This week’s BBC South’s Inside Out follows the extraordinary story of a Zimbabwean journalist leading the fight for a free press while in hiding in Hampshire. Wilf Mbanga and his wife Trish are producing Zimbabwe’s main independent weekly newspaper – The Zimbabwean – five thousand miles from the streets of Harare in a small, two-bedroom house in Southampton.
A journalist for 40 years, he claims he’s on a death list in his own country but he’s determined to produce his paper in exile because it is the only mass-circulation alternative to Zimbabwe’s state-controlled press.
Wilf says: “The people of Zimbabwe are being abused, they’ve been killed and traumatised by their own government and it’s time for someone to stand up to a bully and so far I have done it quite effectively.”
Trish adds: “We feel with both of us being journalists we feel it is the only thing we know how to do but we also feel it is the most important thing to do because people desperately need accurate information.”
Supporters of the paper, which is read by as many as a million people in Zimbabwe, believe it has been influential throughout this election year and claim it has been so effective that Robert Mugabe’s government openly denounced it as one of the reasons the President failed to win in the February poll.
Insight Out’s Joe Crowley follows Wilf from his office in Southampton to a secret location in South Africa to visit the paper’s printing press where he and his team struggle against the Zimbabwean government’s efforts to restrict the paper.
The team meet Wilf’s brother Claude and his wife Rose who run the plant. The couple have the utmost admiration for Wilf’s efforts to get an opposition voice heard.
Rose says: “We just feel he has chosen to stand up and be heard and he speaks with the courage of conviction, which is what we would all like to do, but we are too afraid to speak out and be heard by the world and say ‘this is wrong’.”
After fleeing Zimbabwe in 2004 in fear of his life, Wilf and Trish now live in Southampton but his staff on the ground in Africa still live in fear of violence and intimidation.
Wilf’s chief reporter in Harare was hospitalised after being arrested and beaten by security forces while earlier this summer his truck load of papers was hijacked by armed men and destroyed after it crossed the border into Zimbabwe.
As Wilf points out: “Some of our reporters don’t even know each other in case they are arrested and tortured. Last year our chief reporter was arrested and beaten to a pulp but he still wants to work with us. He is dedicated.”
Joe also accompanies Wilf as he seeks out the stories of Zimbabweans arriving in South Africa. They visit the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, the first port of call for many arriving from across the border. This refuge is often home to up to 2000 people, many telling tales of lack of food and persecution.
“It is important to get a feel for what is going on, why these people are leaving Zimbabwe,” Wilf explains.
But Wilf’s voice has not always been one of opposition to Mugabe: “When I first met him in 1974 I was very impressed. He’d visit me and I’d go down to his house, we’d listen to music together, and found out we both liked Elvis, Pat Boone, Jim Reeves and it was good fun; which is strange when you think about Mugabe today.”
Despite the recent power-sharing agreement between Zanu-PF and the MDC, little has changed for The Zimbabwean. Free information and independent media still face restrictions and the high import duties on Wilf’s donor funded publication means that his paper faces an uncertain future.
But as Trish comments: “I just believe the printed word is so powerful because it is information. And if that’s what my whole life is dedicated to, those copies in ink, in print in the archives somewhere will be a record of what really happened.”
And as he watches the lorry carrying The Zimbabwean over the border and into his home country, Wilf sets their efforts in context: “This is part of a much bigger fight for democracy, there are other people doing other things and this is our contribution to democracy in Zimbabwe.”
You can see the full story of The Zimbabwean on Wednesday 8 October on BBC One at 7.30pm or on BBC iPlayer.