Tsvangirai ghostwriter spills the beans

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The late MDC President Morgan Tsvangirai

Cooroy is a quiet town in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast of Australia, about one hour’s drive north of Brisbane. Its name is based on a local Aboriginal word for “possums,” many of which still bother residents, stealing fruit from their gardens and waking them in the night with scratching and grunting. I worked from a small home office on the outskirts of town and, from there, I conspired for the demise of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe by pushing a conspiracy.

Or so they said.

Since early in 2008, I had been working as an international media advisor to the Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party in Zimbabwe, on a freelance, pro-bono basis. I first made contact with the MDC camp through an NGO, and then through a political activist outside of Zimbabwe.

Some years earlier, I had set up a company called Random Ax Media, which was designed to help worthy causes get media exposure. My tagline was “PR 4 Good.” I had worked with the US-based Burmese democracy movement, then in exile, and the Western Saharan independence movement, as well as with figures such as former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel.

I had concluded that mass news media was becoming dominated by the PR output of those who had the budget to pay for it. The rise of PR and its place as an increasingly attractive career choice for those coming out of journalism schools and flaming out on the freelance ideal skewed the frame in which mainstream news media operated.

At the time (as now) news organizations were rapidly decreasing in size and resources. As a freelance journalist, I knew from personal experience, and also from the anecdotes of fellow writers, that journos were being pushed ever harder to produce more copy, to fill more platforms in a 24/7 news cycle. As a result, most were obliged to rely heavily on PR output, with readymade copy, existing quotes, and workable news angles.

I was trying to fill a gap I felt the media was refusing to fill. I felt, and still feel, that the media consumer is vastly unaware of how much copy is promoted, pushed, or otherwise sold by PR operators on behalf of their clients, and, therefore, how much news actually functions in a permanent imbalance favoring those with deep pockets.

My specialty was writing and getting comment pieces or op-eds published in major global newspapers, in the name of my clients. I had done this for Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-T.

Because I was generally at some remove from my clients, I had to get up to speed on events related to them quickly. It was also vitally important to establish my clients’ voice. Ghostwriters need to be able to set a client in the debate; where should they inject themselves into a given argument or issue? What should they emphasize and what should they downplay?

Op-eds are a form of ghostwriting that, while not unknown, are quite uncommon in this context. Generally, leading figures have a media staff who, being in day-to-day contact with the “talent” or “byline” can navigate issues and produce the right words. Speech writing is the most usual form of this practice. But it is relatively rare that national political parties, for instance, or leading human rights figures would farm out the drafting to outsiders.

Most of my clients, though, had no money for a standard professional staff. Without one, it was clear they were struggling to be heard in the news media. That’s where I came in.

While I always chose my clients carefully, selecting those who broadly reflected my own pro-human rights and pro-social justice views, I wrote for them, not instead of them. It is the client who must stand and give the speech or whose name is on the comment, they who must suffer its consequences, and they who, it must be said, get the plaudits.

There is a delicate balance maintained by many ghost-writers who have gone before; they can give their heart and soul to their work, but still be prepared to take no credit for it. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen: I may write the words, but JFK was always the author. Other personal heroes like Don Watson and Graham Freudenberg, ghost-writers for Australian Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam, respectively, had written some of my country’s most memorable and inspirational lines, yet never saw themselves as owning them. I, too, was happy to stay anonymous.

Politicians like the late Morgan Tsvangirai are different—clearly more inclined to take their place at the front of the crowd, in full glare of the lights and unprotected from the dangers, as I saw it, of political notoriety. From a simple upbringing in (Buhera), a rural area in south-central Zimbabwe (known as Rhodesia when he was born in 1952), Tsvangirai started working in a textile factory as a young man and then worked in nickel mines, where he rose into middle management.

I saw him as something of an imperfect hero in a land where popping your head above the parapet could get it knocked off. His character seemed admirable in that he stepped into the historic moment presented before him—an act that took courage and dedication—and maintained his line, despite the obstacles.

Some viewed him, rather, as flaky, organizationally inept, and philandering. He may have been all these things, but I was moved by his willingness to take the hits for his cause, sometimes literally.

I recognized in him an important voice in the fight against Mugabe’s seemingly unending dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The world, I surmised, needed him to state the alternative, to rally the so-called international community, and to publicize Mugabe’s violence and lies.

The logistics of writing for Tsvangirai were difficult. There was no reliable email in Zimbabwe at the time and all communication had to be done by phone, which itself was unreliable and often failed. I never actually spoke to Tsvangirai or went to Zimbabwe. I operated through a figure in the MDC-T (the Tsvangirai-led breakaway from the rump of the MDC), recommended by a number of pro-democracy sources and who was later to become a government minister. At the time, this contact asked not to be named, for safety precautions.

He would, he told me, check with Tsvangirai and approve the article, or note where it needed editing.

