Maverick Citizen


Tsitsi Dangarembga: ‘My core is the business of increasing citizen agency’ in Zimbabwe

Tsitsi Dangarembga: ‘My core is the business of increasing citizen agency’ in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga was awarded the Africa Freedom Prize at a ceremony at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg on 5 October 2023. (Photos: Mark Heywood)

On 5 October award-winning Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga was awarded the Africa Freedom Prize at a ceremony at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. In 2020, her novel ‘This Mournable Body’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Below we publish Dangarembga’s acceptance speech.

Good evening honoured guests, friends and colleagues. I am astonished at the honour of being awarded the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Africa Freedom Prize this evening. I thank everyone present for being here to celebrate with me, and I thank the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for the distinction.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation website tells me that the Africa Freedom Prize “honours outstanding personalities who provide decisive impulses for the development of liberal civil society in African countries”.

Often in our region and on our continent, we tend to think that civil liberties are under threat, and this threat comes from corrupt dictatorships.  I take what I suggest is a more radical and hopeful view of the situation. I do not think that civil liberties are under threat. My proposition is that they are nascent, yet to be established.  

Civil liberty is the state of being subject to laws that are established for the good of the community and the good of each individual in the community.  When I say that I do not think that our civil liberties are under threat, this is not to say that we are not reeling under the maelstrom of corrupt dictatorships and virulent totalitarianism. Indeed we are, and it is my contention that this state of affairs is to be expected in nations that are wrestling with the shadow of colonisation and its formational ill-effects. 

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga, a writer and filmmaker from Zimbabwe, receives the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade 2021 (Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels) from Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, head of the German Book association at the Paulus church in Frankfurt on 24 October 2021. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

Civil liberties will only flourish on our continent when we overcome socially and normatively a brutal and violent history that stretches back half a millennium to our first engagements with Europe, and further back to our earlier engagement with the Arab world.  

The Africa Freedom Prize of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation is an award that recognises individuals who have freely and willingly taken on the task of undoing the violations of the past as they manifest in our present dispensations. I am honoured to be the recipient of this award, along with such illustrious Africans as President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia, Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s Build One South Africa party, Bobi Wine, presidential candidate in Uganda’s 2021 election, and the incomparable Chimamanda Adichie whose writings and cinematic adaptation of her fiction have made her a household name on our continent and beyond. The nascent civil liberties many of us on the continent seek to build up have champions in these great Africans and in others whose quiet, dedicated work is not as well known.

Much has been made internationally of my July 2020 arrest by the Zimbabwe Republic Police, for walking down a street peacefully carrying two placards that read “Free Hopewell, Free Jacob, #Zimbabwe”, and “We want better, reform our institutions”. Much was also made of my conviction last year in my country’s lower court on charges of attending a meeting with intent to incite public violence, breach of the peace or acts of bigotry. However, the High Court of Zimbabwe overturned that conviction on May 8 this year. As a result, Julie Barnes, who walked down the road with me on that Friday morning three years ago, and I are now free citizens of our country.  

Arrested Movement For Democratic Change Alliance activist Job Sikhala arrives in a prison truck at the Harare Magistrates’ Court on 2 September 2020. He was facing charges of inciting the public to protest on 31 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Other nurturers and builders of civil rights in Zimbabwe have not experienced the same outcome that Julie and I have enjoyed. Jacob Ngarivhume, who called for the peaceful demonstration of 31 July 2020, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment on charges of inciting public violence. Opposition politician and lawyer Job Sikhala has been in prison since June 14 2022, when he was arrested for incidents connected to the femicide of the late opposition activist Moreblessing Ali.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Books of Not – Life through the eyes of Tambudzai

Moreblessing Ali was abducted in broad daylight on May 24 2022 by known Zanu-PF members. The state downplayed the abduction, claiming that one of the abductors was the deceased’s former boyfriend so that the abduction was a domestic affair. Here we see the misogyny that is endemic in oppressive regimes.

Job Sikhala represented the Ali family in the abduction case. Dissatisfied with the way the state handled the matter, Sikhala conducted investigations that led to the recovery of Ali’s dismembered remains in a well on a property belonging to the mother of one of the men Ali had last been seen with. Job was arrested at Ali’s funeral and imprisoned without bail. In May this year he was found guilty of obstruction of justice and received a suspended six-month jail sentence, but remains in pretrial incarceration on other charges.

Oppostion member of parliament and a critic of the government Job Sikahala arrives at the Harare Magistrates’ Court on 3 May 2023, facing charges including obstruction of justice. He was convicted and given a wholly suspended six-month custodial sentence with a fine of $600. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Sikhala personally asked me by communication from prison to champion his cause. In response to his request, I gave him my pledge to do so. If there are people in the room who are skilled in campaigning for the release of unjustly imprisoned individuals, I would be grateful if you would approach me later this evening to assist me in the work of obtaining Job Sikhala’s freedom. I am asking for help because that kind of campaign is not my core business.

The current authorities in Zimbabwe use diverse methods and strategies to deprive Zimbabwean citizens of agency, in order to bend the citizens of Zimbabwe to their will.

