Zimbabwean soldiers allegedly raped 17 women and brutally assaulted many others during the state crackdown on protests against a 150 percent fuel price increase in January 2019. Government has denied these claims, but legendary writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga has weighed in on the side of the alleged victims, while opening up about her own experience.
By Stan Mushava
Author and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga opened up about being a rape victim herself when she challenged President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s denial of rape allegations against members of the Zimbabwean security forces. The feminist firebrand considers her unreported experience of sexual abuse in 2004 as having emboldened her resolve to be a socially relevant filmmaker.
Citing her experience as an example of the trauma and repression rape victims struggle with, Dangarembga described as “callous” President Mnangagwa’s dismissal of claims that soldiers raped women during the crackdown on protesters last month. Mnangagwa has dismissed the alleged rape victims, who have taken refuge in NGO safe houses, as “stage-managed pawns” in political score-settling. He added that only one of them has reported her assault to the police.
“I am beyond shocked by the denial of these rapes by President Mnangagwa. The Zimbabwe Republic Police itself has publicly said it can take eight to 10 years for a rape victim to come forward. In my case, I only faced it after 12 years, and I still don’t know where or how to report it. The callousness exhibited here is mind-blowing,” Dangarembga tweeted.
In a recent interview with the news site France 24, Mnangagwa denied that the army raped and killed civilians in extra-judicial retaliation to the January 2019 protests against the increase in fuel prices. “We have, both through print, media, radio and TV, appealed to those victims to come forward and report to the nearest police station. If you’re not comfortable to report to the nearest police station, go to the nearest church and report the abuse you underwent. Only one single case has come up,” Mnangagwa claimed.
In an exclusive interview with This Is Africa, Dangarembga said Mnangagwa’s narrative is conveniently one-sided. “My understanding is that rapes did occur during the crackdown,” insisted the author, whose feminist Bildungsroman, Nervous Conditions, was named one of the 100 greatest books of all time by the BBC in 2018.
“Government has produced a few NGOs, including Musasa Project and Adult Rape Clinic, who have supported the government position that rape did not happen. However, there are many NGOs working in the area, for example, Zimbabwe Project and Counselling Services, to name just two, that tell a different story,” she said.
SADC rubberstamps government’s denial
State media has challenged NGOs that provide medical and counselling services to the alleged victims to help them report the assaults to the police. Government insists that the women are being “paraded” to give Zimbabwe a bad rap and justify the imposition of sanctions. Worryingly, the Southern African Development Community subregional bloc has rubberstamped the government’s denial of responsibility in the crackdown, which reportedly left 12 people dead.
One of the alleged rape victims spoke anonymously to Newsday newspaper and cited fear of reprisal as her reason for not reporting to the police.
Not the first time
This is not the first time that Mnangagwa has cited the absence of police reports to absolve the state apparatus of violence against civilians. Last year, on a largely successful international PR crusade, the president used the same reasoning to convince The Economist that there had been no political violence in 2008 elections.
“It was fair, very fair. Where is the evidence for violence? Not a single case was taken to the police,” Mnangagwa argued. NGOs and private media estimate that more than 270 suspected opposition supporters were killed in 2008 when Mnangagwa’s party was smarting from its first electoral defeat.
“The Zimbabwe Republic Police has released information into the public domain concerning crimes, including rape, whose investigation is not being facilitated. The crucial question is this: Why does the partisan guerrilla government, as exemplified in a recent interview with French media by Mr Mnangagwa, ignore all these sources and only point to those that corroborate their stance?” Dangarembga asked.
Rape as a tool of oppression
She also referred to the fact that rape has long been used as a political control mechanism in Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. “Rape has been a tool of intimidation and coercion and a means of maintaining dominance through the practicing of violence on women’s bodies since the liberation struggle.
“This has never been dealt with in the history of Zimbabwe. Those who tried to engage with the issue of rape by state agents have largely been silenced or marginalised. One such example is the late poet Freedom Nyamubaya,” she said.
Nyamubaya was a Second Chimurenga veteran and author whose efforts to tell the story of women, like herself, who were raped during the liberation struggle was not entertained by the gatekeepers of the national narrative under the Robert Mugabe administration. Accounts that women in the provinces of Matebeleland and Midlands were raped by soldiers during Gukurahundi are yet to be dealt with by the successive Mugabe and Mnangagwa administrations.
“My own experience occurred in 2004. But I was not able to engage with it for a number of reasons, including the circumstance of the abuse. I do think, though, that this was a subconscious driver for my engagement with sexual violence against women in my work as a socially relevant filmmaker,” Dangarembga told This Is Africa.
Being exposed to a feminist discourse
Dangarembga’s artistic confrontation of the structures of abuse, however, predates her experience of rape, starting with her disgruntlement with the gendered social programming of her siblings when she was a child. “Identifying as a feminist when I was in my twenties and a student at the University of Zimbabwe, just after Zimbabwe’s independence, was important for me as it exposed me to feminist discourse.
“The Internet outage that took place in January 2019 reflected the government’s attempt to introduce Gleichschaltung to Internet news as well.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga
“This is how I learnt to understand the systematic nature of patriarchal oppression, in which violence against women is a strategy of silencing. Indeed, violence is visited upon those who are not white male heterosexuals in so many ways. I began to see this happening during the early 2000s, when Zanu-PF started losing support,” she said.
Sidelining those who speak truth to power
The accomplished filmmaker described the Zanu-PF government’s illiberal chokehold on media institutions as a “Nazi-inspired form of Gleichschaltung” that sustains a culture of silence. “Government controls all media in the country, except some social media and other digital platforms. The Internet outage that took place in January this year (2019) reflected the government’s attempt to introduce Gleichschaltung to Internet news as well. Gleichschaltung was the Nazi strategy of ensuring that all media presented the same narrative,” Dangarembga said.
Dangarembga worries that the “partisan guerrilla government” has also captured the creative industries.
It is this information blackout that propelled her in the direction of film. She, however, worries that the “partisan guerrilla government” has also captured the creative industries, as evidenced by the resource war that favours establishment narratives in the film sector.
“People like myself, who work to speak truth to power, often find ourselves sidelined and unable to tell the stories that we see need to be told,” Dangarembga said, noting the importance of critical and commercial support for artists who seek to dismantle the structures of abuse. “Young women will see the way in which potential role models like myself are sidelined and will decide that it is not a good idea to follow in my footsteps,” she said.
Dangarembga recently gave the keynote address at Berlinale Africa Hub Talk and took part in a panel discussion that was themed “Inclusive Network Building: African Women Film Professionals”. She is set to curate the African Book Festival in Berlin from 4 to 7 April 2019. – This Is Africa.