Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

Extended Interviews: Margaret Dongo

Margaret Dongo

Alexis Bloom: You've had many different chapters in your life. What was your involvement in the liberation struggle?

Margaret Dongo: I was one of the former freedom fighters. The liberation struggle was in 1975. And I was 15 years old. I got training at one of the military camps.

I was trained as a medical assistant, the equivalent of a nursing assistant. In every section platoon, there has to be someone with a nursing background who could render immediate assistance - be it in the battlefield or inside the camp. You were giving first aid to the victims of the struggle. It was a very good experience because it strengthened me both mentally and physically.

If you go into the refugee camp or if you cover guerrilla warfare, living in those camps is not a happy life. There's no shelter, you're almost living like an animal, there is no preferences in terms of sex - a woman and a man are treated in the same manner. I thought life was going to be easy, but for me it was about the ideals of the liberation struggle.

Why did you join the struggle?

The reason that I joined the liberation struggle, my dear, was that I wanted to remove the discrimination, the imbalances in terms of economy, in terms of land distribution, in terms of social life.

I remember very well my dad. I grew up in a highly political family. I remember the early 1970s, when I could hear my dad talking about the discrimination, how they were not allowed to move in the apartments and so forth, black shoulders with white.

When I joined the struggle, we were fighting for democracy, even though that word was not used widely during those times. What we used to talk about was oppression.

We were fighting against lack of equal access to education, lack of equal access to employment, lack of equal access to distribution of wealth. The same thing as if it's happening under a black government, people have to fight it.

I've always said to people, I didn't hold a gun to remove [Ian Smith]. But I did hold a gun to fight for these imbalances, in a democratic system that prevailed at that time.

What about Zimbabwe today?

There is no reason why Zimbabweans today should watch our country go down the drain. Look at the time it took to build it up. That one can just destroy it overnight is something very painful. There are people who perished, people who fought a genuine fight, people who wanted genuine change. It was not about creating another dictatorship, creating another oppressive system, where you cannot exercise your rights.

Today most people have to leave as a result of instability in the economy - some to Mozambique, to Tanzania, to Zambia, to Britain, some to America. If you look at the political environment, people aren't allowed the freedom to speak their views. As long as fear of the unknown exists, it becomes difficult. Where is the liberation now? We talked about exile back during the political movements - the ANC, the Zanu, Zapu times - and yet today, again, exile is an issue on the table.

You were a member of Zanu. What were the early days like?

As a former freedom fighter, there was a lot of hope and a lot of excitement. And people were willing to work toward rebuilding their country. One thing you need to understand is that in the early 1980s, Zanu achieved political power without economic backing. If you look at the developments made by Zanu PF during the first five years, those are the developments that you can talk about today. The first five years show that they were still eager to work for the people, they were working toward the promises that they'd made and they still had in mind how they had suffered in the liberation struggle. At that time, they were trying to build a political power base - they wanted the people to know they were the right people - that they could actually bring about change...

From 1980 to 1985, a number of changes came in - to the agriculture sector, the health sector, the education sector - in terms of black people, indigenous people coming into business. When Mugabe came in, he was a different man. He came in with this reconciliation policy. It was something that was envied by the whole international movement. This guy was regarded as one of the best and strongest African leaders.

So what changed?

I'm actually trying to see where Mugabe went wrong and where he started changing. To some extent, I've always said that the law of diminishing returns applies to human beings as well. The moment you grow older and start to go around in circles, you become a baby again. People laugh at me, but I say, "You know, when he came in, he was putting on Chinese colors. And when he changed into Pierre Cardin, he became a different person altogether."

Mugabe knows how to deal with his own setbacks. He's the sort of character who knows how to deal with opposition. Within or outside, he knows how to maintain his power base. Mugabe was a character - even if you do not use the door, he would open it and listen to you.

If I tell you this, you won't believe me because I am from the Zanu PF. But even though I was in that party first, I became a political party opposition leader in 1998.

What worries me is, what makes him get stuck to this power? You see your people suffering because of policies and decisions you've made, but you refuse to sit down and say, "If I'm the problem, why don't I pave the way for young people to come in? And then I can be an advisor."

