Zimbabwe put Emmerson Mnangagwa in power hoping he would revive its battered economy. This expectation is on a downward spiral as harassed citizens take to the streets.
A mere 14 months ago, people sang and danced on the streets in jubilation. After 37 years at the helm, Robert Mugabe had finally resigned. The masses sang struggle songs saying “true independence” had finally arrived. They hoped his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, would bring back Zimbabwe’s dim and distant economic boom.
The optimism was misplaced. The country’s economic condition has been gradually worsening since.
On January 12, horror set in.
President Mnangagwa announced an overnight fuel hike of 150%. It now costs $3.31 (local bond note) to buy a liter of fuel. Of that, 78% goes to taxes, making fuel in Zimbabwe one of the most expensive in the world. If you drive a 40-liter petrol tank car, you will now spend $265 (local bond note) on just two tanks of petrol, per month, when an average Zimbabwean earns a mere $300 (local bond notes).
“That the fuel increase will only trigger a wave of price hikes on each and every other item on the shelves is as obvious as the incapacity of Zanu-PF to govern and lead a prosperous Zimbabwe,” says Jacob Mafume, National Spokesperson of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The shocking fuel hike comes when most of Zimbabwe’s fuel stations have been dry for weeks.
“I have to spend one day a week in a fuel queue and I lose valuable time. I spend six to 11 hours in a queue at a time. I am even forced to do some of my work while in the queue, otherwise I won’t be able to go to work or take my kids to school. What’s worse is that this fuel is not unleaded, it is actually blended with ethanol which means it doesn’t last,” says Zimbabwean resident Grace Zulu.
The fuel hike pushed citizens to the edge and drove the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the umbrella body for all Zimbabwean workers, to call for people to stay home for three days, in protest.
“The government has officially declared its ‘anti-workers, anti-poor and anti-people’ ideological position by increasing fuel prices. Workers’ salaries have now been reduced to nothing and our suffering elevated to another level. We must and will mobilize and fight for our survival,” said the ZCTU in a statement.
Instead of dealing with the mounting anger of Zimbabweans, after the hike announcement, Mnangagwa jetted off on a five-nation tour that started in Russia and was expected to end at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. At the time of going press, Mnangagwa had eventually cancelled the trip but these were the reactions of citizens prior the announcement.
“He doesn’t even care about us or what is happening in the country. He has money and his family is set for life while we all struggle to make ends meet.
“He should be here right now dealing with this and coming up with solutions that will work, instead of trying to convince countries we don’t know to put money [back] in the country. Even I know that in this state, Zimbabwe in un-investable,” she laments.
Angry citizens, like Zulu, took to the streets around the country in protest. Among them is Nomathemba Ngwenya, a 30-year-old unemployed Masters in Philosophy graduate.
“I can’t believe this is happening. I knew that Mnangagwa wasn’t going to be great but I didn’t expect things to be this bad. We are struggling and since he came into power, the situation has been worse. I am protesting today because I am tired of this and the government has to hear us,” Ngwenya says.
In Bulawayo, in southwest Zimbabwe, schools, taxi-ranks and work places were empty. Protesters had blocked roads, burned tyres and marched around the city center singing “Into’ yenzayo siyayizonda” meaning, “we despise what you are doing”.
Government responded by deploying police and soldiers armed with tear gas and guns. It caused panic, violence, looting and the protest expanded to residential areas.
“The situation is bad here. Some people took advantage of the situation and looted shops. When police came, they burned the police car and everything got worse. I could feel the tear gas in my throat and eyes from my home. Many people were wounded during this whole thing. The government just needs to act in a way that benefits its citizens,” says Bulawayo resident Mbongeni Mabhena.
With no positive response from the government, the marches spread to other cities.
In Epworth, an impoverished township in the southeast of capital Harare, residents woke up to blocked roads and marches which also escalated to violence.
“A stay-away had been suggested instead of a protest because the state loves to infiltrate demonstrations and cause violence as a pretext. It is possible that it was caused by protesters themselves but there are signs that the state was involved, for example, when there is someone carrying an AK-47, which is unheard of in Zimbabwe because of strict gun control,” says Doug Coltart, a Zimbabwean political activist and lawyer.
