To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, PEN is highlighting the judicial harassment of Tsitsi Dangarembga, an award-winning Zimbabwean novelist, poet, filmmaker and playwright who was arrested last July while attending peaceful protests in Harare. Dangarembga’s most recent novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She wrote her debut novel, Nervous Conditions, when she was in her mid-twenties and it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989. Doris Lessing called Nervous Conditions one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
Dangarembga, a founder member of PEN Zimbabwe, has worked as a writer for over three decades. She established the production house Nyerai Films and the International Images Film Festival for Women, as well as the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa, of which she is director. She has spoken of the difficulty of making films in Zimbabwe if you are not aligned with the government in some way. She has been hoarding scripts and looking outside the country for the funding required to turn them into films.
On 31 July 2020, Dangarembga joined peaceful protests against corruption and misgovernance in Harare and posted on social media, ‘Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This is the principle of faith and action.’ While attending the protest, Dangarembga was arrested by plain-clothes police officers, who refused to provide her with a reason for her arrest. She was detained overnight at Borrowdale police station and was then charged with incitement to commit violence and breaching anti-coronavirus health regulations. She described the conditions in detention as ‘appalling’, with no running water or food. She was released on bail the following day and ordered to attend court on 18 September. She was also forced to surrender her passport to the authorities and ordered to report to a police station every week until her court appearance. Since then, she has attended court on several occasions, but the trial has been repeatedly delayed by prosecutors. PEN has been calling since August 2020 for all charges against Dangarembga to be dropped. On 13 January this year, she was presented with the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression 2021.
When Robert Mugabe was removed as president in the 2017 coup, many hoped for an end to repression and corruption in Zimbabwe. However, Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is tainted by his long association with Mugabe. After Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mnangagwa held a series of senior cabinet positions under Mugabe. Known for his ruthlessness, he was nicknamed ‘Garwe’ or ‘Ngwena’, which mean ‘the crocodile’.
During his presidential inauguration, Mnangagwa pledged to reinforce the pillars of democracy in Zimbabwe. Instead, under his administration, freedom of expression continues to be attacked, while journalists and other dissidents are frequently intimidated and assaulted by security agencies and endure arbitrary arrest, detention and judicial harassment. Individuals are also arrested for posting criticism of the authorities on social media. Prompted by the ongoing economic crisis, human rights abuses and the government’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exposed the failings of the country’s health-care system, people took to the streets. During the 31 July protest in Harare, the security services shut down most of the city, arrested several government critics and forced others into hiding.
According to PEN, Dangarembga’s arrest and prosecution are part of a coordinated crackdown on those protesting against high-level corruption involving state officials. In recent weeks, several journalists, peaceful protest organisers and participants have also been arrested and charged. Dangarembga states that she is not an activist but merely a responsible citizen ‘who cares about the way the country is going’. ‘Things do not have to be the way they are, they could be different,’ she says. Until the charges against her are dropped, the threat of further detention hangs over her.
Readers might like to send appeals urging the authorities to drop all charges against Tsitsi Dangarembga and those protesting peacefully against the government and to stop the judicial harassment of writers, journalists and other dissenting voices in Zimbabwe; and seeking assurances that the government will respect Zimbabwe’s constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and comply with its obligations under international human rights law and standards on the rights to association and assembly.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa
President of the Republic of Zimbabwe
Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs
His Excellency Ambassador Gabriel Mharadze Machinga
London WC2R 0JR
Fax: (+44) 20 7379 1167