At 10.00am, Derbyshire will go live with the first fully fledged BBC radio show to be made in Zimbabwe in nearly a decade. It’s a broadcast rammed with political and historic significance. Eight years ago, the BBC was kicked out of Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. Barring a few clandestine incursions, it hasn’t been back until July of this year.
In the intervening years, tragedies and abuses went without official coverage by the BBC, from rampant inflation to one of the worst cholera epidemics in African history. Today the Corporation will broadcast the first extended, live radio programme featuring on-the-ground reporting from the country in nearly a decade.
“For eight years the BBC staff were there undercover,” says Derbyshire, 41. John Simpson donned a baseball cap disguise to preview the 2008 elections and Fergal Keane carried out covert interviews as a fake game park tourist.
In situ with a government permission slip in her pocket, Derbyshire will be able to turn the spotlight onto ordinary Zimbabweans. “It’s a brilliant opportunity to be there openly, talking to people openly in shops and schools and hospitals,” she says.
How the visit came about is a tale of diplomacy, politics and football. But first a recap. The BBC ban stems from July 2001, when Rageh Omaar was covering Mugabe’s land redistribution policy, which saw mostly white-run farms being seized by Zanu loyalists.
The tipping point seems to have been a speech in which Mugabe reaffirmed his commitment to the seizures. A BBC report on that speech prompted the suspension of all BBC accreditation. And that, aside from sports coverage of two controversial cricket encounters in 2003 and 2004, was that.
But now there are signs of change. In January, Mugabe was forced into a unity government with Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party, and the first shoots of economic recovery have emerged. Food is back in shops. Inflation “has been tamed,” says Derbyshire. “It was 500 bn per cent. Now it’s three per cent.” In July the BBC was finally granted permission to operate freely in Zimbabwe, although up to now the Corporation has mainly only made news reports.
“We were told they were keen to open up to the media because they want to capitalise on the World Cup in South Africa in June,” says Louisa Compton, the editor of Derbyshire’s show, who realised they could combine the show with an already-planned trip to Friday’s World Cup draw in Cape Town.
“A million phone calls and faxes” later, with negotiations channelled through the BBC’s Johannesburg Bureau, Compton finally got the green light from Zanu-PF, who retain control of the country’s publicity department. “It was the most difficult project I’ve ever organised,” Compton says.
Derbyshire has spent the last few days mugging up on her security skills on the BBC’s hostile environment training for war reporters. This features negotiation tips and a kidnapping scenario. “A bag goes over your face, they put a fake gun to your head and you’re led into some woods where they shout at you for an hour,” she says.
The programme will include live link-ups to listeners at home, including UK-based asylum seekers, and a tour of Mbare, a high-density Harare district that saw forced slum clearances in 2005. Derbyshire will also interview politicians on either side of the coalition. This may yet include Tsvangirai and Mugabe. Either way, Compton says, they will be hearing from those “who are critical of Zanu-PF and the unity government”.
This last point is crucial, since there’s a danger that the whole venture could imply that the country is far more open than it is. Could it be a PR stunt?
“No,” says Derbyshire firmly. “There are no restrictions. We’re going wherever we want.” Nobody has ring-fenced her lines of questioning, she adds.
She hopes the show will act as a staging post in the story of Zimbabwe’s hoped-for new dawn. ‘We want to tell our listeners what life is like there now,’ she says. “They’ve heard about the unity government. But they don’t know what life is like at the sharp end. And that’s why it’s such a fascinating opportunity to go there.”
– Victoria Derbyshire’s show from Zimbabwe is on 5 Live at 10.00am. The Telegraph (UK)