Basildon Peta: 'It's better to be a live coward than a dead hero'

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The Independent Online

As I prepared to flee my native land on Thursday night, genuinely fearing for my life, an ill-judged joke by a South African Airways official at Harare airport stopped me in my tracks.

"Do you honestly think they will allow you to leave? It seems like you did not read the paper today," said an official, referring to my picture and a story in a state-owned broadsheet and the hourly state-media broadcasts branding me a liar.

It was a moment of truth. Although I had always vowed to remain part of the struggle against tyranny and dictatorship in Zimbabwe, circumstances had certainly changed. A smear campaign – begun in, of all places, The Times in London, but picked up with a vengeance by the propaganda machinery of President Robert Mugabe – went into overdrive.

For months, packets of envelopes with live ammunition were being left on my doorstep, with letters threatening that I would be dead before the general elections, and the secret service had leaked a hit-list with my name at the top.

The fact that I was a black journalist writing for The Independent in London really discomforted the government. They did not want the truth to be told. I was called all kinds of things, including a terrorist.

I had tried to withstand all these pressures. But there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough. You do not want to be a dead hero. It is better to be a living coward. Nothing would have been more dangerous than to remain in a place where there is no rule of law and where the government expends most of its energies in trying to convince its supporters that I was a major source of the country's problems of high-spiralling inflation, acute food shortages and widening poverty, among the many ills that affect my country.

Although I had long resisted the pressures on me to leave Zimbabwe, the harsh reality had dawned. Unfortunately, the last flight to Johannesburg was only three hours away. Not enough time to clear my office, hand in my resignation, get the flight tickets, bid farewell to my parents, pay all outstanding bills and leave everything in order. What followed amounted to abandoning everything I had worked for all my life.

The time constraints meant I could pick up only the most essential belongings, a few clothes to change into and my diaries of key sources so I can continue telling the story of Zimbabwe from the relative safety of exile.

Last week, at the height of the controversy, my wife Florence and daughter Kudzi, who is five, and our son Alistair, who is two, managed to sneak back into Zimbabwe to support me. They were terribly worried about all the things being said about me. The lies were becoming unbearable and I needed their support. They had taken a long bus ride from Johannesburg to Harare and were exhausted and fearful. In the airport lobby, as we headed back to Johannesburg, I could not help but feel out of place. The controversy over the precise length of time I had spent in police custody while illegally under arrest two weeks ago was at fever pitch.

It seemed as though everyone in the airport lobby had read the papers, listened to the news or watched all the state television bulletins and someone was bound to put a face to the demonised name. But everyone who spoke to me was friendly. This was not the treatment I would have had from youth brigade militias and other government militants who mete out "instant justice" to government "opponents".

In Harare airport, tough questioning by immigration officials about my destination, my date of return and the purpose of my visit to South Africa discomforted me a bit. Twenty minutes later, I heaved a sigh of relief as I walked up the stairs of the small, 50-seater plane and took my seat in the back. I felt an even greater relief when we landed in Johannesburg.

I am not a great fan of flying. But this was probably the most comfortable flight of my life, because I did not see the take-off, the one hour and 20 minutes of flight, or the landing. I slept, because of the stress draining away and because I had not slept properly for four nights. The man next to me joked that he had enjoyed the honour of sharing a seat with a "rock star" but unfortunately had not had the opportunity to have an autograph signed nor share a discussion.

Now, though reunited with my family, we feel for those we have left behind in Zimbabwe. My parents and sister are still there. I am worried for them, and my fellow Zimbabweans. I hope things will improve.