In July 2020, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic From (ZANU-PF)’s led government State arrested prominent journalist and documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono for exposing a Covid fund corruption scandal. Along with many other activists and members of the official opposition challenging both Covid-related and ongoing corruption, repression, economic mismanagement by the “post-Mugabe” military government, Chin’ono was arrested a further two times. Having been an initial supporter of the Emmerson Mnangagwa-led government that promised political reform and economic growth on assuming power after deposing Robert Mugabe in a coup, Chin’ono has become one of ZANU-PF’s most vocal critics. Here, he speaks to essayist and novelist Panashe Chigumadzi about “post-Mugabe” Zimbabwean activism and opposition politics.
Panashe Chigumadzi: Let’s start with the November 2017 coup. You, like the thousands of Zimbabweans who marched behind the army tanks in our capital Harare’s streets, supported the military’s overthrow of Mugabe. You initially supported the “new dispensation.” What was the thinking behind that?
Hopewell Chin’ono: I thought it was an opportunity for change. My parents thought so too, they marched. People across different towns in the country marched because they thought it was a turning point. And I was one of those influential people who said we should give this arrangement a chance to see how they will do — but we now see how they squandered that good will away.My reasoning at the time was based on the fact that the [main] opposition’s leaders — Morgan Tsvangirai, then President of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the two MDC vice presidents at the time Nelson Chamisa, and Thokozani Khupe — coming out in support of the coup, so whether you liked it as an individual or not, it would not have made any difference.
I knew there was an internal power struggle, but I was looking ahead thinking that these fights will be resolved at some point in the history of our country, but at this point in time, people are dying because our hospitals are not working, the economy has been dead — we need to save lives.
PC: So you decided to fall in line with what the consensus of the opposition and the broad citizenry wanted in that moment? In theory, as a journalist, your fidelity is supposed to be to objectivity and to the truth as opposed to what we as citizens might want politically. In practice, where do we — or you — draw the line there? At that moment who was acting? Was it Hopewell the citizen, who felt the desperation that many of us identify with, or was it Hopewell the seasoned journalist who was being objective?
HC: I think, for me, at that moment it was Hopewell the citizen, not the journalist. I wanted to see change. I wanted to see an economy that will provide jobs for young people. I wanted to see an economy that will provide clean water for our people in the townships, I wanted an economy that will give the opportunities that I had as a young man. Since the opposition and citizens were not opposed to it, I thought that any resistance would be insignificant. I looked at the options and asked myself what alternative do we have?
So, I said I’m just going to give these people a chance. There are moments in history where people have been surprised, such as Nigeria when Sani Abacha died in 1998. After decades of dictatorship, it was the military that agreed to hand over power to democratically elected officials. I thought that we could have that in this country where the military finally says, you know what we cannot carry on like this. We need to move away from these politics of toxicity. I thought they would do that here. When we were speaking to them privately that’s what they said they wanted. And even when you speak to them privately today, and some of them say that’s what we want, but “this guy” [President Mnangagwa] is the problem.
And so, for me, as a citizen that’s what I wanted in the end: a departure from the politics of toxicity. Hopewell the journalist continued writing critically. In fact, when the President appointed his first cabinet, I wrote a scathing article saying that this is not the change that people are looking for, he has brought in the same old deadwood. So on the journalistic side I continued being critical.
But when they would reach out to people like myself and say, “Could you help us out? We want to reform, we want to change,” we wanted to give them a chance. When we spoke to them they in fact went beyond examples of Nigeria. They said they wanted to be a mixture of Rwanda and Singapore. President Kagame [from Rwanda] actually sent a team to Zimbabwe to meet our authorities. There was a lot of goodwill — both economic and political, locally and internationally. They blew it. With the benefit of hindsight we see that on some of the decisions that were made — we were wrong as a country. We have learned from it, but I want to tell you something. If there’s another coup today Zimbabweans will support it again. That’s because of our desperation. Remember that for us to support that coup in the first place, it was a matter of desperation.
