Campaign News
Blind Ambition: the refugees who conquered the wine world PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 14 August 2022 13:08

Blind Ambition: the refugees who conquered the wine world

A tale of four competitive Zimbabwean tasters hits all the right notes

Kevin Maher Saturday August 06 2022, 12.01am, The Times


It’s the Cool Runnings of the wine-tasting world. That’s the elevator pitch, anyway, for the fascinating new documentary Blind Ambition, which, much like the 1993 John Candy comedy about coaching the Jamaican national bobsleigh team, finds heartwarming humour and inspirational power in the story of four black Zimbabwean refugees who, against all odds, break into the snooty world of wine tasting and eventually compete against the best of the best in the World Blind Tasting Championships.


The film, which captures the four Cape Town-based sommeliers preparing for, and competing in, the 2017 championships in Burgundy, France, hits all the right notes. There’s an introduction to the loveable underdogs, the initial setback (they need sponsorship), the progress montage, the arrival of the eccentric coach (the French veteran Denis Garret) and the eventual high-stakes competition — our heroes must identify 12 wines blind, naming the grape variety, the country of origin, the region, the producer and the vintage. It’s basically a nonstop blast of feelgood entertainment. Right?


“The very first time we spoke over Zoom with the guys we got that Cool Runnings feeling,” says the Australian film-maker Warwick Ross, seated next to his production partner and co-director Robert Coe in the offices of a London movie company. “We thought, ‘Whoah! This is going to be fun. These guys are great.’ But the more we spoke with them and heard about their stories, the more we realised that we were going to have to anchor the film in something more important.”


The Sydney-based pair learnt about the Zimbabwean sommeliers while shooting a previous wine-themed documentary, Red Obsession, narrated by Russell Crowe. By the time they had committed to shooting Blind Ambition in September 2017, the wine-tasting championships were only three weeks away. They quickly managed to raise a budget (£700,000) on a quirky Cool Runnings premise, but the reality of the men’s stories soon began to undercut the wacky fish-out-of-water mood.


The team captain, Joseph Dhafana, for instance, was smuggled out of Zimbabwe in 2008 by way of a hellish train journey, trapped in a steel container with 45C heat outside. He speaks about it with difficulty in the documentary (the directors edited out the parts of his story that were “too horrific” to relate). Others fled from Zimbabwe directly into anti-immigrant hatred in Johannesburg, where newly arrived Zimbabweans were frequently hacked to death, and sought safety in the church of the preacher and refugee activist Paul Verryn. He is shown in the film pleading: “The world needs to wake up to the fact that migrants are not cockroaches and pests that need to be stamped out.”


So, about the zany Cool Runnings feeling? Coe says that this was the constant challenge throughout the filming and post-production (they edited, and re-edited, throughout the pandemic). Too much and it would have been wildly inappropriate. Too little and it would have been preachy. “At one point we went down a rabbit hole of telling a huge part of Zimbabwean history in the film, but then the pendulum had swung too far to the other side. But you remove that and suddenly it’s too light and happy and Cool Runnings. That balance took some time, but we knew that the film had to be about the seriousness of what these guys had endured, but also, you know, fun.”


Right on cue, three of the sommeliers, laughing and joking, stroll into the room to join us. They are Dhafana, the buoyant, churchgoing Marlvin Gwese and the thoughtful, sensitive Tinashe Nyamudoka. The trio have been out exploring London (they are here for a special premiere screening of the movie) and are spectacularly late for our chat (they are, I am told, on “Zim time!”) and are soon joined, on a Zoom screen from his new home in Amsterdam, by the team’s fourth member, Pardon Taguzu.


The four waste no time in wading into the central dilemma of the movie, and agree that the two Australians found the right tone. Nyamudoka says: “When they started filming, the initial story felt very much like, ‘Hey, let’s just record these Zim guys competing in France!’ But eventually Rob started asking, ‘So, how did you guys end up in Cape Town?’ And that’s when I knew, ‘OK. This is really going to showcase the seriousness of what’s going on.’ ”


Taguzu chimes in from Amsterdam: “But I had my reservations because I knew the stories we were going to talk about were political. But it was also part of our stories and had to come out.”


