On July 31, 2020, two women took to the streets in Harare for reforms. The posters have simple demands. “We want better reforms for our institutions.” And: “Freedom for our journalists. A better Zimbabwe for all.” The two women are journalist Julie Barnes – and author, filmmaker and Peace Prize winner Tsitsi Dangarembga.
The two are arrested on the spot, have to spend a night in jail, temporarily hand in their passports – and have been tamed by the judiciary for two years since then, until a court hearing took place in June. On June 27, the anti-corruption court in Harare is due to decide what to do with the women.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is known around the world as a Booker Prize nominee, and her novel Nervous Conditions is one of the 100 books that changed the world, according to the BBC. In 2022 she was a member of the international jury at the Berlinale.
In Zimbabwe, however, she is much more than a well-known author and filmmaker. “Above all, she is a great role model,” says Barbara Groeblinghoff, who is responsible for Zimbabwe and South Africa at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Dangarembga was the first black woman to publish in English in Zimbabwe – a rarity so rare that she couldn’t find a publisher in Harare. Her debut appeared in London. She was also the first black woman to direct a feature film. And she was the education policy spokeswoman for the opposition party.
“It’s very visible,” says Barbara Groeblinghoff. She has no doubt: “Of course the trial against Tsitsi Dangarembga is a show trial.” Dangarembga has been observing the government’s attempts to wear down civil society for a long time. Now she’s supposed to pay for that.
You face several years in prison. Such treatment of unwanted civilians is common practice in Zimbabwe, says Groeblinghoff. “Preference is given to arresting people on Friday because they can’t appear before the magistrate until Monday. So they have to spend two days in prison – with often outrageous charges”.
The situation is similar with Tsitsi Dangarembga. The allegations against her and Barnes are: an illegal demonstration, they also broke Covid rules. According to Groeblinghoff, everyone involved is still puzzling over another absurd charge: that of “bigotry”.
Each allegation carries a sentence of several years in prison. The German Book Trade Association, the new PEN Berlin, the Foundation Council for the Peace Prize and the Berliner Orlanda Verlag are calling for the proceedings to be stopped immediately and are using a poster campaign to call on bookshops to show solidarity with Tsitsi Dangarembga.
The tactics of wear and tear that the Zimbabwean judiciary used on the two women up until the beginning of the proceedings is apparently a symptomatic procedure. Tsitsi Dangaremba has been summoned a total of 26 times since 2020, as her German publisher Annette Michael from Berlin’s Orlanda Verlag reports.
Dangarembga was first published in Germany in 1991 – at that time by Rowohlt Verlag. After that, the German reception was quiet for 20 years. That only changed in 2019 when Annette Michael obtained the rights for “Nervous Conditions”.
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation has the process observed on site in Harare by an employee. Dangarembga and Barnes seemed tired, disturbed and frustrated, the observer described one day of the trial in early June.
Her report also provides insight into the way the case is being conducted. Two of the posters presented to the court were not originals and were therefore not accepted as evidence. A police officer, called as a witness, tried to portray the harmless posters as a call for public violence.
In view of the thin evidence, Dangarembga’s defense lawyers have now requested that the proceedings be discontinued on June 27, reports the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Dangarembga, however, is looking to flee to the public: it has now been possible for her to embark on a reading tour of Europe.
In Frankfurt, where she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in October 2021, she spoke a few days ago in the Haus am Dom about power mechanisms in Zimbabwe – but not about the ongoing process, which she is forbidden to do. On June 26th she will open the 10th anniversary edition of the literature festival Lit:potsdam in Potsdam. There, too, she will be able to speak about violence against women – but not about what is happening to her in Zimbabwe.
No one knows what the chances are that the court in Harare will drop the case. “Honestly, I have no idea,” says South Africa expert Groeblinghoff. Does fame help Dangarembga – or does it increase the risk that the government will want to make an example of her? “It could go both ways,” says Groeblinghoff. On the one hand, it is always helpful to shed light on what is happening in the country.
On the other hand, Groeblinghoff sees the danger that the government wants to show that if someone like Dangarembga can be sentenced, what about those who nobody knows? The government would probably not be sad to be rid of them, says Groeblinghoff – this may even be the calculation behind the politically motivated juggling by the judiciary. “But perhaps the biggest affront, the ultimate finger, is that she keeps coming back to Zimbabwe.”