A group of Zimbabwean journalists have rattled
their government by broadcasting from London. Justice Malala reports
on SW Radio Africa
The politician's voice sounds angry
and desperate at the same time. "Aahhh, you have read the propaganda
of the British and international newspapers very well. What you are
alleging is nonsense. No one has been displaced in Zimbabwe," he
answers a journalist who asks him about displaced communities in the
But the presenter presses on, rattling off names of
constituencies where human rights activists have recorded that
thousands of Zimbabweans have fled either political violence or
looming food shortages.
The politician is Edson Zvobgo, chairman of parliament's legal
committee in Zimbabwe and author of various electoral laws which aim
to exclude huge chunks of Zimbabweans from voting in the March
Zvobgo denies the allegation even when pinned down with the
constituency names, until he finally crumbles and becomes personal.
"You are sitting there in London telling me about what is happening
in Zimbabwe. Why don't you come here and show me these displaced
people?" he asks belligerently.
It is 4pm in a dark, slushy north London and SW Radio Africa, the
only independent radio station that is run by and broadcasts to
Zimbabweans, has hit the airwaves for its daily three-hour
The station broadcasts from London because Zimbabwe's media rules
do not allow independent broadcasters, making the voice of the
state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation the only one heard in
the country. Until December 19 last year, that is, when SW Radio
Africa, with eight staffers and a small office space, started
After a lengthy and robust interview with Zvobgo, presenters
Violet Gonda and Tererai Karimakwenda move on to an interview with
former Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu and then to an assessment of
the Zimbabwean economy.
The interviews are long and in-depth, the questions
"We want to bring texture to the story of Zimbabwe. There is only
one voice, and we want to hear more. We really don't want Zimbabwe,
or this station, to be a one-way conversation," says Gerry Jackson,
the station's founder.
And Zimbabwe seems to be listening keenly. Jackson speaks of how
the station has received reports of people putting their radios on
tree tops just so they can receive a better signal and an
independent news service.
Zimbabweans living outside Zimbabwe have also been visiting the
station's live webcasts, on www.swradioafrica.com, in droves: 170
000 have already visited in the past month.
"This is a nation that is hungry for news. You've got to give
them the whole story, that is why we touch on everything from
current affairs to health, particularly HIV, which is a major
problem," says Jackson.
The station has rattled the Zimbabwean political establishment to
the core. This week Jackson was accused by the state-owned The
Herald newspaper of spreading ethnic hatred, division, intolerance
and violence. It was a position punted by Zimbabwe's Minister of
Information, Jonathan Moyo, who has called on Britain and the
European Union to ban the station, saying: "The broadcasts are
fanning tribal divisions and ethnic hatred among Zimbabweans and we
cannot accept that . . . The broadcasts have all the trappings of
the genocide broadcasts in Rwanda and we don't want to have to act
after the fact. We must intervene while we are able to do so."
Moyo has reason to be fearful of independent voices. At the last
elections in Ghana, for example, the opposition parties won in six
of the country's eight provinces. The six provinces had independent
In countries where the population is largely rural, radio has the
potential to transform lives and bring down governments - a fact of
which Zimbabwe's leaders are fully aware. The irony is that, despite
Moyo's strident calls for the station to be closed down, government
leaders like Zvobgo and Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa have
agreed to be interviewed on SW Radio Africa.
But in their small studio and offices in London, the staffers at
SW hardly seem the types to fan racial hatred. As broadcast time
approaches, only Jackson appears relaxed as the rest of the crew
make calls, prepare for news bulletins and rush about like ordinary
journalists anywhere in the world.
The station is not linked to the opposition forces in Zimbabwe,
and staffers emphasise that they are not exiles or a propaganda
radio station. They are providing a news service that should be
available in Zimbabwe, says Jackson.
Mandisa Mundawarara, a producer, says: "I am not ashamed of what
we are doing. We are filling a gap in Zimbabwean life. I am not a
martyr but the inaccuracies about us do not daunt me."
The station came about in an extraordinary manner. As Jackson
tells it, she was a freelancer on Radio Three, a ZBC music station
in Harare, happily playing Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, until the
food riots in1997. She took live calls from angry Zimbabweans and
was accused of insubordination and fired.
