Wednesday, 1 March 2006

LONDON | 17 March 2005

The nine lives of Wilf Mbanga

by Blessing Ruzengwe
The London Globe

ZIMBABWEAN JOURNALIST WILF Mbanga has many professional lives like that of the proverbial cat. He gets a blow to the nose, falls down, but then manages to get up, dusts off his coat and runs again.

In 1998, he set up five community newspapers and followed them with a national daily, The Daily News in 1999, published from Harare. But in the same year that it had grown to become the biggest newspaper in the country — surpassing the state-owned Herald — Mr Mbanga quit the group as managing director under circumstances that remain unclear to this day.

Everyone thought he was down and out, but last month Mbanga set up a new weekly political tabloid, while in exile in the UK. The paper, called The Zimbabwean, was launched on 11 February and is targeted at the Zimbabwean diaspora — mainly in Britain and South Africa. He said the paper would end the “news blackout” that has been imposed on Zimbabwe by the government of President Robert Mugabe. Mugabe’s repressive media laws forced the closure of The Daily News two years ago.

“Controversial and unconstitutional legislation enacted in Zimbabwe during the past two years has virtually destroyed freedom of the press in the country,” Mbanga said, equating the pain of lack of information about Zimbabwe to the severe starvation that people in the country have endured in the past two years due to poor agrarian reforms.

But what gives him the drive to get up and go after a blow to the nose? Mbanga makes no secret that his heart ached when The Daily News closed in 2003. “I am still a shareholder,” he said, “but I cannot let obstacles stop me from going forward. I just have to start again. It’s another challenge.”

He says he has no hobbies. The only thing he does in his spare time is read newspapers and watch tele-vision news. His children know him as the newsman. To see him on a Sunday morning they have to go to the bedroom where he will be reading all the newspapers that are available from his local newsstand before getting up very late in the day.

“This is easy for me because I take it as a hobby. Some journalists take the news business as a job and find it very difficult and tiring,” he says.

Another factor that he has failed to mention, but which his friend and journalist colleague Linda Christmas points out, is that Mbanga has suffered personal disappointment at the way President Mugabe has turned out to be.

“This is a man who once adored Mugabe and looked to him as a saviour. He is disappointed and he can see what Mugabe is doing to Zimbabwe and is doing something about it,” Ms Christmas said.

Her observation tallies with Mbanga’s tales of his relationship with Mugabe. He speaks glowingly of how, during his 18 years working for the government-controlled media in Zimbabwe, he always travelled and joked with President Mugabe. He says he even knew Mugabe’s kids and they know him as a regular visitor to the Mugabes’ home but the Mugabe he knew then is not the one he sees now.

Award-winning journalist Sandra Nyaira, who got her first job as a journalist after leaving college from Mbanga and later moved to join him when he set up The Daily News, said it was a forgone conclusion that Mbanga’s paper will be a success. “He knows what he wants and how to get it. Combine that with years of experience working as a journalist and you have no doubt that he will succeed,” she said.

Mbanga rates his chances of succeeding in his venture very highly and points out that there are an estimated 3.5m Zimbabweans living outside the country – mainly in South Africa and Britain – and these people want news about Zimbabwe and about their communities. “The West Africans have their own newspapers and Zimbabweans can do the same as well,” he says.

At least for now Mbanga’s project seems set for success. The paper had an initial print run of 25,000; 10,000 in South Africa, 5,000 in the UK, and 10,000 in Zimbabwe.

Mbanga has fundraised from donors and is soliciting advertising to cover costs in the future. At least thirty Zimbabwean journalists and photographers from around the world have offered to write for the paper free of charge.

Back in Zimbabwe, the government’s Media and Information Commission (MIC) has condemned his paper as “a gigantic media fraud”. Mbanga is not shocked or surprised: “In two years, the MIC has closed down four newspapers. I hope The Zimbabwean does not become the fifth.”

The Zimbabwean is available at WHSmith shops throughout London and costs 50p

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