HARARE - The High Court yesterday threw out with costs Vice President Phelekezela Mphoko’s $50 million defamation claim against Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) — the publishers of the market-leading Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday and the WeekendPost.
Justice Joseph Musakwa dismissed Mphoko’s lawsuit following an application by ANZ lawyer Alec Muchadehama to have the matter thrown out, after President Robert Mugabe’s gaffe-prone deputy failed to attend the pre-trial conference in person — choosing instead to send an official from his office, one Themba Ndlovu, to represent him.
“The rules stipulate that a party who has been notified to attend a pre-trial conference must appear in person at the pre-trial conference,” Muchadehama argued successfully, adding that Mphoko’s proxy, Ndlovu, was “a stranger” in the case.
Mphoko’s lawyers claimed that the VP had not come in person because he was busy attending to State matters — an excuse that Musakwa rejected in toto.
Mphoko was also not present at the last court date, a fortnight ago.
His lawsuit, which ANZ described as “ridiculous”, followed a June 5, 2015 article that the VP took exception to, that was based on an interview with firebrand former war veterans leader Jabulani Sibanda.
In the story, Sibanda claimed that Mphoko had sold out during the liberation struggle when he allegedly diverted weapons meant for the late Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu to Zanu — a move that Sibanda further claimed could have led to the needless deaths of thousands of people.
A number of Zapu bigwigs who spoke to the Daily News then — including Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa and Thomas Ngwenya (a former deputy to Mphoko) — appeared to buttress Sibanda’s claims.
And Mphoko himself had previously admitted diverting the weapons meant for Zapu’s military wing, Zipra, to Zanu’s Zanla. Rather curiously too, Mphoko had to date not formally moved to either challenge the open source of the story, Sibanda, on his claims, or take him to court — choosing instead to take on the Daily News.
Responding to Mphoko’s self-touted liberation struggle credentials in his claim, ANZ — which was looking forward to meeting the VP in court, lining up many high-profile witnesses in its defence — disputed his claim that his reputation and status had been diminished by the story.
“They (defendants) do not know of his immense contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe. Defendants will put the plaintiff to the proof of his claims,” Muchadehama had written in ANZ’s replying affidavits.
The case had witnessed much drama in the lead-up to yesterday, with ANZ pooh-poohing misleading State media reports a fortnight ago that the company had failed to defend the staggering $50 million lawsuit.
ANZ Group Editor, Stanley Gama said then that the State media reports were “as usual... divorced from reality” — stating that the company was “looking forward” to meeting Mphoko in court.
“Not for the first time in similar circumstances, and for reasons that are not very clear to us, the papers advising us and our lawyers of a pre-trial hearing before Justice Joseph Musakwa on Tuesday were not served at our lawyers’ rightful address.
“This meant that we could not attend the pre-trial conference as then scheduled, as we were not aware of the hearing.
“Fortunately, the moment Justice Musakwa became aware of this glaring anomaly, he promptly called the respective legal representatives to his chambers later in the day, where by consent, ANZ’s defence was re-instated and the new pre-trial hearing set down for March 24, 2016,” Gama said.
ANZ’s lawyers — Mbidzo, Muchadehama and Makoni — also went on to write to Mphoko’s lawyers, GN Mlotshwa & Company, taking issue with the misleading statements that its partner Gerald Mlotshwa had given to the State media.
“You were quoted saying that we had defaulted attending a PTC (pre-trial conference) on 8 March 2016 and that our clients’ defence had been struck out.
“You are well aware that at 14:15 hours on March 9, 2016 we appeared before the honorable Justice Musakwa, together with your colleague T Madzingwa. By consent the default judgment was rescinded and the defences re-instated.
“We contend that the impression that you gave that we were in wilful default was misleading.
“Further, when you became aware that the default judgment had been rescinded and our clients’ defences re-instated you had a duty to advise the press that your earlier advices had not been entirely correct and that they had been overtaken by events,” Muchadehama said.
Amid all this, more questions had emerged about Mphoko’s self-touted liberation struggle credentials, amid stunning new claims that he went “AWOL” (absent without official leave) at the height of the war while in exile in Mozambique.
Speaking in an interview with the Daily News last week, former War Veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa said Mphoko, 75, had allegedly ditched his regiment in Mozambique to enjoy life with his then wife-to-be, Laurinda, who later became his wife in 1977.
Mutsvangwa said Mphoko “went AWOL” from Zapu’s military wing, Zipra, after he apparently fell in love with Laurinda — who is said to be related to the late Mozambican president Samora Machel — allegedly only re-surfacing after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.
Repeated efforts by the Daily News to get Mphoko to comment on the claims bore no fruit, as he did not respond to questions sent to him. Although his aide, Ndlovu, requested for e-mailed questions and promised to get back in time, the responses had not been sent at the time of going to print then, and are still outstanding.
“Mphoko came to Mozambique as part of Zipa (the Zimbabwe People’s Army, which was a combined military structure of Zipra and Zanla) in 1975 and was head of logistics.
“Zipa collapsed a couple of months down the line, (and one of the pioneers of the armed struggle, Rogers Alfred) Mangena and others went back to Zambia to resume operations as Zipra.
“He (Mphoko) didn’t go back with them. He remained in Maputo, and somehow got lost completely. That’s why nobody knows him in Zipra.
“Ask all the big numbers of Zipra cadres, they don’t know him because he was no longer part of the army.
“He was in Mozambique and eventually married a Mozambican woman. So, for the crucial five years of that war (1975 until independence in 1980), he was absent. He is neither Zipra nor Zanla,” Mutsvangwa said.
“He got married to a family that was close to... Machel. The wife is Shangaan, you can check, a Chironga woman from the Maputo region.
How can you have an absentee commander? He was not there for five years.
“The war was being fought from Zambia and he was in Mozambique. We in Zanla don’t know him . . . ask (Zipra intelligence supremo Dumiso) Dabengwa. He was the man in charge of the Zapu forces. I can’t speak any better than Dabengwa,” he added.
Asked what then had resulted in Mphoko being catapulted to the vice presidency in 2014, Mutsvangwa said he was not sure.
“He shouldn’t really be there. The last five years of that big war, the storm of the war, comes from 1975 to 1980, when the big numbers came in,” Mutsvangwa said, adding that in his considered view, Dabengwa was supposed to be VP not Mphoko.
“Dumiso was senior. It’s unfortunate that he decided to follow (Solomon) Mujuru. If he had not gone, he could have occupied that place, and I think that was a bad and ill-advised decision,” Mutsvangwa said.
Asked what he thought of Mphoko’s time in office as VP, Mutsvangwa made it clear that he had little regard for Mugabe’s deputy. “Look at his actions, where he doesn’t even appear to understand the dictates of the Constitution . . . where he wants to subject himself to the authority of an unelected person because that person has got a marriage certificate . . . ,” he said derisively, apparent reference to Mphoko’s deference towards powerful First Lady Grace Mugabe.
In controversial comments that he made late last year, Mphoko said he was happy to be subordinate to Grace as she was Mugabe’s wife, and thus represented the president wherever she went.
“He respects the marriage certificate more than he respects the Constitution. We are an elected constitutional republic,” Mutsvangwa thundered.