Alexis Bloom: Why did you join the opposition?
Khethani Sibanda: I joined because I wasn't satisfied with the way the government was ruling over the people of Zimbabwe. I was concerned with youth issues. I was writing for the Chronicle. It was a radical paper, although it was state owned. I was concerned with the efforts that could have been done by my government - lack of sports facilities; recreational facilities; libraries; the number of schools. The municipality built many primary schools and not many secondary schools. Where I lived, we had never seen our representative. He had never come down to discuss issues with us, what our expectations of him are.
When the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] was exposed, many people got out of the country... people started to leave to look for better jobs, etc. ... it became increasingly difficult .... People understood that government people are all over the place now; they are watching, listening, they can do anything to you.
Sounds like an oppressive climate.
Yes. It was the youth militia introduced under the auspices of youth services. These youth were taught propaganda and military tactics - how to torture people, inflict pain. As soon as they were released in the streets, we witnessed murders and rapes of adults - a youth who goes on top of a mother or a grandmother. They were not trained - just given uniforms and baton sticks and guidance from one or two military personnel ... they were based in camps inside primary schools. That affects schoolchildren because the environment was bad .... The youth were given red berets - a reminder to say, "Don't forget what we did in the 1980s. Look, we've got lots of youth and advanced technical equipment." People who were willing activists began to withdraw.
Tell us about the circumstances of the murder charge that was brought against you.
This was a case that was stage-managed from the beginning. The government killed people, and they wanted to use the deaths of those people to intimidate other people. So you have us and some power-hungry officials who used their powers .... They ignored rules and regulations, the way they extracted statements from us; they induced violence, intimidated us, tortured us. Point No. 2: They had an investigation diary with contradicting facts, activities, dates. Somebody was calling the shots from up above. The men on the investigative level were confused. They were a bunch of confused officials. They had no evidence to link us to the crime, to prove we've been involved in the crime. All they had were statements given by us under duress. The court said they were inadmissible - they did a trial within a trial about the statements because there was evidence from the state witnesses who said they were recipients of torture from police officers. There were key officials important to the state case. The judge threw out the trial, questioning why I was arrested for the murder of Cain Nkala. Senior officials ordered my arrest for the murder of Cain Nkala. How did they know at that time that Cain had been murdered? The judge said the evidence was flawed, the case was flawed, etc.
Explain in the simplest way to someone new what happened to you.
I was a very active member of the MDC. My record is proof of the fact that I was effective in the work I did. I know that government people would never have been pleased about the work I did. At the end of the day, it was a way to get the MDC banned. The government wanted to implicate the leadership of the MDC. Torture was inflicted on me, violent acts, physical abuse; all this has had a psychological effect on me. There were people following me for two weeks. What was painful was that they did get me to implicate the leadership - they tried to get me to say the president, but I was brave enough to only implicate the treasurer general. So at least I achieved something, although I feel bad about this. I was arrested on November 11, 2001, and charged on November 13 with the murder of Cain Nkala. I was taken before cameras to make indications on a grave where a man was buried. I was made to proclaim before the nation that I was the murderer and implicate other people. This was played on television for six months on a daily basis. It was traumatic for friends, family, the MDC. I had guns pointed at me, AK47 rifles beating on me; I was kicked, thrown inside crocodile-infested waters. They [the people doing this] were with the CIO [Central Intelligence Organization], and there were members of the military, members of the war veterans; they were all together. On November 15, we went to court. I suffered violence from officers, prisoners. I was at one time raped at the hands of prison officers while others watched. All these acts of intimidation and human degradation and tearing away the moral fiber within me that holds me together. I was incarcerated in solitary confinement for eight months, where I never knew the sun, never saw other people. I was denied medication, etc.
How would you describe the government's policies today?
All they want to do is protect their selfish agenda. That's why you've seen them come up with programs like the land invasions; programs like the introduction of the youth service; introducing laws like the Public Order Security Act, and new media laws that are used to undermine the relevance of the media. They just don't care. I think all dictatorships are like that .... You tear down what holds people together; you plant division within the people. Because right now, Zimbabwe is divided along racial lines; along tribal lines; and divided according to party lines. So you have a people who have disunited themselves. And you have a people who do not trust each other because there has been so much infiltration in the work place - infiltration by security forces - in schools, hospitals, in the community. Those in authority are being used against the people - headmen, councilors, are being used against the people, when they should be there to safeguard the interests of the people.
Do you think the government is scared?
