The world-renowned author Tsitsi Dangarembga is known for socially critical, courageous literature. Now she is on trial in her native Zimbabwe for precisely these views.
The award-winning author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga once said that there was a joke among Zimbabweans: In the South African country there is freedom of expression, but no freedom of opinion. For Dangarembga, this joke could soon become bitter reality.
The 63-year-old has been accused of publicly inciting violence, breaching the peace and bigotry in her home country after taking part in anti-government protests in July 2020. Dangarembga has to answer to a court in the capital Harare, which reports directly to President Emmerson Mnangagwa. This Monday (June 27) a judge is to decide whether the proceedings will be discontinued. If not, Dangarembga faces several years in prison.
The trial is about exactly the issues that the author, who is married to a German, has been campaigning for in her books and films for decades: discrimination, human rights, persecution and corruption. Two years ago, Dangarembga took to the streets to protest for a reform of corrupt institutions in Zimbabwe. She was arrested, released on parole shortly thereafter, and charged in September 2020.
In Zimbabwe, the human rights situation has not improved even after the ousting of the autocrat Robert Mugabe, who has died in the meantime. A February European Council statement criticized the intimidation of the political opposition and other voices critical of the government.
Dangarembga is known for taking an unabashed look at difficult realities. She takes a close look at the struggles for survival of ordinary people, addresses racism and violence against women, and advocates equal rights for everyone in a globalized world.
At the PEN Pinter Awards ceremony in June 2021, she was hailed as the “voice of hope we all need to hear”. The jury praised her “ability to capture vital truths even in times of upheaval”. A few months later, Dangarembga was honored with the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
Now the literary world fears that a prison sentence could stifle the important voice of Dangarembga, at least temporarily. The German Publishers & Booksellers Association was outraged that the author, whose works reveal social and moral conflicts, had to answer to a court for her social commitment. “The stock exchange association demands a constitutional and fair trial and assures Tsitsi Dangarembga of full solidarity,” said the head of the association, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs.
Dangarembga himself does not want to comment on the process. She fears her statements could be interpreted as contempt of court, she told the German Press Agency. Her husband Olaf Koschke describes the procedure as “absurd” and “Kafkaesque”. “Constructing a criminal offense based on two posters calling for reforms is a strong piece,” he says. Dangarembga has been under constant threat for two years and has had to appear in court 26 times.
“It’s very clear that it’s about harassment of regime critics,” says Koschke. His wife and he are quite confident that the proceedings will be discontinued sooner or later – even if it could take years. But the fear is always on the back of my neck. “We have to reckon with everything,” says Koschke.
Publisher Annette Michael also looks at the process “with uneasiness”. Her greatest fear is that Dangarembga will actually have to be arrested – “that would be a disaster”. The author fights resolutely to improve the political situation in Zimbabwe, “that’s why she takes it all on herself”. Therefore, she also faces this process; Leaving her country permanently is not an option for her, “you have to have the greatest respect for that”.
The author is currently staying in Europe, with stops in Norway and Germany. Next weekend (June 25th) Dangarembga will be a guest at a meeting of European literature houses at Berlin’s Wannsee. Whether they on 27.6. would have to appear in person in Harare is still unclear, says Koschke.
According to Dangarembga, she has had a close relationship with Germany since she was a young girl. At the age of ten she came across “The Diary of Anne Frank” and then taught herself German. In the 1990s she turned to film and moved to Berlin, where she studied film directing. In 2000 she returned to Africa with her husband.
However, Dangarembga was discovered late by German readers. Her internationally acclaimed novel “Nervous Conditions” was published in English in 1988, the German translation “Aufbruch” only came to bookstores in 2019. Here Dangarembga describes the struggle for the right to a decent life and female self-determination in Zimbabwe using the example of an adolescent woman. The question now is whether she can also realize this for herself.