On the evening of Thursday 7 November 2019, Tinashe Jakwa opened a reflective discussion and readings on Zimbabwe’s present and future trajectories, focusing on the role of the arts in the ongoing struggle to realise the fruits of independence. ‘Spotlight on Zimbabwe’ was part of PEN Perth’s ‘Spotlight’ series focusing on the contemporary plight of writers, artists and journalists in countries experiencing hardship and how that might effect responsible freedom of expression, media censorship, and political interference.
Tinashe Jakwa is a PhD Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of International Relations (with Distinction) from the same institution. Recently, she was a Visiting Scholar (January-June 2019) with the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa Institute and Department of Political Sciences. Her research examines the determinants of peace-building policy failures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a focus on deconstructing state theory.
REMARKS – Spotlight on Zimbabwe
Before we begin, I would first like to acknowledge that today we meet on stolen land and that sovereignty was never ceded by the traditional owners of Noongar Boodjar, the Wadjuk Noongar people. I pay my respects to elders, past, present, and emerging. Indeed, the struggle continues here as it does in Zimbabwe, albeit in different ways; however, victory is certain. As Southern Africans often say: a luta continua, vitória é certa!
My name is Tinashe Jakwa and I am your host for this evening. I won’t say too much about myself except that I never miss an opportunity to speak about Zimbabwe or the African continent more generally, and so with that in mind, thank you to PEN Perth and the Centre for Stories for providing the opportunity to host this Spotlight event this evening. I would also like to thank you all for joining us tonight. Before introducing our fabulous readers for this evening, I would like to make a few remarks. It is my hope that these remarks will provide you with not only enough insight to contextualise both the readings and reflections we will hear from our readers this evening, but that they will inspire enough curiosity in each of you to leave this space with the desire to learn more about Zimbabwe. So, where to start?
I am standing here in front of you speaking, not as an expert, but as a Zimbabwean-born African-Australian writer who has more than a few things to say. I am standing here speaking and mindful of the fact that speech is complicated. It is sometimes an act performed to silence others, and sometimes it is an act of protest. Some speech acts are criminalised, while some are received with open arms. While audiences shift and change, the potential of speech to become an act of violence or an act of building the peaceful relations we would like to realise, is always ever-present. So too, is the question of where to draw the line. Individuals and those groups that represent those causes we deem worthy of rallying behind are not always innocent. The line between violence and its absence is not always clear. Yet more often than not, governments do not provide us with a cause worth rallying behind. The agents of government endow themselves with speech painted in peaceful colours. All other speech becomes not only irrelevant, but violent. But what is the line between violence and peace? What are the requirements of free speech? As governments would often have it, only speech acts performed in hushed tones are acceptable. That is, of course, save for that of presidents, ministers, those who tow the party line, and all others who do not speak of the ills lining countries’ stomachs.
Zimbabwe is one such country with a chequered history. From opposition party leaders prematurely and forcefully grabbing the microphone from their wives at political rallies in a seemingly innocent gesture, to thinly-veiled government arrests, abductions, and torture of satirists and commentators whose speech is regarded as standing against the national interest. The country’s post-Mugabe ‘new dispensation’ struggles to rise from the ashes of an independence that is still standing, shaking at the door. In the end, Mnangagwa speaks of love and peace and how freedom of speech is indispensable under his presidency which came into being through military coup in November 2017, yet people tremble at his words because he is yet to prove himself in their eyes. Talk of open digital spaces walks hand-in-hand with miss and disinformation as a polarised country struggles to speak across difference and imagine well-fed futures.
So, speech is complicated, and will the real sell-outs please stand up? That notion of a national interest, perhaps it can straddle the fine line between violence and peace in ways that can move countries like my birth country, Zimbabwe, in those directions where social and political polarisation is a thing of the past. Those directions and paths on which people’s feet are not swept up into prisons and God knows where for daring to be heard. And those directions and paths on which movements for democratic change do not tape the mouths of their wives shut, for it is not only men who can speak. Speech is sometimes an act performed to silence others, and sometimes it is an act of protest. It is also a negotiation, one that can lead to the loving relations Mnangagwa speaks of, but as of yet, knows nothing about.
Now, let us backtrack a little bit. Zimbabwe achieved formal independence on 18 April 1980, after 90 years of British colonial rule. An armed liberation struggle (the Second Chimurenga) that began in the early 1960s eventually led to a negotiated settlement between the different armed liberation movements, the white settler population, and Britain. The Lancaster House talks resulted in the creation of a transitional constitution (the Lancaster House Constitution) that protected both the political and economic interests of the white settler community. It mandated that for 10 years after independence, 20 parliamentary seats be reserved for white settlers. It further restricted the redistribution of land by mandating that the government financially compensate white settlers for land that they had secured through the brutalising hand of colonisation. Britain initially provided the newly-formed black majority government with funds to acquire land from white settlers.
Then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe adopted a policy of reconciliation; the General Amnesty Ordinance of 1980 pardoned all parties to the anticolonial armed struggle of their actions during the conflict. Rhodesians went unpunished for their 90 years of apartheid rule, and Britain did not entertain talk of reparations. These realities sowed the seeds of post-independence discontent amongst a land hungry black majority population. The post-independence period was as bittersweet as the colonial period as the post-Mugabe period is proving to be. While in the immediate aftermath of independence schools were built allowing a majority black population access to education amidst progressive changes to healthcare that markedly improved people’s standard of living, these developments existed alongside, in the 1980s, massacres against those regarded as political dissidents, the majority of whom were the minority Ndebele people, resulting in the deaths of about 20 000 people.