PC: To clarify, you are saying that you believe that even after this particular moment when people are saying things like “It was better under Mugabe” and there is deep resentment towards this military regime, people would still be marching behind tanks, kissing soldiers in the street and having their children taking selfies with them?
HC: Not quite in that sense. There won’t be any kissing going on, but they will not resist it. You see, if Zimbabweans resisted that coup in 2017, the coup would not have happened. We were used by military strategists when we marched in order to validate the coup, so that they could go to the international community to say that the people demanded this.
Now, people will not necessarily march, but they will not resist it. They’ll be happy to see the back of Mnangagwa, because there is deep resentment at the moment at the corruption, the incompetence, the inequities, the nepotism — the fact that he only hires people from his clan. They see this as worse than Robert Mugabe and people resent that, so seeing Mnangagwa being removed is something they would support. They would be behind it.
PC: That’s a strong statement. To clarify, are you saying that Zimbabweans have not learnt the lesson that ZANU-PF and not an individual is the problem?
HC: Yes, ZANU is the problem, but people assume that an individual is a problem. I was speaking to a Professor the other day, who was saying [Vice President Constantino] Chiwenga needs to move in fast [to remove Mnangagwa.] And I said, but how does he “move in fast”? He’s ZANU, their interests are the same. It’s just another group who will be looting now, instead of Mnangagwa’s Karanga clan which is looting today. It will be the same with Chiwenga. So Zimbabweans must understand that at the heart of the crisis is not an individual. I wrote an article some years back: “the problem is not the individual, it is the system that must go.”
PC: So, in your view, what is the barrier to understanding this? Why do we still get in bed with ZANU? Is it cultural? Why aren’t we able to move past this even when we’ve bitten so badly before.
HC: I think we don’t have a culture of challenging authority. I think it comes from, who we are, as a people we’ve never challenged authority. There is a group of people in the past who challenged authority. Now we don’t. We don’t have a capacity, or stamina to resist or have the courage to resist.
PC: Is it a lack of organizational capacity as the opposition and our citizen movements?
HC: Let me say something controversial.
HC: Zimbabweans are not as smart as they think they are. They think that what is happening on the continent is beneath them. And yet they are walking on top of sewage. They are drinking water that gives them cholera. They don’t have jobs. Their parents are dying at home because they don’t have medication. That does not happen in the nation of educated people. They are not educated.
PC: Another strong statement. What I will say is that I do think we have a sense of a particular kind of exceptionalism that comes out of being a former settler colony. For example, I distinctly remember when the army killed six people after the election results dispute [in August 2018], people deemed it a turning point. The military was shooting unarmed people, in broad daylight, in the back. I remember seeing a tweet expressing disbelief along the lines of “You cannot do this, this is not Mogadishu!” I think that, as Zimbabweans, we have never really gotten over the “shock” of having been “reduced” to the picture of a dysfunctional post-colonial African state. Having spent a large part of my life in South Africa, I think it is similar to South African exceptionalism — itself a hangover from apartheid — that gives us that sense of not really being part of the African continent and its discontents. That itself comes from a history of settler colonialism that we haven’t quite reckoned with. I think that sense of exceptionalism gets in the way of our learning from post-colonial African experiences, because we are constantly saying it could never be us, and when it is us we respond with shock and disbelief.
HC: I agree with you. We were told that we were the second most efficient economy, the “bread basket” of the continent and all of that. I think that has never lifted. I definitely see the same with my South African friends who can’t get over the fact that they are dealing with load shedding.
You know, we can use the analogy of an abusive lover. Things were great in the beginning, but It begins to change. Your friends tell you about it, but you don’t want to accept it because you want to hold on to this man that you met you know — hold on to the perfect guy, but it’s no longer perfect. It’s similar to how we don’t want to accept that a lot of our mothers were abused, because they were saying, I can’t leave, I’ll try and make things right and things will change. I think it was a bit like that during the 2017 coup. At that moment, we the citizens were like that, the abused person was wheeled out of their homes to go into the streets right? We thought Mnangagwa would change things, you know, but the abuse continued.
