Zimbabwe (in its earlier life, Rhodesia) has been so many things for different people: delight and despair, opportunity and persecution. For me, half a century ago, it was an escape from my London birthplace and a fusty England clinging to Empire; a land of glorious weather and broadest horizons; a romantic place where I met and courted my Canadian wife. Most of all, it was a graduate school in world politics where my best tutors were half a dozen memorable African nationalists.
Nearly all of them are dead now, and buried in Heroes’ Acre near Harare. Joshua Nkomo, too gentle for his role as “father of the nation.” George Nyandoro, an accountant remembered for his huge laugh as he predicted rivers of blood. Leopold Takawira, “the lion of Zimbabwe” who died a political prisoner after years working for multiracialism alongside the desert war hero Colonel David Stirling. Willie Musarurwa, honest contrarian as an editor. And for me, the best tutor and friend of all, Enoch Dumbutshena, schoolteacher turned lawyer in middle age, and the first Zimbabwean black chief justice. Finally, the single one who has survived: journalist, scholar, cabinet minister and Mugabe loyalist, the enigmatic Nathan Shamuyarira.
Zimbabwe is itself an enigma. Why did it slide from high promise to deep disarray? Why has its neighbours, why has the wider world, not known how to deal with its appalling decline and save its comparatively few millions of people from misery? Puzzling questions. And Nathan is central, almost emblematic, in this story.
When I went to Southern Rhodesia in March 1957 to help launch a progressive magazine, The Central African Examiner, Shamuyarira was already editor of the African Daily News. He had taught at a secondary school near the Bechuanaland (now Botswana) border before landing in Salisbury in 1953 as a 24-year-old cub reporter. The Examiner at once broke the race barrier in journalism by inviting articles from leading African nationalists, and several — Dumbutshena, Takawira and others — contributed strong pieces. Nathan didn’t, probably too busy on his own paper, but we talked often and became friends.
In 1960, when I was based in Nairobi as the Africa correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, its foreign editor appointed Shamuyarira as the paper’s stringer in Salisbury and later wrote: “His coverage was authoritative but also brave. He had to contend not only with the hostility of the (Rhodesia Front) government but also with the terrible faction fighting and house burning that broke out between Shona and Ndebele in the African townships.”
By 1964, both divisive forces — black versus white and the tribal split — prompted him to look abroad and he arrived suddenly in Nairobi with a half-finished book. He stayed some weeks with us, enjoying his role as godfather of our son, Toby. He and I worked together on the second draft of his Crisis in Rhodesia, which André Deutsch neatly published the month before Ian Smith boldly declared Rhodesian UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in November 1965. Shamuyarira by then was on his way, with his wife, Dorothy, to Oxford University and then to Princeton where he completed a PhD in political science. Meanwhile, many African leaders of his generation — Nkomo, Musarurwa, Mugabe, Takawira and dozens more — were in detention camps or Smith’s prisons.
Two passages in his book give clues to the bitterness in his soul that erupted as a cabinet minister in the 1990s. He tells how his mother would send him as a small child to chase a swarm of locusts that would provide relish for the sadza porridge, and how the chase would abruptly end at the fence of a European farmer nicknamed Mukandabutsu (he who throws the boot) “who threatened to shoot any trespassers without warning.” In an adult encounter, he describes how he and his brother behaved when his car broke down as they drove through a European farming area:
“We took off our ties and shoes before going to the nearest farm to ask for assistance. We greeted our host with the title “Boss” from a long distance away, in order to indicate immediately our subservience. Expectedly, we got all the help we needed, although he was rather taken aback to find we had a fairly new car, and to see that our jackets and ties were on the back seat.”
Back in Zambia in 1971, among the squabbling exile groups ZANU and ZAPU, he helped form a third faction, Frolizi (Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe) under Shelton Siwela, who had studied both at Boston University and a North Korean guerrilla school. Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda hoped it was the start of a united front; but the leaders of both parties condemned it from their places of detention. Shamuyarira scrambled to regain favour with ZANU leaders — literally, by sweaty training with guerrilla recruits in the Zambezi escarpment.
The year 1975 opened up Mozambique as a base for ZANU forces after the Portuguese abandoned their colony and Nathan left a lecturer’s job (and his small vegetable plot) in Tanzania to join Robert Mugabe’s retinue in Maputo. I met him and Mugabe there in 1979, acting as envoy for the Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal, and clearly Shamuyarira was part of the inner circle. It helped that he is from Mugabe’s Zezuru clan. In the April 1980 elections, he won a seat and became minister of information and tourism.
From this point, his stellar career becomes murky. He at once organized the screening of foreign journalists, who had to have a work permit approved monthly by the government. (I had to obtain permits during the four months in 1982-83 when I taught, at his invitation, at the Institute of Mass Communication alongside the demoted Shelton Siwela.) Then, in buying out the South African interests in Zimbabwe’s newspapers, the government set up the Mass Media Trust primarily to protect the independence of editors. Yet Nathan sacked Willie Musarurwa as editor of the largest circulation paper Sunday Mail, to make way for “a true and trusted cadre.” Later, he sued Geoffrey Nyarota, then editor of the Bulawayo Chronicle, for defamation in the Willowgate scandal over imported limousines that ministers were allocated and then sold at large profits. Nyarota fled the country in 2003 and, in his memoirs Against the Grain, he writes:
“The turnover of editors between 1980 and 2002 at Zimbabwe newspapers was the highest anywhere in the media world, and editorship became arguably the most endangered occupation in Zimbabwe.”
Shamuyarira moved on to become foreign minister and then industry minister, to lead negotiations with Nelson Mandela’s new government. He left parliament, but remained the main party spokesman. In this role, his pronouncements increased in violent language, lacking any academic balance. In March 2005, he described the Catholic archbishop Pius Ncube as “a mad, inveterate liar” fitting into “the scheme of the British and Americans, who are calling for regime change and are feeding him with these wild ideas.”
In October 2006, he praised the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade who, in 1983, massacred as many as 30,000 villagers in Matabeleland, saying its actions were “not regrettable as (the soldiers) were doing a job to protect the people” against some ZAPU dissidents. And in August 2007, in a private letter, he criticized as “the usual demonization of Mugabe” an article I had written in The Globe and Mail, suggesting a trio of Commonwealth ministers talk with Mugabe on rescuing Zimbabwe from utter misery. “Mugabe is very angry with the Commonwealth for expelling him over an allegation of rigging elections which he denies.” Shamuyarira is now writing Mugabe’s biography.
Most puzzling is his determination to acquire Mount Carmel farm, which used to produce 600 tonnes of mangoes, as well as beef and milk from more than 500 cattle. Last year, the elderly owners, Mike and Angela Campbell and their son-in-law Ben Freeth, were abducted and beaten up for hours. This seemed to be revenge for Freeth having won an appeal at a regional tribunal to keep the farm. In April, a group of war veterans under a “Comrade Landmine” (otherwise, Lovemore Madangonga) invaded it again, saying it was on orders from his relative, Shamuyarira. Recently the farmhouse was burnt to the ground.
Besides deploring the brutality, I am puzzled why a man of international standing, who is now 81 and has no children to inherit this farm, should be behind this plundering. Is it because everyone else in his circle has seized farms, and because land is the one dependable asset in inflationary Zimbabwe? Or does it go back decades to the days of chasing locusts and taking his shoes off before asking a white farmer to help with his car? Is bitterness about apartheid still that deep? How sad and how enigmatic that lovely country has become.
Clyde Sanger is an Ottawa-based journalist who has worked in Britain, Africa and North America.