Tsitsi Dangarembga, shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, writes on demonstrating, writing, and being arrested.
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On 31 July 2020, I went out, intending to demonstrate for an hour or two, and then return home to work on the young adult dystopian fiction I’m writing. The demonstration had been called by Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of a small opposition political party, in response to the staggering amount of corruption that high-ranking officials in the ZanuPf governing party practice in one of the poorest countries in the world.
I had demonstrated several times in the months before. The first was in May, when the government granted a business associate of President Mnangagwa billions of local dollars to upgrade a private hospital into a COVID-19 facility. Seriously ill, and in respiratory distress, I was referred to the facility by my doctor, a couple of months after the grant was effected. I arrived to find it closed to the public – although nurses and other staff meandered or sat around. On asking when the hospital would open, I was referred to the Ministry of Health.
When I arrived home, I made a call for like-minded citizens to join me in a protest at the hospital. A couple of dozen people responded. My demonstration strategy was to substitute running round my garden with running up and down in front of the hospital, with a placard hung from my neck. As we debated protest messages and built consensus on social media, the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced. Amidst movement restrictions enforced jointly by the police and the military, I ended up demonstrating on my own.
This was not surprising. ZanuPf intimidation and violence – following over a century of identity- and wealth-destroying colonialism – have left many people fearful, devoid of initiative. Government mismanagement and abuse of the economy have resulted in an unemployment rate of over 80%. The UN World Food programme predicts that 8 million Zimbabweans – that’s half the population – will face severe hunger this year if food aid is not provided. We resent, and suffer a degree of shame at, our reputation for our being amongst the most educated population on the continent not translating into wellbeing and prosperity.
Against this background, Ngarivhume’s call for a demonstration was inspiring. It was hard to believe there was a person amongst us brave enough to suggest a public expression of discontent with ZanuPf. The call was made on social media, several weeks before the demonstration was to take place, giving people time to organise. The response was immediate and passionate, with lively discussions on how best to conduct the demonstration in Zimbabwe’s repressive environment.
There being a couple of dozen riot police in the back of the truck, I thought better of exhibiting my screenshot of the Constitution.
Freelance journalist Hopewell Chin’ono took up the call to protest. Reporting on corruption involving COVID-19 relief, Chin’ono had publicly alleged that the First Family, including President Mnangagwa’s wife and some of his children, were central figures in the double-dealing. With Chin’ono’s influential support, it looked as though nothing could stop the demonstration, and that, for the first time since the military-incited public demonstrations of 18 November 2017, which were part of the process that deposed then-President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabweans were going to demand an end to our government’s excesses.
The authorities moved swiftly to stop the momentum. Ngarivhume tweeted that state agents were searching for him; he and Chin’ono were arrested on 20 July. Then, two days before the demonstration, Minister of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, Kazembe Kazembe, announced that the protest was illegal. And next, President Mnangagwa denounced it as an insurrection.
I was outraged by this assault on civil liberties. There were no signs of a deteriorating security situation in the streets. Instead, rumours that factions within ZanuPf intended to use the demonstration as cover for an inside job against President Mnangagwa intensified. I didn’t see why squabbles inside the governing party should reduce my and other Zimbabwean’s constitutional rights. In the runup to 31 July – encouraged, by my solo demonstration at the hospital, that some civil protest space still existed – I carried out several more solo demonstrations. On these occasions, I often passed police officers, who did not interfere with my right to demonstrate peacefully. So, in spite of warnings from the governing party, I resolved to continue to demonstrate. Meanwhile, on social media, the consensus was that the new context made a traditional demonstration suicidal, and that people should therefore demonstrate in their neighbourhoods, in small groups. On 30 July, I put out a call for women to demonstrate at the corners of their streets.
Their world is hermetically sealed to any contrary ideas.
On the day of the demonstration, armed with a screenshot of the relevant section of the Constitution on my cell phone and carrying my placards, I left my yard to meet a friend at a shopping centre. There was a deathly silence in the streets, where neither cars nor pedestrians moved. There were no groups of demonstrators. Although people in Zimbabwe want change, we do not yet have the capacity, material or psychological, to create it. It is a predicament portrayed in my novel This Mournable Body, shortlisted this week for the 2020 Booker Prize, which follows the devastating journey of university graduate Tambudzai Sigauke. She tries, wholly unsuccessfully, to build a dignified life for herself in post-independence Zimbabwe.
My friend and I walked down the road towards town. Only a few cars drove by. To be more visible to a greater number of people, we stopped at an intersection, where we could catch traffic travelling in all four directions. A strange man came up and filmed our placards without asking our permission. Later, a state-owned vehicle passed by, did a U-turn up the road, and returned to stop in front of my friend. A few minutes after that vehicle left, a riot vehicle came. A state agent in black riot gear stepped out to tell us: ‘What you are doing is illegal’. There being a couple of dozen riot police in the back of the truck, I thought better of exhibiting my screenshot of the Constitution. My friend and I climbed into the vehicle. Minutes later, we were sitting on a concrete floor in Borrowdale police station.
After a couple of hours, we were moved to Harare Central Police Station. We were driven there in a large, white double cab, with three police officers for company. The windows were up. The stridently cheerful voice of a DJ on a state radio channel was followed by up-tempo music. In that moment, I realised how Zimbabweans who have no access to social media – or to news other than the state media, or the few so-called independent newspapers compromised by their dependence on state licences to operate – believe that ZanuPf is acting in the name of the people to meet the nation’s challenges. Their world is hermetically sealed to any contrary ideas.
I was detained for a night, before being granted bail the following evening.
I came out more determined than ever to work on my forthcoming book. In it, a group of young people exist in a post-apocalypse, totalitarian Africa. There, they take on an ancestral mission to save their world.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is the author of three novels, including Nervous Conditions, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and This Mournable Body, currently shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is also a filmmaker, playwright, and the director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust. She lives in Harare, Zimbabwe.