IT all started in our Tuesday day-end planning meeting on how to cover Job Sikhala’s release from Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
This was after a Harare magistrate had earlier on handed down a two-year wholly suspended custodial sentence on him.
While making the ruling, the magistrate indicated that Sikhala would walk out the country’s high-security detention centre a free man on Wednesday morning. That changed.
Momentarily, The NewsHawks team was alerted that one of the country’s longest-serving modern-day political prisoners who had been in pre-trial detention for 595 days had been freed under the cover of darkness.
Sikhala was charged and convicted for inciting public violence in the aftermath of the murder of opposition activist Moreblessing Ali whose killing was suspected to have been politically motivated. The state disputes these claims.
Ali’s killer has since been convicted and sentenced, but her family insisted that Sikhala’s release was the only precondition for the burial of her body lying in a public hospital morgue in Harare.
Immediately, contingency plans had to kick in. Speed and efficiency became the game plan.
In haste, the news crew left its offices for Chikurubi, a security zone that has been described by many as a hell-hole.
The facility which has been home to the 1970s liberation war heroes has ironically been used by the post-colonial governments of the late Robert Mugabe and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa to intimidate and silence dissenting voices.
A rush hour drive along Arcturus Road — which leads to the detention facility — ordinarily would have been hectic and we only had a sigh of relief when we made a turn into a resurfaced road which takes one to the holding cells.
Upon arrival at the prison, two cars were parked outside—a black sports utility vehicle with tinted windows and a white station wagon.
Sikhala was nowhere to be seen and there were no journalists interviewing him or supporters to welcome a politician who has been arrested countless times since he joined mainstream politics in 1999.
Prison guards manning the main entrance of the prison closely watched as we parked adjacent the two cars.
They did not enquire why we were there. Instinctively, we then called Sikhala’s lawyer Harrison Nkomo to enquire on his whereabouts. Nkomo and Sikhala were both seated in the same car getting ready to drive off home.
It is at this moment that we learnt that passengers aboard the white vehicle included Sikhala’s son and allies. We were good to go.
After exchanging pleasantries with the freed politician — who was clad in a white golf shirt and greyish joggers and his lawyer who looked dapper in a black Italian-designed suit — we knew that a scoop was awaiting us.
Harnessing the power of technology, we live-streamed the exclusive interview on our Facebook page and, like most bona fide journalists, being first to break the news in real time was quite some heart-warming experience.
Just before going live, Sikhala expressed mixed emotions on his release. On one hand he was delighted to taste freedom after nearly 20 months of incarceration. On the other he feared for his life.
“I think they (government agents) wanted to abduct me after throwing me out of prison. I am so grateful that when I contacted my lawyer Harrison, he got here in no time,” Sikhala said.
When asked to share his feelings soon after his release, Sikhala said his arrest was political.
“Absolutely, this was an act of persecution. What you have to understand is that if somebody is convinced to say that I’m suffering for a just cause, I am not feeling anything,” he said.
“These people who have kept me in this place for a long time should understand that my determination to pay any price for the love of this country is beyond reproach.”
During the interview, which lasted seven minutes, more people, including an elated Doug Coltart, a human rights defender, drove to the prison.
Coltart was clearly over-joyed and was captured during our livestream expressing his emotions.
That was not the case for other unknown sympathisers who wished Sikhala well but were uncomfortable to be in front of the camera, understandably so given the country’s history of intimidation, repression and brutality.
Sikhala said his detention had given him the resolve to continue fighting for a modern democratic state where fundamental rights are upheld and the rule of law observed.
“When you get into a very difficult situation, a proper revolutionary must be able to adapt to any situation,” he told The NewsHawks.
“I had to make sure that I gather mental strength for me to be able to sustain myself in this situation.”
He said he is now awaiting judgements for three other cases which also led to his incarceration, adding that nothing will distract him from his cause. The rulings are expected to be handed down this month.
“I already have their scars so that whatever will happen, I am prepared for anything that will happen,” he said.
“I need to take time for me to take a proper reflection because it is almost two years when I was away from the people of Zimbabwe, when I was away from my family, when I was away from my job. I need some time to reflect on what is best for me to do,” he said after being quizzed to comment on his political trajectory.
“I am going to have a state of the nation and international affairs [speech] on where I stand in all this chaos that has been happening during my absence. I owe an obligation to the people of Zimbabwe and also the world at large for them to know what I am thinking vis-a-vis issues that have been happening in my country.”
At the end of the first interview outside Chikurubi, Sikhala jumped into Nkomo’s car. We followed.
The drive: Decoys and suspicion
After driving for a few minutes along Arcturus, a speeding police car with its unmistakable beacon lights drove past our cars.
Nkomo pulled over and stopped for a moment to observe, suspecting that the worst could still occur after Sikhala’s release.
Kamfinsa shopping centre was the next stop, but this time to refuel Nkomo’s car and obviously monitor if there were any more cars closely following the small entourage. We also topped up and set off for Chitungwiza.
Nkomo then headed all the way to Samora Machel Avenue from Greendale Road before turning left into Glenara Avenue which would later take him to the road which leads him to his home located in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza.
Again, Nkomo made several stops in between whenever it appeared that unfamiliar cars were driving too close for comfort.
Along Seke Road, Nkomo pulled over at a popular watering hole where the convoy, which at this stage included Coltart’s vehicle, stopped.
Nkomo offered Sikhala a drink, but he chose to have some potato crisps.
As he waited for his order, we had a chat with him during the nearly 20-minute stopover at Paramount Signature, a popular watering hole in the capital. The home-coming drive continued.
