Review: Politics and Persuation - Gift Mambipiri in Mukai

The John Eppel Interview

Rosetta Codling

Atlanta Books Examiner

* March 14th, 2011 9:40 am ET

John Eppel is the author of Absent: The English Teacher

*Fascinating note: This is an inspiring interview for our Atlanta teachers. Education and teachers are vital to our pupils 'within and without' the walls of your classrooms.

1. Question: You are a master of creating complex characters, how complex is John Eppel, the man?

Eppel: Not so complex as Hamlet, and not so simple as Polonius. I try to live my life according to three precepts: treat others the way you would like to be treated; make a stand against oppression in all its forms; value the future on a time scale longer than your own. One way, for me, of abiding by the third precept is to plant trees in my yard and all over our fairly extensive school grounds.

2. Question: Which comes first (in your life)… the teacher, the novelist, or the poet?

Eppel: The parent followed by the teacher, followed by the poet, followed by the novelist and short-story writer.

3. Question: What is the role of political satire within the characterization of George. J. George from Absent: The English Teacher (2009)?

Eppel: To succeed, satire should be seriously funny (an oxymoron). The novel is satirical up to the point where George abandons Bulawayo, abandons everything that has made him what he is – everything that goes with being part of a white settler culture in Africa, not least being its clinging to the western canon of literature. Once George walks away with the little orphan girl (his angel of death), the genre changes from political satire to tragi-comedy.

4. Question: Why/how are the novel’s antagonists (the interrogators, the students, and Beauticious) humorous and frightening at the same time?

Eppel: Again, that is satire at work. I wrote this novel in 2008, Zimbabwe’s annus horribilis. As I write, it looks as if 2011 might turn out even worse!  The erstwhile white oppressors of colonial Rhodesia have been replaced by a shockingly greedy few who thrive on cronyism and patronage. The interrogators are those who help maintain this status quo; characters like Beauticious are beneficiaries thereof; and the students… well… students are students, and it doesn’t help if their role models in positions of authority are cruel, greedy, and corrupt.

5. Question: Can you explain the role of Zimbabwean and South African politics in your works?

Eppel: I was born in South Africa, as were my parents, grandparents, and two great grandparents, but I grew up in Zimbabwe where I still live, so I like to think of myself as a Southern African. These two countries have had similar histories, ancient and modern. When I became aware, rather late, I’m afraid, of the injustices of colonialism, apartheid in particular (in Rhodesia they called it ‘separate development’), I dealt with my guilt and my anger by writing satire. My early novels  (I have written seven, one yet to be published), focused almost entirely on ridiculing the white settler community – my people. But over the years following Independence in 1980, it became clear that our new leaders and their followers were just as oppressive as the regime they replaced. No doubt about it – power corrupts. South Africa got its Independence more than a decade later. Under Mbeki and then Zuma, Nelson Mandela’s evanescent ‘rainbow nation’ reverted to the Mugabe model: patronage and cronyism, which enriches the few at the expense of the many. All the hype about Nationalism and Patriotism has blurred the real issue in this part of the world: abject poverty. When it suits them, these governments play the Race card (a certain trump in Africa), but it’s more than race or gender, or xenophobia – it’s Class – as it always has been throughout the world. Zimbabwe has enough mineral wealth alone to provide every one of its 12 000 000 citizens with adequate food, shelter, health and education; yet 80% of Zimbabweans live in abject poverty. The life expectancy of a Zimbabwean woman is 33.5 years – the lowest in the world!  The men and women who run this country, and that includes a number of soldiers, are fabulously rich. So now, my political satire is targeted at anybody who behaves badly – black, brown, white.

6. Question: Is the protagonist George J. George modeled after any particular individual? 

Eppel: He must be one of my alter egos though, as a teacher, I don’t have the discipline problems he encountered.

7. Question: Why devise a methodology of implementing postcolonial role reversal to stress a point in your novel?

Eppel: Well, it’s incongruous, and the incongruity is the basis of all humour. It’s also a domestic echo of what happened (and is still happening) on the commercial farms in Zimbabwe. It might be prophetic. As I write, so-called war veterans and ZANU-PF youths are forcibly occupying businesses and buildings owned by whites and Indians. Why not private houses next? One might have expected this sort of thing to go on shortly after Independence but, for goodness’ sake, that was more than thirty years ago!

8. Question: How symbolic was the fate of the antihero George in the novel?

Eppel: Deeply symbolic. George is a kind of synecdoche, a microcosm, of a subculture that is dying, albeit with much kicking.

