By Basildon Peta

It was definitely a moment of truth. Although I had always vowed to remain part of the struggle against tyranny and dictatorship in Zimbabwe, circumstances had certainly changed.

The smear campaign was unrelenting. Nothing could have been more dangerous than remaining in a place where there is no rule of law and where the government is expending most of its energy in trying to convince its supporters that you are a major source of all their problems, including spiralling inflation, acute food shortages and widening poverty, to mention but a few.

Although I had resisted all pressures on me to leave Zimbabwe, reality finally dawned.

Unfortunately, the last flight to Johannesburg was only three hours away - not enough time to clear my office, hand in my resignation, get the flight tickets, bid farewell to my parents, pay all outstanding bills and leave everything in order. What followed amounted to abandoning everything I had worked for all my life.

A joke by customer care officials at the South African Airways office did not make me feel any better.

"Do you honestly think they will let you leave? It seems like you didn't read the paper today," said one of the officials, referring to my portrait on the pages of a state-owned newspaper and the hourly state media broadcasts that all branded me a "liar".

The time constraints meant I could pick up only the most essential belongings - a few clothes and my diaries of key sources so that I can continue telling the story of Zimbabwe from the safety of exile.

In the airport lobby, I could not help but feel a bit out of place. The atmosphere convinced me that my story had been a bit overplayed. It seemed like everyone in the lobby had read the newspapers, listened to the news or watched all the state television bulletins and now probably just wanted to attach a face to the demonised name.

A great source of comfort was the fact that the gentlemen and ladies in the airport lobby who I talked to were all friendly.

They certainly would not extend to me the kind of treatment I would have expected from youth brigade militias and other government militants who mete out "instant justice" to much-publicised government "opponents".

Tough questioning by immigration officials about my destination, my date of return to Zimbabwe and the purpose of my visit to South Africa discomfited me a bit. But I heaved a heavy sigh of relief as I walked up the stairs of the small 50-seater jet and took my seat in the back of the plane about 20 minutes later. I even felt a greater sense of relief upon landing in Johannesburg. I had not had decent sleep for four nights.

The gentleman seated next to me joked that he had enjoyed the honour of sharing a seat with a "rock star" but unfortunately had not had an opportunity to have an autograph signed or share a discussion.

After completing the airport formalities, it was like jumping from the frying pan of Harare straight into the fire of the city of gold - Johannesburg.

While I was away from a rowdy political environment, it was now time to be careful of another kind of menace - the hijackers, cellphone snatchers and pickpockets of Johannesburg.

But the yellow VW Beetle that my colleague Alex Duval Smith has availed for my temporary use is another source of relief.

A very comfortable vehicle, of course, which rarely attracts the glare of the hijackers who crave the BMW variety.

Unlike the gloomy faces that have become a permanent feature of most of my struggling countrymen, it was another source of relief to be in a place where I was greeted and hugged by people with smiling faces. The pressures of my night of arrival have at last receded.

The telephone calls from colleagues wanting to confirm my new life in exile are getting fewer and fewer.

How unpredictable life can be. - Foreign Service