son of a carpenter and brick-layer, who worked his way up in the mining business. He’s made of strong stuff, because he’s had to fight to get to where he is today: as his political interests grew, his relationship with the government deteriorated, resulting in continued harassment and abuse, and three assassination attempts. In fact, before the 2002 elections, Tsvangirai was arrested under the charge of treason, having allegedly been planning a coup d'état by assassinating Mugabe. He was acquitted in time for the (rigged) elections, and I’m pretty sure the only reason they didn’t kill him, was because the world was watching by then.

As a man who’d suffered for his brave resistance to state brutality, Tsvangirai seemed optimistic and was one of the rare breed of politicians whose smile and cheerfulness didn’t come with the jacket and tie, it was deeply rooted. Although his story could only ever last a maximum of 5 minutes in our news show, it was time enough for us all to feel profoundly inspired by the courageous nature of the man. We could see why he was so successfully able to stand up to one of the most stubborn and violent men in the political sphere. We could only hope the viewers felt the same way.

Unfortunately, despite the incredible nature of both Zimbabwe’s horrors and corruption, and Tsvangirai’s devout sense of determination, the news story often got pushed to the end of the show, or out of the show altogether, for the benefit of some fairly trivial entertainment or popular culture piece. Such is the nature of the media these days, driven by profit and commercialism, rather than a sense of what should be making news.

Today, the situation in Zimbabwe is so much worse than it was then. There’s much to be done to bring peace and a quality of life every person should have. The situation is now so bad, that at least Zimbabwe is getting more news coverage, and more and more people are calling for reform. There are rumours of Mugabe’s failing health, and with the elections next year is an opening for the winds of change. I just hope the world pays more attention to this small country’s progress, as it enters another transitional phase.

Mahatma Gandhi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ This is what I felt Tsvangirai was doing, and in the face of such incredible adversity he demands respect and awe. I felt honoured and privileged to be able to give the MDC a wider audience, and I hope it gets the chance to heal the wounds its country has suffered under the iron hand of Mugabe.

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