PC: Right, so let’s speak about 2020. It’s a very difficult year across the world, and especially in Zimbabwe where the Covid has been used as a cover to clamp down, loot and, perhaps most worryingly, illegally amend the constitution to consolidate executive powers and effectively make Mnangagwa an autocratic President with the authority to do as he pleases with little input from citizens.
As public unrest grew over the government’s inadequate pandemic response, inflation around 750 percent and an impending economic and hunger crisis, you exposed connections between Mnangagwa’s son and Drax International, a United Arab Emirates-based company that was awarded a $60 million contract to supply COVID medical equipment. While the exposé led to the contract’s cancellation and the arrest and dismissal of the country’s health minister, you declared in June that you feared for your life after ZANU-PF singled you out for “systematic targeted attacks of the first family members.”
In the end, the government arrested you and Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of Transform Zimbabwe, which had called a national protest against corruption and economic mismanagement on July 31st. Ahead of the protest the state arrested both of you on charges of “inciting public violence.”In reality, they were the chief cause of public violence. Zimbabwe Republic Police had openly admitted that since the pandemic’s onset more than 105,000 people have been arrested for violating lockdown regulations.They had arrested nurses striking over COVID conditions, at least six journalists including yourself, Hopewell, for the COVID coverage. For staging non-violent socially distanced demonstrations on July 31st, the date of the national protest, police arrested dozens of citizens including Booker Prize nominated novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere. This set the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign trending worldwide, by highlighting the painful reality of Black Zimbabweans facing violence and repression from a postcolonial Black government whose indifference to the lives of their citizens could have come straight out of the pages of Frantz Fanon’s seminal 1961 essay “Pitfalls of National Consciousness”.
In the end, yourself and Ngarivhume were detained in the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison for weeks without trial in a cruel colonial relic that should have been shut down when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, but instead went on to violently hold liberation stalwarts like Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Masuku when they railed against the government sponsored 1983-1987 genocide of more than 20,000 Ndebele “dissidents”. Cast in leg irons; denied bail, private visits with lawyers and family, food, and adequate covid-19 precautions; detained— you became two prisoners of conscience. You became symbols of political persecution by Zimbabwe’s military state. Your arrests became an indictment of a country that is full of law, yet devoid of justice. Did you anticipate that kind of repression?
HC: I knew that they were upset when I started exposing the big corruption that was taking place, especially people around the President and people close to them. I don’t think anyone expected them to be so stupid as to terrorize me, because arresting me made things worse for them. One word of advice — if they had sought advice from someone like me — arresting someone will only push up his profile, right? The second time I was arrested again for exposing corruption. And then the third time I was arrested again for something that I actually didn’t do — they used a law that does not exist. So it makes you realize that they have no appetite to do the right things, because now, the arrests have become so ridiculous. Why would you arrest someone for something they didn’t do? This shows you that there are no changing insights coming from ZANU-PF. It’s an intellectually dishonest system — the whole system. If Mnangagwa went today, ZANU-PF would remain ZANU-PF.
PC: On your social media platforms you are often quite critical not just of the repressive ZANU-PF state — but of Zimbabweans and the broader political culture. You are often admonishing Zimbabweans for the way in which we think about certain things, the way we act within the political system. This brings me to the question of political consciousness and ideology. Right now, in Zimbabwe beyond saying ZANU-PF or Mnangagwa must go, do we have any real political ideology? Importantly, is there a real left in Zimbabwe? For example, the 2018 election manifestos of ZANU-PF and the MDC were quite similar in terms of a neoliberal developmental agenda declaring, as Mnangagwa now rebranded as a scarf-wearing Davos man, that “Zimbabwe is open for business”. From that alone, you couldn’t really distinguish key differences between them. In terms of ZANU-PF, there is a vision of a Kagame-style neoliberal military regime that they are too trigger happy and disorganized to achieve. In terms of the MDC there is a nominally “social democrat” but heavily pro-market, pro-business vision that is quite ironic given its deep roots in the trade union movement. On the campaign trail, both promise change and bullet trains and spaghetti highways — which sometimes seems to be the zenith of our political imaginations. Is there any real sense of political ideology in Zimbabwe and do we need one?