As the one-hour mark of driving, decoys and everything in-between lapsed, we finally reached St Mary’s turnoff.
Unbeknown to us was what awaited Sikhala given that his release had been conducted away from the public glare.
One cannot journal the history of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics without mentioning St Mary’s. This is where Sikhala built his career as a firebrand opposition lawmaker and ruffled feathers along the way.
In St Mary’s he also experienced a fallout with the then main opposition party, Movement for Democratic for Change led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai.
In 2018, after years of political hiatus, Sikhala re-launched his political career when he represented the MDC-Alliance, a shaky coalition of democratic forces which challenged Zanu PF’s hegemony during the general elections.
As we tailed Nkomo’s car to the Sikhala family home, we were suddenly stopped by a group of supporters who had waited patiently for their hero’s arrival.
They shouted Wiwa, Wiwa!, referring to Sikhala’s college nickname. Cars were also honking, celebrating his release. He jumped out of the car and, before he could come to terms with what was awaiting him, supporters were tossing him in the air.
He was overjoyed.
At this moment, he chose to walk home with the euphoric crowds who were extolling him “Baba Vauya (Father is back)” or curiously “President”.
Still fearful, he would occasionally check if his lawyer was still driving close-by. Encouraged by the singing and praises, he kept walking.
New slogan introduced
As the crowd — which predominantly comprised of young people — grew bigger, Sikhala, who had walked for over half a kilometre, stopped and so did his followers.
“When I say Zii, you shout Zimbabwe, and when I say Zimbabwe, you shout Nyika yedu (our country),” he rallied the supporters.
They joined in the new cryptic slogan which came at a time when his party, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), is engulfed in internal party struggles.
He continued rallying the supporters to acclimatise with the new slogan and it was all smiles for him as they embraced it.
Home sweet home
After enduring the long walk mobbed by opposition faithful, Sikhala safely got home to re-unite with his family.
It is at this moment that militant unionist Obert Masaraure, who represents rural teachers, came into the picture.
In his New Year’s message in which he narrated the pain and betrayal he suffered from compatriots within the opposition movement when he was arrested, Sikhala named Masaraure as one of the few people who had stood by him, fuelling growing speculation that a fallout with then CCC leader Nelson Chamisa was imminent.
A family member took a dining chair from his house and placed it a few metres away from the property’s perimeter wall.
Masaraure took to the make-shift stage, announcing that Wiwa had finally been freed. He also bellowed the new slogan in isiNdebele — one of the country’s official languages main spoken in in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces — an attempt to appeal to a larger constituency.
They broke into a yesteryear revolutionary song, “Jobho Muranda (loosely translated to Job the servant)” which reminds many of the struggles the politician endured in his fight for democracy in Zimbabwe. The hymn is originally a church song encouraging believers to remain strong in the face of adversity, just like the biblical Job did.
Again, Sikhala shouted the new slogan in Shona and isiNdebele before he began delivering his impromptu speech.
His voice sounded different and many said it resembled that of the late South African anti-apartheid icon, the late Nelson Mandela.
“Ndaitirwa mashura kuChikurubi. Vanhu ava, vakandipinza muhunhapwa kwemakore anoda kusvika maviri (Something unusual occurred at Chikurubi Prison where I was kept like a slave for nearly two years,” Sikhala told the supporters.
“Nhasi vaita chijudgment chavo kucourt. Ndavaudza kuti nyangwe honai ndine zvinhu zvakawanda mamange muchindichengetera muchiroom. Ndanga ndichichengetwa for the past 595 days muroom manga ndichigara ndega. Manga musina magetsi. Magetsi aidzimwa achiti paanopfutidzwa paya fluorescent yemagetsi yagona kuvhara maziso ako (Today, Tuesday, my judgment was handed down. I told them that I had several belongings in my solitary cell where I have been held for 595 days when I gathered that they wanted to release me later that day. There was no lighting in the room and on occasions they would turn it on the fluorescent lamp, it would make my eyes sore).”
“The level of brutality and cruelty I met and faced at Chikurubi Maximum Prison should not be forgotten by the people of Zimbabwe. But what makes me happy is that I did not go to prison for selfish interest of my family or myself. I was suffering on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe,” he added, much to the jubilation of the supporters.
Towards the end of his speech, he paused for a moment after noticing that his grand arrival had not only caught the attention of his supporters.
A few metres from his house, a police truck with officers brandishing rifles unnerved a few supporters who were eagerly following the speech.
One supporter encouraged Sikhala to continue, saying nothing would happen to them. He complied, knowing so well that the presence of the cops was a cue for him to take a bow.
Under the country’s laws widely seen by human rights defenders as repressive, police approval is required ahead of any public gathering.
At the end of his speech, The NewsHawks team and a few journalists were privileged to enter his home to witness his reunion with his family and witness him watch his favourite English Premier League team, Arsenal FC.
Debate on whether he was mimicking Mandela or this could have been due to the psychological effects of his long detention gained traction on our social media platforms.
As his political capital continues to grow after his long detention, decisions he will make in the midst of the chaos within the opposition will either usher him to a new season or soil his political career.
During an interview with him outside the maximum security prison, Sikhala took a measured approach in outlining his political ambitions after his release.
“I am not interested about power,” he said.
“My suffering and everything that I have been doing has not been motivated by power. It is because I represent the conscience of the people. That is where it begins and ends. What will come thereafter is completely out of question . . . The biggest deployers (constituency) of any cause in politics are the people. I will listen to what the people say.”