Yeah, definitely the government is scared because they know that at the end of the day when the sun shines on all this darkness, there's going to come a time when the truth shall come to bear. They know that there is insurmountable evidence that shows how dirty they have been. A lot of people have been killed, mysteriously disappeared. There's Gukurahundi itself. ["Gukurahundi" is a Shona word describing "the wind that sweeps away the chaff before the rain." It is used to describe the terror overseen by President Robert Mugabe to remove political opposition at the beginning of his reign in the early 1980s.] This is something in the president's closet that haunts him, and it will haunt him to his grave. They know that if they lose power, they are going to be indicted for all these cases, and they are going to be brought before the courts of law, and justice is going to be administered.
Who does support the ruling Zanu PF Party?
The only people they claim support them are the people who have been given parcels, that have been bought one way or the other. They are forced to show their allegiance to Zanu PF, but deep down in their hearts, the government knows they don't even have those peoples' support. Those who support Zanu PF do so in fear because there is a proven track record that those who try to leave Zanu PF, who try to be independent or become part of any other political party, they're going to be followed and eliminated from society, one way or another. Zanu PF doesn't have any real supporters. That alone makes the government highly insecure. It knows that if these people unite as one, they won't stand another day in office. This is why they will always come up with a system of oppressing the people, of regulating people's movement between places and also regulating how people can meet in public or in private. They have come up with laws that undermine the basic rights of human beings. They know that Zimbabweans are intelligent people, that Zimbabweans are strong-willed people, especially the people of Matabeleland. This is why the people of Matabeleland are so undermined and so uncared for by the government. They know if they open the corridors of authority to the people of Matabeleland, it will definitely change the leadership of Zimbabwe.
You live in Soweto now. Tell us about leaving Zimbabwe.
I left Zimbabwe by means of public transport in January 2005, and I didn't have a passport with me. I was leaving in quite a haste, and I had to lose a lot of money to bribe officials and have a safe passage through the borders. This is unlike other people who will jump into the waters and cross the river in Limpopo in crocodile-infested rivers. I didn't do that because I had a little bit of cash, so I used that cash to open up a passage for myself through the borders. There are a lot of corrupt officials on both sides of the borders, and they are corrupt because they are not paid enough. I went to a squatter camp next to Lanesia. It wasn't a nice place, but it was very cool for me because that squatter shack resembled freedom; it was an announcement that "Hey, now I'm free." I cannot be afraid of people following me; I cannot continue to be a recipient of death threats over my phone. And I cannot continue to live in fear of sudden death, a gunshot from nowhere killing me. And at least now I can breathe fresh air.
Were you able to take anything with you?
I was only able to take just one bag of clothes that I just picked up randomly. It must have been something like three trousers, two pairs of shirts, khakis and a blanket.
Who did you leave behind in Zimbabwe?
I left behind my wife who had stood by me in the entire three years of my [prison] ordeal. I left behind loving parents who were traumatized, who were also victimized, who were also tortured as a result of my arrest. I left behind a family, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews that had just been born from my brothers and sisters. And I left them in a precarious situation because they never had a home to live in. The only home we had, we lost it as a result of the 2001 arrest. One of my colleagues I was arrested with had his house burned down when the news came out on state television that we were making indications on the grave. And the reaction of people around this area was to go and destroy his home. When my father saw that, he made a decision to sell the house. He sold the house for ZW$600,000, and he was looking toward buying a house in a different area so that if the house does get burned down, at least he doesn't lose anything because he's already sold the house.
Unfortunately for my father, that very same week that he sold the house, the price of standard houses went up nationally. They went up to ZW$800,000 and so he was looking for a house to deposit with just ZW$600,000. Two or three weeks later, houses are ZW$1.2 million. A month later, houses are ZW$5 million. Sometime later, ZW$20 million, ZW$25 million, until they were at ZW$45 million. Today, the same standard house that my father sold for ZW$600,000 you can only buy it for ZW$150 million and up. And what has happened to the ZW$600,000? It has been washed away by inflation. Where it was a fortune, all of a sudden it has become change in the pocket. So this is how our family lost our family home. And that's something that is going to be heavy on my shoulders because I will have to work hard to make contributions so that we will be able to buy a house where our parents can retire. They are old, and as we speak, my father is very sickly and he's a worried man.
How do they feel about you being in South Africa?
I must say that they are happy that I am safe and that nothing bad is going to come to me again. So they have a peace of mind; they know at least our son is somewhere there, our brother's somewhere there, he's out of all these things. In African culture we have a saying that says, "The word of an old man does not fall on the ground for nothing." My father had warned me, "Don't get involved in politics; I know you are concerned about the youth. You love the nation so much, but I just wish that you wouldn't get yourself involved in politics." And I said, "Father, if it means for me to die, I'll be proud to die fighting for my country. I'll be happy to die trying to help my fellow brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe." That's what I told him at that time. And he said, "OK, I wish you well, but I'm going to lose you very soon." And he did almost lose me. And I have to live with that. The one thing that worries him the most is that he sees and knows that when he dies, I might not be there to bury him. I would love to be there when my father passes. I'd really love to be there to lay him to rest because he's been a great man in my life and I am what I am because of the way he nurtured me.
