HARARE – Around 5pm this Tuesday, I was walking home after work along Samora Machel Avenue when I caught up with my colleague Bridget Mananavire, who was the night reporter on duty that day.
We strolled along Samora Machel Avenue, and I was congratulating Bridget on her two nominations for the National Journalistic and Media Awards.
We spoke about the Summer Journalism School she had just returned from Germany, and how grateful she was that God had abundantly blessed her this year.
A very resourceful journalist, she told me she had received a tip-off that war veterans had besieged Finance minister Tendai Biti at his offices once again and were demanding an increase in their pensions.
“I am going to check it out,” she said.
As we were passing through the New Government Complex, we saw a throng of late-afternoon shoppers suddenly running, some screaming.
Just as we got to the 4th street and Samora Machel Avenue intersection, there was a truck laden with anti-riot police officers parked opposite the Zuva filling station.
Apparently, the baton-wielding officers were trying to disperse the war veterans who had blocked one of the entrances to the New Government Complex along fourth street and some innocent people had been caught in the melee.
The war veterans had circled the whole complex to ensure none of the government workers left.
Instinctively, we saw a developing story.
Deciding when to venture into danger often hinges on balancing two questions: How big is the story? And how serious are the risks?
So we approached the war veterans to find out what their gripe was.
The menacing, singing and placard-waving boisterous war veterans were in an uncompromising mood.
We approached one dishevelled war veteran and duly introduced ourselves.
He said he had nothing to say.
He claimed they had already given the story to “our newspaper.”
“Imi veDaily News nesu hatidyidzani (We are not buddies with the Daily News),” he said.
He directed us to the Central Avenue entrance, where there was a larger group.
We started looking for the group’s spokesperson, and made a breakthrough after explaining to some of the war veterans that we could forge a win-win situation, they tell us what they want from minister Biti, we write about it and help them and they get the minister’s attention, and we also get to sell their story through our newspaper.
By then, a throng of war veterans had surrounded us, listening attentively.
I again asked to talk to the spokesperson.
There was confusion, some said he had left, some said they did not want to talk to the Daily News.
One elderly woman took me by the hand and I left Bridget behind.
The woman directed me to a group of menacing war veterans seated on the staircase by the entrance of the New Government complex along Central Avenue.
“That is the spokesperson,” said the woman pointing me to a tall, skinny woman dressed in all-white. I sat next to her and again, introduced myself and my paper.
The “spokesperson” said her name was Mbuya Nehanda.
She was uncouth, reeking of alcohol as she shouted on top of her voice.
“Mbuya Nehanda” then launched into an unrestrained attack on Biti, hurling unprintable, obscene words about his private parts.
I respectfully told her to refrain from abusive language and articulate what they wanted from Biti so that we could better inform the nation.
“Tiri kuda mari, Biti haasi kuda nemari (We want more money, Biti is refusing to give us more money)” she ranted.
“Biti angada kutonga President? (Biti can’t overrule the President).”
I pulled out my phone and recorder from my pocket.
Apparently, she thought I had photographed her and she immediately snatched my phone.
She inspected the screen which was clearly displayed “recording.” She handed the phone back.
I asked “Mbuya Nehanda” whether she has heard concerns from Biti that government was facing a critical cash flow problem and that he has been forced to ask neighbouring South Africa and Angola to help with up to $150 million.
That was a huge mistake.
The question immediately agitated the war veterans and one of them started shoving me.
“Ngaabve pano (He must leave),”shouted one man.
But Mbuya Nehanda told me to stay.
She told me that Biti was defying Mugabe, that they were entitled to a State fund and complained that they were getting peanuts yet they waged a bitter struggle to dislodge the white settler regime.
Then she was incited by her colleagues who were shouting that the Daily News disrespects Mugabe.
I respectfully asked, in what way? And she replied we must refer to Mugabe as “President Mugabe” on the headlines not only “Mugabe.”
When I tried to explain that President Mugabe will be too long for typesetting purposes, she suggested we must use “HE (His Excellency) Mugabe.”
She ranted that the Daily News refers to Morgan Tsvangirai as “PM” and the President as “Mugabe only.”
Then one man snatched my Tuesday staff-copy of the Daily News with the headline “Mugabe gives in”.
One of the war veterans shouted, “Ah, ah, ah!” apparently waving a copy of the paper, as if the headline was from the Satanic Verses.
“We are coming to your offices next, tiri kuda kukuvingai,” chipped in another man. At this point, the mob was beginning to poke me in the face, calling me a “sell-out.”
Assessing risk is the most difficult — and stressful — part of assignments.
Every single day, there is a whole series of very difficult judgment calls.
The safe thing is not to venture out at all, but as journalists, we cannot accept that.
I decided to beat a hasty retreat.
“Ibva pano (Leave this place),” they shouted.
I was pushed out of the angry, singing mob.
From a distance, as I zoomed in my camera and tried to snap the first shot, a throng of war veterans rushed towards me and I took to my heels.
They gave chase, with some shouting “mbavha, mbavha (thief, thief).” I fled for dear life.
I sprinted into the Avenues area, easily outpacing the tired geriatrics giving chase.
Chronicling brushes with violence has become common fare among journalists in Zimbabwe.
After the unreasonableness displayed by the ex-combatants on Tuesday, I now have absolutely no doubt in my mind that violence is the default mode of these goons.
Otherwise, why would anyone want to harm journalists just trying to do their job?
Like they say, mutumwa haana mbonje. You cannot fault the messenger. – Gift Phiri