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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

The Fear: Joan de la Haye in conversation with Peter Godwin

Joan de la Haye, Peter Godwin - 2011-06-03

On Thursday, 19th May I was lucky enough to meet and have lunch with Peter Godwin, author of The Fear. A heartbreaking look at people’s lives in Zimbabwe. The stories in the book left me dumbstruck, shocked, and worried for Africa.

Peter Godwin entertained and enthralled over a delicious meal at Pachas in Pretoria. The lunch was part of a Writers Speak event set up by Helco Promotions during which I openly eavesdropped on the different conversations that Peter had with people at our table. One of the most fascinating conversations was the one he had with Jean-Jacques Cornish, a fellow journalist and political commentator. The comment that struck me most was when Peter said that the reason Morgan Tsvangirai had failed to topple Robert Mugabe’s regime was that he wasn’t prepared to send his supporters out into the streets to die. He was prepared to put himself in danger, but not the Zimbabwean people, whereas Robert Mugabe was. The general consensus around the table was that Mr Tsvangirai was the type of leader we all preferred.

After the lunch I was lucky enough to be able to pose a few more questions for Peter to answer.

JdlH: They say people get the leader they deserve, but Africa has had Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Mengistu and Mugabe (to name but a few). What is it about Africa that attracts dictators who brutalise their people instead of leading them?

PG: Africa’s states are still relatively new, their institutions are often weak, and their economies tend to be patronage economies, where those in power directly control access to wealth. These circumstances tend to favour strong, kleptocratic leaders who rule for the benefit of themselves and a small clique at the top, and not for the benefit of a nation as a whole.

JdlH: People shouldn’t be afraid of their government, government should be afraid of the people. Or so the saying goes. France and the guillotine proved the point. Why do you think Mugabe hasn’t been guillotined?

PG: He maintains the loyalty of the military and security establishment, which has blocked out the voice of the wider people and frustrated their desire for change. In Zimbabwe it is the people who live in fear of what the regime might do to them.

JdlH: I know you touched on this topic in the book, but I’d like to address it here as well. When expat Zimbabweans and South Africans get together for a braai and beer, talk invariably turns to how little interest the international community has shown in Mugabe’s reign of terror. Some theorise that it’s because there’s no oil. That if a farmer were to strike a rich oil field and Mugabe refused America and Europe rights to it, they’d march right in and take over. Do you agree? Or is there another reason for their complete lack of action?

PG: That’s only one of many factors. Zimbabwe is not really of “strategic” interest to America. Not only does it not export oil, it doesn’t export terrorism. I think the only way that the West would intervene directly in Zimbabwe would be if there were a large-scale humanitarian crisis. Ironically, in a sense there has been exactly that, but it hasn’t been an obvious, camera-ready one, it has been a hidden genocide, with hundreds of thousands of people dying due to the collapse of the country’s infrastructure over several years.

JdlH: Tourism and farming have always been two of the main sources of income in Zimbabwe, but since farming has gone the way of the dodo, what about tourism? Should people still visit Zimbabwe? If so, where should they go?

PG: That’s a difficult question. I always want to encourage people to visit Zimbabwe, because they almost inevitably grow to love the place, and become more engaged in its plight. But equally one doesn’t want to put money into the pockets of thieves. I have been tempted to try to devise a guide of Zimbabwean lodges showing which had been effectively stolen by regime figures and which were independent of them, but it’s very hard to do in practice, as there are ways to disguise the real ownership of establishments, with front men and shell companies etc.

JdlH: Most South Africans when reading your book will see it as a warning sign of where South Africa could end up. What has South Africa got going for it that Zimbabwe didn’t? Or could we still end up in the same situation?  

PG: Both! There are points of similarity and points of departure between the two countries, and South Africa still faces its own challenges. The similarities are fairly obvious: historically both were ruled by white settler governments, both experienced civil wars (albeit of different types) and a transfer of power to liberation governments. But South Africa is bigger, richer; it is not dominated – demographically – by any one tribe; it is already on its fourth president (Zimbabwe is still on its first!); it has a stronger constitution, a free, critical media, and greater autonomy for provinces, some of which are run by the opposition.

JdlH: Are there any thoughts or comments you’d like to leave us with?

PG: Well, I hope South Africa can learn from Zimbabwe’s mistakes …

JdlH: Thank you so much, Peter, for taking the time to chat to me. The Fear has been an eye-opening read.