Loud cracks echoed around Bulawayo, Harare and even relatively smaller cities like Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe. People were injured, they had gunshot wounds and lives were lost. It marked a fast developing week of shocking news in the poor southern African country.
“I can’t believe this is happening. The president should be here sorting this out. He even left the vice president, who was a general in the army and was instrumental in the overthrow of Mugabe, in charge. Of course, he is going to send the army. That’s the kind of language he understands,” says Ngwenya who spends hours reading about Zimbabwe’s current and historical politics.
“Soldiers are in the townships beating up people who are protesting and even getting into people’s private homes. At this time, my understanding is that over 200 people have been arrested and at least five have lost their lives.”
As the protest grew, the #ShutDownZimbabwe trended on social media. History had begun to repeat itself.
Just like in the Mugabe regime where speaking up against the government was met with censorship, Mnangagwa’s government allegedly sent an order to mobile networks to shut down the internet in an effort to silence people.
There was confirmation of this order from Zimbabwe’s largest telecommunications company, Econet Wireless.
Founder, Strive Masiyiwa, said on social media the company was issued a warrant, to disconnect internet services, by the Minister of State in the Office of the President.
“We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control,” Econet said in a text message to customers, adding that all networks and providers had suspended their services.
“Failure to comply would result in three years’ imprisonment for members of local management in terms of section 6:2 (b),” Masiyiwa said.
“I have had no network for most of the day and I’m not sure how long it will last. Mnangagwa encouraged us to speak out when he was orchestrating a coup but now that he is the one in hot water it becomes a problem,” Zulu says.
After two days of chaos, Mnangagwa finally broke his silence.
“As I have said numerous times, everyone in Zimbabwe has the right to express themselves freely – to speak out, to criticize and to protest. Unfortunately, what we have witnessed is violence and vandalism instead of peaceful, legal protests.
“There can be no justification for violence, against people and property. Violence will not reform our economy. Violence will not rebuild our nation,” he said in a statement from Russia.
He said he traveled abroad to get investors vital for the economy. He claimed the response has been positive.
“Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond company, has decided to launch operations in Zimbabwe, and we have also signed a series of important agreements that will lead to investment, development and jobs.”
Although the fuel increase was the straw that broke the camel’s back, for months leading to the protests, Zimbabwe has been facing its worst economic crisis in 10 years.
The economy has been in meltdown since the July 30 peaceful election which turned violent. The army and police clashed with demonstrators who again took to the streets amid allegations that the ruling Zanu-PF party had rigged the vote. Six people died and hundreds were injured causing uncertainty and doubt to the investor community.
“The signs have been there from the beginning. This crisis is caused by the Mnangagwa administration in the months leading up to the elections. There was never a sign of real improvement, it’s been a disaster from day one,” Coltart says.
Many were sceptical but hopeful when Mnangagwa took over.
Mnangagwa had previously served as Mugabe’s right-hand man. Earlier in his life, he played a role in the fight for independence. He was part of a gang called ‘The Crocodile Gang’ and was known for his ruthlessness which later earned him the nickname, Crocodile.
There have been diverse accounts of Mnangawa’s reputation. A book by Ray Ndlovu, published in 2018 called In The Jaws of the Crocodile recounts these incidents.
Mnangagwa has been accused of bringing his ruthlessness to independent Zimbabwe. He is also accused of overseeing some of the state-sponsored crimes during Mugabe’s reign. When he was fired by Mugabe, he orchestrated a coup d’état with the help of the military led by now vice president, Constantino Chiwenga.
“Zimbabweans were just pawns in a fight between Mugabe and Mnangagwa. I don’t believe he ever had an intention to fix the problems we have in this country. If I see a queue, I just get in it before I even ask what it is for because there is a shortage of even cooking oil,” Zulu says.
The Currency Crisis
One of the problems the president inherited from Mugabe is a currency crisis.
