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The indicators paint a sad and disturbing picture of Zimbabwe. The once thriving “bread basket” of Africa has become politically and economically paralyzed, with a falling GDP, life expectancy of just 44 years, and a per capita income of only US$274 per year. Yet there is also reason for hope, with a new coalition government in place and promises of reform. For Violet Gonda MC/MPA 2011, a Zimbabwean banished from her homeland for almost a decade, this union of failed policy and dreams for a better tomorrow drive her ambition as a citizen, journalist and Harvard Kennedy School student.
“When I left Zimbabwe it was a beautiful country,” Gonda says, “but the reports that I hear from back home are really depressing. Zimbabwe has changed greatly; much of the country’s infrastructure has collapsed and sadly there are some things that cannot be repaired because the damage has been too much. But I still feel that I can play a positive role in rebuilding and fighting for a better Zimbabwe, when I leave the Kennedy School.”
It was while working for a radio station in London in 2002 when Gonda learned that she was banned from returning to Zimbabwe. SW Radio Africa, Zimbabwe’s first independent radio station, had apparently upset the government with its coverage of the nation’s economic and political troubles. Media restrictions in Zimbabwe forced the journalists to broadcast daily news and current affairs programs on shortwave from London. Gonda was among a group of six journalists banned from returning to Zimbabwe by the government led by President Robert Mugabe.
“At the time we thought that it was just ridiculous. We are citizens of Zimbabwe and no one had a right to stop us from entering our country. In any case, we didn’t think the ban would really last long because Zimbabwe was about to have elections in 2002. The mood in the country around that time was – people were fed up. We thought people were ready for change,” she said. “So we were upset, but not that upset because we thought it was going to be short-lived. Reality is, nine years later 87-year-old Mugabe is still in power and I’m still in exile.”
Gonda harbors ambitions of returning home, but continued political violence and repression of anti-government activists cause her great concern.
“Right now, as we speak…the violence is still continuing. Members of the civil society and opposition members are still being arrested and beaten up.” Gonda says. “The Mugabe regime is unpredictable. It’s like a crocodile that smiles at you but bites you when you get too close. It can pretend to behave sometimes, but when it wants, it can easily arrest you anytime or go on the attack. I don’t trust that things have really changed. Even ministers from the opposition are targeted although they are part of the coalition government.”
The slow pace of fundamental reforms, two years after the formation of the unity government, worries Gonda. The opposition led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai seems to be ineffective, she says, and Mugabe remains firmly in control of the nation’s power structure. As a broadcast journalist, Gonda is especially concerned that Zimbabwe has just one broadcast news operation that is heavily controlled by Mugabe’s party.
For now, Gonda’s life revolves around reading, writing, studying and interacting with fellow HKS students from around the world.
“It’s not just about the academic stuff. I am having an amazing time sharing ideas and experiences with leaders in public and private sectors from all over the world. I have classmates from more than 70 countries, including former cabinet ministers, mayors, doctors, lawyers, bankers, CEOs and fellow journalists,” she says. “It makes a difference when you have colleagues who have gone through similar challenges in their own countries and tell you how they dealt with some of the issues we share. I truly feel at home with the Mason Fellows and the rest of the HKS community.”
Although still unclear as to where exactly she will relocate, Gonda is certain she will return to journalism following her graduation in May.
“You don’t have to be a politician to serve your country,” she says. “I think we also need a very strong media to serve as a check and balance mechanism to make our officials accountable. I long for the day when journalists will really be able to operate freely and hope that one day I will be able to broadcast from within Zimbabwe, not from outside.”