Zimbabwe will “implode” unless its citizens are allowed to speak out, according to award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga who was arrested last week as part of a crackdown on anti-government protests in Harare.
Ms Dangarembga, whose book This Mourning Body is on the long list for this year’s Booker literature prize, was released on bail after being detained for joining demonstrations demanding an end to misrule and corruption under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The protests were called over an economic crisis that has led to a currency collapse and triple-digit inflation, and evidence of rampant corruption that this week triggered US sanctions on a leading supporter of Mr Mnangagwa.
“Unless something shifts then Zimbabwe is going to continue to implode,” said Ms Dangarembga in an interview with the Financial Times. “Zimbabweans need to make their voices heard” and continue to speak out against corruption, she added: “We have to keep engaged.”
Her arrest and the harassment of others sparked the most united international condemnation of Mr Mnangagwa since he took power after a military coup that unseated Robert Mugabe in 2017. It has also attracted a social-media rallying cry, “Zimbabwean Lives Matter” that echoes the “Black Lives Matter” protests.
Ms Dangarembga is much respected for her contributions to Zimbabwe’s cultural life. Her debut novel Nervous Conditions has come to be regarded as an African classic in the three decades since it was published. She also wrote Neria, a landmark Zimbabwean film.
When she joined last week’s protests she said she did not expect arrest. “I said to myself that I’ll demonstrate for about an hour and then go home and work on my books,” Ms Dangarembga said, adding she was “still in a bit of a daze” about what happened next.
As she staged a small protest in a Harare suburb with a placard bearing the words “we want better, reform our institutions”, Ms Dangarembga was arrested, accused of inciting violence and jailed overnight — another victim of a brutal crackdown that all but silenced last week’s protests.
The severity of the crackdown showed the pressures facing a country “on its knees economically”, she said. “It’s an extreme reaction, and extreme reactions usually occur when a person or a piece of wood or anything is under extreme tension. A piece of wood will snap when the tension is great.”
As condemnation mounted this week, South Africa dispatched envoys under President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose ruling party also issued rare criticism of Zanu-PF, its cousin as a former national liberation movement.
But, underlining the limits of international pressure, Mr Ramaphosa referred to the banning of protests and abuses under Mr Mnangagwa only as “recent reports of difficulties”.
Mr Mnangagwa has been unrepentant. In a national address this week he promised to “flush out” opposition to his rule and he blamed a “few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors” for the unrest.
“The dark forces inside and outside our borders have tampered with our growth and our development for too long,” he said.
Before her arrest, Ms Dangarembga said she continued to believe “there was still a space for citizens to express themselves”. But that was rapidly vanishing as the arrests, abductions and intimidation tactics once targeted at known political foes of Zanu-PF have been turned on ordinary professionals — journalists, lawyers, and authors — with devastating effect.
This week a judge denied bail to Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist who exposed serious graft in pandemic-related procurement and was arrested last month on what are widely seen as trumped-up charges.
Others point to signs that Mr Mnangagwa is under pressure from army commanders who originally handed him power.
The US sanctions on Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a major ally of Mr Mnangagwa, have also added to the pressure. The US accuses the businessman of using his relationship with the president to amass wealth improperly. But the true state of the factions within the army and ruling party remains murky.
“There’s a deep sense of unhappiness among certain elements of the military, but there’s a lot of misinformation, and disinformation, flying around,” said Piers Pigou, a consultant at the International Crisis Group.