Zimbabwe abandoned its currency in 2009 and adopted foreign currencies like the South African rand and the United States (US) dollar. Amid foreign currency shortages, in 2016, it introduced the bond note which the government claims is equivalent to the US dollar.
“There was a lot of hope for a lot of Zimbabweans not because they thought the new administration would do much better but they were just so desperate for change. You would think that any administration that came after that would have its ear to the ground in trying to fix the issue for the ordinary citizen but there is no evidence of that,” says citizen Kukhanya Ndlovu.
The bond note is being sold on the black market for $3 and inflation is at nearly 21%. Problems are compounded by the high unemployment in the country, but even those who have jobs are not paid enough. Zulu, for instance, is a secretary who earns about 450 bonds per month.
“When you are on the ground, you understand how Zimbabweans are suffering and have been suffering for a long time. For some reason, the government doesn’t get it. At some point, something gives and something has to break,” says Dr Nkosana Moyo, a politician, economist and former Zimbabwe Minister of Industry and International Trade.
It gets worse.
Companies continue to shut their doors or demand hard currency. Bulawayo, once the country’s industrial hub, has closed a significant number of its factories. The spaces are now used as places of worship.
One of the latest companies to put a seal on its doors is National Foods, one of the largest manufacturers and marketers of food products. There is also Olivine Industries, which manufactures soap and cooking oil. It has suspended its production and put workers on indefinite leave because it owes foreign suppliers $11 million.
“The company has struggled to restart its manufacturing operations in January 2019 for lack of imported raw materials. As such it remains closed,” says Olivine Industries in a statement.
There is more.
As of January 4, Zimbabwe’s largest brewing company, Delta Corporation, started selling only in hard currency to keep its doors open.
“Our business has been adversely affected by the prevailing shortages in hard currency, resulting in the company failing to meet your orders,” it says also in a statement.
It is clear that for money to work, people have to believe in it. No one believes in the bond note or its 1:1 valuation. The government itself doesn’t seem to believe it.
“When the president announced the new fuel prices, he implied an exchange rate of 1:3 between the dollar and the bond note. It signals that there is no honesty in how the government is communicating with the population. This crisis is more painful and almost unforgivable because it indicates no lessons were learned from 2008,” Moyo says.
In 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a staggering inflation rate of 80,000,000,000%, printing notes up to 100 trillion. When the Zimbabwean dollar tanked, life savings vanished from the banks; shops were empty and ATMs dry. In 2019, the panic and kneejerk reaction has seen people holding on to their US dollars and moving them out of the country.
“People have forex but it’s not with the government structures because people don’t trust banks because of what happened in 2008 where there was a shortage of everything and hyperinflation was terrible. Part of the crisis is exaggerated, people have the forex,” says former Deputy Information Minister in Robert Mugabe’s cabinet, Bright Matonga.
The government is encouraging people to bank their foreign currency. It says it has now started foreign currency bank accounts which it claims are safe.
“The legislation protects your account. Back then, they used to be able to raid your account but now they can’t. You can bank your US dollars and can go to the bank and withdraw all of it,” Matonga says.
According to Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, the country also plans to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar in the next 12 months. Many Zimbabweans think it won’t work.
“Currency is a symptom, not the cause. It doesn’t matter what currency we adopt, we are going to end up right at the same point as long as we don’t have a government that understands what needs to be done. Our problem is the irresponsible behavior of government. How do you run a country which has a budget of more than 90% which is in recurrence expenditure? How do you run a country with a government that doesn’t understand that taxes should be a small fraction?” Moyo asks.
The protests came just days before the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos. Mnangagwa was set to appear under the banner of his “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra. This year, he also visited Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia in a bid to attract investments. Prior the cancellation of the trip there was public pressure, as citizens felt aggrieved about his decision to attend.
“Instead of accepting its gross failure to turn the economy around, the cartel now basks in the pretence of ‘mega deals’in curious corners of the forgotten world such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and other places you may have never heard of,” Mafume says.
Moyo believes nobody is going to invest money in Zimbabwe until Zimbabwe shows a behavior that is conducive for investment and that it can manage its own finances.