9. Question: What is your latest satirical project?

Eppel: You might be interested to know that the University of New Orleans, in collaboration with ‘amaBooks, Zimbabwe, has just published, in their engaged writers series, a book of poems and short stories called Together, which features the late Shona writer, Julius Chingono, and me. That is my latest satirical project. Incidentally, I don’t just write satire. Many of my poems speak with an entirely different voice.

10. Question: Which ‘narrative voice’ have you chosen for your next work and why?

Eppel: Right now I don’t have a “next work”. I am a full-time secondary school teacher and that gives me very little time for self-indulgence. I am also a single parent. This is one reason my novels and stories are all so short – I have to squeeze the writing into the school holidays. When the time comes, though, I’d like to move from satire into tragic-comedy, as I began to do in Absent: The English Teacher.

* Atlanta Books Examiner

Dr. Rosetta Codling is a literary scholar and critic. As a literary critic, her critiques of African and African-American literature have appeared...

Some things never change

Politics and Persuation: Media coverage of Zimbabwe’s 2000 Elections
. Ragnar Waldahl,

Weaver Press, Harare. 2004

By Gift Mambipiri

Reviewed in  Mukai/Vukani Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe

March 2011, Issue no. 56

Through this research, Regnar Waldahl, a professor in the media department at the University of Oslo observed that in the period leading up to the Zimbabwe 2000 elections, both the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Zimpapers served as loyal outlets for Mugabe and Zanu (PF), even though they are owned by the state of Zimbabwe and not Zanu (PF)(129).  Zanu (PF) as a party owns The Voice, which is a weekly publication. The role played by ZBC and Zimpapers as political channels manifested in a number of ways, chief of which was to give Mugabe’s views and actions pride of space whilst saying very little about the MDC and other opposition parties.

Political events were constantly presented from a Zanu (PF) perspective and in ways that brought out the party’s advantages over its election rivals. The other parties were given precisely the opposite treatment; on the rare occasions that they were mentioned, it was always with a negative emphasis on their inability to solve the country’s problems.

Before the 2000 election, The Daily News (private press) appeared to be the state-controlled media’s counterpart, with its clearly negative attitude to the governing party and evident sympathy for the opposition, the MDC. But instead of directly serving as a channel for the MDC, The Daily News was an independent actor, albeit with a definite political preference. The part it played was especially obvious in relation to the two chief opponents in that election. Since it was much more opposed to Mugabe and Zanu (PF) than in favour of the MDC, it devoted much more space to critising the ruling party than to selling the MDC. Its real strategy was showing  how misguided  ZANU (PF)’s policy had been and what undemocratic methods the party was using to stay in power.

The Financial Gazette, the Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard were in similar situations to the Daily News. All three made their political sympathies known by criticizing the party they opposed rather than by promoting the one they favoured (130).   Both Zanu (PF) and the MDC had supporters in the media that pleaded their cause.

An important task for the media under democratic rule is to monitor political life, drawing attention of voters to how the officials are discharging their election mandate. In this respect, there was a huge difference between the pro-government and the pro-opposition media before the election. In the former, there was little to be seen but praise for the authorities… the government was doing as good a job as could be done, and that the reasons for the problems should be sought elsewhere, among white farmers, imperialists and other Zanu (PF) enemies. The pro-opposition newspapers were giving a different impression. They clearly pointed at the deplorable work by government, they said the farm occupations were illegal and the police force was partisan.

Because of the tug of war in the presentation of political views, there were several reports of war veterans and Zanu (PF) youths preventing the distribution of The Daily News and other private publications in the rural areas (137). And one evening in April 2000, a bomb exploded directly beneath Geoff Nyarota’s offices at The Daily News. Nyarota was the editor of The Daily News

Fast forward to 2011, and  you realize some things never change. There have been a number of elections in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2008 and the media houses used the timeframe to  further entrench their positions regarding the government and the opposition parties. We are in 2011, and under a Government of National Unity but already talk of impending elections has thrown media camps back to their old habits. The only change is the replacement of The Daily News by Newsday in the pro-opposition camp. And incidentally, Newsday has a popular section daily – spot the difference - where readers are shown two almost identical photos and are asked to spot the difference. In terms of media practices in Zimbabwe, year 2000 and 2011, I just can’t spot the difference! Nothing has changed.

The book is otherwise an eye opener to media students and those who manage newsrooms.