Will you be able to go back, now that your father is sick?
I will to go back. It's inside my heart to go back, but I cannot. Because once I step on Zimbabwean soil, the government will be coming on me with gnashing teeth like a lion. There are many people out there that wish me dead.
Why do people want you dead?
They want me dead because I exposed the truth at the end of the day concerning the murder of Cain Nkala. They know that if an investigation is to be instituted in a free, democratic Zimbabwe, they will be arrested and justice is going to be effected on them, and they know it's not going to be nice. Just as it wasn't nice on me. The government and Zanu PF know that I am an effective man on the ground. Once I start working, I'm just amazing. I'm fearless when I get to work. So they know once I come, Matabeleland is going to be something else. I will reach out to those youth and I will show them the light and I will make sure that they revolt against the government. That they know.
Tell us about Sazini Mpofu [the other person charged in the murder case].
Sazini Mpofu is a colleague of mine; he's a friend and we were arrested together. He is an orphan, the first-born son to his parents. At the time of our arrest, he was the father figure in his family, the breadwinner and the only one that really gave guidance to the family. When we got arrested and appeared on national television news, some war veterans and Zanu PF gathered around outside his home. They looted the property and then burned the house down. When we heard that, we were in prison and I didn't like what I saw in Sazini's life in those times. He was worried stiff for the suffering of the children and that they didn't have a home anymore. And if you were to see him, he's a strong man and very masculine. But he crumbled and cried like a baby, day and night. It affected him. I'm happy that I was there by his side, comforting him. I was grieving also inside, but I had the strength to comfort him, sort of like council him and give him hope that don't worry, there's going to be a day that everything is going to be set right. Let's pray together; things are going to work out one way.
Where is he now?
Sazini is back in Zimbabwe; he is rebuilding his home, trying to scrounge here and there to rebuild his family and unite his family. ... his brothers and sisters were all scattered around some with relatives, some with friends. So he's trying to make the family reunited again.
Is he safe there?
He is not safe. He's doing it because there is no one else who can do it. I must be honest with you, one way or another, the MDC have failed Sazini because we would have expected that maybe they would have chipped in and assisted him while we were still in prison. They did help here and there, but they did not rebuild the house. So that just is proof enough that there is really no one who could take the onus upon themselves to rebuild Sazini's house.
When was the last time you talked with him?
I last spoke to Sazini, it must be three, four months back. And that is when he had just arrived from here and he just told me how he had managed to cross the borders and that now he thinks he's in a place where he's safe and how he has got himself people who are willing to assist him. We talked at length. He said, "If this time they don't kill me, then that's my luck because I'd rather die doing something for my family; then I'll know I'll earn the forgiveness from all of them." And I said, "OK, I respect that, man, but just whatever you do be careful. Try by all means to be evasive." He said he would do his best. And until now, nothing has happened to him.
So he's back in Bulawayo. You're from Bulawayo - what is it like?
Bulawayo is a very beautiful city. It is the second-biggest city in Zimbabwe; it is the tourist capital of Zimbabwe. It has a lot of beautiful cultural scenery, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, if you like. It is a place where the skies are blue. And it is a former home of kings. We call it the City of Kings. It's a nice, nice place. The roads there are wide; the city is vastly built. And the people in Bulawayo, they are warm, welcoming people. They are people who have been brave enough to come out of the suffering that they've endured from the Zanu PF government for the past 25 years. And they are a people who are determined; you can see it in them as they walk the streets. And Bulawayo is a melting pot for the Matabeleland politics. Because a lot of people that have stood their ground and raised voices about Matabeleland - the Gukurahundi massacres - have been born in Bulawayo, bred in Bulawayo, grew up in Bulawayo. This is where archbishop Pius Ncube is based - a fearless anti-Mugabe cleric. He has condemned the government in all the evil it has done on the people of Zimbabwe and on the people of Matabeleland to be specific. He has been a voice that the government has failed to quiet.
Let's talk about him a little bit more. How did he influence you?