And Dhafana? Was he comfortable with discussing his traumatic journey across the border? “It is tough what happened to me, but back then, when it happened, it wasn’t documented so all I could do for the film was to give my narration. It was real, it was raw, it was exactly what happened, and these guys [the directors] managed to capture it. They chose to take the marrow from the bone and give it to the world.”


Naturally, the film also has plenty of lightness, most of which comes from the hapless French coach Garret. He seems at first to fit that sports-movie formula of the idiosyncratic oddball who will come good by the end (think Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own). He’s knowledgeable, rides a motorbike and doesn’t care for the rules. Yet without spoiling anything he proves a far more destructive presence. “We couldn’t have scripted it better,” Coe says, shaking his head in disbelief. “He injected utter chaos into that drama.”


Dhafana, half-chuckling, refuses (with a smidgen of reluctance) to denigrate Garret and only adds: “Look, he’s a good guy with a great heart, and he’s your elder, so you have to respect your elder. But he can easily get carried away, and if you don’t control him he can derail things very quickly.”


We move on to the nuts and bolts of their craft. As four of the most respected sommeliers in South Africa, who graduated from the best restaurants in Cape Town and frequently tour the world as wine judges, they dole out handy hints for the best wine-tasting experience. No garlic or curry beforehand, for a start (they neutralise the palate). And, curiously, no adrenaline. You need to be calm, apparently, to be a good wine aficionado. When the adrenaline’s pumping, the taste buds, according to Dhafana, are muted and out of balance.


And it helps too if you’re from Zimbabwe. No, really. Nyamudoka’s theory is that it’s all about memory, awareness and being away from home. “I think what characterises the Zim sommeliers, or the four of us in particular, is to do with memory,” he says. “Wine tasting is all about memory, and about really, really, remembering what you’ve encountered. And for us, I feel that we Zimbabweans observe and articulate what’s around us because it’s not natural to us. We easily remember what we’ve tasted.”


The men end with a deep discussion of their complex feelings for Zimbabwe. They have successful careers in South Africa (Dhafana and Gwese own wine brands), but they still nurture a yearning for home. Ross says that this is the soul of the documentary and why it is buttressed by ravishing drone shots of the Zimbabwean countryside, like an abandoned paradise yet to be re-entered. Nyamudoka says: “A great winemaker once told me that if you want to be really prosperous and do tangible things in your life you have to do them at home. And I feel that strongly.”


There’s a momentary silence and a hint of maudlin reflection from the group. Then, thankfully, Taguzu crackles through on the Zoom from Amsterdam, where he’s thriving as a wine importer. “You know, you can feel at home sometimes in other places, but home is really where your roots are,” he says. “And, for me, I think about home almost every day.”

Blind Ambition is in cinemas from Aug 12

Into Africa: softly softly as US seeks to counter global rivals’ influence PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 13 August 2022 15:36

Into Africa: softly softly as US seeks to counter global rivals’ influence


Antony Blinken is walking a tightrope between support for democracy and avoiding appearing to force the continent’s countries to pick sides


Richard Assheton, Lagos Tuesday August 09 2022, 9.30pm, The Times


America’s top diplomat, faced with the growing influence of China and Russia, has been touring Africa this week to signal a shift in US attitudes to the continent.


“The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices,” Antony Blinken declared at a press conference. “Neither should anyone else.” In those two sentences the secretary of state encapsulated his government’s answer to a question that has dogged it for several months: how can it respond to the challenge posed by its global rivals in Africa without appearing to proselytise?


Blinken’s clear mission on his three-country tour — to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda — is to set out America’s new softly-softly Africa policy. His words in Pretoria, and a White House document released at the same time, suggest the plan is to walk a diplomatic tightrope, continuing to support democracy — which Blinken emphasised was the best path to development — but accepting that African states cannot be forced to pick sides.


