Andrew Meldrum admits that when he arrived in Zimbabwe in 1980, he knew very little about the country. Having worked as a journalist for a few years in the United States, he wanted to try his hand as a foreign correspondent, and was intrigued by the new democracy which had arisen under Robert Mugabe. He was illegally expelled 23 years later by the Mugabe regime, having watched the land he had grown to love slide into poverty and tyranny.
In clear, crisp style, Meldrum records the peeling away of his hazy preconceptions about Africa, Zimbabwe and Mugabe. He was curious to meet the new president, hated by most whites and little-known by the black majority, but came away from an early interview deflated. There was little to like in his "cold, schoolteacher demeanour": it was easy to believe the story that he had wanted Cliff Richard to perform at his inauguration rather than Bob Marley, whom he considered scruffy.
Many books by journalists can feel like a series of recycled news reports, but Meldrum constructs a compelling narrative from his struggles both to establish himself professionally and to understand Zimbabwe. After a 14-year liberation war, he found blacks cautious and whites embittered and hostile. But he was joined from the US by Dolores, an occupational therapist, and the two discovered fellow idealists excited by "this nascent multi-racial experiment". Zimbabwe, they believed, would show the world that an African democracy could succeed. Its efficiency led some diplomats to call the country the "Switzerland of Africa".
Disillusionment was not slow in coming. Mugabe soon began talking of a one-party state, provoking an uprising among the Ndebele, Zimbabwe's second-largest ethnic group. That gave the president the excuse he needed to send in the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, which massacred thousands of rural people; it also enabled him to neutralise the Ndebele-based opposition and concentrate power.
That was in the 1980s. Although Meldrum was among the handful of foreign correspondents to record the slaughter, at no small risk, his hope for the country did not ebb until the 1990s, when the gradual impoverishment of Zimbabwe by Mugabe's corruption and autocracy accelerated dramatically. For most overseas observers the most visible symbol of the country's disorder has been the seizure of white farmers' land, a tangled issue which Meldrum dissects with admirable clarity. Even more valuably, however, his many black Zimbabwean friends tell us of their far worse plight.
The regime certainly did not understand the depth of discontent until 2000, when it lost a referendum in which it was seeking to expand its powers. It was at this point that Mugabe shed any restraint, with results with which we are all now familiar: a rigged election, mob rule by officially sanctioned thugs and outright theft of Zimbabwe's resources.
Part of the agenda was suppressing the independent media, both local and foreign, and finally it was Meldrum's turn. He had been in the country so long that he had permanent residence. Under the law he could not simply be expelled, like other foreigners, but finally the regime did just that. After losing twice in the courts, it bundled him on to a flight to London.
The writer is now based in South Africa, reporting on Zimbabwe from exile. His book is eloquent on the tragic squandering of the country's opportunities at independence, thanks to Mugabe, and on the bravery of the few who still resist him. His title shows that he has not yet given up on his adopted land, but the longer Zimbabwe is driven to ruin by Mugabe, without a hint of criticism from fellow African leaders, the harder it is to share his optimism.Reuse content