In the jaws of the crocodile: A one-sided piece of work

IN a country where there is no tradition among journalists to write books and document history, In the Jaws of the Crocodile — which was launched in Harare on Wednesday — is a brave first attempt by media colleague Ray Ndlovu.

Nqaba Matshazi

Ndlovu’s debut book comes at a critical juncture in the country’s history, as people are still trying to influence and shape the narrative of what happened in the days leading up to last year’s military coup, which toppled Robert Mugabe as president and replaced him with his long-time confidante, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The book tells what initially promises to be a gripping story of how Mnangagwa fled Zimbabwe in fear of his life, and of his brief exile in South Africa, where he declared that he would return “in a matter of weeks” to take control of the levers of state power. It describes the military coup — which it terms “military intervention” — against Mugabe and his allies, trying to trace and analyse the sudden power shift within Zanu PF and dramatic changes on the local political landscape.

It relies on close interaction with Mnangagwa and his family, his friends and allies. A few opponents of Mnangagwa are roped in. It also draws from published articles, as well as observations during the mass demonstrations as people took to the streets to force Mugabe out. It concludes with the disputed 2018 elections.

Although it does not provide “unprecedented insights” into the momentous events that changed Zimbabwe’s course of history and trajectory, it tries to fill a huge information gap which exists on this issue.

On that note, Ndlovu has done well to step up and step in to provide a book timeously.

The lead up to the coup and the days that followed were characterised by an information vacuum, which was often filled by speculation and rumours, and the book is timely as it seeks to fill in the gaps that arose during that time.

In fact, the whole Mugabe succession story was characterised by lack of information and too much speculation that any attempt to research and write to provide verified information and insight would always be welcome by those interested in current affairs and indeed students of history.

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Ndlovu seemingly had free access to the Mnangagwa family and was able to capture their emotions at what was definitely a trying time for them. While the access to the family helped him in his research, it also simultaneously led to a serious defect in the narrative, particularly as the writer appears fatally compromised by his associations with the Mnangagwa family.

The first thing arising from this is that the book falls into this trap: good cop, bad cop simplistic narrative. It inevitably emerges as an incurably one-sided story based on information largely presented by the chosen side — some of it uncorroborated, simply unverified and questionable.

For instance, the whole theory of Mnangagwa’s escape under fear of being arrested or killed is not examined, verified and corroborated with facts. The incident comes out as largely a James Bond-like description of events; full of drama and chaos, sometimes signifying nothing. It would leave Hollywood scriptwriters green with envy, or possibly land Ndlovu a plum job to write scripts for films and movies in the famous neighbourhood in the central region of Los Angeles, California.

Besides, the book presents flat characters; either inherently good or bad, nothing in-between and incapable of changing.

Mnangagwa is portrayed as an innocent victim throughout the book, who seems preordained to rule, until the villains Mugabe and his Zanu PF G40 faction, whom Ndlovu seems to paint as having evil motives, get onto the scene to try to torpedo a predestined succession plan.

My first major impression of the book that it is a hagiography. It seeks to crudely manipulate the succession narrative and do some publicity work for Mnangagwa, while scratching the surface and doggedly narrating a weighted or biased account of events throughout the convoluted story.

That it is a hagiography is not in doubt. Apart from trying to tell a glowing and heroic Mnangagwa story, it is ahistorical in many aspects in relation to him.

Mnangagwa is carefully and systematically delinked, for example, from the Gukurahundi massacres by ineptly or deliberately ensuring the book lacks historical perspective or context.

This comes out clearly from the early pages where the killings are referred to, but on page 179 the writer comes out properly in the open in relation to Gukurahundi and Mnangagwa.

Ndlovu on that page writes: “Sitting in his presence, I (Ndlovu) find it is almost impossible to regard him (Mnangagwa) as ruthless and cruel, as the man who various media reports allege was involved in the Gukurahundi massacres of the mid-1980s when he was State Security minister”.

From there the subsequent paragraphs prove the attempt to whitewash the past, as this one further shows: “Mnangagwa does seem to have little patience with the past, and several times in the interview when he spoke of the challenges that have put the country at a standstill, he emphasised the need to ‘move on forward’.”

“It is a theme that was also articulated during his inauguration speech on 24 November 2017 when he was sworn in and urged citizens to ‘let bygones be bygones’.”

This shows when Ndlovu was not writing about Mnangagwa’s victimisation and heroism, he was trying to help him bury his ugly past or sweep it under the carpet. The writer does this either by ignoring, incompetently or intentionally, important issues which must have been raised or amplifying Mnangagwa’s repeated mantra “let bygones be bygones”.

