Epilogue: Promoting Local Culture to Repress Dissent

Zimbabwean longtime president Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwean longtime president Robert Mugabe.

The Paradoxical Strategy of Zimbabwe’s Information Ministry Under Jonathan Moyo, 2000-2004

Epilogue of thesis presented by Amar C. Bakshi in July 2006

In our first interview in August 2005, Tafataona Mahoso told me, “The object of study must interrogate its examiner.” I should have understood.  When I visited his office unannounced five months later in December, his elegant secretary greeted me by name: “Hello, Mr. Bakshi.” I smiled sheepishly at her, but even in my vanity I could not fathom why she still remembered me.  Sitting aboard a British Airways flight one week later on December 30th, 2005, I was again hailed unexpectedly: “Amar Bakshi?”  I nodded yes.  A flight attendant grasped my shoulder and quickened his pace, “Please collect your bags; there are some men waiting for you outside.”  Five men in faded tan suits stood waiting on the causeway and told me I was in their world now.

They led me to a bare, soundproof room and began the “interrogation of the examiner”:  “Why do you come here to film us?  Whose cameras are those? Why have you stolen our information? What propaganda are you making? What party do you support? Who do you work for? BBC? CNN? CIA? How long have you been a spy? Confess to it and you will be OK…otherwise we will stop being so friendly…”

Their skepticism of foreign message-makers was well rehearsed.  The men rolled in a TV deck and played the three VHS tapes I had stored in my backpack. The tapes contained liberation documentaries and the jingles.  I protested, “I am a student researching youth culture,” but a man in a faded brown suit with pitiless eyes just turned to me and smirked.  He knew that documentaries and jingles were political, despite his government’s claim to the contrary. I stayed silent, shaking.

That night I was locked into a small, dark cell alone.  The following morning they took me to Harare Central Police Station and from there, I was shuttled into a dark underground jail where 120 other detainees were being held for everything from petty theft and insulting the president to murder.  The damp cell was infested with ticks.  Mother’s exposed midriffs were covered in bites because they had been slowly tearing away their clothes to clean their babies’ backsides.  Three of these women awaited a seven-year sentence for having attempted an abortion.  Their infants would join them in jail and grow up as prisoners.  This was the Zimbabwe that all citizens feared, and only few had seen.

Despite starvation rations and widespread illness, prisoners looked out for one another.  They shared food with the young and elicited favors from drunken guards on behalf of other inmates.  Seeing this, I better understood how Zimbabweans have managed to endure astonishing decline by binding together.  I also learned how a few acts of extreme physical violence gave the rhetoric of the enemy, bounded or unbounded, real teeth.  The media spread the fear that originated from concrete acts of violence by policemen and in the prison.  I also learned how words, images and national narratives could be leveraged by the weak or powerful for perverse ends.  A man vying for food told his competitor that he would report him for insulting Mugabe if he kept holding onto the bread.  At my interrogations, police guards seemed delighted in watching me squirm at their threats of torture.  They used the rhetoric of the regime to presume my guilt and then to assume my crime was worthy of the worst punishments.  “Agent journalists were ruining Zimbabwe,” they said simply.

From one to three times a day, I was called up for interrogation sessions lasting between two to eight hours.  After quickly determining institutional affiliations, questioners probed my belief structures, my view of world events, my multiple interpretations of their country and its plight.  Different Intelligence Officers dwelled on my views of President Mugabe’s 25-year rule and the balance of world powers.  They told me I was guilty until I proved myself innocent.  Different people conducted the interviews with unique styles – furious, disinterested, or quietly sadistic.  None of them referred to me by name.  They used an epithet: poison.

In retrospect that noun choice seems significant.  To the layman’s eye, poison is indistinguishable from other substances.  Only specially trained devices, like a litmus test for acid, can discover if a liquid is a poison.  Poison’s effects are not localized.  Like the Trojan Horse, poison slips past one’s outer defenses disguised.  Once inside, poison spreads rapidly to threaten all organs and alter the totality of a body.  It is unbounded, internalized. Constant surveillance of minor fluctuations in the body is necessary to detect it before its too late.  Once found, an antidote must be distributed across the body to neutralize the substance.  Malcontents, dissidents and saboteurs, like poison, must be stopped everywhere for the health of the whole to be assured.  I was one of those elements for them, but I believed that words or images were ultimately unworthy of an authoritarian regime’s brutal attention at a time of national crisis.

The state and its jailers knew that words, narratives, and well placed silences were essential tools in the exercise of their power.  But there was a strange paradox lurking in the affair.  What spy overtly films his targets, sitting across from them in their ministerial offices pointing a camera?  I was given rare access to the highest levels of ZANU-PF, but just after filming and before constructing my own account, I was interrogated, my belief structures dissected, and my motivations critiqued.  Then I was released carrying with me an internal experience that is impossible to share with others, a fear that still unnerves me.  Somehow this seems like Moyo’s paradox at work.

Contact Amar for a copy of the full thesis.

ZimbabweAmar Bakshi