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A short, but hectic, decade

Joram Nyathi, Deputy Editor


IT’S been a very short 10 years, and very hectic too.

The Zimbabwe Independent was launched 10 years ago on May 10 1996 after a brief gestation period soon after the current proprietor Trevor Ncube left the Financial Gaze

tte.

The paper’s cover price was $5, which was maintained up to the end of the year.

Together with key promoters Clive Wilson and Clive Murphy, Ncube quickly assembled a team of what was then some of the country’s top journalists, among them Barnabas Thondhlana, Basildon Beta and Sunsleey Chamunorwa. I came in as a sub-editor.

All these journalists had previously worked for the Financial Gazette. The result was that the Independent started off as no more than a pale version (as opposed to pink) of the same paper.

The market was essentially the same, as was the house style and the sources of news.

Quite how the brave guys who conceived the idea of a new publication that was a copy of the other was going to succeed I still don’t know. But as it turned out later, it was a classic case of an idea whose time had come.

Before its launch, people were content with the Financial Gazette as the only privately owned paper that could give the other side of the story. If there were pressures or calls for another paper, people mostly thought in terms of a daily newspaper to challenge the Zimpapers monopoly. There were feeble attempts to meet the needs of this market in the form of the Daily Gazette, but it quickly collapsed, reportedly due to serious undercapitalisation although some people thought the market was not yet ready for a second daily paper in the capital.

This interpretation was soon disproved with the launch of the hugely popular Daily News in 1999. But again there is a certain feeling that its popularity was fortuitous, tapping into popular discontent with the establishment and the incidental formation of the Movement for Democratic Change. The Zimbabwe Independent didn’t enjoy these propitious beginnings.

As already indicated, the Financial Gazette was alive with a definitive market niche. And we set out to challenge its dominance and share the cake. It is to the credit of the proprietors that they were able to put together teams of dedicated staff in all the departments, from the newsroom to the marketing department then led by the ever young and indefatigable Sarah Thompson.

With a galaxy of star contributors to the newspaper such as Eric Bloch on economics and government policy, Charles Gurney on financial markets and Jonathan Moyo in our trendsetting Cutting Edge column, it didn’t take long before readers realised we meant business.

Add to the list the irrepressible, inimitable and ever affable Peter Lovemore with his often risqué comments in his “Not Necessarily Racing” column and we had a good read for everybody.

Serious readers were not disappointed. Our launch coincided with a new Cabinet in which we indicated there was no change in President Mugabe’s old guard. That would be followed by many breaking stories that set us on the cutting edge of the competition for such a new publication.

These included the plunder of the War Victims’ Compensation Fund; problems with tenders for the Harare International Airport; the crisis at Nssa and even the cost of hosting the Ethiopian fugitive, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
It was the same year that Grace Marufu wed Robert Mugabe and subsequently landed the two-storey Gracelands in Borrowdale for a cool $6 million.

The readers did not disappoint in their response. By November 1 of the same year the paper’s circulation had doubled to 20 000 and was still rising.

It is important to record these figures.

The Independent was launched at a time when the economy was functional despite the evident policy bungling. The annual subscription was $260, or £17 or R130. The government could in the same year splurge a mere $35 million on 48 luxury Mercedes Benz vehicles for a solar summit.

How I wish we had learnt something from those gatherings in the face of the current power outages for which both government and Zesa don’t appear to have any solution! Things were working then, but we also stood on a precipice.

The following year, 1997, ended inauspiciously with the November 14 Black Friday when President Mugabe was coerced by an estimated 50 000 war veterans to give them $50 000 each plus $2 000 in monthly gratuities. The economy never recovered from that political payment. More importantly, that concession exposed Mugabe’s political susceptibility which was parlayed by the war veterans to the fullest.

He was pinned against the wall and would thenceforth be forced into an alliance that would set the war veterans above the law so long as he indulged their every whim and they pledged to become the new vanguard of Zanu PF. They therefore became a handy tool in Mugabe’s fight for his political life in the 2002 presidential election. The 2000 parliamentary election marked the second darkest phase of this accursed nation after the Gukurahundi genocide of the 1980s in Matabeleland and the Midlands.

Zimbabweans and the world at large could only rely on publications like the Independent, the Daily News and the Financial Gazette to make sense of the violence that was going on. It fell to our lot to dispel the myth that there was unqualified opposition to land reform by any section of society. We made it clear the issue was about the aims of the reforms and the methodology.

It was on this score that government fell out with the British government over funding. The mayhem that ensued in 2000 still haunts  us to this day and those who destroyed the commercial farming sector have no clue how to put the whole thing back together again.

The spectacular collapse of the economy in the past six years from the subsequent lawlessness has not been seen in any other modern country, not even in Iraq. Perhaps our match could be Somalia that has been the victim of vicious warlord-ism since the fall of Siad Barre’s corrupt government in 1991.

Unfortunately, nobody has been immune from the man-made calamities. Zimbabwe has been abandoned by international financiers and deserted by foreign investors. Millions of skilled Zimbabweans who should help in its recovery efforts have fled to foreign lands.

This forced government to rely on domestic borrowing for its operations. The upshot has been record inflation estimated at 1 000%. This has had a serious impact on newspapers in the country that are now seen more as a luxury than a key source of information in decision-making.

But the biggest effect of this economic collapse was the paranoia it engendered in government. As poverty deepened across the country, so did the newspapers become strident in their strictures against government policies. The opposition also became more vocal.

It was this combination that led to the invention of odious legislation like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act. The former Act has posed the most serious threat to the independent media in this country since its enactment in 2002.

Hundreds of journalists have been left jobless after their publications were shut down for one reason or another. The late Eddison Zvobgo described Aippa as the most determined assault on our civil liberties.

But this is not the time to give up in the struggle against tyranny. We have set high standards for ourselves and we owe it to our readers to continue. They expect us to do no less.

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