After going through the book, one is left with a palpable sense of having just read a one-sided account of the story. The writer simply goes about narrating a complex and certainly important story of Mugabe’s downfall and Mnangagwa’s ascendancy by interacting with only a few critical actors who include the President himself, his family, allies like Larry Mavima and his rivals like Saviour Kasukuwere. Otherwise, most of the information is gleaned from published newspaper articles. The writer did not interact with or interview Mugabe, his wife Grace, their allies like Jonathan Moyo and the military — critical players in the story.

The range of the book as a historical narrative of a profound national event suffers from poor workmanship, lack of detail and in some cases a remarkable display of ineptitude. His work ends up smelling like a sponsored political hatchet job or crude agitation propaganda.

To his credit, though, Ndlovu admits that he failed to get “the finer details” of events preceding, during and after the coup. This means he did not do enough to get critical detail of the story he writes about. In other words if it was in the newsroom, as he knows very well, he would have been simply told “there is no story here”.

Indeed, there is no story in his book beyond trying to cast Mnangagwa in a positive frame and help him shape the narrative of what happened, while sanitising his history and rise to power through unconstitutional means before his disputed election in July.

Hence the book presents Mnangagwa as an all-conquering and triumphant warrior, but fails to ask the hard questions on what had led to the fallout with Mugabe and the move of resorting to a coup. Mnangagwa considered himself Mugabe’s son and was a staunch loyalist — he remains a Mugabeist — as he told the writer with the words “I would never ever do anything against him” in his exclusive interview in March.

This would have provided the framework for the writer to ask robust and useful questions, to come up with what he promised, but failed to deliver: “unprecedented insights”.

Mnangagwa was a vital cog in the system that Mugabe built, but there is no mention of this, as the writer is consumed by trying hard to portray the simplistic storyline of an epic journey by an innocent victim of a dictator who is hounded out of the country before returning home in a fortnight to conquer.

There is little or no effort to analyse the characters and to contextualise the succession battle and, instead, an ahistorical narrative emerges that starts the escalation of the succession battle at the Zanu PF youth interface White City rally.

A bit of context would have explained the events leading up to the White City incident where Grace Mugabe was booed and why tempers were soaring at that point. Because of this lack of history and context, the book comes across as a reductionist account.

Another significant defect of the book is what appears as the writer’s flippant attitude towards important historical events and issues. This is evident in his failure to provide history and background on who Mnangagwa is. It gets worse in the chapter that deals with how Mugabe came to the liberation struggle.

On page 112, Ndlovu says: “Being an eloquent speaker, well-dressed and acquainted with British manners, Mugabe was approached by the armed wing of Zanu PF, the Zimbabwe [African] National Liberation Army, to be its face in the peace negotiations with Britain at the Lancaster House talks.”

This is not only uninformed, but scandalous.

Mugabe’s case history, with all its highs and lows, is well-known. This is well beyond revisionism. It is either lack of knowledge or simply crude propaganda.

I am also tempted to believe the author wrote this book with the late Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe at the back of his mind. In that book, the late Holland quotes former minister Moyo narrating how Mugabe joined the struggle.

It seems Ndlovu failed to interpret the story contextually and properly, including the drift on Moyo’s political and academic profile and hence he claims the former minister is called “prof [as] a reference to his political standing rather than any distinguished academic career”.

It must be the other way round. Moyo has a distinguished academic record, but not an outstanding political career. It is easier to argue that Moyo is a distinguished scholar, but a failed politician; not the other way round.

Ndlovu clearly muddles up Holland’s question why Moyo held onto the “professor” title when he was no longer involved in academia, which is different from what he goes on to write about him.

While these are minor issues, Ndlovu does himself a huge disservice by reducing the tragedy of Gukurahundi massacres to mere allegations by “various media reports”.

This is shocking to say the least.

There is a whole array of literature on Gukurahundi and Mnangagwa’s role therein, from the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace report, many non-governmental organisations’ testimonies, declassified material, to works by respected researchers and scholars like Hazel Cameron, Timothy Scarnecchia and Stuart Doran. David Coltart and Judith Todd have also written about the issue.

In fact, there is so much literature on this, including PhD theses and research papers. But Ndlovu simply ignored all that in his apparent bid to rewrite history and whitewash ugly events that do not suit his narrative to portray Mnangagwa as a great warrior who overcame adversity to become president against all odds.

In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is Ndlovu — and not Mugabe — who is actually “in the jaws of the crocodile”, or captured by Mnangagwa.

In the jaws of the crocodile by journalist Ray Ndlovu is published by Penguin Random House South Africa and is available for R245.

Matshazi is Alpha Media Holdings head of digital. This article was first published by the Independent.