“These mega deals are not coming. What people are talking about are indications. People are interested in Zimbabwe but investors will look for certain signals, without which they will not put money in the country,” Moyo says.
“What product is he taking to Davos? Does he really think investors around the world are stupid enough not to see that they shouldn’t put their money into the country? Last year, he shouldn’t have even gone to Davos. I don’t know why he is even going to all these countries. It’s totally nonsensical.”
Gaining people’s trust is one of the few things Matonga and Moyo agree on.
“The leadership should come from the top so people see the seriousness of the mantra that Zimbabwe is open for business. We need to get trust with our own people here at home and then get trust from Zimbabweans in the diaspora, because they bring in a lot of foreign currency, then we can go out,” Matonga says.
In fact, Moyo believes, with this government, there is no sector that is safe to invest in.
“At a country level, there is stupidity. If all you see is irrationality and kleptocracy, how can anything survive under it?”
Moyo argues that Mnangagwa should first build an environment that is conducive for investment before wasting money on travel to sell a product that won’t be bought.
“In terms of investment, if I was the president, I would have approached two categories of investors. One would be someone who is already invested in Zimbabwe and then regional investors who are primarily South African. These are people who understand the environment and would help the economy to begin to take off.”
On the other hand, Matonga blames the economic sanctions, and not the government, for Zimbabwe’s downfall.
“Whoever wants to bring money into Zimbabwe has to get clearance from the United States government. As long as the sanctions remain, it’s going to be difficult to effectively deal with business challenges. The root of all our troubles is the sanctions,” Matonga says.
Coltart, who lived in SA and the US for eight years before returning to Zimbabwe to be an activist and human rights lawyer, sees the errors in policy as the biggest culprits for lack of investor confidence.
“As Zimbabweans, we want stability and investment but what is clear is that the government doesn’t know how to do that. Their policies are wrong, they waste government funds and the wrong cabinet is in charge,” Coltart says.
Matonga, who now has a company that assists people looking to invest in Zimbabwe, maintains that Zimbabwe is open for business.
“We are currently going through a process of trying to put our house in order. It is a very difficult process but the new minister is trying to put in systems to make sure business is done properly. This process is painful but it will take time for us to see results,” Matonga says.
Coltart encourages the government to fix policy issues, hire people dedicated to reviving the country’s economy and to find reputable investors in mining and agriculture.
“We need credible investors in mining and agriculture but a government like ours attracts the worst kind of investor, like sharks who go into a crisis situation in order to make a huge amount of money because no one else will go there. Typically, that kind of investment is not good for the country,” Coltart says.
Matonga shares a similar sentiment about investment focus areas.
“Yes, we need to invest more in agriculture so we can start importing to the region; we need to invest more in mining so we have enough gold reserves to support our currency. The tourism sector is doing very well,” Matonga says.
He, however, believes it’s unfair to say Zimbabwe isn’t attracting investors and that the government isn’t doing its job.
“There are a lot of massive deals that have come into the country. For one, there is an electricity deal that happened and soon Zimbabwe will be selling electricity throughout the region. Our tourism sector is also doing very well. This December, it was booked 90%. The investors are listening to us because also our new minister is credible. He is being invited all around the world to speak about opportunities in Zimbabwe,” he says.
The challenge so far has been that if investments are made, it becomes a struggle to retrieve money because of cash shortages in Zimbabwe.
“I had planned to expand my farming logistics business into Zimbabwe but the problem is that I would have invested in rands and people would have paid me in bond notes and I wouldn’t have been able to use that money anywhere outside Zimbabwe, which is where I actually need to use it,” says South African entrepreneur Mark Zondo.
To make matters worse, even the bond note is scarce. According to Reserve Bank governor, John Mangudya, in 2017, 96% of transactions in Zimbabwe were electronic. So if you are a business operating in Zimbabwe, you would have money in a mobile money account or bank account but not in hand.
Matonga says this is not the ideal situation but things have improved.