If you look at our country today, Mugabe could have been a role model for Africa - but for Nelson Mandela. Because what he did in the 1980s honestly was marvelous. People always ask me, "How did Mugabe manage to unite people? Why is it that there wasn't a revolt even from his own freedom fighters?"

Those people thought they would be saying to him, "How can you expect us to dine with people who have been killing us?" But he was able to dilute the whole situation by taking a few leaders who were in [prime minister of the former Rhodesia, Ian] Smith's government. He was able to take a few from the Zapu [Zimbabwe African People's Union, precursor to the Zanu Party, which formed from a split within Zapu], he was able to accommodate everyone. We were talking of the existence of multiparty democracy.

When did things start to fall apart?

The time when he [Mugabe] moved to creating a one-party monopoly, a one-party state, that's when everything started falling apart. When the Zapu Party - which was the strongest opposition party to Zanu PF - was swallowed up by Zanu, this was the end of the multiparty democracy because it created and strengthened a dictatorship.

I'm saying this because I was in that parliament. I endured a lot of hardship under a one-party monopoly. You stand up and try to reason with him, and one tells you, "You are a bitch, go and cook in your house." Or tells you to sit down, that you are a minority...

You've been involved in politics for a long time. What is Zanu PF's justification for its current policies?

There are certain individuals in Zanu who can't distinguish between "self" and the role they are supposed to be playing.

Their role is to safeguard this country, yes, but not to bar people from the freedoms that are enshrined in our human rights and our constitution.

Policies that bar you from exercising your right as journalists to come in and talk to people, including people in Zanu PF, are not a decision of the entire board, but a decision that has been spearheaded by certain people to protect their own interest. I've been a member of the central ruling party and also a member of parliament for 10 years, and I've held a number of senior positions, some of them that involve policy making. You find that the policy-making process in this country, especially by Zanu PF, does not leave room for consultation. The whole thing has been outlined, created... designed like a dictatorship.

One person will come in and say, "Mr. Mugabe, you know the people who are making life difficult for us? Tony Blair and the Americans. I think it's better for us to put in a law so these people can't play around with our minds, and we can do what we want."

What about the country's rampant inflation? You mix with people in Zanu PF. They must go out to dinner parties and have people say to them, "Inflation here is quite something."

Oh, the hypocrisy. I meet them [Zanu PF members] in banks, I meet them in the street. I say, "But guys, is this what we fought for? Is this why you are burying us alive?"

And they'll say, "Margaret, you know, it's not our fault. It's about the big man." And you say, "Yes, it's about the big man, but you feed into him." The problem we have had is that while Mugabe thinks the system is intact, it's not intact. The surprising thing today is if you walk with a minister of this government privately, he or she will accept that things are bad, that we are finished. But then when you ask, "Why can't we have a change?" they will start stammering. But they are part and parcel [of it]. They are enjoying [it]. Now is the time for looting because nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow.

The inflation is because of the looting. If you look at the corruption that is here, I'm telling you it's like tea in Kenya, corruption is like chai [tea]. [In Kenya, where corruption is endemic, a common expression is "Give me a little something for tea" or "Give me a little bribe."] This is the level we have reached in Zimbabwe.

Corruption now isn't just associated with the leaders, the executives - people at the top echelons - now even a street vendor will ask for a bribe for some cooking oil or some mealy meal. Corruption is out of control.

The entire system is rotten. These ministers who pretend to be good when they are on public platforms, speaking to human rights activists or to people who are aggrieved. And then they start to dance to the same tune. They are the ones who are causing this problem. And the problem with Mugabe is that he wants to contain the opposition.

Can you talk about the reasoning behind the razing of thousands of home recently around Harare? [Operation Murambatsvina, or "Operation Clear Out the Filth," was a government clearance program that destroyed thousands of homes outside the capital.]

The majority of the people opposing Mugabe are disadvantaged people - people who have been created because of the economic fall in this country, the unemployed. The country can no longer create employment.

