Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

Project Exile: White Zimbabwean journalist grapples with post-Mugabe era

23 May 2018
Georgina Godwin (courtesy)

Interviews with journalists forced from their home countries for doing their job.

"The question is now, under the change of government, would I be welcome? I'm still being outspoken about what I think."

Georgina Godwin grew up in a country at war.

Georgina Godwin (courtesy)

Born to a liberal white family in what was then Rhodesia in the late 1960s, she lived through an era of atrocities as the white-minority government of President Ian Smith battled rebels from Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army. An older brother Peter, now a journalist and author, was conscripted to fight the rebels in the British South Africa Police. An older sister, Jain, was killed in 1978 when she and her fiancé drove in to an army ambush.

After white-rule ended in 1980 and Mugabe won election as prime minister in what was now Zimbabwe, some whites left the country. Yet Godwin stayed and became a well-known DJ on state-owned radio, later hosting the morning television program "AMZimbabwe" for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. 

By the late 1990s, that position was more and more uncomfortable. Mugabe's government had become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt. An opposition movement led by trade unionists and backed by some whites began to grow, and Godwin felt herself increasingly drawn to opposition politics."It felt irresponsible to be in a public position and not say or do anything," Godwin says, in an interview with Global Journalist. 

When a group of friends told her they planned to go to court to challenge the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp.'s monopoly of the country's airwaves, she offered to help them start the country's first independent radio station if they won. 

In a surprise decision in 2000, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court allowed the station to go forward.

“While I was on air, getting the weather update, chatting about music, the phone call came through from the court - they have actually won the case," she says. "I continued the show and at the end I signed off. I resigned on air and said ‘ I'm really sorry, this will be my last broadcast with the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation.’ I couldn't say where I was going next because it was a secret. At that point, we didn't know really how we were going to set it up [the radio station] or what we were going to do.”

The short-lived Capital FM began broadcasting soon afterwards from a transmitter atop a hotel roof in Harare. Within a week, Mugabe, then president, issued decree closing the station, and soldiers raided Capital FM's studio, destroying its equipment. 

In 2001, Godwin moved to London, where the founders of Capital FM set up a station called SW Africa Radio to broadcast news and information back to Zimbabwe via shortwave. Zimbabwe's government declared she and her colleagues "enemies of the state."  Return trips to the country, where her elderly parents still lived, became increasingly nerve-wracking.

Godwin spent several years with SW Africa Radio before becoming a freelance journalist and working for a number of British news outlets. Currently, she is books editor for Monocle 24, the online radio station of Monocle magazine. She hosts the literary program "Meet the Writers" and frequently appears on Monocle 24's current affairs shows.

Godwin spoke with Global Journalist's Teodora Agarici about her exile from Zimbabwe and her feelings about the Zimbabwe military's ouster of Mugabe last year. Below, an edited version of their interview:

Zimbabwe's former president Robert Mugabe speaks at a ruling ZANU-PF meeting in Masvingo, south of the capital Harare, Dec. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Global Journalist: How difficult was it for you to adapt to life in the United Kingdom?

Godwin: Adapting has been really interesting. I look like the majority of British people, I'm white and I don't have a particularly strong accent, so people look at me and they think I'm British.

But when I first arrived here, I had no understanding of how the underground network worked, the kind of cultural and historical things that people have all grown up watching on television, not even the huge class divide that you find here.

I think, particularly after Brexit, I'm very aware of the fact that I am not British, but I am a Londoner. Being in London means that we're part of the city, but that doesn't mean  we're British and certainly doesn't mean that we're part of the people who chose to really turn inward and reject the rest of the world as they did with the Brexit vote.

Guerrillas who fought to overthrow the Rhodesian white-minority government rejoice in Harare as Zimbabwean independence celebrations were held in April 1980. (AP Photo/Matt Franjola)

GJ: How do you assess press freedom in Zimbabwe now?

Godwin: Some of the old people who were writing very brave stories, they're still carrying on.  We need to salute those people who did it through the bad times when newspaper offices were being bombed, when journalists were being disappeared and beaten up.

I think it’s easier now and people do feel more emboldened to speak out and say what is going on.  I'd be very interested to see in the run-up to the [July 2018] election how much they are actually allowed to say, but I think that there are some incredible journalists and correspondents doing excellent work at some cost to themselves.

As for how foreign media covers Zimbabwe, people do have a genuine choice. Internet exists, independent newspapers are publishing, and then there are all the international stations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and South African stations.

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa pictured in the capital Harare in April 2018. Mnangagwa, a former vice president under Robert Mugabe, took power after the military ousted Mugabe in November 2017. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

GJ: Mugabe's former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa is now president. He was minister of state security in the 1980s, when the security services killed up to 20,000 civilians. Do you think it's safe for you to return now?

Godwin: I'd been there twice since I left, both times under a different passport that I no longer have access to. Because I was on television, it doesn't really matter what names are in your passport. People recognize you from TV.

You're basically relying on the goodwill of the immigration officer and you just have to hope that he's not somebody that was aware of what you've done before or if they were aware, it was something that they approved of.

As my brother writes in one of his memoirs, he went in and the immigration officer asked, “Are you related to Georgina?”

I think he tried not to reply, but the officer quietly said, “Please tell her we listen to her every day.”

The question is now, under the change of government, would I be welcome? I'm still being outspoken about what I think. I have no personal animosity towards [President] Emmerson Mnangagwa, but I do believe what was done under his watch was absolutely criminal. It was genocide.

I'm not sure  that he would welcome me into what is effectively his country at this point. But I have such wonderful optimism for the country. We're at a time now where Zimbabweans have a real choice and I hope that what they do is not dictated by history and they don't just vote because they've always been for [the ruling party] ZANU–PF.

The next generation has got something to offer and take us in a different direction. So many Zimbabweans have been suffering under the regime and finally, everybody can enjoy the fruits of the labor, of the people who fought so hard, not just the journalists, not just my colleagues, but all of the everyday people who have just fought so hard  against the the deep, uncaring corruption and the people that are in charge of them.

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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