“Doing business in Zimbabwe is easier than it was in the past. For example, the government removed the indigenisation law that demanded that a foreign investor had to partner with a local to start a business. If you are a company that imports and exports, you can also get at least 50 percent of your foreign currency in hand to be able to continue running,” he says.
Although that’s the case, investors will have to take the remaining 50% cutting into their profits.
Matonga insists the government is doing well. “The minister of finance has closed the loopholes and even the rate on the black market is going down. He has also introduced a two percent tax in mobile transactions and has collected more than $550 million which means we are able to fund government projects, road construction, infrastructure development,” he says. He blames the current fuel shortages on the increase on car imports.
“This time last year, we had about one million cars on the road and now we have about 1.7 million. In the last six months, Zimbabweans imported about 700,000 vehicles which has now put a strain on the forex,” Matonga says.
He, however, agrees that there is a currency strain crippling the country.
“When you don’t have your own currency, it is extremely difficult. If you want to import necessary raw materials or equipment, it’s difficult to get foreign currency. You have to get it on the informal market where the rates are three times higher,” he says.
Moyo, who ran against Mnangagwa during the presidential elections, says he was called by Mnangagwa to help boost the economy, but their relationship was short-lived.
“I allowed myself to be invited into government and I joined. I then realized I couldn’t work for this government. The way the land issue was handled and the way occupation of industries was taking place in a similar manner, I just felt it was going the wrong way. The policy positioning of Zanu-PF was unstrategic so I told the president I wasn’t going to work for an administration like that,” Moyo says.
“He said he brought me in to make those changes but I had enough evidence because of the number of times I had gone to him and asked him to do certain things which he would agree with and never do them.”
According to Moyo, the evidence to date shows Mnangagwa is not capable of taking a step back and actually fixing the country. It is up to the people to fix Zimbabwe.
“There is desperation. Young men are spending their days playing board games while drunk on alcohol or high on drugs. When I asked them about it, they would tell me that’s the only way they could retain their sanity because there are no jobs. People are doing things they would otherwise not do. We as a nation have committed a crime against our youth,” Moyo says.
Last year, for the first time in 37 years, the country went to the polls to choose a leader and 133 parties took part in the elections, and 23 candidates ran for the presidency. Mnangagwa won by 2,460,463 votes (50.8%), followed by the MDC’s Nelson Chamisa with 2,147,436 votes (44.3%).
“Zimbabweans need to learn what democracy really is. We need to learn that elections mean choosing the person who will solve the problems that are confronting the country at that point in time. We need to take responsibility for our actions, ” Moyo says.
Taking responsibility places the burden on the people to drive change towards the direction they want it. This has been done before. Perhaps another 37-year wait might be too late.
Mysterious Object Under Moon’s Largest Crater Found By Scientists
An unknown, mysterious mass has been found beneath a crater on the moon, according to researchers at Baylor University—and it may give scientists clues into how the moon was shaped.
- Researchers discovered an unknown anomaly roughly five times the size of Hawaii’s largest island.
- The mass is sitting beneath one of the largest preserved craters in the solar system, the South Pole-Aitken basin.
- A plausible guess by scientists: The mass is a piece of metal left behind nearly 4 million years ago by the asteroid that formed the crater.
The mysterious mass sits more than 300 km (186 miles) underneath the solar system’s largest crater. The crater isn’t visible to the naked eye because it’s on the far side of the moon, which always faces away from Earth.
While the researchers who discovered the mass don’t know what it is or where it came from, computer simulations suggest that, under the right conditions, a large asteroid’s iron-nickel core could have been embedded inside the moon upon impact almost 4 million years ago.
Another possibility, according to researchers, is that the mass consists of oxides left over from when the moon was changing from a large ocean of molten magma to what it is today.
-Rachel Sandler; Forbes Staff
Why Mitsubishi Heavy May Want Bombardier’s Money-Losing CRJ Regional Jet Line
Bombardier may be close to completing its exit from the airliner business, confirming Wednesday morning that it’s holding talks with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to sell its once-mighty CRJ regional jet line. For Mitsubishi Heavy, which has struggled to make the climb from an aircraft component supplier to a jet maker, the deal may be less about the money-losing CRJ than acquiring its extensive service network.
Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Heavy is years behind schedule on the MRJ, a twin-engine regional jet that was initially expected to be launched in 2013 with Japanese airline ANA. With certification of the 90-seat version believed to be on track for 2020, acquiring the competing CRJ program would solve the knottiest remaining problem for Mitsubishi: product support and maintenance, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group. “They have no experience at that, and no infrastructure,” he says.
The sale talks were first reported by The Air Current.
Montreal-based Bombardier created the regional jet market in 1989 when it launched the CRJ, which was a stretched, 50-seat version of the Challenger business jet that it had acquired a few years prior when it first got into aerospace by buying the struggling aircraft maker Canadair from the Canadian government. With jet fuel cheap in the 1990s, U.S. airlines snapped up the CRJ to replace propeller-driven planes on short-haul routes serving smaller cities. Bombardier has sold 1,950 CRJs, but sales slowed in the early 2000s as oil prices climbed and airline consolidation shrank route networks.
Bombardier had 51 outstanding orders for the aging airframe as of March 31, a backlog that should be worked through by 2020. Bombardier refreshed the CRJ in recent years with a new cabin design, but its seventies-vintage General Electric engines are inefficient by modern standards, and it’s not clear if the plane could be retrofitted with newer ones.
What’s kept sales trickling along has been the persistence of so-called “scope clauses” in U.S. airlines’ labor contracts with their pilots, which restrict the major carriers from contracting with regional airlines for flights of planes above 76 seats and a maximum takeoff weight of 86,000 pounds. With the MRJ, Mitsubishi made a losing bet that the scope clauses would be relaxed by the time it came into service: the MRJ90 is too big to be used in the U.S. now. Embraer made the same miscalculation with its new E2 regional jet line.
Mitsubishi has been working on a 70-seat version, but that project is reportedly going through a redesign that could delay it until 2023.
United and Delta pilots are negotiating new contracts, and American and Southwest’s agreements are up in 2020, but it’s unclear whether the airlines will be able to win relaxation of the scope clause restrictions.
It’s also unclear whether Mitsubishi would want to keep producing the CRJ, scope clauses or no, given its unprofitability. The company could choose to fulfill current orders and wind it down, says Aboulafia.
Beyond the CRJ maintenance network, Mitsubishi could benefit from adding experienced engineers from the Bombardier program who could aid in developing the MRJ and in the complicated regulatory certification process.
Bombardier filed a lawsuit against Mitsubishi in October, alleging that former Bombardier employees had supplied it with trade secrets that would help the MRJ gain certification.
A sale of the CRJ line would be the sunset of an era of ambition for Bombardier, a snowmobile maker that expanded into rail in the 1970s and aviation in the 1980s with a series of acquisitions, but stumbled badly earlier this decade with an attempt to challenge Airbus and Boeing by developing a 100- to 130-seat jet, the CSeries, that almost bankrupted the company.
CEO Alain Bellemare, who came aboard in 2015, has sold off assets and raised new debt and equity to pare Bombardier’s heavy debt load, aiming to slim the company down to its strongholds in business jets and trains.
In 2018, Bombardier gave away a majority share in the CSeries to Airbus, which has rebranded it the A220. Airbus has the option to buy full control in 2025. This week Bombardier closed the sale of its Q Series regional turboprop line to Longview Capital, and last month it announced that it would sell an aerostructures factory in Morocco and its Northern Ireland unit, which developed innovative composite resin technology used to make the wings for the A220.
For the CRJ program, Bombardier could fetch a similar price to its sale of the Q Series, which netted $250 million, says analyst Christopher Murray of AltaCorp Capital, and a deal could allow it to offload other contingent liabilities.
Bombardier shares rose 8.9% Wednesday morning to 2.14 Canadian dollars on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The stock tumbled 20% in late April after the company cut its 2019 sales and profit outlook due to delays and quality issues on multiple contracts at its rail unit. Bombardier said during its first-quarter earnings call last month that it would no longer commit to previously announced financial goals for 2020, including raising sales to $20 billion.
