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Zimbabwe's Mugabe Curbs Political Activity


From NPR News, This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe turned 83 this week and the European Union gave him a heck of a present. They've renewed sanctions against his government. Thousands of protestors also took to the streets after Mugabe refused to let their opposition party host a public rally. Police used tear gas and arrested more than 100 people.


Now President Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 27 years. Recently, he's driven its economy into the ground, muzzled the media, and undermined anyone who dares oppose him politically.

I recently spent two weeks there having a great time visiting my father's side of the family, but also seeing firsthand how the country has changed in these hard times.

In a moment we'll hear from Precious Shumba, one of the few journalists who still dares to work openly inside Zimbabwe. But first, NPR's special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She says much of the current political unrest comes from Mugabe trying to postpone the country's presidential election.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He's previously said he would step down in 2008, but last December the ruling party, ZANU-PF, passed a resolution to extend his rule by another two years. But that has yet to be approved, so it remains to be seen what's going to happen on that front. But he is clearly in charge, and with the instruments of state he has the upper hand.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk sanctions. The European Union renewed stiff restrictions on Mugabe and more than 100 members of his government. What exactly is the effect of these restrictions?


HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I don't know that there is much other than the psychological effect. They banned travel within the European Union, which mean that most of these 125 or so people can't travel. There's an arms embargo, but I think China may take up the slack there. It also allows E.U. authorities to freeze financial assets of those on the list, but whether or not that will make a big difference also remains to be seen.

The government, by the way, has said when the sanctions were renewed that this was the same old story, and that it really makes no difference, and they've also called the sanctions unjustified. But human rights groups in Zimbabwe approved of this because they think there continues to be gross violations of human rights by the state security forces.

And you mentioned how the demonstrators earlier were tear-gassed. So this kind of thing continues to go on. And you know, just to remind our audience, the sanctions were triggered back in 2000 by Mugabe's land redistribution program and the disputed election. Now, the land redistribution program is blamed for the terrible crisis regarding food in the country and has just steadily caused the country to go into deeper and deeper tailspins.

CHIDEYA: Now, South Africa has increasingly become a refuge for Zimbabweans who flee. Should South Africa as a government really do more to pressure President Mugabe towards reform?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, that's not my question to answer. What the president of South Africa has said is that no kind of military intervention is on the horizon but, you know, as you know from America's constructive engagement many years ago with the apartheid regime, this is the kind of approach that South Africa is taking towards Zimbabwe, kind of constructive engagement, quiet behind the scenes talk.

And my own feeling, just not based on anything but just my gut and the way the South African government tends to do business, is that there's probably intense discussions going on behind the scenes, but it would take an awful lot to get another African government to be vocally critical of one of its nation states.

So it's also the case that many of the people who are being denied the basic necessities of life like bread and fuel are coming over the border to South Africa. So South Africa has already a problem because of its own high unemployment, and the Zimbabwean workforce tends to be better educated, better trained. And so the competition is really keen, and I think it's going to be the situation in South Africa with the Zimbabwean exiles that may ultimately trigger a stronger, tougher stance from this South African government.

CHIDEYA: You talk about reporting on the border issues of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but you also reported in Zimbabwe. Tell us about your last reporting trip there.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it was a difficult one because the government was much better organized and required everybody to have credentials. I got my credentials and went to a polling place and the guy said I needed another credential. And we got into a discussion about this and I was detained by the security police for several hours, missing, in fact, the whole election that day.

You know, it was only with the intervention of the U.S. embassy and others that I was released after several hours. Again, the story was over. There was a lot reaction among the media people, including the Zimbabwean media, some of them whose independent voices have been shut down. But when they got word that I was detained, they came immediately to make sure that I was okay. They're really a bunch of brave young - young and not-so-young people.

CHIDEYA: One of the people who extended some help to you was Precious Shumba, who we'll be hearing from shortly. How hard is it to do what he does every day, which is to remain a journalist inside Zimbabwe?

HUNTER-GAULT: It's practically impossible. I don't know how they do it. It's like a car running on empty, because all of their institutions, their newspapers and so forth, have been shut down and have been shut down for quite some time, so that they cannot get credentials to cover, you know, just basic news stories.

I was covering the Morgan Tsvangirai verdict, Morgan Tsvangirai being the movement for democratic change opposition leader who has been arrested and charged for treason - and this was the verdict. And that's where I met Precious, dressed up just like everybody else in a nice suit and tie and everything. But when we went into the courtroom to cover the verdict, Precious couldn't go in because the government will not give him credentials. And yet he and many others continue to report whatever they can report, often things that the state - more often than not, things that the state media don't report, and they do it at great peril to themselves.

And yet they go and they get their stories done, and in the middle of the night or whenever there's no security forces around they sneak into Internet cafes and download their material, the kind of stuff that just isn't getting out otherwise, because some of the best and brightest they had there in the media have gone into exile after being tortured and being exposed to continuous harassment by the government.

CHIDEYA: Charlayne, thank you.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: NPR's special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.