What I have come to see is that my core is the business of increasing citizen agency. I conceive of agency as the decision process and capability to pursue individual or collective action. As a young woman who grew up disadvantaged by patriarchy, it was clear to me that women needed more agency. I consciously set out to tell the stories of women in my plays, prose and films in an effort to increase Zimbabwean and other African women’s awareness of the power they inherently possess by virtue of their existence.  

When, however, the sociopolitico-economic crisis in Zimbabwe worsened over the past two decades, I observed that while they still might have more agency compared to women, men too were losing their agency to decide on and pursue individual or collective actions. I realised that every single ordinary citizen who is not associated with prevailing power structures loses agency under conditions of dictatorship, and that in fact, totalitarian national authorities intentionally undermine their citizens’ capacity for agency.

The current authorities in Zimbabwe use diverse methods and strategies to deprive Zimbabwean citizens of agency, in order to bend the citizens of Zimbabwe to their will. I am now going to play a video that circulated on Zimbabwean social media in the run-up to the deeply flawed elections that were held in my country in August this year. The video shows how narratives in song, accompanied by rhythmic bodily movement, that is dance, are used to inculcate into and entrench certain ideas in the population.

Although I was distressed by this video, I was not surprised by it. Stuart Donan, in his book Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987, details how the coercive, violent element of nationalist politics, begun in the 1960s, was revealed as foundational to nationalist strategy in the 1970s through the operations of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla). Donan says: “Rural communities were reminded of the need to cooperate with the Zanla vakomana (boys) by random killings unaccompanied by explanation or justification, while at other times victims were arbitrarily deemed sellouts and dealt with accordingly.” (ibid, p94).

Creative arts products that appeal to a person’s emotional and motivational systems, such as song, dance and stories that descend into propaganda, are routinely deployed by internal colonisers to keep their victim populations ignorant, mentally numb and subjugated.

Donan writes of how a young Robert Gabriel Mugabe had, in 1962, told the executive of the first nationwide nationalist party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), while he was its publicity secretary, that the population in the rural lands, where around 80% of the country’s highly melanated population resided, were on the whole indifferent to politics.  The implication was that the rural populations needed to be shaken out of their indifference and into support for the nationalist movement.  Strategies of atrocity and terror were used to effect this change in Zimbabwe’s rural populations. Thus, by 1979 when the armed struggle came to an end, Zanu-PF, headed by Robert Mugabe, had established a vice-like grip on the rural populations. The scale of Zanu-PF terror activities in the rural areas was such that other parties were critically disadvantaged, as they were unable to campaign in Zanu-PF occupied territories. This pattern of behaviour has been maintained to the present day, supplemented by administrative deceptions, in other words, rigging.

Former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. (Photo: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives for a Bloomberg Television interview on the opening day of the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town on 4 September 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

State in exile

It was on pondering this aspect of Zimbabwe’s history that I came up with the concept of what I call Internal Colonisation. By Internal Colonisation I refer to a process in which a section of a national population emigrates from its homeland for the purposes of establishing a movement to wrest political power from a foreign colonising authority, succeeds in doing so and subsequently establishes its own repressive regime over the home country’s population. I call the process Internal Colonisation because in effect the liberation movement becomes a state in exile, with its own culture, economy, legal system and norms. Where the state in exile’s culture is violent and militaristic, this violent, military culture is imposed on citizens when the state in exile establishes itself as the government in the homeland.  

The pre-election video we saw a few minutes ago is a cultural product of the Zimbabwean internally colonising authorities. It uses the method of narrative embedded in song, reinforced by rhythmic body movements, to instil certain attitudes, dispositions and propensities to behaviour into citizens. We in this room might think that every person who sees this video is as horrified as I believe we are. On the contrary. The primitive brain where such images are initially processed, does not distinguish between virtual images, for example the virtual images of a video, and real-life situations. Virtual images can therefore provide compelling material for role modelling. Images such as those contained in the video can be interpreted as representing power and solidarity, which are seductive concepts to the disempowered and fearful in our societies. Creative arts products that appeal to a person’s emotional and motivational systems, such as song, dance and stories that descend into propaganda, are routinely deployed by internal colonisers to keep their victim populations ignorant, mentally numb and subjugated.

Zimbabwean author, activist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga arrives for trial at the Harare Magistrates’ Court in Harare on 4 August 2022. She was accused for protesting against Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa on 31 July 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Those of us who work for the establishment of civil liberties, and for these liberties’ necessary precursor, that is, citizen agency, by and large neglect to use such compelling tools of formation effectively. NGO interventions too often take the form of didactic teachings aimed at a person’s intellectual, cognitive systems. However, human motivation is derived from human beings’ emotional, affective systems. The change we desire can only be realised when our emotional and affective systems are engaged positively.  Therefore, to effect the change toward civil liberty that we want to see, it is imperative that citizens be given the cognitive and the emotional, motivational tools they need to champion change in their lives and communities.

I hope everybody enjoyed the music and has experienced the potential that artistic narratives have to promote citizen agency and civil liberties in our societies through the ability of these narratives to explain social dilemmas and to offer solutions that can have a role-modelling effect that motivates freedom-seeking behaviour among citizens.    

I say again, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, thank you for this prestigious award, and thank you everybody for your attention. DM


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