Zimbabwean author, activist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga has been on trial since her brief arrest in July 2020 for attending an anti-government protest.
A decision on her possible acquittal was expected on Monday, but Dangarembga was unable to appear in court for health reasons. The trial was adjourned and an arrest warrant was issued against her.
Last week, her lawyer Christopher Mhike informed the court about her illness, with a judge deciding that the arrest warrant could be lifted as soon as Dangarembga presented a valid medical certificate. August 4 was set as the new date for Dangarembga’s possible exoneration.
‘A better Zimbabwe for all’
Accused of inciting public violence, there have been claims that fabricated evidence has been presented during the trial in the Zimbabwe capital, Harare.
The case has received a lot of publicity because shortly before her arrest in 2020, the author’s novel “This Mournable Body” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a world-leading literary award. In 2021, she was also awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
For the renowned writer and filmmaker, it would have been easy to avoid the trial and not keep traveling to Zimbabwe from her home in Germany for the hearings. But Dangarembga decided to stand up for justice.
On July 31, 2020, Dangarembga and her friend, the journalist Julie Barnes, were arrested for protesting against the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Even though citizens had been ordered to stay at home as police and soldiers were deployed to shut down any protest, Dangarembga and Barnes carried posters calling for reforms, the release of jailed journalists and “a better Zimbabwe for all.”
A grueling trial
For their peaceful protest, the two women were promptly arrested. Although they were released on bail the next day, they were charged, in addition to inciting public violence, with breach of the peace, bigotry and violating restrictive measures taken to fight the coronavirus.
The subsequent trial became a farce: Dangarembga and Barnes had to answer to the so-called Anti-Corruption Court, which is the only court that does not report to the Justice Ministry, but directly to the president’s office.
They have had to appear before the court more than 25 times over the last two years, and they have been sent away several times without having achieved anything.
The judge has changed three times, and a police inspector admitted under cross-examination by Dangarembga’s lawyers to having manipulated pieces of evidence: the original posters the women used during their protests were not obscene, nor did they incite violence.
Dangarembga herself was not allowed to comment on the trial during the proceedings, but in an interview with DW, which was conducted on the occasion of the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade last year, she provided insight into the authoritarian political regime in her home country.
“We have a joke in Zimbabwe: There is freedom of expression, but there is no freedom after expression,” she said. “So people are aware that, if you say certain things, there might be repercussions from the state.” She added that the state often finds out about what people say “because it seems that there are people who are willing to inform the state about what people do and say.”
Mnangagwa’s authoritarian regime continues
Since longtime President Robert Mugabe was overthrown and replaced by his former companion and deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in 2017, the southern African country remains mired in a deep socioeconomic crisis.
Massive human rights violations have been documented by Dangarembga in films that address social taboo topics such as AIDS and violence against women. Her three novels trace the path of the 13-year-old Tambudzai Sigauke, who embarks on her education and confronts a system in which racism, corruption, misogyny and poverty continue to dominate people’s daily lives.
That alone makes her a thorn in the side of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party. Ahead of the 2023 election, the situation is coming to a head for opponents and activists like Dangarembga.
Courageous fight for freedom of expression
“Zimbabwe has always been a violent and repressive state,” Dangarembga said in 2021 when she accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
“The new nation state, created through a brutal freedom struggle in which atrocities were committed by both sides, was just as violent. The militaristic rhetoric focused on conflict, enmity and hostility, and that is the philosophy that has dominated Zimbabwean authorities to this day,” she said.
In 2021, Dangarembga was still confident that the charges against her would be dropped, believing her “situation in Zimbabwe is not particularly serious.”
Now, the situation looks different. If the motion for acquittal is rejected on August 4, the defense will then have to summon its witnesses. If convicted, Dangarembga faces several years in prison.