Amidst such tragedies, the positive gains that were made were quickly undermined in the 1990s as Western-dominated International Financial Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank imposed Economic Structural Adjustment Programs on the country which saw the privatisation of public services, including healthcare, which resulted in essential services being inaccessible to most people. Not only this, but Zimbabwe’s economy also suffered. This eventually led to the emergence of the country’s main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Change under the leadership of the late Morgan Tsvangirai which, since then, has clashed with the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front both through the ballot and on the streets through protest action. In the early 2000s, Zimbabwe gained notoriety for its Fast Track Land Reform Programme which saw the government co-opt a grassroots land reclamation movement by expropriating land from white settlers without compensation. Subsequently, Zimbabwe became an international pariah, particularly in the Western world. This resulted in changes to Zimbabwe’s foreign policy as the country sought to Look East to allies such as China and Russia, amongst others, in its international engagement. This Look East policy is now changing in the post-coup, post-Mugabe context under Emmerson Mnangagwa’s presidency as he seeks to re-engage with the West to attract investment.
This glimpse into the country’s history should serve as a teaser. In this instance, yes, I am a tease, but only so I can situate those artistic voices that have consistently spoken truth to power in the midst of all of these developments, often risking their lives to the point of arrest, imprisonment, abduction, torture, and exile. It is their plight that animates my earlier question: will the real sell-outs please stand up? Thomas Mapfumo, affectionately known as Mukanya by Zimbabweans, is one of Zimbabwe’s most prominent musicians. He has been making music since the early 1960s and his music has consistently carried both political under- and overtones. His style of music is known as Chimurenga (or struggle) music. His earliest critiques of oppressive governance regimes and practices were targeted towards settler colonial white minority rule, often vocalising strong support for the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) faction of the anti-colonial armed liberation struggle led by Robert Mugabe. Some of his earliest songs such as ‘Hokoyo’ actively encouraged participation in the armed liberation struggle aimed at overthrowing the white minority government of Ian Smith. Mukanya’s music was subject to bans and he faced imprisonment. In the post-independence period, Mukanya’s critiques were directed towards the black majority government of Robert Mugabe whom he had initially supported. As a result, he was subject to government harassment resulting in his exile in the late 1990s. While in exile, Mapfumo did not stop making music critical of the Zimbabwean government. He was only able to return to the country in April 2018 to perform a concert in celebration of Mugabe’s ouster during the November 2017 military coup. Growing up I remember people being discouraged to play Mukanya’s music publicly lest they wanted to get on the wrong side of the authorities. I also have strong memories of my father defying this expectation thereby nurturing my lifelong love of this Lion of Zimbabwe.
Chenjerai Hove, whose poems we will hear tonight, is a late Zimbabwean poet and novelist who left the country in 2001 following threats made against his life. Much like Thomas Mapfumo, but through a different medium, Hove’s work was both critical of white minority rule and, in the post-independence period the vagaries of black majority rule that reproduced the ills of colonial governance. The works that will be read tonight are a strong illustration of Hove’s lifelong commitment to human rights and freedom of expression. Likewise, the late Dambudzo Marechera, a novelist, poet, and playwright, wrote works that similarly criticised colonialism and the betrayals that Zimbabweans have experienced at the hands of the government in the post-independence period.
You may now be wondering, where are the voices of women in this brief story I have narrated? Well, tonight we will also hear an excerpt of a short story by NoViolet Bulawayo who is a contemporary Zimbabwean writer and whose work is incisive in both subtle and overt terms in its critique of the vagaries of post-independence Zimbabwe and the ways in which they have resulted in people facing various forms of insecurity. Stella Chiweshe, a musician, has long carved a space for women in Zimbabwe’s music industry and has been emphatic in her use of the mbira – a traditional Zimbabwean instrument. She uses music as a vehicle of maintaining and passing on indigenous knowledges across generations while also drawing attention to pertinent social issues. And who could forget our Empty Chairs for this evening. Samantha Kureya aka Gonyeti is one of Zimbabwe’s best-known comedians and political satirists. Recently, Samantha went into hiding following abduction and torture which human rights activists attribute to state security services. Beside her is Roselyn Hanzi, the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. This organisation does important work to assist people like Samantha who find themselves facing persecution. It works to foster a culture of human rights and to encourage the growth of human rights through the observance of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.
This glimpse into Zimbabwe’s history and some of its artists, commentators, and legal practitioners should hopefully inspire each of you to walk away this evening with a hunger to learn more about the country. Not only this, but it should highlight the complexities of speech that I mentioned earlier. As for my question about who can be regarded as a sell-out in speaking out, certainly none of these artists, writers, satirists, and lawyers. With that in mind, will the real sell-outs please stand up? I will leave you with this question.
Rumbiie Mudzengi, will be reading an excerpt from the short story ‘Hitting Budapest’ by NoViolet Bulawayo. After the reading, Rumbiie will offer some personal reflections on Zimbabwe’s present and future trajectories and the role of the arts thereof, drawing on her personal experiences. Rumbiie is a young entrepreneur based in Perth. She runs Anaka & Co a beauty and creative styling business. She has worked as a head make-up artist for Miss Africa Perth, Face of Africa, Beya Modelling Agency, and the Modest Fashion Show. Rumbiie has been featured in various magazines as a Creative Stylist Assistant and make-up artist. She is currently the Head Make-Up Artist for Africa Perth Fashion Week.
Josiah Komichi, will be reading several poems by Chenjerai Hove followed by some personal reflections on the role of the arts and indigenous knowledges in Zimbabwe’s ongoing struggle to realise the fruits of independence. Josiah is a local Perth musician, producer, and amateur historian from Zimbabwe. Josiah has a keen interest in global geopolitical processes, technology trends, and spirituality.
Speech transcript provided by Tinashe Jakwa