HC: We don’t have ideology because we’ve never been ideological. ZANU-PF’s supposed anti-imperialism was just empty platitudes. You know Mugabe called himself a Socialist, whilst he is living a luxury lifestyle. Now when you look at the youth of today, particularly they have no real political consciousness other than wanting material things. You know, you don’t find us talking about any ideological leanings.
I used to laugh, you know, you’d hear the likes of Tsvangirai saying that they are social democrats who want the “Third Way”. They were borrowing a lot from the center left politics in Europe and America during the Bill Clinton and Tony Blair era. And then you would try and ask them to frame what that means in our local context and you could not get anything much out of them.
During the Mugabe era, me and a few others were able to demolish the sanctions argument. I know that’s part of the reason why people became very vitriolic towards me because I’ve demolished their arguments. With me, my issues are corruption, the looting of public funds— that I can define. Those are the issues that define me in my political thinking.
With today’s activists and opposition politicians, I ask them, beyond “ZANU-PF must go”, what are you guys thinking? What are your philosophies? What do you think needs to be done? Just so you get some kind of idea where their heads are at. When you start asking for ideas now to say okay let’s assume that you woke up and ZANU-PF was gone tomorrow. Right, how are we going to get this country out of this ditch? There usually isn’t much.
PC: Would you say that that was part of the key problem in 2017? That so much of our opposition and citizen politics was very much centered around “Mugabe Must Go” such that when somebody, anybody really, gives us the possibility for Mugabe to go, even if it isn’t backed by sound or substantive political ideology, then that becomes okay, because we’ve only ever really defined ourselves as “against” and not “for” something?
HC: You are correct. MDC became the “Mugabe Must Go” party right. If you go back to 2017. Mugabe is gone now, President Mnangagwa is now president saying “I am the one who removed Mugabe.” You can tell that the opposition did not know what to do now, because they had defined the problem as Mugabe.
PC: And ZANU-PF and the military could easily co-opt the “Mugabe Must Go” politics because there was no other substantive politics behind this. They simply had to rebrand and declare themselves the ones who had “liberated” the people from Mugabe.
HC: Yeah, you know, that’s a problem because even as Mugabe became the system, people still made the mistake of focusing on the individual. Even today, beyond “ZANU-PF Must Go” there’s no critical thinking taking place in our opposition politics. Again, I think it’s because we think we’re so educated and smart. We don’t want to be told anything contrary to what we think we know. You see one of the most fulfilling things in life is if you pick up the phone and say Hopewell, I disagree with you on this point and then you engage me. We don’t have that kind of critical culture. This is also a culture that says that young people like yourself cannot tell us, the old folks, anything. This is a culture which is doing the damage in both political parties.
PC: And would you characterize opposition party politics as largely fighting for co-option into the current political system?
HC: We don’t understand that we should be fighting for change. As Dr Nkosana Moyo [ former Minister and leader of the opposition party Alliance for the People’s Agenda] says, “we are fighting for co-option.” To be part of the feeding trough. So when people like myself turned down jobs from the state , it was a culture shock for the system because they are used to people who want to “eat”.
I mean you don’t have to look far — half of the opposition is now in ZANU-PF. Whether ZANU-PF direct or Douglas Mwonzora. He was Secretary General of the MDC. [Elias] Mudzuri was the Vice President of the opposition party. They are in ZANU-PF now. So they were clearly fighting for co-option. They were fighting for spoils. They wanted to use the state to gain personally. So you what you now have with people like Obert Gutu, the former MDC Vice President who has now joined ZANU, is that even if the MDC in that construct had gotten into power, the looting would have continued.
PC: Following in the vein of looting, ideology and popular consciousness, earlier this year, you released a clip of your fooling around on your computer and singing “Dem Loot” to a Zim Dancehall beat, and overnight it became a viral phenomenon. How do you explain “Dem Loot”’s popularity? This might have been your most effective political message to date.
