Different colour, same sort of tyranny

Garfield Todd and his daughter, Judith, once fought Ian Smith's regime of white supremacy. Nicholas

If any one example - and there are many - sums up the perverse turnaround that has occurred in Zimbabwean politics since black rule was ushered in at the beginning of the 1980s, then it is surely the plight of Judith Todd and her family.

In 1934, Garfield and Grace Todd arrived in the colony from New Zealand to serve as missionaries. Within two decades, Garfield was prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, as it was then known. Another decade on, and Garfield and the Todds' daughter Judith had become prominent leaders in the battle to thwart Ian Smith's disastrous move to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

In 1965, Garfield Todd applied to leave the country to lead a teach-in at Edinburgh designed to educate British opinion about the iniquities of white rule. He was arrested and detained first in police custody and then under house arrest. Into his place stepped the 20-year-old Judith. The veteran broadcaster Philip Whitehead, who helped organise the Edinburgh event, remembers her as "a star". In the following years of her father's enforced absence, she valiantly took up the cudgel, mobilising domestic opposition against Smith and counselling British officials on the folly of trying to negotiate with the devious leader.

In 1972, father and daughter were again imprisoned. Ultimately, however, Judith was released and given permission to leave the country as "a detainee" - meaning that the press was not allowed to mention her name, and that re-entry into the country would have precipitated her immediate arrest. She spent the next seven years in exile; her father was confined to the family ranch.

When I talked to her early this month, she had just returned from Cape Town. This in itself represented a victory. In June, she had successfully taken the registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, to court over his refusal to renew her passport. Mudede ludicrously claimed that because she had refused to renounce her entitlement to New Zealand citizenship, it was only right that she be stripped of her Zimbabwean nationality. Round one to Todd, then, but the battle continues. Her passport is valid for only a year, and Mudede is fighting the verdict in the Supreme Court, where the judiciary tends to be more compliant with government wishes.

What had she done to deserve this treatment? Judith's offence is that she is one of those dissidents who believe that the current regime should be held to the same notions of democratic accountability, equality in the eyes of the law and freedom of speech as they sought to exact from Smith's apartheid-style administration.

Garfield Todd has not been as lucky as his daughter. In February, he was informed by the ministry of home affairs that he was in effect no longer a citizen of Zimbabwe. Judith explains: "The government has a blacklist - or 'whitelist', if you like - of those whom it has decreed cannot vote. They're all fully entitled to be on the electoral roll, but this makes no difference." The decision is all the more galling when one considers that Sir Garfield was one of the first senators appointed by Mugabe in 1980. Indeed, the leader himself passed through the Todds' mission at Dadaya in the 1940s, when he was a teacher.

Like many whites, the Todds were considerable landowners. In contrast to some of their fellow settlers, however, they were always willing to work with the state to redress the land imbalance. "Although my father did eventually sell the ranch to a nearby friend," Judith tells me, "he had actually tried to offer it as resettlement land. It would have been ideal because it enjoyed a good water supply and bordered on some communal land which was already full to capacity. But the government wasn't interested at the time. Then, about three years later, the local governor got on the phone to the central government and demanded that it be handed over to his control."

The passport episode was not the first instance in which Judith Todd had incurred the wrath of the authorities. She also happens to be a shareholder and director of the Daily News, whose editor has been arrested repeatedly by Mugabe's henchmen, and whose printing presses were bombed by the same lackeys in January 2001. Last October, not long after the Daily News had taken the bold step of serialising Orwell's Animal Farm - the political allegory was lost on no one - the police finally got round to making their move against its executives. Todd and four other board members were questioned over a lawsuit brought by Mutumwa Mawere, a businessman who enjoys close ties to Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. Mawere's agenda is to assume control of the Daily News and impose a more "patriotic" line.

The opposition press, in fact, remains surprisingly vibrant. Despite threats of physical intimidation if you're caught reading a newspaper that criticises the government, and despite hyper-inflation, circulation continues to hold up. Readership of the other major independent newspaper, the Standard, has actually increased by 250,000 in the past six months. Meanwhile, the government mouthpieces - the Herald and Sunday Mail - have witnessed a corresponding decline.

When I visited the country earlier this year, the Standard ran a satirical op-ed feature about a "troubled Central African country" where "the word person was subject to different meanings . . . We fully expect new laws to define person as an individual who supports the ruling Zanu party and holds the most equal of all comrades in the highest esteem." Another columnist picked up on the phenomenon of the Zimbabwean "chicken hawks": the Mugabe hoodlums who sound off in the manner of hardened war veterans despite being scarcely out of nappies when the conflict was raging. On other pages, the paper suggested titles for the thinnest books of all time: Things I Admire About Bob by Tony Blair and How to Retire Gracefully by Robert Mugabe. Hardly side-splitting stuff - but, in the circumstances, it was certainly spirited.

Yet oppression grows. A few days before I was hoping to meet him, Roy Bennett, one of the two white MPs in the Movement for Democratic Change, was arrested along with his wife and several friends. His crime? Taking a Camcorder along to polling stations to film what he suspected were acts of political bribery. This took place during the local elections, in which the MDC had been forced to withdraw more than half its candidates because of widespread intimidation from the free-roaming Zanu-PF militia.

Twenty years ago, Judith Todd could scarcely have believed that she would be living under despotism where the thuggery of the rogue statelet she had just fought would again be the norm. But, as an old comrade said to her the other day, "That was all just good practice for now."