She fought and won a legal battle in the Supreme Court two years
ago to set up a radio station. The court battle was won and Capital
FM went on air. Within six days men with AK-47s closed it down after
Mugabe used his presidential powers to overturn the Supreme Court
decision. Not a word had been uttered on the station. They had
merely played songs.
It took Jackson a year to raise funds to start up SW Radio
Africa, and she arrived in London two months ago to set it up.
Within a month it was running.
"I hope that sense prevails in Zimbabwe, that the broadcast laws
change and we can do this inside the country. This is a real radio
station and accusations like Moyo's do not bother me one bit," says
She says the political violence in Zimbabwe today is terrifying,
and being a journalist is one of the toughest jobs to perform.
Newspaper vendors are attacked for selling independent titles,
people are frightened to speak or have their photographs taken and
government leaders often refuse to give interviews, she explains.
"You really cannot take anything that Moyo says seriously. His
comments only add to people's curiosity about what we have to say,"
Oddly, SW Radio Africa does not say anything. It just tells the
news and gets ordinary Zimbabweans to call a local number, leave a
message and they are called back to give their views. Callers report
police harassment, intimidation and other events while doing what
Jackson was fired for doing: stating their opinions.
Southern African Development Community leaders have criticised
the station, but Jackson says she suspects they are afraid that
someone else might get the idea to do the same in their own
countries. She says although the situation in Zimbabwe is very
complicated, regional leaders are "too ambivalent" on taking action.
This was the reason she had decided on the United Kingdom to set up
the station, and the fact that there were as many as 500 000
Zimbabweans in the country added to her decision.
The launch of the station reflects a growing inability by
Zimbabweans to do in their country what is deemed normal in any
other democracy and has led to a virtual exodus - for economic and
political reasons - from the country. Each day, 500 Zimbabweans
leave for South Africa.
In London on Monday evenings Zimbabweans gather to share
information and to hear the latest news about their country.
"There is a cross-section of people who come here. There are
people who have just come off the boat, most of them fleeing
persecution. Then we get a lot of economic migrants.
"It is a microcosm of what Zimbabwe could be, really. Many people
have never mixed across racial lines and now, 6 000 miles from home,
they are doing that," explains Harry Laubscher, leader of the
Movement for Democratic Change's central London branch.
The highlight of the meetings is always the guest speaker, who
comes from Zimbabwe and gives a synopsis of the latest events.
From her job at a public relations firm, Ciaryan Marara says she
doubts she will return to Zimbabwe until conditions change. "I have
written letters to the independent press slamming Mugabe. So now I
have heard that they have visited my mother asking about me, only to
find I am here. I fear that my mother will be victimised."
Like most exiled and expatriate communities, Zimbabweans in
London are starting to organise Zimbabwean-style get-togethers. Last
September's Zimfest saw about 650 Zimbabweans gathering to eat
Zimbabwean beef. The tickets were sold out, with proceeds going to
Amnesty International and Zimbabwe's victims of torture.
The exiles believe that agents of Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence
Organisation operate in London.
"They are everywhere," says Dorcas Chireka. "I know people who
were living with us normally and then suddenly they disappeared.
It's true. It is the work of the CIO. They can reach everywhere and
But Rose Mlambo is adamant that she will not keep quiet or live
"England is full of Zimbabwean school managers and teachers now
working as cleaners and labourers. It should not be this way, and I
am happy to go anywhere and appear anywhere to speak about Mugabe's
"Things will not change unless black Zimbabweans in particular
stop being so fearful."
The emergence of a station like SW Radio Africa reflects the
spirit of Zimbabweans in London and elsewhere, that their courage
will not flag and that they will continue to fight for the small
things in life - like the right to choose what station they listen
That spirit is reflected by a comment written next to Moyo's name
on a list of Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers on the wall at the SW
offices. "Ha!" it says.
And every day, when they start broadcasting, that is exactly what
the station seems to say to the architect of Zimbabwe's draconian
media laws and other government ministers.