United States national Prof Richard Elfers recounts his ordeal at Beitbridge border post where he was held for taking a picture of President Robert Mugabe’s protrait.
I was excited about visiting Zimbabwe. I had traveled to South Africa previously to visit my daughter, Betsy, and her family, but this was my first time to another African country.
While we were waiting in various lines at the Zimbabwe-South African border, I decided to to take a picture (of a picture) of Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. Big mistake!
The immigration officials at the crossing noticed my action. I was taken to their police station on the grounds. I was told that picture-taking was not allowed at the border (though there were no signs saying so). The police officer acknowledged that there were no signs forbidding the photographs; they hadn’t gotten around to putting them up.
I was asked to sit down and answer some questions, like why I was taking pictures, who I was with, where I was from, what my home address was, and passport information. I pleaded ignorance to the rules of not taking pictures. I have found the best practice is to act submissive and naive when dealing with police from any country, including my own.
My impression was that he was subjecting me to interrogation either to satisfy his irate boss or to justify his job.
I asked the officer who was interrogating me if I was going to be arrested. He smiled and said “no,” but said I would have to delete the pictures from my camera in his presence, which I did.
He then asked me if I had sent any pictures out on the Internet and I assured him I had not because I had no access to wi-fi. He then let me go with an escort to the car to check the registration.
The man who accompanied me to my car asked me what I thought of Donald Trump. I got the impression the officer was curious to learn whether we actually had freedom of speech in America. Of course, criticizing the president is a national pastime in the U.S., no matter which party holds office. In Zimbabwe, criticizing President Mugabe can mean imprisonment.
Fortunately, I was smart enough not to criticize Mugabe.
I turned the question around and asked him what he and most Zimbabweans thought of our president. He said that, based on news reports, the U.S. news media deeply disliked him and complained a great deal about him. He also commented that Trump had not spent much time or attention on Zimbabwe since attaining office. I said I did not like Trump much, which brought a smile to his face.
Zimbabwe was formerly known as Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe has been president since 1980 when the country gained independence from its status as a colony of the British Empire. For many years, the country was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa. Mugabe changed that to a status of a food importer. He did this by expropriating white farmers’ land (the chief food producers) and giving it to his political cronies.
Inflation got so bad at one point – due to mismanagement and corruption – that the government started using U.S. dollars as their medium of exchange. Many political opponents who dared to question Mugabe’s leadership have disappeared. Others have fled the country.
This experience taught me the value of our First Amendment rights, the separation of powers and the checks and balances that we in America, including myself, take for granted. Zimbabwe is just one of many nations denying its citizens this power and most Americans are ignorant of what we have.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College. This article was first published by The Courier Herald.