[words 703]

Review of Politics and Persuasion - Media In Africa

Review Essays
Ragnar Waldahl. Politics and Persuasion: Media Coverage of Zimbabwe’s 2000 Election. Harare: Weaver Press, 2004.

LIKE MOST MEDIA STUDIES of Africa, these focus on a country within each author’s field of specialisation or expertise: they are case studies of the media in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Ghana, respectively. Only rarely do authors take on the whole continent, or even the whole region, and when they do, it is usually as editors of a collection of essays by country specialists (as in Beverly Hawks’s Africa’s Media Image, Preager, 1992) or a collection of conference papers (as in Media and Democracy in Africa, Nordic Institute, 2002) … …

NOWHERE IS THIS more evident than in Zimbabwe, where the independent press has often been the only source of information on government misdemeanours, whether they be corruption, electoral fraud, or state sponsored violence and human rights abuses. As Ragnal Waldahl’s Politics and Persuasion shows, these newspapers were also an important source for understanding what was at stake in Zimbabwe’s 2000 parliamentary election and how the election was carried out in a climate of intimidation and fear, tempered by hope, only to end in widespread dismay and disillusionment. The timing of Waidahl’s study could not have been better since 2000 was a watershed year, preceded by two momentous events in Zimbabwe’s political development: the formation of the first credible opposition party since independence in 1980 (the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, led by the trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai) and the establishment of the first independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, which challenged, and then overtook, its government-owned rival. These and other significant developments are discussed in a survey chapter on Zimbabwe politics and the media since independence. This is followed by an analysis of media coverage of the parties’ positions on such divisive economic and social issues as poverty and unemployment, land ownership and occupation, and “people’s rights” and the rule of law. The three central chapters deal with how the media covered the various problems arising from the implementation of the election, from voter registration to polling day, and the media’s treatment of the politically related violence that occurred during the electoral campaign. In effect, the author asks whether the election was “free and fair.” He also include a profile of Zimbabwe’s media– the government owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and newspapers (e.g. the Herald and The Chronicle), the independent Daily News, and the weekly Financial Gazette, Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard – which would have been better placed at the beginning of the book rather than near the end. And a final chapter places political journalism a Zimbabwean context

Not surprisingly, the verdict of this book and indeed of most election monitors and observers (including those from the Commonwealth, the European Union, and the United States) is that this election was not free and fair. Beginning with a notoriously flawed electoral roll that favoured the ruling ZANU-PF, it was conducted in an state of state-sponsored violence that prevented the MDC from campaigning in many parts of the country (the “no-go” areas) and from placing its electoral agents in many of the polling stations. As the human rights NGOs (particularly the Human rights Forum, which conducted its own electoral survey) confirmed, nearly all the victims of this violence were opposition supporters, who were beaten, tortured or killed by the war veterans and the youth militia deployed by the government to occupy the white-owned land as well.

Nor was there a “level playing field” as far as the media were concerned, since, as the Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project (ZMMP) promoting the ZANU-PF campaign (and much of the remainder to denigrating MDC). However, there was one redeeming feature to this skewed media coverage, as the author points out,  and that was the role of the independent press, especially the Daily News. Unlike all previous elections, this one not only had an opposition party capable of winning a free and fair election, it also had an independent daily to cover both sides of the campaign and to challenge the propaganda of Zimpapers, a task shared with the weeklies and critical monthlies such as Moto and Horizon.

In considering the results of the election, the author concludes that it was a “dead heat.” ZANU-PF had a mere 1.5percent lead in the popular vote and won only four parliamentary seats than the MDC. Even with Mugabe’s power to appoint another thirty MPs (including the chiefs), the ruling party still would not have had the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution. The election also revealed as highly polarized as the media reporting. An overwhelming majority of the Ndebele, urban and youth vote went to the MDC, reflecting an ethnic, generational and modernity divide. However, ZANU-PF could still rely upon the rural areas controlled by the war vets and the militia and also where monitors and observers were thin on the ground. Nevertheless, the obvious question about these opportunities for electoral fraud is not considered here, even though the MDC challenged the results in thirty-eight of the one hundred constituencies by taking their charges of electoral malpractice to the courts before Mugabe packed their membership with his party supporters.

Otherwise, this is a useful and comprehensive survey of Zimbabwe’s 2000 election, which can be supplemented by the ZMMP report on Election 2000, The Media War (2003). However, whether the word “persuasion” should have been included in the title of a book dealing with such a violent election must remain open to question.