The acclaimed Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose most recent novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has been convicted of “inciting public violence” for silently participating in a protest in Harare in 2020.
Her trial has been closely watched as a sign of the tightening crackdown on freedoms under the regime of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced the long-ruling autocrat Robert Mugabe after a military coup in 2017.
Ms. Dangarembga, an award-winning novelist, playwright and filmmaker, has been obliged to appear in court more than 30 times since her arrest. “The case has drained the mental resources I use for my creative work, delaying projects and setting my career back by at least a year,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
The case reveals the “shrinking space for freedom of expression” in Zimbabwe, said the 63-year-old writer, who has been arrested twice before for her work on documentary films. “I think one of the impacts of the case is to intimidate people into silence. I think some people might think, ‘If that can happen to a person with an international profile, then couldn’t even worse things happen to me?’”
In July, 2020, Ms. Dangarembga and a journalist friend, Julie Barnes, joined an opposition protest against state corruption. Wearing masks because of the pandemic, they walked silently with two protest signs during the demonstration. One sign read: “We want better. Reform our institutions.” Their signs also called for the release of a journalist as well as an opposition politician who had been imprisoned.
Soon after they began walking with the protest signs, they were bundled into a police van and taken to Harare’s central police station, where they were held in custody for more than 48 hours in deplorable conditions. They were charged with inciting violence and violating COVID-19 lockdown measures.
After more than two years of delays, Magistrate Barbara Mateko convicted the two women on Thursday. They had told the court they had simply been exercising their right to freedom of expression. But the judge ruled they were intending to provoke violence.
“Clearly they wanted to pass a message. It was not peaceful at all,” Ms. Mateko said in her judgment. “They were expressing opinions and it was meant to provoke.”
They were both given six-month suspended sentences and fines of 70,000 Zimbabwean dollars (equivalent to just US$112 because of the country’s collapsing economy).
Their prison sentences were suspended on the condition that they do not commit a similar offence for the next five years. “The effect of the sentence is to try to silence Ms. Dangarembga totally – because clearly any type of protest, no matter how tame, will result in her imprisonment,” said David Coltart, a former Zimbabwean cabinet minister, in a tweet on Thursday. “This is utter lunacy.”
Ms. Dangarembga told reporters she was not surprised by the verdict. “We are in a situation where media freedom and freedom of expression is not encouraged and those like myself and my colleague who would wish to promote freedom of the media and freedom of expression, are found to have committed a crime. So, this literally means the space for freedom of expression and freedom of the media is shrinking and is being criminalized.”
Many other groups condemned the court verdict. “It’s a travesty of justice,” said Fadzayi Mahere, spokesperson for the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change.
“The right to demonstrate peacefully is constitutionally protected,” she said. “Being convicted for demanding reforms and a better society is proof beyond any doubt that Zimbabwe is a banana republic. I cannot think of anywhere else in the world where walking peacefully with a placard demanding a better society would land one a conviction.”
The U.S. branch of PEN International, the global association of writers, said Ms. Dangarembga was arrested for exercising her right to peaceful protest. “Her arrest and the long drawn-out trial against her is clearly intended to send a frightening message to anyone in Zimbabwe who wants to exercise their right to free expression and criticize their government,” said a statement by Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.
A Zimbabwean civil-society activist, Owen Dliwayo, said the court verdict will further reduce the space for ordinary Zimbabweans to express themselves. “Tsitsi Dangarembga and Julie Barnes did not commit any crime, but in the eyes of a fearful regime they are found to have committed a ‘crime,’” he said. “This is a political statement, not a legal ruling.”
Takudzwa Ngadziore, a university student leader, called it a “gloomy day” for democracy in Zimbabwe. “It’s a reflection that we are being ruled by a mafia which doesn’t understand the basic civil and political rights enshrined within our constitution,” he said.
Ms. Dangarembga’s debut novel in 1988, Nervous Conditions, was named by the BBC as one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world.
Her latest novel, This Mournable Body, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, several months after the author’s arrest.
Ms. Dagarembga won the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last year, the first Black woman to do so.
The jury said that her body of work “has made her not only one of the most important artists in her native land, but also a popular and widely recognized voice of Africa in contemporary literature.” It commended her commitment to protecting civil liberties and promoting political change in Zimbabwe.