10 questions with ‘The Fear’ author Peter Godwin

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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Peter Godwin is the author of the recently released book, “The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.”

Godwin has worked as a war correspondent for the BBC and as a diplomatic correspondent for the London Sunday Times. A documentarian, his documentaries have covered topics from around the world, including one on the sex trade in Thailand, “The Industry of Death,” which won the gold medal for investigative film at the New York Film Festival.

A 2010 Guggenheim Fellow, Godwin has taught writing at Princeton and Columbia, and has written five non-fiction books, several of which award-winning. Born in Zimbabwe, Godwin’s latest book deals with his time back in the country of his birth covering Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and his ferocious effort to cling to power after agreeing to hold elections in 2008. Godwin recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his book and about other topics of interest:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

Originally I was sent to Zimbabwe by Vanity Fair to cover what seemed, at the time, to be the end of Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian three decade long rule. It turned out very differently when he refused to stand down and instead launched a campaign of torture against opposition voters. As I talked to the survivors I began to realize that I had a responsibility to try to amplify what they had been through. These amazingly brave men and women were putting their lives on the line to achieve democracy and yet the rest of the world barely knew of it.

2. What are some of the worst things you saw during your time in Zimbabwe in the aftermath of the 2008-election?

Bed after bed, in ward after ward filled with people who had literally been flayed alive. The flesh ripped off their backs, their buttocks, the soles of their feet. Their bones of their arms splintered in what, in the doctors’ short hand, were DW: ‘Defense Wounds’ inflicted when they held up their arms in a protective posture to fend off the blows of axes, machetes, logs, rocks. A nurse in tears holding a tiny baby to the breast of a woman with two broken arms, who was unable to hold it herself. A small boy called Ashley, who had had been kidnapped with his mother by Mugabe’s goons, and because he had last seen her alive blindfolded, kept blindfolding himself, thinking that way he could see her again. Men and women asking me over and over again why they had been forsaken by the West, why they had been abandoned by the international community and left the violent revenge of a dictator.

3. How dangerous was it for you to be there as a journalist? What would have happened if you were discovered by Mugabe’s security apparatus?

It was a very fluid situation. All foreign journalists were banned so there was obviously a risk to staying on. And every time you encounter a police roadblock or otherwise intersect with Mugabe’s men, you wonder if this is the time it goes wrong, this is the time you end up with a bullet in the back of your head, your body dumped in waste ground, and burned like garbage. But at the time you cannot allow yourself to even think of such possibilities. But whatever risks I faced, the opposition activists were so much more vulnerable than me.

4. What do you think of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, now prime minister? Does he have any real authority? And how did the Wikileaks revelations showing his coordination with the U.S. hurt him, if at all?

The MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] has been allowed some so called ‘soft power.’ They have been allowed to rehab the health system, education, things like that. But the real power — the men with guns — still answer to Mugabe and his ZANU Party. The Wikileaked cable wasn’t that big a deal, all it showed was Tsvangirai discussing scenarios for ushering in change in the least destabilizing way. But of course Mugabe’s ministers crowed that it was virtually treasonous. What’s real treason, it seems to me, is refusing to accept the will of a people who vote against you — as Mugabe did.

5. Tell us about your time growing up in Zimbabwe. What was it like?

I grew up in the Chimanimani region of Zimbabwe, a mountainous area on the Mozambique border. It’s remote and isolated and beautiful. My mother was the local doctor, the only doctor for hundreds of square miles, and I used to accompany her on her rounds of the tribal areas. Looking back, it was an amazing childhood, but to me at the time it was ‘normal,’ it was all I knew — I’d never been out of Africa.

6. How did Zimbabwe go from what some called the “breadbasket of Africa” to being a country without any bread?

From breadbasket to basket case in a few short years — it’s quite an achievement, especially without a war. Mugabe would rather lay waste to the country than relinquish power. He printed money incontinently so that hyperinflation bloomed — by the time the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned it was halving in value every 24 hours. He destroyed commercial agriculture and launched vicious pogroms against opponents. Zimbabwe went from having one of the highest GDPs in Africa, to one of the lowest. It went from being the most literate, to one in which few schools remained open. Health care collapsed and the average lifespan of Zimbabweans plummeted to 35. It had the world’s highest ratio of orphans. And there has been a huge exodus of Zimbabweans — about a third of them have fled from the failed state into the diaspora.

7. What should the West’s policy be toward Zimbabwe? Do you think there are policies that could be taken to help push Mugabe from power?

Well for starters we cannot rely on South Africa to be our ‘point man’ on Zimbabwe. Pretoria is not an honest broker in this case. It has enabled Mugabe and his regime to survive even in the face of massive rejection by his own people. The so called ‘government of national unity’ which the opposition were bullied into joining is coming to an end soon, and then the West really needs to signal that it will no longer tolerate Mugabe’s abuses. And it needs to pressure South Africa into allowing real democracy to flourish in Zimbabwe.

8. Was Zimbabwe better off before Mugabe when it was Rhodesia? If so, do you think that sentiment is shared by both the black and white population in the country today?

No, not in the sense that the majority of the population had no vote and were discriminated against until independence in 1980. In physical terms however, the standard of living has now plummeted to pre-1950 levels.

9. What three books most shaped your worldview?

I’m not sure I have a worldview as such — that sounds very grandiose! I went to very strict Jesuit boarding schools where physical punishment was liberally provided even in a subject like literature, if you failed to show sufficient knowledge of the texts. So you tended to study your set books with Talmudic intensity. Certainly the King James Bible would be one, if for nothing else, for the wonderful rhythms of its language. “King Lear” and “The Merchant of Venice” too, and if I’m allowed to bracket these together, “A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” [by James Joyce]. Later I was very affected by book called “House of Hunger” by a brilliant Zimbabwean, Dambudzo Marechera.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so, what about?

Writing for me isn’t so much a vocation as it is an affliction. I think I’m tormented when I’m doing it, but when I stop doing it, I lose my bearings completely, and I’m miserable. I think I may shift genres and write a novel next, but I won’t say more in case I jinx it.