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Admired around the world, persecuted in her home country

The author and filmmaker is being sued in her home country for calling for reforms. The course of the process is brimming with absurdity.

Tsitsi Dangarembga in Cologne, September 2021.

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In the summer of 2020, the Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga is experiencing a roller coaster ride that readers of her novels will recognize: The author is arrested in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare for allegedly inciting public violence. Shortly thereafter, her work “A Mournable Body” (German title “Überleben”) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The now 62-year-old author and Peace Prize winner has been on trial in Harare since the end of May.

Dangarembga and her colleague, journalist Julie Barnes, were arrested on July 31, 2020. Hundreds of police officers and soldiers were deployed ahead of planned anti-corruption demonstrations against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Residents were ordered to remain in their homes, officials had described the protests as a “planned riot”. “There was dead silence on the streets where neither cars nor pedestrians were moving. There were no groups of protesters,” wrote Dangarembga as she traced her arrest for PEN. “Although the people of Zimbabwe want change, we don’t yet have the material or psychological means to create it.”

Screenshot of the Constitution

Dangarembga and Barnes were heading towards the city center when, at an intersection, “a strange man approached us and filmed our posters without asking our permission”. The poster the author is carrying calls for reforms, while Barnes’s calls for the liberation of journalists and “a better Zimbabwe for all”. When the police arrive, the author is told that her demonstration is illegal. She tries to discuss with the officials using a screenshot of Zimbabwe’s constitution. “Minutes later we were sitting on a concrete floor at the Borrowdale police post,” the author said.

Dangarembga and her colleague are released on bail. It is the beginning of a month-long odyssey: the public prosecutor responsible does not turn up for the hearing several times; the case is referred without merit from the criminal court to the Corruption Court, which reports directly to the President; Court dates are announced and canceled again. For the author, the situation is “a symptom of how the country is run”. Dangarembga and her lawyers are surprised that the trial is actually taking place.

Born in the colony

Dangarembga was born in 1959 in the small town of Mutoko in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. Six years later, the government of a white minority there – supported by neighboring South Africa, where apartheid is still in full effect – issues a unilateral declaration of independence. This leads to the creation of the State of Rhodesia, but also to its isolation from the international community.

For the next fifteen years, the ruling white powers fight black nationalists in a bitter and bloody guerrilla war. This ends with the independence of a new state – the Republic of Zimbabwe – under the leadership of the initially popular Robert Mugabe. He ruled the country with an increasingly overt authoritarian rule until he was overthrown in 2017 at the age of 93. It could have been a fresh start moment, but those who toppled him were former allies, embroiled in and trained in Mugabe’s tactics.

It’s about sheer survival

Dangarembga’s blunt narratives trace the pressures on a woman who has lived through her country’s turbulent colonial and post-colonial history: the unjust relations between white and black Africans; stories of men and women who harbored hopes of liberation; the economic catastrophe that followed the hyperinflation of the 1990s; and the authoritarianism of Mugabe and his ilk.

Speaking of modern-day Zimbabwe, plagued by poor governance, corruption and economic inequality, Dangarembga says: “The very basics of survival run very deep in this part of the world. We seem to have lost touch with the greater values ​​of joy and peace.”

At the Orlanda publishing house in Berlin, the German publisher of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s works, the course of the trial is being watched with concern. What the writer is currently helping above all is broad media support and attention, publisher Anette Michael told German radio stations. This is one of the reasons why the publisher has hired an observer via the Friedrich Naumann Foundation to inform the public about the course of the process.

In her initial reports, trial observer and lawyer Fungisai Sithole states that two police officers who were present at Dangarembga’s arrest were interviewed in early June. She sees the court case as a politically motivated show trial: “The government’s goal is to intimidate the author; to convey to her that she is nothing,” says Sithole. At the same time, the process should be seen as a deterrent tactic, which should also be understood in connection with the upcoming 2023 elections.

Fake Posters

The still very autocratic government around Mnangagwa is trying to systematically intimidate any opposition and to criminalize committed voices like those of Dangarembga, as they would campaign for freedom of expression and democracy. However, Sithole does not believe that Tsitsi Dangarembga will have to serve a prison sentence. So far, none of the statements have stood; and the police officer interrogated on June 6 testified that it was legal to demand a better society. However, according to Sithole, the main evidence on which the prosecution is based – the posters that Dangarembga had with him – was falsified. What happened to the originals is unclear. “This is worrying,” said the process observer.

In the middle of the month, Tsitsi Dangarembga would be on a multi-week reading tour through Switzerland and Germany. It is questionable whether the author can do this. The verdict is scheduled for June 27th.

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