All the investors have left, and there are no investors coming in. Harare has become overpopulated because of migration from rural to urban, looking for greener pastures. But people are living in the shantytowns that have been created - the backyards and high fields of Harare. This is where it was easy for opposition to grow. Mugabe realized that the opposition controls the cities and thought, "How can I dilute that?"

You see, so Mugabe is a strategist... now inflation is too high. Life is unbearable here. There's no one in the streets because they've been cleared. He has cleared the streets. People have been displaced all over the rural areas.

Does Mugabe employ people who are essentially incompetent on the basis that they will agree with him?

Mugabe doesn't look at competence. From my own experience, he looks at two things: allegiance and loyalty. This is why you will find there are some cabinet ministers who have been recycled time and again. They have become life cabinet ministers, who are daft but still there. He doesn't want anyone who is competent enough to challenge him.

The reason why I was fired - I was told, "Margaret, you are too forward. You need to listen to these elders. You need to follow, not be ahead of them. If you are ahead of them, you lose your position. Honestly, you'll be in the streets."

I'm happy not because I'm intelligent but because the role I've played internationally and internally means I've become recognized by quite a number of organizations and so forth. Mugabe would want to see you a pauper.

Edgar Tekere was the secretary general of the party. Mugabe reduced him to nothing. Even the spin-doctor, Jonathan Moyo [former minister of Information], has been reduced to nothing. He doesn't want anyone whose intellect is higher than his.

You know, the time I got into politics in the 1990s, when I became the first Independent [member of parliament] in 1995, I became the first woman to escape a petrol-bomb attack. I'm telling you, the way you become a woman leader is not rosy. Especially when you become controversial.

I used to have my house attacked, my car. My kids were subject to torture. During the last attack, my child spent three hours under the bed. Not in my house, in a neighbor's house. Because the child was shocked and confused, and he just went into any house that was open. The type of torture I went through as a person who cleared the path for the opposition? It's so painful.

You can lose some of the battles, but the struggle, it goes on. And I'm saying there's time for everything. There is time for everything. Even time for dictators to rejoice. And even time for dictators to see how they've damaged the legacy that they've left behind.

You mentioned earlier that Zimbabwe was a yardstick. Why is it important and why should people care?

The majority of countries that fought for liberation after Zimbabwe should use Zimbabwe as a yardstick to measure their success. They should determine their approach to issues and to politics by Zimbabwe's mistakes.

Soon, Namibia is going to have a problem of land distribution. South Africa already has the problem of land distribution.

And Zimbabwe has a problem with the way it has distributed land. It was done in an unfair and undemocratic way. But in principal, land reform is needed. Even among the farmers themselves, they will tell you, "Fine, we agree, there is a need for redistribution of land." But the methodology was inhuman.

I'll tell you the truth, the way we have approached our land issue, the way we have approached our economy, the way we have approached our economic and political problems, the problem that we have in terms of a leadership crisis, all these things also can easily be witnessed in our neighboring countries in the long run. Not later than 10 years away.

South Africa should be worried about the situation in Zimbabwe. Zambia should worry. Malawi should worry. Namibia should worry. Because it's not going to end in Zimbabwe.

That's politics, darling. It's politics. It's the art of communication. And it becomes cruel...

This interview between Alexis Bloom and Margaret Dongo took place in Harare in February 2006. It has been edited for clarity.

Margaret Dongo, one of Zimbabwe's most famous freedom fighters, took up arms at the age of 15 in the chimurenga (or liberation war) against colonial rule. In 1980, when Zimbabwe gained independence, Dongo joined Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF Party, and she held a number of government posts. She eventually became disillusioned with the ruling party, and in the 1995 elections, Dongo ran for parliament as an Independent, but lost to the official Zanu representative. She challenged the results in court and won, becoming the first Independent member of parliament in Zimbabwe. Dongo served until 2000.Today she is president of the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats and continues to advocate for democracy and human rights. In this interview, Dongo talks about the early struggle, about serving under Mugabe, and about why Zimbabwe is an important yardstick for Africa's future.

“When Mugabe came in, he was a different man. He came in with this reconciliation policy. It was something that was envied by the whole international movement. This guy was regarded as one of the best and strongest African leaders.”
- Margaret Dongo

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