I would call him and read drafts over a scratchy line. His voice was often tense; his tenor told me that our work must be done in the strictest confidence.

Due to the eight-hour time difference, these calls often took place at odd hours. Sometimes I would sleep on the floor of my office in anticipation of our next appointment.

In May 2008, on this basis, I had written a piece that had been published in the Australian newspaper The Age, with Tsvangirai’s byline. The piece was critical of lax action on the part of the international community regarding the result from the national elections in March, in which Tsvangirai received more votes than Mugabe, but not enough, according to the local electoral commission, to win the presidency. As a result, a “presidential run-off” was set for June 27.

“What we call for is a means to remove the defeated Mugabe,” it read. “This is a job for the UN, above all.

“It may seem odd that we are calling for what sounds like a peacekeeping operation in Zimbabwe, but this is in effect what we seek. For Zimbabwe is under attack from within. It is being eaten away by the forces of the former government, and what peace there is needs to be nurtured and developed. There is no hope for Zimbabwe otherwise.”

The formal call for peacekeepers was in the air, and here, it was intended to focus the minds of the international community, to press for actual action, and to protect innocent Zimbabweans.

Tsvangirai and the MDC-T maintained the case for peacekeepers in subsequent interviews and press conferences.

But as a rotten situation turned putrid, and more lives were lost to the violence, Tsvangirai pulled out of the race days before the June presidential run-off, believing that voters were at risk of violence when attending polling booths. He holed up in the Dutch Embassy in Harare and was more or less incommunicado.

As the June 27 date approached, I knew Tsvangirai needed to keep his voice heard. Having pulled out, he no longer had a formal position, but his presence was required across the media to highlight Mugabe’s outrageous usurpation of democracy.

I was on vacation with my family in Cambodia at the time. I had been trying to call my contact in Harare from our hotel in the northern city of Siem Reap, but failed to get through. Time was running out and the election was approaching. At last, late one night, I reached him. He agreed we needed to get something in the press just before election day.

As my wife and daughter slept, I called The Guardian in London and was commissioned by then-Comment Editor Libby Brooks—who I had worked with before—to write something for the paper with Tsvangirai’s byline.

I worked through the night, got approval from Harare after a series of unanswered calls and crackly connections, and sent the draft off to Brooks, who said she’d run the piece in the next issue. I went to bed. It was June 25, two days from the election.

I awoke to emails from Brooks, telling me how pleased she was with the article and how the piece “got great play over here.” Through the morning, I was treated to the words I wrote being repeated back to me in TV and radio news broadcasts and on news sites from all over the world.

CNN said: “‘We do not want armed conflict, but the people of Zimbabwe need the words of indignation from global leaders to be backed by the moral rectitude of military force,’ Tsvangirai wrote in Wednesday’s edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.”

The Hindustan Times wrote: “The opposition leader had said in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the United Nations had to go further than verbal condemnation of President Robert Mugabe and move on to ‘active isolation’ which required ‘a force to protect the people.’ .

The New York Times reported: “‘Zimbabwe will break if the world does not come to our aid,’ he (Tsvangirai) wrote in The Guardian newspaper in London.”

One reason the article was so widely covered is because a formal call from a recognized political figure for intervention from UN peacekeepers in their own country was rare, if not unprecedented. In hindsight, it was probably naive to call for a move beyond rhetoric and into action. I had thought the moneyshot term, calling for UN Peacekeepers, was strong enough to make a point, but vague enough to avoid detailing it. I also wanted to pressure the Mugabe government, and perhaps oblige it to back off.

Asking for peacekeepers from outside was not an isolated call: Figures such as Desmond Tutu had also made the argument for international peacekeepers in Zimbabwe at this time. The US Ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, told media in June the Security Council was considering “further steps” in Zimbabwe, an oblique reference to possible intervention. The Security Council had just condemned the violence in a unanimous and unprecedented vote. And, in any case, there were reports that some African countries, such as Tanzania and Angola, were indeed mobilizing peacekeepers to send to Zimbabwe.

Surely then, I thought, the world would focus on this critical situation and lives would be saved. I had bolstered my profile with a major newspaper, enhancing my ability to get future work published for my clients. And my client in this case must have been pleased, since I had given his case such volume and reach.

An email from The Guardian later in the morning informed me that Tsvangirai’s office was saying the article was “wrong” and “causing problems.” The Comment page editor was in a tizzy and the newspaper ethics committee had been mobilized. I felt crushed.

My first impulse was to check everything. Doing so was important for the credibility of Tsvangirai, who, as the only viable opposition to Mugabe, was crucial to Zimbabwe’s future. There had to be an explanation. The PR in me kicked in: We needed to find a credible counter-narrative to remove the stain of potential disaster from me and from them.

