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

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.

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Scientists believe Mercury is coated in billions of years’ worth of carbon dust, after being ‘dumped on’ by passing comets
science
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

£55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Analyst

£50,000 - £60,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with previou...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor