‘Every time we say it can’t get any worse, it does’ – says Tsitsi Dangarembga; considers leaving the country

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By The Guardian UK

The state-led prosecution of Tsitsi Dangarembga, arguably the most globally revered author the country has produced, for joining a peaceful anti-government demonstration could signify yet another milestone in Zimbabwe’s grinding political decline.

Dangarembga, 63, has won multiple literary awards, including being shortlisted for the Booker prize. She wrote the first book by a black Zimbabwean woman to be published in English and is also an accomplished film-maker.

Speaking before her conviction for promoting public violence on Thursday, Dangarembga said that two years of waiting for the case to be concluded, as well as 30 court appearances, had taken a toll.

Dangarembga admitted she was considering joining the exodus of Zimbabweans from a country where the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his Zanu-PF party are operating an increasingly repressive regime.

Amid an excruciating economic crisis, health and education services have collapsed and poverty has dramatically risen under a kakistocracy that came to power in the 2017 coup against Robert Mugabe.

“Every time we say it can’t get any worse it does,” said Dangarembga. “We have to realise that actually there is no bottom so we have to start kicking ourselves upwards.

“I really didn’t want to leave Zimbabwe. I think now, post-coup, is where I see that there are absolutely no opportunities for me in this country. Service delivery is decreasing, the economic environment is critical again, and it seems to me that this is by design. I don’t want to be designed.

“So this would be the time in my life where I would think about it. Which is very sad. I brought up my children here, they had a good education, but it doesn’t offer anything for them. Most middle-class and other families do not have their children in the country. Either people have the money to send their children out or the children find their own way out because they also want prospects.

“I do not know who, besides the politically exposed people, that Zimbabwe actually offers anything to at the moment. There will always be the class of people who simply do not have the

Tsitsi Dangarembga protesting in Harare

Dangarembga’s book This Mournable Body, shortlisted for the Booker in 2020, was the last of a trilogy. Spread out across her career, it began with Nervous Conditions, which attracted global attention when it was published in 1988. Following the childhood of Tambudzai, a bright young girl born in the then-colonial Rhodesia whose life unfolds as a metaphor for the state of her country, Nervous Conditions is considered one of the best African novels ever written, making the BBC’s 2018 list of the 100 books that have shaped the world.

Although she has just published a powerful collection of reflective essays, Black and Female, and almost finished her latest book – appropriately of dystopian fiction – writing has been hard for Dangarembga.

“Writing is not really a long process – it’s just that the circumstances, the conditions of writing in Zimbabwe, are really very difficult,” she said. “Until a few years ago I didn’t have a regular power supply, so that alone made writing difficult.

“A lack of a literary culture that stimulates me in the way I need is something that makes progress very slow because I am really thrown back on myself. It’s difficult to get the kind of literature here that inspires me.

“People read and want to read in Zimbabwe and there is an educated population here. Accessibility is a problem – there are very few bookshops and publishing houses, and the price of books is astronomical.”

A venture into politics in 2010 with the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change left her disenchanted. “I was shocked at the rigidity of hierarchical structures, and that made any thinking outside the box extremely difficult. It seemed very difficult to bring ideas to bear and I just felt more able to engage with ideas if one is not boxed in a political formation. That was my experience of it.

“I felt I would probably be more able to contribute if I was not in an organisation where I had to toe a discursive line.”

Now her activism has led to prosecution, Dangarembga has faced the full force of vicious social media trolling.

“On social media there is solidarity but there are also attacks, often orchestrated. The president of the country encouraged supporters to get on social media and ‘push back’, which is a mild interpretation of the word he used, against people who do not follow the state narrative.” But, she said, her past experience – including isolation and racism while at Cambridge University – has been a preparation of sorts.

“From my experience of being black, female, Zimbabwean in a peri-independence situation as a young women, as I was then, I was aware I was going to have to account for every single word I uttered. I knew there was going to be pushback.

“I always knew people would say, ‘Who are you to say such things?’”

Dangarembga reflected: “I ask myself what makes Zimbabweans the way they are. A lot of it has to do with our particular colonial experience that leads me to think that Zimbabwe’s was superimposed on something that existed before. The amalgamation of these two is what we have today.

“Zimbabwe began as a private company and that is rather mind-blowing. Here we have something meant to be a nation state, something that started as a for-profit limited company. As far as I know that is not the case with any other nation in the world.”

She went on: “A couple of decades of that kind of rule is going to leave its mark. Even those who formed the next government were people who had come to Zimbabwe to participate in this private company. There was no authority apart from the private army of this company. This must have had an impact in the way the colonial force interacted with the people and in shaping the way the people were constructed under that brand of colonialism.

“Look at South Africa and Botswana – it was useful that the people who were recognised as from royal families became the first government after independence. With us we had people who had marginalised background who then go into a terrorist or armed-struggle movements, depending on how you want to look at it, then became government.

“I do think that the way empire is constructed simply mutates. The new age of empire just accommodates itself to the new demands – we are still living in an age of empire and it is an empire of capital.

“But for now Zanu-PF still thinks they are untouchable. They have some European countries who are doing realpolitik, engaging. They have allies in China and Russia. So they will survive.

“Anyone who has the opportunity to leave, leaves. Capacity is being drained. I don’t think Zanu is interested in building the country – their mindset is that this is all ours to exploit.”