David Caute

Joan of Arc with connections

David Caute

Text settings

Through the Darkness: A Life in Zimbabwe

Judith Garfield Todd

Zebra Press, pp. 460, £

This is a book long anticipated, as much in dread of dire news from Zimbabwe as in expectation of brilliant reporting spiced by mordant wit. It does not disappoint. Judith Todd’s chronicle of Mugabe’s crimes against his people appals, yet the ‘life’ of the subtitle has been a high-spirited crusade for justice, democracy and freedom of the press. Firmly attached to the progressive values of Grace and Garfield Todd, benevolent paternalists engaged in ranching, healing, teaching and politicking in south-west Zimbabwe since 1934, their daughter has proven to be cut from the same cloth. But now they are all gone.

Through the Darkness displays the sly humour long ago apparent in The Right to Say No. (She suggests that Mugabe’s ruling party should have restyled itself ZANU (RF) instead of ZANU (PF) after it nominated several diehard Rhodesian Fronters to parliamentary seats in the gift of the President.) Knaves and hypocrites of all stripes should beware Miss Todd — she takes few prisoners. Thirty-five years later she catches up with the Anglican prison chaplain who lied to her about her father’s attitude to her hunger strike when both had been arrested by the Smith regime. She can write with asperity, occasionally with bitterness, but these pages are overwhelmingly warm and compassionate, particularly towards the black victims of oppression whom she succoured. If Miss Todd were merely a Zimbabwean Joan of Arc now stripped of her citizenship, this book would be less interesting than it is. Even though she mainly confines her narrative to her own experiences, letters and diaries, making no pretence to be writing an academically sourced monograph, she has witnessed and done enough over 40 years to make this an invaluable source book for historians.

Judith Todd has known — taken care to know — a remarkable number of actors in the drama, politicians, journalists, diplomats, priests. She is a collector. Her capacity for cultivating connections, for networking, for having the right number to call, for pulling strings which connect with the salient levers of power, for who’s whoing, informs her entire narrative. She asks herself ruefully whether she didn’t make the mistake of a lifetime in 1960 when, as a politically conscious schoolgirl, she allowed Robert Mugabe to pass her on the steps of a Salisbury post office without introducing herself. Yet it was her capacity for friendship and personal loyalty that brought on the most traumatic crisis of her career (as her extended account in these pages confirms). Returning from political exile in 1980, she was appointed director of the Zimbabwe Project (ZP), an aid-and-development organisation with Catholic connections. The primary task was resettlement and rehabilitation of former freedom fighters, the ‘boys’. But which ‘boys’ — ZANU (mainly Shonas) or ZAPU (mainly Ndebele)? Todd insists, convincingly, that ZP funds were distributed proportionately to the size of each group, and that she was impartial in head and heart. But the civil war in Matabeleland and the brutal, genocidal operations of 5 Brigade (the Gukuranhundi), forced her into increasingly high-profile protests on behalf of imprisoned friends in Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU facing treason charges.

A personal crisis was inevitable. At a time when aid agencies and pro-ZANU academics were counselling a softly-softly approach to the government, Judith Todd refused to turn a blind eye or seal her mouth. (A blind eye is something she lacks.) One shocking consequence to herself as a woman is described with stunning brevity and restraint. Reading it, I had to put the book down. Meanwhile, certain members of the Catholic Institute for International Relations and of the ZP’s steering committee wanted her to resign as director. In these pages she settles accounts with all of them, adding that it took her many years to realise ‘that I had simply been a scapegoat, used, abused, almost overcome, but because of the faithfulness of our trustees ...I had managed to survive’. The key trustee was her father, who took her case all the way to Mugabe.

In fact she maintained a high political profile during her remaining five years as director of the ZP. When Enos Nkala began banging ZAPU’s newly elected MPs into prison in 1985, she redoubled her lobbying on their behalf, constantly buttonholing government ministers she knew, liaising closely with human rights bodies like Amnesty, and briefing journalists. More dubious, in my view, was an episode here described with good humour — her willingness in 1987 to have her name put forward by Nkomo as a ZAPU nominee for parliament.

This was a new category of non-constituency MPs elected by nobody, to be stitched up by the ruling élites of the new Unity Pact. Yet this book is remarkable for its sensitive probing of power hunger, corruption, elitism, double standards, and the astonishing capacity of yesterday’s victims to turn into accomplices of oppression. Anyway, Mugabe was having none of it, preferring to appoint his own stooges.

One minor disappointment: I would have liked more about the recent onslaught on the remaining post-colonial white landowners, a prime cause (we are often told) of the country’s rapid decline into early mortality, universal unemployment, hyper-inflation, mass exodus. Judith Todd does describe the corruption and chaos involved, how the ‘chiefs’ have expropriated land, cattle and machinery intended for the people of the communal lands; and she is no doubt right to be sceptical about the credentials of many ‘war veterans’ who have vanguarded the attacks on white farms. Even so, there is a more fundamental moral issue to be debated. The titles to these prime pastures and high-altitude plantations originated in naked colonial seizure; it took a supposedly radical party 20 years to fulfil pledges made to the rural masses during the Chimurenga, the war of liberation.

Judith Todd’s position is clear about suitable punishments for Mugabe — human rights charges, sanctions and the international ostracism currently demanded by the heirs of the empire which grabbed the lands north of the Limpopo. She registers frustration with the indulgent posture of South Africa and other neighbouring states, their toleration of Mugabe’s rigged elections, police brutality and cruel destructions of shanty towns, the Murambatsvina. She is absolutely right, but so long as the anti-Mugabe campaign is led by the white destroyers of Iraq, we can expect African and Arab powers to show them the lake and where to jump.

In later years Judy fought a losing battle for the independence and integrity of Zimbabwe Newspapers. Arrested at least once, she also had to witness her parents’ despair as the country declined into crude dictatorship. Towards the end of her life a frail Grace Todd took Judy aside and informed her that her beloved Gaar had been kidnapped by war veterans. ‘The man now looking after her so tenderly and lovingly was an impostor ...Where was [Garfield], and how could we rescue him?’ After Grace died a lonely 92-year-old Sir Garfield (the real one, probably) went to record his vote and was turned away. Then they took Judy’s citizenship and passport. No one interested in southern Africa should fail to read this book.

The discount offers on books in this section remain open for three months from date of publication.