Jewish World Review August 28, 2001 / 9 Elul, 5761

Clarence Page

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Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight -- NEWS from faraway places takes on a riveting closeness when it happens to someone you know.

My world suddenly became very small when I heard two recent news items about two Africans I knew. One died, the other was arrested.

Donald Woods died Aug. 19 at age 67 in London after a long fight with cancer.

Four days earlier, Geoffrey Nyarota, 50, editor of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily, was arrested along with three staff members for practicing what we Americans would call good journalism.

One was a white South African who found out that his worst enemies were not black.

The other is a black Zimbabwean whose worst enemies lately have not been white.

All three of us, I feel honored to say, belong to the same vastly misunderstood minority group: we are journalists.

You may remember Woods from the 1987 film "Cry Freedom." Directed by Richard Attenborough, it starred Kevin Kline as Woods and Denzel Washington as Black Consciousness movement leader Steve Biko.

As editor of a 30,000-circulation newspaper in coastal East London, South Africa, Woods' attacks against apartheid, his country's now-defunct system of racial segregation, made him the nation's most famous charismatic and controversial journalist.

A fifth-generation South African, Woods grew up the way most whites of his generation did, as a believer in apartheid. As a law student, he learned better and eventually turned to journalism.

In the mid-1970s, he tried without success to persuade government officials to talk to Biko. Instead, Biko was arrested by security police in September, 1977. He was beaten unconscious and driven naked and in chains about 700 miles to the prison where he died. He was 30 years old.

Woods' outraged crusade after that death led to his being "banned" for five years. The banning order confined him to his home and prohibited him from writing or being in the company of more than one other person. Shots were fired at his house. A poisoned T-shirt was sent to his 2-year-old daughter. He eventually fled with his family to London.

Woods lived long enough to return to his homeland as an honored man after apartheid fell. Now we have to turn next door to Zimbabwe, which shifted to black-majority rule a decade before South Africa, to see President Robert Mugabe shattering the hopes he once cultivated for his region's post-colonial future.

I met Nyarota in July when I visited Zimbabwe as part of a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists. His newspaper's printing presses were bombed in January after the government called it, inaccurately, an opposition mouthpiece. No arrests were made. Undaunted, the paper went to smaller editions and a reduced print run by using private printers. Mugabe shut down his country's independent radio and television stations, so the Daily News is the country's strongest remaining independent voice.

The story that sparked the recent arrests was a report that police vehicles were spotted ferrying party militants in what the newspaper called "well orchestrated acts of lawlessness" in the looting of some white-owned farms.

Mugabe has persistently denied that his government backs the raids against white farmers that have been led by veterans of the country's revolutionary war. Of course, he has not condemned the raids, either. He says he wants land reform, but he has stalled American and British offers to help that process along. At 77 and losing popularity after 21 years as he faces next year's elections, Mugabe finds white farmers make a convenient scapegoat for his government's failures.

A judge invalidated the charges against Nyarota and his staffers a day after their arrests. When I reached Nyarota by telephone later, he told me he had been kept the whole time in a room by himself at the central police station.

"Any minute spent in that particular station is psychological torture," he said.

He had more bad news to report. Two other journalists were arrested from another publication and new charges of "publishing subversive statements" had been lodged against Nyarota and company.

He didn't have time to say much more. He had to get another edition out.

That's Geoff. Like any good journalist, he's persistent.

Contrary to the Mugabe government's charges, his paper is nobody's mouthpiece. Like South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Daily News is only calling on Mugabe to play fair.

So is the U.S. Senate. It passed the Zimbabwe Democracy Act on Aug. 2. Headed to the House, it orders "travel and economic sanctions" against those responsible for the violence, intimidation and breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe "and their associates and families."

That's a good measure, for starters. At least Mugabe's young wife, Grace, won't be able to jet so easily to her European shopping sprees.

Like Idi Amin, Slobodan Milosevic and other tyrants, Mugabe needs a nudge from the civilized world. It took decades too long for the United States to get on the right side of history in confronting South Africa's apartheid regime. We must not make the same mistake with Zimbabwe.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


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