“African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’progress, rather than the auth ors of their own,” he said. “Time and again, they have been told to pick a side in great power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles of their people.”


Analysts said the new strategy indicates a softening of US diplomacy in Africa. It will try to be a friend, with fewer strings attached.


Blinken, 60, arrives hot on the heels of Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who curried support for the invasion of Ukraine in an African tour last month, and President Macron, who attempted to reset France’s relationships in west Africa. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited Africa in February.


Alongside post-pandemic recovery and clean energy, Blinken outlined two pillars of the new US strategy in Africa which may rub up against each other: “Openness, by which we mean the capacity of individuals, communities, and nations to choose their own path and shape the world we live in”, and “working with African partners to fulfil the promise of democracy”.


He criticised the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked paramilitary outfit that has been accused of abuses in several African states.


The White House document also takes aim at China, which it says “sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments”.


Bob Wekesa, deputy director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said the US had recognised a “paradigm shift”. It had in the past “prescribed” its relations with Africa, emphasising human rights and democracy, calling out authoritarianism and focusing on counterterrorism and military relations.


He said Blinken’s discussion of openness “comes from a realisation that in a multipolar world African countries now have many more opportunities to choose from”. As well as Russia and China, middling powers like Turkey and the UAE have built African relationships in recent years.


He noted that in this the US was actually mirroring the “playbook” of other powers, which refrain from criticising African leaders with whom they work.


Michael Shurkin, a former west Africa analyst for the CIA and now global programmes director at 14 North Strategies, a consultancy based in Dakar, said US officials had realised that “it’s counterproductive for us to be hectoring countries about relations with China and Russia. The best way to compete is to shut up about it. It doesn’t mean we stop caring about Russia — we’re still obsessed with them — the strategy is just don’t talk about it.


“Putin is probably snickering because he knows this is hard and he also knows he has some advantages over us. He can act like a spoiler. He’s not doing anything constructive in Africa, he’s just doing destructive things.”


Nick Westcott, director of the Royal African Society and a former British ambassador in Africa, said: “It’s an acknowledgment that Russia and China have gained influence, and it’s an attempt to counter that in a more intelligent way than saying, ‘you’re for us or against us’.”


He added: “Africans wish not to be seen as subordinate to anybody.”

Next step: electoral reforms PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 21 May 2022 10:38

Next step: electoral reforms

By Deborah Harry 21/05/2022


The recent by-elections have shown us that we are still a long way from a free and fair election. Days and weeks before the actual election itself, there were several reports of CCC supporters being attacked, intimidated, and arrested on false criminal charges. Even more tragic news was the killing  of a man from CCC in Kwekwe by Zanu supporters. Weeks after the by election,  we continue to receive news of CCC campaigners being rounded up by police and arrested for campaigning. This is not right. This leopard doesn’t seem to have changed its spots. Electoral reforms are needed.


Rigging an election is an act that shows just how much a government does not care about its people’s views, preferences or needs. It is one thing that proves without a doubt that we are not a democracy. We, the people want democracy,  that is obvious; but the few men in charge and their clans are opposed to democracy the way evil is repelled by good. Since we are the only ones who want democracy, we should campaign for electoral  reforms because our lives depend on this.


As people we need to all start talking about electoral reforms in a big and consistent way. The strong CCC MPs in parliamentary will definitely raise the issue, and I think we should support them by putting light on the issue on social media and via demos around the world so that the international  community can see for themselves that Zanu are doing their best to rig elections again.  Its simple. The more we talk about the need for electoral  reforms  especially on social media, the more likely the international community will get to know about our problems. Not only that, but we also need to expose the things that Zanu are doing right now towards rigging the election. All the culprits involved in vote rigging should be named and shamed in public.


The 2023 general election is not far away. We are all fed up of the situation in Zimbabwe. But we can’t just keep saying we are fed up, we have to do something  about it, starting with the small things like raising awareness of problems to the world and pushing for solutions.

