Publish, and be damned

Once great friends with Robert Mugabe, journalist Wilf Mbanga was forced into exile. Genevieve Roberts meets the editor of Zimbabwe's newest opposition newspaper
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The Independent Culture
From a small dining-room converted into an office in southern England, Wilf Mbanga is working with his chief sub-editor, Trish, who is also his wife. Among the ordered chaos of abandoned newspapers and journals, their two computers and a couple of telephones are serving as an international newsroom.

While most people would suffer under the stress of founding a newspaper, Mbanga, aged 57, is thriving. "I'm passionate about newspapers. I love newspapers," he laughs. This is the first time he has worked on a newspaper with his wife, although they met 27 years ago, working in the same office for sister titles in Zimbabwe.

The founder of the now-silenced Daily News, the sole daily independent newspaper in Zimbabwe, has set up a new title, The Zimbabwean. It will be published in London and Johannesburg, with copies from South Africa distributed in Zimbabwe. The first issue of the weekly will come out on Friday, six weeks before national elections. Its aim is to provide crucial, unbiased information in a country saturated with propaganda.

Anonymous reporters in Zimbabwe are defying the media blackout imposed by Robert Mugabe, the President, and working against the regime to provide independent news from inside the country. Journalists in South Africa and Britain are also writing about life in the diaspora, aimed at the 3.5 million Zimbabweans living in exile.

"The Zimbabwean media is made up of very brave people," says Mbanga. "They were brave to work for the Daily News when journalists were being locked up. Very few of the pieces written inside or outside the country will carry the names of the writers."

Mbanga used to be friends with Mugabe. He is direct about their relationship. "From the moment we shook hands, we became firm friends. We both liked rock'n'roll, Elvis Presley, jazz, and country and western music."

They met in 1974 when Mbanga was a reporter. They shared a passion for music, were both Roman Catholics and Mbanga believed in Mugabe's love for Zimbabwe. Mugabe gave him exclusive interviews and admired his writing style, so much so that Mugabe asked Mbanga to become the founding editor of the government-run news agency in 1981, and Mbanga leapt at the chance. They travelled together; to India, East Africa and London.

But things changed. In 1983, Mbanga heard rumours of massacres in the south-western part of the country. At first he refused to believe that Mugabe was responsible. "He was well-spoken, a natty dresser," he says. "He liked the fine things in life. Mugabe was different and he cared. He really loved his country. It was the Teflon effect; I could not accept that he was corrupt, I did not believe the rumours of these atrocities."

Years later, he found out that Mugabe was responsible for the Matabeleland massacres of up to 20,000 people. But it was not until the 1995 elections, when the economy was in freefall and he could no longer discuss politics in newspaper, that Mbanga realised Mugabe had turned into a "monster". The erosion of human rights had become unpalatable. "Power corrupts, absolutely, and I was left disillusioned by the man who I had had absolute faith in," he says.

The Zimbabwean will also be sold in Johannesburg, Gaborone in Botswana, London, Luton and Manchester, all areas with a big Zimbabwean populations. Almost 20,000 copies will be imported into Zimbabwe from Johannesburg. While many Zimbabweans have signed up for subscriptions to the new title (through a protected system so that the subscribers can't be traced), the newspaper will also be distributed commercially and will be available on Zimbabwe's streets.

A legal loophole means that newspapers published outside the country can legally be imported into Zimbabwe. Mbanga says: "I want people to be able to buy it on the streets, and for them to be able to write letters to the newspaper. So far, Mugabe has not banned South African newspapers, though he does not like titles with editorial policies that challenge Zanu-PF."

Even before the launch, Mbanga was flooded with e-mails from Zimbabweans around the world. He now receives almost 300 messages a day from people trying to get hold of a copy of the paper. "I will be very surprised if, like the Daily News, the circulation does not increase very quickly," he says. "There has been incredible interest. Not just people thinking it is a good idea, but taking out subscriptions. It's a vote of real confidence; people paying for year-long subscriptions before even seeing the product. And not only Zimbabweans, Britons too." The venture has the backing of a Dutch donor agency, which is fund-raising on behalf of Mbanga. He has also been receiving subscriptions and donations from supportive Zimbabweans, keen to see the paper succeed.

With elections imminent, the timing of the newspaper is crucial. A column each week will be dedicated to comparing the progress of the forthcoming election with Southern African Development Community (SADC) principles and guidelines governing the conduct of democratic elections.

Mbanga is not under any illusions that The Zimbabwean will affect the outcome of the elections. "Mugabe is going to make sure that he wins," he says. "He has already put in the machinery to rig the election. He is player, referee, umpire, everything." But he is optimistic that people will turn out to vote. "There are a lot of brave people in Zimbabwe. In the last election, people were attacked and raped and still thousands of people went out to vote."

Mbanga is completely focused on his quest for the truth. "Nothing will make me give up," he says. "This is my passion, my life, my everything. Apart from my wife, this is my first love.

"I'd love to go back to Zimbabwe, but I am regarded as an enemy of the people, which makes it very difficult. I want my country to return to normality so that I can go back. The country has been stolen by Mugabe. I hope he is reading The Zimbabwean, so he can learn what is going on in his own country. I haven't received a subscription from him yet, but who knows, it might be in the post. I would frame it."

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