HC: I think it is because young people are very averse to discussing deep things in the way that you and I are discussing right now. I think “Dem Loot” became the phenomenon, because they could identify with the beats, reggae, dancehall style. I used their lexicon, I picked the words that excite them. If I had said “They loot, they loot, they loot” — it would have been a different response. It was a very simple message, there was no complexity. Many of our people can’t deal with complex things.There’s no reading culture except for the Bible and for academic purposes. You go into people’s homes — huge homes, but there’s no single bookshelf and I’ve seen that in so many homes, you know.
PC: I think we can look at it from a different perspective. Perhaps it’s our own failure of communication and connection. Again, this is why I’m very interested in this question of popular consciousness. I go back to the tradition of Chimurenga music, sung by musicians like Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe. In the post-independence era Mapfumo especially was critical and exiled for singing about failed revolution. In a different register, artists like Oliver Mtukudzi, sang in deeply metaphorical ways about our lives and our struggles with songs like “Bvuma/Wasakara” (2001), which, in the aftermath of the massive support of the MDC’s historic entry in the 2000 parliamentary election, was a veiled message for Mugabe to accept his age and move on for the younger generation of politicians. Beyond this, one of my favorite songs is Leonard Zhakata’s 1994 song “Mugove,” which was really a sort of the canary in the mine, singing a working woman or man’s struggle to eke out their fair share from leaders who are unjust and corrupt. You can just imagine he is singing this in the era of Economic Structural Adjustments and a couple of years after the Willowgate corruption scandal. He perfectly distilled our political situation through an everyday everywoman’s song. For that, people loved his music.
So what I’m saying is that people are interested in these questions of politics, ideology and consciousness — our music tradition reflects that. I very much believe Bob Marley and the Wailers when they sang — “who feels it knows it.” I think it’s less a question of whether people understand or care about the political situation we’re in, and more of a question of our failure to speak in a language that people can feel.
What I really love about Zim Dancehall is its narrative ability. At its best, Zim Dancehall’s storytelling and chronicling of Zimbabwean life from the perspective of maghetto youth is unparalleled. When you listen to the late Zim Dancehall legend Soul Jah Love, there is a raw, honest, and truly beautiful narrativization of the struggles and aspirations of “ma ghetto youth.” We could say the wretched of the earth. He wasn’t above it. He was from it. This is why people identified so much with him and really felt the loss of his life earlier this year. And that’s why ZANU-PF rushed to give him a state burial as a “National Hero” — despite that supposedly being an honor reserved for those who fought in the liberation war — because they wanted to co-opt his connection with ma ghetto youth, even if they are the cause of their misery. One of my favorite songs is Winky D’s “Twenty Five” (2016), a really popular song which speaks to all the things he thought he would’ve achieved by 25, but he couldn’t and can’t because of what Zimbabwe has become. People clearly are interested in talking about the issues.
HC: Well, yes, music can be an instrument of political consciousness. Ideally, people act on it. We just listen and sing and dance. We don’t do much about it. If you look at “Dem Loot,” it’s interesting because the ones who were really interested in talking about the real political messaging behind it were the international platforms like Channel Four and the BBC. If you look at the set of questions that I was asked by them and then look at the questions that were being discussed on local platforms, they were completely different. The international platforms were interested in having a serious conversation about the issues — about the looting of public funds from our hospitals, our schools. They wanted to flesh things out. But did you see young people here fleshing the issues out on social media? I didn’t see that. I had to force it down their throat.
PC: Well, perhaps it might be the case that the issues that “Dem Loot” speaks to might be a revelation to an international journalist, are going to be self-evident to the young people living Zimbabwe’s reality. And so there is not the same need to dissect and analyze what they already know, when they need to act. For example, we have seen the University of Zimbabwe students who have been arrested, for speaking out and challenging the state of affairs. You have the likes of Vongai Zimudzi and Namatai Kwekweza who have faced state harassment and multiple arrests for continually challenging the proposed constitutional amendments. There is clearly a political consciousness and a willingness to act amongst young people even under conditions of heavy repression. It’s just that we don’t know how to listen, especially because it may not be in the language that we want to hear it in. We dismiss it at our peril.
