As an undercover journalist in Zimbabwe at the height of Mugabe’s regime, Felix Machiridza was forced to live and work covertly to survive. Sara Coen spoke to the ACU student about finding a new way to change lives.
Zimbabwean-born Felix Machiridza is definitely no secret agent. There is nothing secretive about him. In fact, his desire to tell the truth is so strong it nearly cost him his life.
As a journalist, political activist and vocal opponent of the Zimbabwean government at the peak of its dictatorship in the early 2000s, Felix was frequently abducted, tortured and abused.
When the opposition won power in 2008, the government in Zimbabwe refused to relinquish its hold and went on a brutal killing spree.
Felix risked his life to report on the rampant corruption, escalation of political violence and human rights abuses committed by those in power.
“This was not the Zimbabwe I remembered as a child,” he said. “It used to be a country carefree and full of promise. We could beat our drums anytime, day or night, celebrate the full moon and play silly games provoking crocodiles by the river.
“But, when the political system shifted from colonialism to independence, this all changed – and the global community was cut off from the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe.”
Exposing the truth to international media organisations like CNN and BBC in a place where all foreign media was banned and private media gagged, meant Felix was constantly watching his back.
“It was never going to be a walk in the park,” he said. “But I had good reason. I was contributing to the struggle for democracy and freedom in Zimbabwe through my work as a journalist – and I have no regrets. I did the right thing.
“An informed people is a powerful people and that’s why the dictatorship did everything to gag the media.
“I joined a political party formed to challenge the government – advocating for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and a broader media choice.”
Often speaking publicly on stage to crowds of more than 3,000 at a time, Felix was soon on the radar of those in power.
“The last time I spoke on stage ended badly. I was abducted, blindfolded, beaten, taken to an unknown location and held captive for days,” he said. “Shortly after this incident, I recognised it was time for a change.”
Felix was granted a protection visa last year to stay in Australia after it was deemed too dangerous for him to return to Zimbabwe. He accepted a position to work in Canberra with fellow asylum-seekers at the Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services (MARSS), while he studies social work at ACU.
Felix was recently awarded a scholarship by the Canberra Refugee Support (CRS) – in recognition of UN World Refugee Day 2012.
Working as a case manager at MARSS, Felix helps newly arrived migrants and refugees gain access to basic services – including food, accommodation, transport, financial assistance and counselling.
“I carry out needs assessment and then proceed with case management – supporting people until they are settled in the community,” he said. “I have a strong sense of social justice, which has been both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness.”
“I believe the written word is a really powerful tool to change attitudes, but there are other ways as well.
“I’m not holding onto the past, letting it bog me down or cloud my vision. This is a new start. I chose to study social work because not all people are able to speak for themselves – and I feel I can advocate for these people.
“I am not a Messiah – I cannot change the world. But I can do little things to help bring positive change and lessen suffering for people.
“I’ve been through so much suffering myself and I want to give hope to people who still suffer. I risked my life striving to change a political system.
“As a journalist, I was trying to change perceptions and eventually people’s hearts in the global community. I believe that when change takes place in the hearts of people, interventions become possible.
“In Australia, I am developing a great love for social work – I am learning how to change people’s lives, without risking my own.”