-Jeremy Bogaisky;Forbes Staff
A Tale Of Two Presidents And One Phone Call To Freedom
A month before South Africa’s elections, one of the country’s leading political figures exposed a number of his former comrades for corruption with evidence to the Zondo Commission on State Capture. It was box office material, yet just another eventful period in the turbulent life of Robert McBride – guerrilla fighter, policeman and death row prisoner.
Robert McBride has one of those faces full of character that looks like it has endured life as much as lived it. A glance through his tough years of struggle yields a list of reasons why: five years on death row to screams and tears of the condemned; scores of beatings over decades; shooting his way out of hospital; years of the shadowy and violent life of an underground guerrilla fighter.
McBride was born in Wentworth, just outside Durban, in 1963, and grew up amid racist insults and violence. It swiftly politicised him and he was taken into the military wing of the African National Congress where he carried out sabotage with explosives.
Even by the standards of the desperate days of the gun in South Africa, McBride’s political activity is remarkable. In 1986, McBride fought his way out of an intensive care ward in a bizarre rescue of his childhood friend and fellow fighter Gordon Webster. It happened at Edendale Hospital in Durban where Webster lay, with tubes in his body, under police guard.
McBride posed as a doctor, with an AK47 hidden in his white coat; his father, Derrick, was dressed as a priest with a Makarov pistol under his cassock. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, in 1999, that hospital staff cheered them on and held back an armed policeman as the McBrides shot their way out, pushing the wounded Webster to freedom on a trolley.
Thirty-three-years on, McBride went into battle again for his beliefs, this time with words and documents, against a more insidious and formidable foe than armed police – corruption. He gave evidence before the Zondo Commission, in Johannesburg, springing from his days as head of IPID, the independent police investigators.
He spent more than four days on the stand – longer than most cricket matches last these days. He told of missing police evidence, claims of sinister moves to remove corruption busters and the misappropriation of money, under a cloak of secrecy, by the crime intelligence agencies.
“People don’t like me because of my anti-corruption stance, their dislike of me I wear as a badge of honour. Those who dislike me for other reasons, it is a free country and you are entitled to your likes and dislikes. I have no problem with you. But wherever I am, I will do my work and will always be against corruption. I understand how corruption affects the ordinary man and means there is so much less to go around,” he says.
To give a little more context, McBride’s erstwhile job went with unpopularity. The head of IPID is a post that politicians, plus probably more than a few disgruntled policemen, wanted him out of. They ended his contract and he assures me he is going to court to get his job back. His stance may give clues as to why some wanted to see the back of him.
“I have spoken loudly every time I have seen something wrong and raised unpopular issues. Some of the issues we picked up early on was police involvement in cash-in-transit robberies… The looting of police funds, the corruption, the wastage and the leverage, we then began to understand it; the leverage that some policeman have over politicians… Any criminal syndicate that is operating requires police to help them otherwise they will be found out in the normal course of events,” says McBride, the month before the hearing.
“Rogue activity by certain elements in the prosecuting authority, the willingness to prosecute people for non-criminal acts and unwillingness to prosecute when there is a pile of evidence…We will also speak about the abuse of state funds, the abuse of power by the police by negating investigations. Most of our evidence is backed up by court papers, evidence and affidavits,” he says.
Many activists who saw the nasty, ugly, side of the struggle often are the first to come down, hard, when they feel freedoms they fought for are being abused. You could argue McBride, an intelligent thinker, is very much one of them.
You could also argue that McBride has been cut adrift by many former comrades and demonized as the Magoo’s Bar bomber – the 1986 car bomb on the Durban beachfront that killed three and wounded scores. Others, on both sides of the South African struggle, who issued orders, or did worse, are undisturbed and anonymous by their swimming pools. Any regrets? I ask.
“It’s like asking me ‘do I regret living in a free and democratic country’, the answer can’t be yes… We would have preferred that things went differently. If you are in an armed struggle, you are the cause of hurt to other people and as a political activist, as a revolutionary you can defend that and justify it.
