In the aftermath of the Gideon Gono-Grace Mugabe affair allegations

Oct 31, 2010

On October 24 the Sunday Times newspapers in the UK and in South Africa had an explosive story about an alleged five-year affair between wife of Zimbabwe's president Mugabe, Grace, and governor of the country's central bank, Gideon Gono. In the week since then the story has imploded as spectacularly as it exploded.

From the very first reading the story had many embarrassing holes in it. Even a tawdry gossip tabloid should have had trouble publishing it without more solid facts to go on, let alone two newspapers that are generally considered respectable.
The  president's recently deceased sister is alleged to have alerted him of the affair on her deathbed in the presence of his most trusted security aide. It now turns out that Mugabe was out of the country on the day he is alleged to have talked to his sister. More damningly, she is widely known to have long had the kind of brain damage that would have made it a miracle for her to have had such a conversation in those last few days of her illness.

The trusted presidential bodyguard who the story claims was subsequently poisoned on the president's orders had apparently actually been sick with a known illness for a long time. It is said he had long stopped working at the time he is alleged to have listened in on the conversation between Mugabe and his sister.

These are just the major holes in the story, but there are many more many readers pointed out in internet discussion forums. The article, by well-known and (once?)-reputed British journalist Jon Swain quickly began to look like another very bad hatchet job on the Mugabes and Gono. It achieved what would have previously been a difficult to impossible feat amongst many Zimbabweans, especially those in the diaspora: eliciting sympathy for Robert and Grace Mugabe and Gideon Gono!

Mugabe and Gono are controversial figures who obviously have many enemies. Outside Zimbabwe the greatest concentration of antipathy to them would easily be in Britain and South Africa. The media in both countries have often shown themselves to be so emotional and shrill in their feelings against Mugabe in particular that they have previously had no trouble eagerly 'reporting' stories that turned out to be clear concoctions. This latest botched story will make some people, myself included, wonder further if any objectivity remains in most UK and South African media stories about Zimbabwe, or if it has all been thrown aside because of the shrill emotionalism in both countries to the hated person and phenomenon of Mugabe. The cooked up stories about Mugabe, and increasingly about Gono too, seem to get more outlandish by the week.

As for Grace, she has failed spectacularly to win the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans so she is hardly a sympathetic figure amongst them. It must also be pointed out that she has had a physical run-in with reporters of the UK Sunday Times in Hong Kong.

So in light of how shockingly journalistically shoddy the affair allegation article was, it is not at all far-fetched to speculate that score-settling of various sorts has played a role.   

But if the original article was shallow and suspicious, so were the efforts to rebut it. There was no official word from any of the 'principals,' to use a currently popular Zimnglish word, but one or more of them did seem to respond by proxy. The holes in the allegations were pointed out by un-named sources on a popular offshore Zimbabwean website, along with the unprecedented publication of what was said to be a copy of the death certificate of the presidential bodyguard, to show he died of causes other than the poisoning alleged in the Gono-Grace affair article.

Only problem was there were a lot of things that were suspect about the claimed death certificate as well, as many readers quickly pointed out on the internet. For a while that became as much of the story as whether the original allegations of the affair were true or not. The ethics of publishing the death certificate, genuine or faked, became a huge talking point as well.

It remains to be seen if there will be any more revelations, and if they will be reported any more credibly than the original shoddy Sunday Times story. In any case this is the kind of story that is impossible to prove or disprove convincingly in the absence of the kind of solid evidence which no one is likely to have or be willing to provide. So this will likely be another of those stories that is believed or disbelieved not on the basis of fact or solid proof, but on the basis of what the reader's feelings are about the named principals as well as about the reporter and the newspapers in question.    

But there are striking aspects beyond the immediately salacious ones.

It was odd that not one of the in-Zimbabwe newspapers would go anywhere near a story that a good part of the rest of the world's media picked up, not even to merely deny it. Several reports mentioning this pointed out that Zimbabwe's media laws, and the country's overall menacing media environment were the reasons for this.

But this story more than any other recent one showed just how out of touch with the internet age Zimbabwe's attempt to control the media and what people read or hear are. The internet is a huge sieve that lets in all sorts of stuff even to people who don't have direct connection. And when people hear the news through the grapevine it is more likely to be even more distorted than it might have been at source, defeating the purpose of trying to exercise control.

I speak in general terms here, recognizing that the people named in the Gono-Grace affair allegation article could not have easily simply come out to deny it, for all sorts of reasons. In this particular case keeping quiet about it themselves was/is probably the best thing for them to do. My point is that the fact that the overall environment in Zimbabwe, media and in general, is so fearful of the president and the powerful that they did not feel free to report on the story, even to point out its holes, says a lot about the country, and not positively.

In this case the repressive, fearful environment has not served the powerful well. Officially in Zimbabwe no such story even exists, but everybody with access to the internet would have read it. They would in turn be able to pass on the information and discuss it with anybody with a cellphone, who in turn would discuss it with others anywhere and everywhere. So while 'officially' there is no issue, no rumor and no problem, the truth of the matter is that this is likely to be the number one gossip issue in the country. It shows the utter ridiculousness of trying to keep control by fear and limitation of information in the digital age.

As an example of how that could have spectacularly backfired in this case, it is possible that the original shoddy article is what is being furtively disseminated by email and SMS around Zimbabwe, rather than the followups showing the holes in the article. Obviously the official and the Mugabe-sympathetic media outside could not feature the implausibilities of the article without having mentioned the article and its allegations in the first place!                

Whatever the truth or lack thereof of the story, almost none of the many parties involved look good.


Anonymous said...

Balanced article nice 3rd eye perspective.

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