Mugabe: Hero or Villain
Q: What inspired you to do this film?
A: It’s very simple yet so complicated. You being in the African Diaspora yourself you understand how colonialism and slavery are responsible for the cultural and social disconnect to our homeland. We grew up watching “Tarzan” and even cheering at his slaughtering of our kith and kin.
The story of President Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe is an
extension of this paradigm. The negative reporting was unbearable and I just felt something had to be done in the Diaspora.
This is also a story of young Africans realising what can come to life if we show more patriotism to Africa and lend our skills and talents to the cause.
So I linked up with Garikai Mushambadope who worked on the Africa Desk of Nat West Bank.
He became increasingly concerned about his family and friends when white Zimbabwean farmers would approach him off the record and ask him to recommend that ties to Zimbabwe should be cut because things had spiraled out of control.
I am grateful to Garikai. He wanted to do something entitled “At Home with the Mugabes”. But he was humble and a team player and didn’t hesitate to collaborate with me.
When he got word to people in Zimbabwe (that we wanted to do this documentary) this helped our cause because in my opinion Zimbabweans who remain at home were cautious about engaging Zimbabweans in the UK.
What started out as a three-month project became a three-year project and it took exactly 19 months to interview President Mugabe.
The timing couldn’t have been better: the demonisation of the man was at its peak but we were not the least bit deterred by the delay it took to interview the President.
We talked not only to indigenous Zimbabweans but whites as well; not only to ZANU-PF members, supporters and sympathizers, but those of both factions of the MDC as well. I was mostly in Harare so I made many friends who belonged to MDC. I realised the significance of the project when I would call the UK and people were telling me to be careful because journalists were being persecuted. I would tell them these were lies and fabrications. They accused me of being bribed by ZANU-PF or intimidated.
I arrived right around the time Heidi Holland’s book (“Dinner With Mugabe” which trashes the President came out.
Q: Africans around the world find President Mugabe’s ability to remain impervious to Western criticism to be one of his most outstanding qualities, do you share those sentiments?
A: Look at all the US Presidents and British Prime Ministers who have taken office since President Mugabe has been in power. He survived 11 years in prison, not even being temporarily released to bury his first child. He made it through the Second Chimurenga (Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle) against Britain and Rhodesia, Gukrahundi (civil disturbances) which ended in the Unity Accord in 1987 between ZANU and ZAPU led by Father Zimbabwe Joshua Nkomo.
The President knows the British better than they know themselves. He knows his role in not only about Zimbabwean history but about African history being totally secure.
What appealed to me even more was his ability to let Western insults roll off him like water off a duck’s back; that’s how he approaches such criticism…
I came to realise that the resiliency of President Mugabe is inextricably linked to the resiliency of the Zimbabwean people. I was there before the Land Reclamation Programme was completed and Western propaganda peddled the falsehood that only the Zimbabwean elite received land… I only wish people could have seen how President Mugabe campaigned in 2008, well into his 80s, speaking for up to three
hours at rallies, doing two rallies a day. He was campaigning not only like a young man, but like someone new on the scene and relatively unknown. I said to myself this is why regime change is so hard for the West in Zimbabwe.
In the final analysis President Mugabe did not fit the profile of a “traditional” African dictator.
Q: Because you came out of the UK you had to earn the trust of the people. Explain these dynamics as they pertain to making this film.
A: What brought tears to my eyes was even though they know I was based in the UK everyone called me Roy from Ghana, which means they saw me as who I truly am – a son of Africa.
I found out later in life my family were supporters of Nkrumah. I learned more about Nkrumah from conversations with President Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s old guard than from anyone else in my whole life.
I then came to the realisation I could not go back and forth to the UK because people would wonder if I am briefing British intelligence. While Garikai was trusted, I needed to establish trust personally.
The light in the eyes of Zimbabweans when discussing
Nkrumah made me go home to Ghana which was a cultural pilgrimage. This helped me gain the trust of President Mugabe’s spokesperson.
The security always complimented my professionalism. I carried around a very heavy camera and traveled up and down Zimbabwe to get this story. I personally believe because I didn’t behave like I was entitled to interview the President and utilised my time wisely in the nearly two years it took to be granted access to him won a lot of people over.
I did not want to be perceived as an agent or opportunist. The ministers would cross check with each other before interviewing with me.
It was established upfront I would have editorial control. I commend the government and people of Zimbabwe for making me prove myself, and I grew leaps and bounds as a person because of this wonderful experience.
Q: Did you have a target audience in mind when you made this film?
A: I was concerned that when people over-intellectualise concerning the Zimbabwe question, it goes over the heads of the youth. This film will entertain the youth but at the same time stimulate their intellect.
After all President Mugabe is a teacher and he has saved his most valuable lessons for the generation of his great grandchildren.
We are telling the story of one of the wisest African leaders in modern history. It was Nkrumah who taught us that, “A people’s history is too often written by its ruling class.”
We are targeting the so-called hip-hop generation, the ones who think the story of Barack Obama is the only story of an African leader worthy of mentioning to the average Joe in the street.
We believe our timing is perfect; we cannot let the history of Southern Africa to be reduced to the history of South Africa.
Q: How was the film received in Los Angeles at the Pan-African Film Festival?
A: Let me begin this by thanking Danny Glover, who oversees the festival, for granting us the platform… I learned his organisation, TransAfrica Forum, has been one of the most outspoken in their criticism of President Mugabe and ZANU-PF.
Their executive director, Nicole Lee, even testified at a US Congressional hearing about Zimbabwe a few years back.
With that being said he (Glover) made no (untoward) comments and treated us very well. When the documentary premieres in Zimbabwe I hope he comes. I have never seen anything like this … we had the honour of receiving the Special Recognition Jury Award at the end of the festival.
I have done so many interviews I have lost count.
I know Zimbabweans focus on Britain first and foremost, but I now am convinced that the movement to defend Zimbabwe and lift sanctions outside of Africa will come out of the US.
The response is awesome.
I have the feeling I will be living out of a suitcase based on the response I have received in the US.
• Obi Egbuna is the correspondent for Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald, writing from Washington, DC in the United States.