I was staggered by Stephanie Nolen’s report on Zimbabwe’s election in Wednesday’s Globe. It described a public assault on a woman who had volunteered as a polling agent for the opposition MDC, in a village that once supported the Mugabe regime but has grown desperate for change:

“At the front of the room, the youth kicks Ms. Gomba in the face and blood starts to ooze from her nose. ‘That is what you get for trying to sneak the MDC through the back door.’ Then they begin to use the whips. At first Ms. Gomba cries out … the youths hit her harder. Eventually she stops screaming. … The crowd sits silent … Ms. Gomba loses consciousness … her family is ordered to carry her away.”

It was straight news, but it outstripped all the abstruse analysis of experts and academics; plus it had more moral power in its simple record of events than the fulminations of pundits or politicians. Compare it with The Guardian‘s bland: “There are continuing reports of opposition supporters being arrested and attacked.” Or vapid phrases such as U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s, “It’s important that the election not be stolen.”

It’s the opposite of the familiar technique where a journalist “uses” a human example to ease us into a story that quickly shifts to the big picture. There’s really nowhere to go after the image of the woman on the floor. We remain with it because there are no easy (or hard) segues to take us past it. The most you can do is try to frame it a bit.

It’s poignant, for instance, that Zimbabwe borders South Africa, which often seemed like a unique beacon of hope in the past 20 years. It moved from apartheid to legal equality and democracy with little violence. But the dream of South Africa has gone largely unfulfilled. Land reform has barely begun. There is as much economic disparity and violence as ever, perhaps more. There is massive dissent and discontent despite it being, as John Pilger says, one of those “liberal societies with proud constitutions and freedom of speech.” Is this what Zimbabweans are going through hell for — some formal democracy but inescapable deprivation?

Part of the hope of southern Africa was the way all its peoples were ready to aid each other. Tanzania helped Mozambique fight free from Portugal. Mozambique helped Robert Mugabe’s forces turn Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. They all helped South Africa overcome apartheid. It seemed like a more hopeful approach than, say, invading Iraq or Afghanistan with troops from half a world away and imposing democracy. But the hope in that moment of solidarity has also not been sustained.

Thirty years ago, in a hotel lobby in a provincial Mozambican city, I was approached by two Zimbabweans who said they were from Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, then in exile there. They knew I was a writer and wanted to tell me about savage suppression of dissent in their movement. I told others, who seemed concerned but not surprised. Ugly things happened in those struggles. One hoped for better times. In a way, those in prison, like Nelson Mandela, were at least spared some hard compromises and choices.

I don’t imagine it’s easy being out there reporting on all these sad denouements. I always feel relieved to know how grim things are, but that may be a matter of personality. At any rate, I don’t think it’s the task of journalists to uncover hope or encourage the rest of us to keep going. What they do is remind us that the human race has still not come far along the path toward genuinely human societies. Plus there always are sources of inspiration. Not just the woman who took a stand in her village, but also the local colleagues who gather material for Stephanie Nolen, whom she credits for most of what she is able to write but who, for obvious reasons, must remain anonymous.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.