HARARE — As a crucial election approaches, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime is in overdrive cracking down on politically conscious musicians who encourage people to register to vote and sing against corruption.
The southern African nation is set to hold its general elections in August this year.
Mnangagwa, leader of the ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) will be seeking a second term against Nelson Chamisa, a more youthful and charismatic leader of the opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) whom he narrowly beat in the 2018 polls.
On 4 March, overzealous police stopped Zimbabwe’s most celebrated reggae and dancehall artist Winky D’s performance in Chitungwiza, about 25 kilometres from the capital Harare.
Born Wallace Chirumiko, Winky D was unceremoniously hauled off the stage by cops when he was about to sing a song titled Ibotso, a Shona word translating to curse in English. In performing this song, he collaborated with a young Hip Hop artist Mukudzeyi Chitsama popularly known as Holy Ten, from the controversial album Eureka released on 31 December last year.
Ibotso associates Zanu PF leaders with disowning questions about corruption and massive looting of public resources by political elites.
Holy Ten happily performed the song at a show in neighbouring South Africa in March.
Marshall Shonhai, a music critic, said in a country like Zimbabwe which purports to be a constitutional democracy and has such an extensive bill of rights, what happened to Winky D in Chitungwiza should never happen again.
“It was a clear violation of his constitutional rights chief amongst those rights being the right to freedom of expression. As an artist, he has the right to express his ideas freely and without censorship or discrimination,” Shonhai told IDN.
Revellers who were singing along at the concert in Chitungwiza were amazed to see the officers invading the stage stopping Winky D just as he was about to sing the anti-corruption song Ibotso.
In Eureka album, Winky D features young artists including Enzo Ishall, Shingai, Herman, Tocky Vibes, SaintFloew, Anita Jackson and Killer T, Mwenje Mathole, and Nutty O.
This masterpiece of an album contains songs that raise different socio-economic issues from corruption and abuse of State resources to poverty.
Winky D’s management has in the past maintained that they are apolitical, and fans interpret his songs the way they want.
Another artist Baba Harare, born Braveman Chizvino, had his show in Chitungwiza not sanctioned by the police during the same period.
The current law states that event planners should notify the police of their intent to hold public shows for peacekeeping purposes.
Baba Harare has been vocal through his social media platforms encouraging youths to register to vote and critics say this is why he is being targeted by the Zanu PF regime.
It is widely believed that the ruling party does not want youths to register in numbers because due to the high unemployment rate and economic malaise, they will likely vote for an alternative party thus anyone encouraging youths to register to vote automatically becomes a CCC vote mobiliser.
“I think my recent Twitter activity was not necessarily coming from a place of political consciousness. It was coming from a place of frustration. I guess I was always told if you are frustrated about a situation, do something about it,” Baba Harare told local media last year about encouraging Zimbabweans to register for 2023 general polls.
This is not the first time that Winky D or other musicians have been attacked for singing against poverty in Zimbabwe.
Early last year, dancehall chanter Ricky Fire was attacked on social media by suspected Zanu PF supporters after he had performed at the CCC star rally ahead of local elections in March 2022.
Born Tulani Takavada, Ricky Fire openly endorsed Chamisa and supported CCC just after its launch. He was even clad in yellow clothing synonymous with the opposition party’s colours. He received messages and calls threatening his life.
Singer and producer Sanii Makhalima based in Australia has been attacked several times online for being a staunch supporter of CCC and criticising the massive looting of public resources by Mnangagwa’s government.
Born Lungisani Makhalima, the talented music producer encourages youths to register to vote for change in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.
Winky D and his Vigilance Band members were attacked by a machete-wielding gang associated with Zanu PF in Kwekwe in Midlands province on the eve of Christmas in 2018. This was after Winky D had released a song titled Kasong Kejecha that talks about corruption, the deteriorating health sector, and the currency crisis.
The song was even denied airplay at State-owned radio stations as Zanu PF leaders and supporters who control them were not happy with the lyrics.
In 2020, the police cancelled Winky D’s highly publicised concert in Harare citing a raft of measures to curb the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. But critics say it was targeted as other artists had proceeded with their shows during the same period.
In 2022, police officers disrupted Winky D on stage at a show in Borrowdale, a leafy suburb in Harare.
Shonhai deems the attacks on Winky D show a lack of tolerance. “It is actually surprising that such would happen, one would reason that a political party might want to present itself as ‘tolerant’ to divergent views especially going towards an election but then this is Zimbabwe where perceived dissent is not looked upon kindly,” he said.
Shonhai is of the view that Winky D’s music is powerful and youths can relate. “What his music is talking about is simply the day-to-day issues that ordinary people are grappling with. He sang about what people are already experiencing.”
Obert Masaraure, Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition spokesperson, pointed out that Winky D’s music builds consciousness among citizens, particularly young people. “Winky is trying to wean young people from drugs and get them to a point where they seriously reflect on the root cause of the national crisis,” he told IDN.
“This can potentially build a movement of young people fighting back against unemployment and poverty in general as we are witnessing in Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. This movement can either vote the current government out or push the regime out through mass action.”
Lazarus Sauti, a media researcher, told IDN that for decades, violence has marred and continues to scar elections in Zimbabwe. “Targeted as well are artists who are seen as pro-opposition and anti-government. A few months before the general election, the attacks against Winky D are not shocking,” asserted Sauti.
“The administration is attempting to frighten voters in order to influence the election’s outcome. They can accomplish this by ostracizing socio-politically engaged musicians like Winky D,” he added.
Soon after launching the album in Harare, Winky D received criticism from Zanu PF-aligned artists and youth movements including the Economic Empowerment Group which held a press conference in January asking the government to ban Winky D from performing in Zimbabwe arguing that his songs “incite violence”.
Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation (ZBC), a national broadcaster, had to issue a statement clarifying they had not banned Winky D’s music.
Other artists such as rapper Awa Khiwe, Quonfused and Baba Harare posted solidarity messages on their social media platforms. Politicians too, including Chamisa, an opposition party leader, has called on the government to “stop stifling artistic freedoms”.
Zimbabweans have always interpreted music along political lines since the colonial and post-colonial eras. During the colonial era, the white minority government used repressive laws to stifle musicians like Chimurenga (liberation) music guru Thomas Mapfumo who were politically conscious.
After independence during Robert Mugabe’s era, Zimbabwe’s music legends like Leonard Zhakata, Mapfumo and the late Oliver Mtukudzi have had their songs banned on the radio over political messages in their songs.
Mapfumo migrated to the United States where he has been living in exile for two decades until 2018 when he returned to perform at a music concert in Harare.
“The same draconian censorship laws that existed in (pre-independence) Rhodesia still apply today. Many artists have been censored but it has not been done officially or publicly, artists are simply denied airplay,” Shonhai pointed out.