Archbishop Pius Ncube is a man that inspired me quite a lot because as a young man, I was a Catholic. I witnessed the rise and rise of archbishop Ncube from being a priest and him being promoted to vicar general at Bulawayo's St. Mary's Cathedral and then imminently becoming the archbishop. The way I grew up seeing how he conducted himself at mass and out of mass, you could tell that this is a man who believes in himself. This is a man who is confident about life; this is a man who truly stands for what he believes in his heart. His sermons were unlike other sermons that were preached by other Catholic priests because you'd have priests that would just run through their sermon, and their sermon did not relate to people. But each time when I listened to his sermons, they were sermons that gave people hope. They were sermons that comforted people. They were sermons that truly were reflective of what the people of Matabeleland were going through at the different stages of our lives. And I found him to be an interesting character; I found him to be an inspiration. And at one time, my prayers were, "God, I want to be a brother. When I become a brother, I want to be just like Pius Ncube. I want to be tall like him, brave like him, collected like him; I want to be a man of character like him." And when I joined politics, it is interesting that I attended one of the sermons that he preached in Bulawayo at the Saint Mary's Cathedral. This was after the farm invasions in 2000, and he was holding more like a prayer meeting for the farmers and the workers that had been affected. He said in that sermon, "God is looking for those who will stand in the gap for this nation. God is looking for those who will not keep quiet when all else keeps quiet. God is looking for people who will be brave enough and tell the truth just like it is." As I was sitting there, having begun my political activism, I was inspired. And I said to myself, "If this is a true man of God and what he's saying is a true message from God, I think God has just found one who's going to stand up for this nation." I committed myself to the Lord on that particular day and said to the Lord, "I will stand in the gap; I will do everything in my power to help the nation come out of this." And I did just that as I became more and more active in Zimbabwe for the Movement for Democratic Change. Pius Ncube is a great man. He's a great, great man. I'd rate him amongst the Mahatma Gandhi of India; I rate him amongst Nelson Mandela, and in a way, Kwame Nkrumah [Ghana's first president and a famous nationalist leader]. What he's doing is what all members of the clergy should be doing - not betraying the people, but being true to the people, and being honest with the government no matter what it takes. Some, given the opportunity to wine and dine with leaders of the nation, take the opportunity to flatter. He doesn't do that. He meets Mugabe, tells him the truth. The media come to interview him, he tells the truth. He tells the truth wherever he goes. He is the conscience of the nation.
What do you see for the future of Zimbabwe?
The future is very big. You have people in influential positions to advise and guide the regime, but they have chosen to do otherwise. I am talking about our immediate neighbor, South Africa. Mbeki to be specific. His government has taken the step of quiet diplomacy. It has proven to be a failure in terms of resolving social, economic and political problems that Zimbabwe is going through. You also have the African Union and SADC [the 14-member Southern African Development Community] as institutions that should have come up with guidelines and policies to rectify the problems that Zimbabwe is facing today. But they have failed because I believe the leaders of Africa are not united over Zimbabwe. You have the core of the nation outside the borders of Zimbabwe. These are the people between 21 and 45. These are the people that are industrious and that can stand up together and unite. But because they are all over the world, their efforts become uncoordinated. They cannot come up with a program to change Zimbabwe. So the future is bleak. But if I am to look at the situation from a Christian point of view, the future is very bright because people are looking for spiritual guidance more than they ever have done in the history of the nation. So people are starting to pray more. Whether in Islam, Christianity or even traditional. They are beginning to consult more, not only on a selfish basis, but on a national basis. Churches are coming up with nationwide programs. Even in the Diaspora, you have churches that are coming up. So in terms of the Christian perspective, the future is looking bright. God is going to answer their prayers and either Mugabe is going to die or a new leader will take power that is going to care about the people and the nation and resolve the differences among the people, unite the people govern the country right. People like Pius are well placed that have the blessing of God. Maybe they will be influential in changing Zimbabwe.
How long are we talking about?
Five years is a good projection to change the leadership. But to talk of the economic damage that has happened to the nation, for us to come back to the level we were at before is going to take us a lot of time, resources, energy and labor. To get back to our former glory, we're looking at 10 to 15 years or beyond that. And I am talking about a government that will really take positive steps toward economic revival. I am confident that we will come right if we have the right policies. Zimbabweans are intelligent people and hardworking, and we succeed in everything we do. We have had the worst dictator, but if we have a man that chooses to be good, they are going to be the best good person in Africa. That is the character of Zimbabweans: When they are bad, they are very bad; when they are good, they are very good. Hopefully a good government will come in place.
This interview between Alexis Bloom and Khethani Sibanda took place at his home in Soweto, South Africa, in February 2006.
Khethani Sibanda is a former opposition activist with the Movement for Democratic Change. Sibanda was born in Bulawayo and became politically inspired after listening to the sermons of Pius Ncube, the city's outspoken Catholic archbishop and an ardent critic of President Robert Mugabe. Sibanda was arrested in 2001, along with his friend Sazini Mpofu, during a much-publicized murder case [see companion interview]. Both men were acquitted and released from prison in 2004. Shortly after his release, Sibanda fled to South Africa. He currently lives in Soweto. In this interview, Sibanda talks about the struggle of the opposition movement under Mugabe's increasingly autocratic rule and what he sees as hopeful signs that Zimbabwe may soon change.