But I was also searching myself, wondering if I had overstepped. Had I gotten something wrong? Was I in over my head? Was I a naive do-gooder? I had never even been to Zimbabwe. What right did I have to wade into the country’s crisis, imperiously assuming it needed my help? Could I, far removed in my little office on the other side of the world, through my actions cost innocent lives?

I was aware that Tsvangirai was regularly accused of being a Western lackey, a claim fomented by Mugabe himself. This snafu was going to make him look like a puppet with his strings exposed.

And, professionally, this was possibly fatal. Could I recover?

I told my editor at The Guardian that I stood by my work and my belief that it had been approved by Tsvangirai. I vowed that it was my belief the article was authentic. I argued that he had called for peacekeepers before.

Brooks told me they would have to pull the article online and issue an explanation. I was told the paper’s then-reader’s editor, Siobhain Butterworth, would require an interview with me for an article she was writing on the matter.

Overnight on June 25, The Guardian Letters page ran a statement from Tsvangirai. Its opening paragraph read, “An article that appeared in my name, published in The Guardian…did not reflect my position or opinions regarding solutions to the Zimbabwean crisis. Although The Guardian was given assurances from credible sources that I had approved the article this was not the case.”

While the letter’s explanation of Tsvangirai’s position seemed based more on semantics than any definitive difference to the op-ed, I died a little with each word I read.

In situations like this, with a PR advisor from outside the client organization, it’s imperative that the client and advisor work together seamlessly. I had a feeling the dynamic between me and Tsvangirai had broken down, that I hadn’t been told everything. Perhaps my man in Harare didn’t have all the facts, either.

Who was he, anyway?

In 2008, Eliphas Mukonoweshuro was the MDC-T’s official International Affairs spokesperson. He went on to become the Public Service Minister in the National Unity Government that the MDC and ZANU-PF eventually manufactured in those days following the 2008 political crisis.

Mukonoweshuro, from the southern Zimbabwe province of Gutu, the same part of Zimbabwe Tsvangirai came from, was a student activist in the 1970s and had been arrested at the time for his political views. He studied political science at the University of Zimbabwe, in Sierra Leone and in the UK. He became a professor of political science at UZ and went on to be the dean of Social Studies there. He joined the MDC in 1999 as the secretary for international affairs and international co-operation. It was from that position that he came to be a special advisor to Tsvangirai, in 2008. After that year’s selections, he was named minister for public service in the National Unity Government.

I wrote three op-eds for Mukonoweshuro with his byline, for The Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, and The Australian. I penned others in The Washington Post, The Age, and The Guardian (prior to the June article) for Tsvangirai, working through Mukonoweshuro.

Mukonoweshuro died in August 2011, at 58, after a short illness in a South African hospital. We never met.

When we were working together via odd-hour phone calls, he asked that I keep his name confidential, at least, I believe, until after the elections. He claimed there were already death threats against him and that, should it be known he was liaising with a foreign advisor in this way, his life would be in danger. He didn’t even want some people within the MDC to know. When I met with fellow MDC member, and later Senator David Coltart (who I had also worked with around the election) while he was in Australia sometime after these events, he asked who the contact was. I said I couldn’t tell him, although I trust Coltart implicitly. I had made a promise.

For this same reason, I felt I had to take the rap on The Guardian article and not draw Mukonoweshuro into it. Through the whole saga, as I was labeled a foreign spy, conspirator, and worse, I never named him. Even when I spoke with Tsvangirai’s English press secretary in Zimbabwe, I kept his confidence.

I feel now, it is time for his courage to be honored.

I did ring Mukonoweshuro as soon as the editor informed me of Tsvangirai’s volte-face, and he swore a blue streak at ZANU-PF, Mugabe, and his henchmen. He confirmed with me that Tsvangirai was aware of The Guardian article before it went to press and that he, Mukonoweshuro, was satisfied it had been signed off by the MDC-T leader.

None of this helped me much, as my name had already become mud in certain circles in Zimbabwe—including in Tsvangirai’s own office, I believe—and media outlets gleefully reported on The Guardian‘s apparent error.

The Guardian itself chose not to go at the situation harshly. Off-the-record talks with the newspaper left me with the impression that they backed my story and knew of Tsvangirai’s phlegmatic reputation, and acknowledged the highly fraught context in Zimbabwe.

On June 26, 2008, then-Comment Editor Toby Manhire ran an explainer.

In an email interview for this article, Manhire, now no longer with the newspaper, notes that there wasn’t really a protocol for such a situation at The Guardian.

(A)s with anything we would expect to be satisfied that what we were publishing was indeed the work of the bylined author. In that particular case….there was no need to do fresh checks on the provenance and authenticity.

As I recall it was a straightforward decision to remove the piece from the site and publish a note in the paper when Tsvangirai said he had not approved the article….