Zimbabwe wants to sell ivory stash to fund elephant conservation PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 21 May 2022 10:27

Zimbabwe wants to sell ivory stash to fund elephant conservation

Jane Flanagan 18/05/2022


Zimbabwe has opened vaults containing 135 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn as it called for the guarded stockpile to be sold to fund the conservation of its growing and “dangerous” elephant population.


A “one-off sale” of the cache, seized from smugglers and poachers, and harvested from carcasses found in the country’s national parks, would raise £500 million, and all of the proceeds would go towards wildlife management, the government said.


The sale of ivory has been banned since 1989 by Cites, the international body that monitors endangered species.

The Zimbabwean government has warned that it may resort to culling its 100,000-strong elephant population, which it claimed is double the capacity of its overwhelmed parks.


“Where do we get the money to look after the resources?” asked Fulton Mangwanya, head of the parks and wildlife agency, as he showed the towering piles of ivory to a group of visiting ambassadors. He told them there was a “great market” for the ivory.


Lockdowns during the pandemic and bans on international travel have hammered Zimbabwe’s tourism industry, the parks chief said, leaving little budget for anti-poaching costs and supporting communities “bearing the brunt” of living near destructive elephants.


“We need assistance. These elephants are multiplying at a dangerous rate: 5 per cent per annum,” Mangwanya said, attempting to convince diplomats from Britain and Europe to back an easing of restrictions. He added that each adult elephant eats about 300lb of fruit, grasses and bark a day, and the burgeoning population was making it harder for other animals to find food.


Zimbabwe will host an “elephant summit” for officials from 14 African countries, as well as China and Japan, this month to discuss strategies to manage wildlife and lobby for continental support to make money from ivory stocks.

Its neighbour Botswana, where elephant tusk trophy hunters were recently allowed to return, has also argued that it is overpopulated with elephants and selling its ivory stocks is necessary for conservation. The two countries are home to 230,000 elephants — more than half of Africa’s total population.


Despite the bans, the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn continues, mostly driven by demand in Asia, where tusks are turned into trinkets and rhino horn is used in a range of remedies. The criminal trade is responsible for the slaughter of an estimated 50 elephants a day. Rising poverty and a loss of tourism jobs and income has made it easier for international smuggling gangs to recruit local poachers, conservationists say.


A previous attempt to overturn the Cites trade ban failed, exposing differences in opinion between Africa’s elephant-holding states. Gabon, Mali and Kenya were among many of the continent’s dissenters and Kenya’s decision in 2016 to burn stockpiles of ivory and horn, gathered from 6,000 elephants and 343 rhinos, was its attempt to show that only tusks carried by a living elephant had any value.

A chilling lesson in the fragility of democracy PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 12 February 2022 20:53

From the Times UK 10/02/2022

A chilling lesson in the fragility of democracy

TV Review of ‘President’ by Carol Midgley


If you were in the mood to become enraged last night, Camilla Nielsson’s excellent documentary ‘President’ was just the ticket. It followed Zimbabwe’s 2018 election after Robert Mugabe’s removal by military coup and was filmed from within the heart of the MDC Alliance, the opposition party led by the popular young lawyer Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa was challenging acting president and former Mugabe man Emmerson Mnangagwa and promising to root out corruption. What transpired was a lengthy demonstration of how to steal an election – crudely. As MDC’s outraged executives said, to paraphrase: ‘At least Mugabe was sophisticated as a fraudster.’


Some off the tricks seemed spoof-worthy, such as claiming Mnangagwa had polled more votes in a certain province than there were people. Some 16 polling station returned identical results. But horrifically, a polling agent and her husband were both raped. Citizens were offered food for votes.


When the public protested, the army was deployed and six people were killed. Nielsson had remarkable access to Chamisa’s campaign. The film showed, in real time, democracy being violated in plain sight. It showed people desperate for change, who were impotent in the face of a inscrutable government machine. If you wanted a lesson in how fragile democracy is and how easily it can be trampled on, this is it.

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