Africa / 8 November 2002, 4:17pm / Glynnis Underhill
As a freedom fighter, Wilfred Mhanda helped Mugabe come to power - and came to regret giving him his support. Today Mhanda is the spokesperson for a group of around 5 000 war veterans who publicly denounce the Zanu-PF government of Mugabe, the violent farm invasions and the breakdown of law and order in their country.
"We are the real war vets," he says, a sense of urgency lending emotion to his words.
"The majority of the people who describe themselves as war vets and invade white farms are not really war vets at all. Mostly they are just thugs.
"We fought for freedom and democracy in this country, and what they are doing is quite the opposite."
This small-framed steely war veteran now coordinates the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform, a pressure group formed by war vets in 2000 in protest at the anarchy that accompanied the farm invasions.
"It was the start of the violent farm occupations, and repression and the suppression of people's basic rights. All of this was being done in the name of the war veterans.
"We were extremely unhappy that these people committing these violent acts were using - and destroying - our name, and we felt betrayed that everything we had fought for, namely freedom and democracy, was being eroded. We want to help the nation restore law and order."
Mhanda believes the organisation has survived the political turmoil of the past two years because most genuine liberation war fighters were determined to defend the original ideals for which they fought for the Zimbabwe people.
While he says that most dissenting voices are usually silenced, Mhanda continues to speak out about the atrocities being committed in Zimbabwe, his views strengthened by the belief that sustained pressure will bring about change.
For a man who has already been thrown into prison twice by Mugabe, Mhanda shows little fear for his own safety, openly speaking about his dislike of the repressive regime.
Organising the activities of the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform has become a full-time job for this war vet, who every day runs the risk of upsetting his former comrade.
He appears passionate about the organisation he represents, and the fact that he was in the high command in Zanla and placed in charge of political and military training, with the advantage of advanced strategic training in China, has given him an insight few others have.
While working alongside him, Mhanda found Mugabe to be "arrogant, paranoid, secretive and only interested in power".
The first time Mugabe had Mhanda thrown into jail was in 1977 in Mozambique, when Mugabe persuaded their host, President Samora Machel, that his own Zanla commanders were plotting against him.
Mhanda and 50 other commanders were arrested, and he spent six months in a lice-infested, cramped cell with no toilet.
He was later transferred to a detention camp, where he spent another two years. The Zanla commanders were finally released after a representative of the British Labour Party took up their case.
The last time Mugabe arrested Mhanda was shortly after independence in 1980.
Mugabe prevented some of the war vets from being re-integrated into Zanu, and so Mhanda and 27 of his comrades joined the Patriotic Front, he says.
Joining the Patriotic Front gave him the protection of Joshua Nkomo, who was the minister of home affairs. Shortly after Mugabe was elected, he arrested all 27 of the war vets who had joined the Patriotic Front.
They spent ten days in a cell, the last five on hunger strike. Nkomo managed to have Mhanda and the others freed.
After that, it was impossible to work in Zimbabwe - Mhanda found himself blacklisted at every company he applied to.
He managed to get a scholarship to study in West Germany and left Zimbabwe, intending never to return, he says.
After studying for an MSc in chemical biotechnology, Mhanda was offered a lectureship at the Technical University of Berlin.
But the offer was withdrawn, he believes, because Zimbabwean intelligence told the German government that he was a communist agent.
It was a trick of fate that Mhanda, who had suffered such hardship in the war of liberation, should return home to find a battleground of another sort. He holds Mugabe and his government solely responsible for the chaos and poverty at home.
"Robert Mugabe is a very focused man, that has not changed. But he is losing his grip on power and he is acting in defence of that power. The mask of Robert Mugabe is now slipping, and he is revealing the real man behind the mask."
Mhanda says there are few in power who can be trusted. He protests that most of those claiming to be war veterans and leading the charge to illegally seize farms in Zimbabwe were far too young to have fought. Instead, Mhanda describes them as government agents.
The Zimbabwe Liberators Platform also dismisses the war veterans involved in the farm seizures as cowards for attacking unarmed civilians during peacetime, claiming they had turned from liberators to oppressors.
His organisation says the leader of the farm invasions, the late Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi, and his supporters, a group of not more than 1 500 , do not represent the majority of former freedom fighters.
"Most of those so-called leaders of war veterans have police dockets opened against them, the bulk of criminal activities having been committed over the past two years during the anarchy and violence.
"These so-called war veteran leaders belong in prison.
"They are fugitives from justice who have gained importance, which is preventing them from being sent to jail. They are not being convicted for the crimes they have committed."
Mhanda's recent visit to Cape Town was another attempt to mobilise action against the Mugabe government and to draw attention to the fact that other war veterans, like himself, are fighting for the restoration of the rule of law.
Mhanda believes there could be up to 35 000 war veterans in Zimbabwe, and the numbers joining the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform is growing every day, although it is not
essential for members to be former freedom fighters.
While many of its members are concerned by the victimisation of opposition party activists of the Movement for Democratic Change, the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform is primarily focused on trying to restore a state of law to the country.
The origin of the Zimbabwe Liberators Platform has its roots in the war of independence. Many of these war vets are fighters from the Zanu and Zapu liberation movements, which eventually formed a joint army in pursuit of national unity.
They won the backing of the neighbouring frontline states' leaders, especially the late President Samora Machel of Mozambique, who allowed them to fight from his country. But clashes soon occurred in the Zipa - Zimbabwe People's Army - camps between soldiers of the two liberation movements.
Mhanda and his comrades from Zanu felt it was a lack of political leadership that was contributing to the tensions in the united army. When President Machel asked them to draw up a list of 10 names of potential leaders, Robert Mugabe was at the top of their list.
At the time, Mugabe was under house arrest in Mozambique because President Machel was hostile to his anti-unity sentiments. Mugabe was then freed and came to lead Zanu - but when the soldiers became disillusioned with him, it was too late.
Today Mhanda finds it hard to witness the food shortage in Zimbabwe and describes the situation as "critical".
While the rest of the world realised the Zimbabwe presidential elections held in March this year were a "sham", he said there was little outcry. He appealed to the international community to condemn what was happening in his country, as he said poverty was growing more evident daily.
The numbers of beggars on the streets had grown and basic foods were no longer available at the shops.
"You can't get maize meal on the supermarket shelves, you can't buy cooking oil, you can't get milk. It is just not there.
"How long can the situation continue? There will be social strife. The only way to bring about change is to demand a better life and to stand up for your rights."
Mhanda says there is nothing to justify the violence being perpetrated against Zimbabweans by the Mugabe government. Land could have been redistributed to the people and the violence averted, he says.
"The government is hiding behind the mask of the war veterans, yet it was the government that effected these farm invasions to distract from the worsening economic plight.
"Mugabe's power is slipping, and the government could not be seen to be breaking the law, but it was the government that was the architect of the farm invasions.
"They have used the youth from rural areas and got them to take the law into their own hands."
Most of the farms are now just lying fallow, he says with despair.
"The farms are now completely under-utilised and the people are starving. The new settlers are not even using the infrastructure available to them. They are tilling the land with oxen and donkeys. Commercial farming has been destroyed."
Of the South African reaction, Mhanda says the attitude shown by President Thabo Mbeki and the government was a matter of "extreme concern".
"It is more that the South African government has shown an indifference which has negative consequences for Zimbabwe. There has been a systematic erosion of the rights of the people.
"Their basic rights have been reduced to zero and despite the repressive nature of the government, it is not being held accountable by the international community."
Mhanda says South Africa should be taking a principled stand and openly voice its concern.
"There seems to be a trend in Africa that political rights and democracy are not paramount. The situation South Africa could find itself in could one day be the same as Zimbabwe if a stand is not taken.
"Today it is Zimbabwe, tomorrow South Africa. South Africa must condemn the erosion of basic rights in Zimbabwe in order to lay a solid foundation for its own people's rights."