“But as a human being, you know that when it concerns other people, it is not the right thing to do to cause the hurt of other people. I have expressed myself as a human being on this, not because I was trying to elicit any sympathy or anything; I have never asked for redemption, I have never asked for forgiveness. Those who know me know what I am about and those who understand the circumstances in the early 1980s when we became active; those who are old enough to remember that was what the circumstances were.”
Those circumstances recede further into the darkness of memory of democratic South Africa every year, yet, in the minds of those who suffered, it stays pin sharp. McBride spent five years on death row, in Pretoria, after being sentenced to the gallows for the Durban bombings.
He reckons the prison hanged more than 300 prisoners in this time. Through the cell door, he heard the condemned screaming and crying as warders dragged the condemned along the passages to their fate. The hanging warders used to bring back the bloody hoods from the gallows and force the next batch of condemned men to wash them.
In May 1990, the sun shone as hope visited death row in Pretoria. The prison management summoned McBride and a group of fellow condemned activists, to the main office at the maximum security prison. Each were given green prison jackets – the garb of special occasions. Warders drove them, in a van, to a distant part of the prison and all feared they were either going to be executed or allowed to escape and shot in the back.
“We were told not to talk and then we were put in this big room with a steel of security around the room and after about 45 minutes the former president (Mandela) walked in and it was the most beautiful sight on earth; the greatest feeling ever and when he walks in, he says: ‘Ah, Robert! How are you!’ As if he knew me forever. It was the most important meeting I had in my life. It was like a God-like environment. He gave us a rundown of negotiations and what can be expected and that we must not worry, we must be patient and sit tight, he knows all of our backgrounds and will do his utmost to get us released and we will never be forgotten.”
It took more than two more years, in the shadow of the noose… until a fateful Friday. September 25, 1992. McBride will never forget the date.
“Round about half past four in the afternoon, I got a call to come to the office, I didn’t know what it was about, and when I came there, the head of the prison said: ‘You have a phone call’. It was my first phone call in prison. On the other end of the line was comrade Cyril Ramaphosa and he says: ‘Hi chief’. I keep quiet and then he says: ‘Monday’. I say: ‘What’s happening Monday chief?’ He keeps quiet, then he says: ‘You are going home!’ There was a bit of a smile you could feel in his voice,” says McBride with a huge smile on his face.
Long after Mandela had completed his long walk to freedom for his country, McBride was to yet again hear the click of a prison key and feel the pain from a warder’s boot.
It was the summer of 1998 and in Maputo, the sea was warm and the prawns were hot. The police in Mozambique picked up McBride, then a high-ranking official in foreign affairs, on alleged gun running charges that appeared to be trumped up to us journalists. We scoured the streets of the capital, for weeks, in search of witnesses.
McBride argued that he was on an undercover operation for the National Intelligence Agency trying to uncover gun runners who were flooding neighbouring South Africa with illegal weapons and fuelling crime; a counter that eventually set him free.
Despite this, McBride spent six months in the capital’s notorious, grim, Machava maximum security prison, where he told me violence was meted out.
I covered that story for many months and came within a split ace of interviewing McBride in his cell. We spent hours plying the Portuguese-speaking warders with beer and the story, through an interpreter, that we were friends visiting from South Africa and we just wanted to say hello. We told them our friend was a big man in South Africa.
“He is a small man now,” smiled back one of the warders icily.
We convinced the guards and as they moved towards the prison doors, keys in hand, our cover was blown. One of the not too bright colleagues from our TV station strolled into the prison waving his press card.
“Hello Chris!” says he. The none-too-pleased prison guards threw us out.
I had to wait more than 20 years for my interview with McBride.
A phrase I always remembered from those many hot, crazy, days in Maputo was a quote we got from the late presidential spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa when McBride went behind bars yet again.
“He is a tough guy who can look after himself,” said Mamoepa.
The Zondo Commission and scores of corrupt policemen last month found out how tough.
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