In the heady days following Robert Mugabe’s 2008 election defeat, Vanity Fair sent Peter Godwin to cover the despot’s anticipated demise. “I was only too happy to be asked to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave,” says the veteran journalist.
It turned out to be a very different story. Within weeks of the opposition MDC’s victory being declared, the ruling party’s politburo decided it wasn’t going down without a fight. A wave of terror was unleashed: beatings, torture, murder – a period Zimbabweans call “The Fear”, the title of Godwin’s new book. Although he hadn’t intended to write a fourth non-fiction book about Zimbabwe, Godwin says he felt compelled, as one of the few journalists in Zimbabwe at the time, “to bear witness” to these atrocities.
He took testimony from torture victims – MDC activists and supporters – that were filling hospitals and clinics, some of them arriving in wheelbarrows. Godwin, speaking at the launch of The Fear in London this week, said the ruling party operated a slickly coordinated “catch-and-release” approach. Those tortured were then let go as “human billboards sending ripples of anxiety into their community” – a warning about the consequences of dissent.
He observed “a clear line running from the Matabeleland massacres to 2008. The same figures were involved.” But unlike the carnage of the early 1980s, which he covered as a young journalist for The Times, the approach in 2008 was far more strategic.
“I kept on hearing the chilling phrase ‘smart genocide’,” he said. Instead of murdering thousands, “only 300 to 400 top office bearers and activists” were eliminated. And instead of setting up torture bases in opposition heartlands, the camps were predominantly in former Zanu PF strongholds where the MDC was making inroads.
Godwin struggles to be optimistic about his homeland. With the MDC now a powerless partner in a deadlocked government, he warned that the opposition’s credibility will be increasingly undermined the longer it stays in the unity government.
“I don’t think Zanu PF has reached the point where it could seriously contemplate losing power,” he said, expressing dismay at the way discoveries of diamonds in Zimbabwe’s eastern Marange region has energised the party, entrenching its reluctance to cede power.
Godwin questioned the efficacy of the West’s travel bans and asset freezes on Mugabe and his henchmen, arguing that every time Zanu PF is criticised for its 25 breaches of the coalition agreement, it claims these “sanctions” are the obstacles to their cooperation. “If sanctions were dropped, they would no longer have an excuse,” he said. The party’s hand would be forced.
Godwin far from relishes the prospect of Zanu PF apparatchiks enjoying shopping splurges in Milan once more. But, as he said, “Diplomacy is about the art of the possible.”