Remembering Chenjerai Hove

Two years ago today, poet, novelist, and essayist Chenjerai Hove passed away in Stavanger, Norway. One of Zimbabwe’s leading writers, Hove was born in 1956 in what was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. His novels include Bones, which won the 1989 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. The author of four collections of poetry, including Rainbows in the Dust and Blind Moon, he  also wrote many essays on politics and life in Zimbabwe and a number of radio plays. A strong critic of Robert Mugabe’s regime, he was a founder member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association and president of the Zimbabwe Writers Union between 1984 and 1992.  Hove was living in exile at the time of his death as a fellow at the House of Culture in Stavanger, as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).

Serif were proud to be the publishers of Hove’s Shebeen Tales: Messages from Harareand to mark Chenjerai Hove’s death we’re offering this short extract from the book, in which he reflects on Zimbabwe’s “masked democracy” under Mugabe.

Once Upon a Democracy – Zimbabwe

Once upon a time, a chief sat at court with his advisors and any member of the chieftaincy who chose to attend. Arguments and issues were tossed in all directions across the floor. Everyone saluted the chief before reprimanding or praising him. Court poets recited the successes and failures of the chief’s regime. Meanwhile the chief listened, inwardly moved for fear he might restrict the participation of the people. A statement was inevitable as the debates became more heated than ever before. No solution was in sight.

Then a stranger with a load on his head and his feet itching for their tiring, far-away destination appeared on the horizon. ‘Call that man,’ the chief’s advisor told a young man. The stranger was summoned to the court where he sat and saluted the court and the elders. Immediately, the advisor briefed him without bias on the nature of the issues under discussion.

‘ As a passer-by , what do you think?’ Whereupon the man humbly gave his considered views. All sides to the debate listened in disbelief, stunned but convinced by the stranger’s new perceptions ofthe issue at hand. The day was done. Discussion ended in consensus and a pinch of objectivity.

That was centuries ago when village life meant that

everyone knew almost everyone else. This is 1994 and Zimbabwe is no longer a chieftaincy where anyone could walk into the seat of power to listen and to be heard. Zimbabwe is a modern state. Colonialism destroyed most of the traditional institutions that would have been a basis for a new modern democracy. In their place colonialism put a harsh police machinery, repressive laws to maintain ‘order’ by force and restrictive media laws of defamation which make journalists wield the pen in fear.

In Zimbabwe the elected President is viewed as the fountain of national wisdom, the national identity . His goal is to ‘develop’ all as they ‘rally’ behind him and his team of appointed ministers.

So far, nearly the entire team of ministers has remained in office for the past fourteen turbulent years. One wonders whether or not there is a system for the democratic evaluation of their performance.

The voices of the powerful are largely heard through government-controlled newspapers, state- owned radio (with four channels) and a semi- government-owned news agency. It is not easy for other news agencies to sell their news to newspapers and magazines in Zimbabwe.

There is a Ministry of Information whose task is to control and regulate the flow of information to the public. Information ‘controls’ minds of the citizenry in any country. In the end the dominant point of view becomes that of the government, whose view must prevail even if it might be false or warped. Control of hearts and minds. The people must not be confused by ‘disgruntled elements’, the government seems to say. Those elements threaten national unity and development. So only recently there was a political stir when two senior Ndebele politicians in the ruling party claimed government institutions practised ‘tribalism’.

The broadcasting station, major newspapers and the only news agency are government-controlled. There is hardly a day when the President is not headline news of one sort or another. Government ministers and powerful people’s speeches are the news, not the events which prompted those speeches. At the same time, the people are censored by illiteracy, hence the abuse of the mysterious radio voice to indoctrinate them into a state of passivity.

As a result journalism has become the art of summarising ministerial speeches. Debate and critical analysis died years back. In the 1980s this style of journalism was called ‘development journalism’, which was to compete with ‘sensational journalism’ of the West. Later, when the phrase got stale, it surfaced as ‘constructive criticism’ when prescribed by those same powerful figures. In both eras, the press continued to be diluted and many critical journalists left to become public relations officers for multinationals and parastate organisations.

The few non-government newspapers and magazines cry under the weight of one burden or another. Advertising space dwindles as private concerns fear to be associated with the wrong side of the economy. The government’s bureaucracy makes it impossible for ‘independent’ journalists to obtain information on the day-to-day goings on in government. In such circumstances accountability fades away and public officials go about their daily work knowing only too well that no one is watching them critically.

During the vicious years of apartheid in South Africa the voices of the independent press reminded the world that ugliness was being institutionalised in that country. Media revelations of the excesses of apartheid shook the world’s consciences into action. The press refused to be gagged, even by apartheid’s harsh media laws. Come majority rule, and the South African press might fall into the temptation of not daring to criticise the same people who symbolised their ideals during the years of repression. ‘We might be blamed for not supporting national unity and development,’ they might say as a lame excuse for not obeying their consciences.

Today, the Zimbabwean press lacks vigour and vision. Major media channels concern themselves with full coverage of President Robert Mugabe’s ‘successful’ tours overseas, but the people have instituted a new medium: rumour and gossip. President Mugabe himself publicly admitted that Harare was the capital of rumours. The rumour press operates from public drinking places, private clubs, the streets, private gatherings like parties and meetings.

Whenever scandals surface, few in the government- controlled media dare to investigate them, and if they do, they do so at their peril. The late Willie Musaruwa, one of Zimbabwe’s best journalists, detained for eleven years by the Smith government, was summarily dismissed from his position as editor of the Sunday Mail in 1985 for publishing a story the government did not like. So journalists who write in fear of their masters indulge in the final act of censorship – self-censorship. Donor agencies and governments feature daily on television and in the newspapers, pouring their begged- for money into our national coffers. Thus we become a nation of beggars whose hands are fully stretched to receive every cent from the wealthy nations of the North. No word about our national identities, our aspirations and perceptions, nothing. In the Zimbabwean media, our faces are blurred. We are mere masks performing in a farce from whose authorship we have been removed.

Praise singers, flatterers and sycophants have a field day. The right of access to information, the right of every citizen to participate in national debates, is relegated to the dustbin.

Ask any leader of the so-called ‘opposition parties’ what their experience is in trying to get a simple permit to hold a political meeting. I call ours a ‘masked democracy’, something which gives the stranger only a resemblance, which is not the real thing. Democracy does not mean fourteen or twenty registered political parties. It means participation at the lowest and weakest level of society.

Only informed citizens make effective democrats. Democracy is basically the right of the citizen to be right and to be wrong. It is based on the right to choose even if a citizen makes wrong choices. The right to choose entails a continual search for alternatives. The consensus of the old village is no longer enough. In its place should be the accommodation of differences and different approaches to life and death.

In Zimbabwe, deprivation of the right to choose is called ‘guided democracy’, a notion which assumes that the truth is found at the centre of power. As far as I can see, the truth is indeed found in the individual voice, the faintest voice in the land, the voice of a dispossessed citizen who invents new language to describe his or her new damned conditions. Thus democracy ceases to be just a five-yearly vote-casting farce without anything in between. Democracy becomes continual dialogue in which all the layers of society, individuals and communities stand up for their rights and are listened to. Democracy can never thrive in a political monologue in which the leaders, like rain gods, pour messages on the heads of disempowered individuals and communities.

At the centre of this multi-faceted dialogue is the right to be informed and the right to inform without undue interference from the powerful.

Find out more about Shebeen Tales here.