I think there is something important happening there. Again I’ll go back to Zim dancehall, where the storytelling is unparalleled. It might not be in the language of a revolutionary call to arms, but there is clearly a very serious interest in bearing witness to life and struggle in Zimbabwe. That’s why people really loved Soul Jah Love — his storytelling was unparalleled. People connected with the story of “Mwana waStembeni”, the orphaned child of his late mother Stembeni, the boy from the ghetto who has faced poverty, homelessness, rejection from family and friends and society, and wants to love and be loved, who just wants to be somebody in this impossible Zimbabwe of ours.
Though seemingly apolitical, Soul Jah Love’s kind of ghetto realness is very powerful and very different from Jah Prayzah who is aligned with authority and effectively became the military’s praise singer. Jah Prayzah’s music and military aesthetic — as the only one who was allowed to wear camouflage publicly — paved the way for our acceptance of the military regime. When people marched behind tankers and kissed the soldiers, “Kutonga Kwaro” (“To Rule Well”) and “Mudhara Achauya” (“The Old Man Will Come”) was blaring through the streetsIn other words, Jah delivered what cultural historian Mhoze Chikowero calls the “sonic coup”. In that sense, Jah also differs from Winky D who has been aligned with the opposition and is quite critical of our political situation.
HC: Unfortunately, a lot of our young people are in that space because of the Jah Prayzah mentality of wanting to go with the flow, where they can get paid. We have some of them saying, if we do this, and we do that will end up not getting paid. You know it’s complex. It is frustrating sometimes.
PC: In light of all of this, where do you see the opportunities and the challenges for activism and opposition politics in Zimbabwe in the next couple of years?
HC: The challenges are things that you know the dictatorship is using state institutions like the judiciary, like the police to strangle the democratic space so no one can speak to challenge the state. I mean right now you have two women in jail, allegedly for breaking covid regulations. They are in prison for a month, and yet we see these regulations being broken every day.
I think the opportunities will come from people realizing that only then, and nobody else is going to bring change. It is not the Hopewells of this world, who have to bring change. All that I have is a platform and a name such that serious people when I say something.
I think most of those that follow me, the young people, on social media already understand the issues, but how do you move from understanding to actually acting on that which you’ve now understood? This problem that we have in Zimbabwe. I think smart people like yourselves understand what the issues are, but what you can do about it — that’s the problem.
I think there’s also a lack of serious lack of leadership. Because you know, although I often use the South African comparison —especially of the township activism under apartheid—the truth is also that those people were doing what they were doing where was there was leadership. People like Winnie Mandela were on the streets leading people. And that is not there in this moment here in Zimbabwe you know. We need to see this leadership. Leadership is not scared of going to jail. The leaders we have today are scared of going to jail.
PC: Beyond jail, people are also worried about losing their lives.
HC: Government would not kill MDC President Chamisa, that would make a martyr. But they will send him to prison.
PC: What about the case of someone like Pastor Evans Mawarire, who captured the national imagination during the 2016–17 protests with his #ThisFlag movement asking citizens to take a stand against the government? People really loved and showed up for him — and there was a threat against his life. When he fled the country, people were really disappointed. Do you think we are at the point in our struggle where people need to be willing to give up their lives?
HC: We don’t know whether the pastor was about to lose his life. We don’t have evidence of that. What we know is that he had galvanized people and people were ready for a fight — and then he ran away. Perhaps there are certain things that he knows that he has not told us yet, but you see every struggle is danger. I do what I do conscious of that danger. If they kill me so be it. You cannot kill the whole country. It’s easier for them to target people like myself, because others sit at home. If just 50,000 people did what I do, a lot will be changed. Ultimately, this is part of the problem — instead of expecting some sort of Messiah, we need to realize, nobody is going to liberate you except yourself. ■