We should always be satisfied that the authorship is authentic and that there is no ulterior motive on the part of the third party, and I was on this occasion. Is it fair to say that thereafter I set the bar higher on those fronts? Yup.

As the story unfolded, Butterworth called me in Cambodia and spoke with me about the incident. Her article distanced the paper from the op-ed and said that withdrawing it was the right thing to do. I thought it was fair.

“With some hesitation I accept that this type of ghostwriting can be justified,” she wrote, “particularly when political instability means that it is otherwise difficult for political leaders to publish opinions in major newspapers under their own names.”

Other publications were not so evenhanded, particularly those in the explosive context of Zimbabwe. One said I was caught out “writing cobblers and passing them off as genuine Tsvangirai pieces”.

My name was claimed to be a pseudonym for an MI6 or CIA operative—and even became a byword for Western meddling in Zimbabwe’s affairs and a case study in how Tsvangirai was unfit to lead the country. “How many Roses will be giving them (the MDC-T) direction in times of national crisis?” queried one commentator.

I became concerned about just how far Zimbabwe’s black-ops arm would reach. I knew it was ubiquitous inside the country, but, Cambodia? It’s a long way, but I felt unsafe in a country that has its own issues with strong-arm rule and government goon squads.

In the end, it appears Mukonoweshuro was not privy to important negotiations between the MDC-T and ZANU-PF at exactly the time The Guardian article was published.

Shortly before the June op-ed, Tsvangirai had holed himself up in the Dutch embassy in Harare, seeking temporary refuge and claiming he and his supporters’ lives were in grave danger. Tsvangirai was more or less incommunicado during this time. It appears communication between him and Mukonoweshuro was not as functional as it had previously been, perhaps understandably. So, it may have slipped through.

But I have another theory. I believe at that time, Tsvangirai and Mugabe had just begun talking behind the scenes about the National Unity Government concept. Mugabe, no doubt feeling the heat from the international community (possibly due to my work with Tsvangirai and Mukonoweshuro) and also from within his own political compound, was shifting ground on his hardline, no-negotiation approach (although there were rumors that he had always been willing to talk). Tsvangirai, for his part, recognized an opening in the wall and busily worked to squeeze through and make it big enough for his vision of a democratic Zimbabwe.

The National Unity Government went into effect in September 2008. An attempt to head off opposition anger at the recent elections, the new government left Mugabe in position as a very hands-on president, but he conceded the prime minister position to Tsvangirai, and two deputy positions to other opposition leaders.

The agreement was met coolly among some in the international community who felt that Mugabe had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. I wrote another op-ed for Coltart that was published in The Washington Post on Christmas Eve 2008, supporting the new government. “Yes, the proposed transitional government has warts and blemishes, but this is not a beauty contest. It is time to move forward. This is the only viable, non-violent option.”

I wondered if those Zimbabwean democracy supporters, many of whom roundly supported the NUG, knew the role this Rose had played in helping to shape an outcome they actually wanted.

The NUG was the result of fraught and even deadly negotiations. Publicly, Tsvangirai had rejected calls to join talks convened by then South Africa President Thabo Mbeki designed to initiate a peaceful political settlement in Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai must have been under some pressure to not be seen as caving in to Mugabe’s sweet offerings of high office. Violence continued and reached a new nadir as Gift Mutsvungunu, a high-up MDC official, was found tortured to death on July 10. Mukonoweshuro’s fears seemed more real than ever. Navigating these deadly political shoals, Tsvangirai officially entered his party into talks in Pretoria, South Africa, on July 25.

My theory is that those talks had been going on for some weeks. I believe that behind the scenes, talks between Mugabe and Tsvangirai started at the time The Guardian article was published. It makes sense that Tsvangirai, probably as a condition of Mugabe to enter discussions, would have to backtrack on the call for peacekeepers; he was negotiating to be prime minister, his first act couldn’t be to admit the country he was about to govern was effectively ungovernable.

If that is the case—and to my knowledge there is no formal or official corroboration of my theory—then Tsvangirai did the right thing in leaving me out to dry. He had bigger issues on his agenda, and I was simply collateral damage in the wider cause. I certainly don’t see my wellbeing as above that of the millions of people in Zimbabwe who’d suffered enough and deserved some relief. I was a tiny speck on the vast, pustular rump that was Zimbabwe in 2008. As a ghostwriter, I had to expect that.

Back in Cooroy some months later, things had died down and I was a minor footnote in that period of Zimbabwe’s history. Coltart was in Australia again, and I helped organize some local media for him during his visit. He gave me a small gift. It was a Zimbabwe banknote for 10 billion Zimbabwe dollars. Given the rampant inflation, it would have bought no more than a loaf of bread. I kept it as a souvenir. It was all I ever got paid. I still haven’t made it to Zimbabwe.

By James Rose. This article was published by the Columbia Journalism Review