Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Freedom fighters of the diaspora

Munjodzi Mutandiri has a tightly trimmed goatee, dimples and wire-framed spectacles and signs off his emails with a simple message: ZIMBABWE, his correspondence reads in capital letters, SHALL BE FREE.

It’s a quiet but unshakeable proclamation, what he begs must be certain. Mutandiri persists, as if, if he insists with enough repetition and enough conviction, his wish will be granted.

The 28-year-old spends much of his time in civil society meetings, working for Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) as the coordinator for its South African chapter and, in turns, for the Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum (ZSF) and the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union (Zinasu).

It is not lucrative work. He takes his pay when and where he can get it. It’s nothing near what a young production engineer — which is what he holds his degree in from the University of Zimbabwe– would make.

Mutandiri is not the kind of guy who does his work with a puffed chest. He does not shout from a platform or pound his fist from a podium. He organises meetings and facilitates discussion groups. He is a bookish sort of revolutionary. And, like many born-free Zimbabweans in the civil society movement who are living in South Africa, has dedicated much of his short life to keeping the post-liberation liberation movement alive and well.

“If they had been there in the 70s, they would have been in the training camps in Tanzania and Mozambique,” says David Moore, professor of development studies at the University of Johannesburg, who spends a good chunk of his time studying Mutandiri and his peers for a book he’s writing about generational change and the new political space in Zimbabwe. “They are not going to be able to set up a war again. It’s no longer a black versus white struggle, their ideologies are less clear cut and so is the nature of imperialism. But they are idealistic, extremely intelligent, honest, concerned democrats with integrity; they have got a real cause and they don’t give up.”

11am, November 4 2009, The Westcliff Hotel, Westcliff, Johannesburg
On a drizzly morning in a conference room with crystal chandeliers, a thin, pale woman with an Afrikaans accent greats guests who have gathered at the invitation of the US-based NGO Freedom House.

At the front of the room, a comrade from Youth Initiatives for Democracy in Zimbabwe is seated at the long table, which is draped in white cloth. He speaks of Zanu-PF’s recharged youth militia, of attempted abductions of activists, of the long-promised land audit, of Southern African Development Community (SADC) meetings without teeth and about issues of the still uninclusive inclusive government. He warns that something bad is to come, something worse than last year, when violence spread across the country prior to the elections that should have made Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai the president but instead resulted in compromise.

When he finishes, journalists raise their hands. They ask what civil society wants of the SADC. They ask about missed deadlines. They want to know if the unity government has failed, if the MDC will walk away. The air is thick with the exhaustion of the Zimbabwe question, a sense of hopeless inaction, of lots of talking and no workable solutions.

A hand shoots up from the back. A young man in an African print shirt and a goatee, seated just in front of Mutandiri, gets right to the point. “It’s not about the land and it’s not about SADC,” he says to the panel before him. “It’s very simple: Does the inclusive government in Zimbabwe work? And if it doesn’t work, what is the solution?”

There are no answers offered. Instead his point devolves into a series of back and forths and what ifs and what nows, leaving the central question to hang thick and heavy, and poignantly unresolved.

1pm, November 17 2009, Devonshire Hotel, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Mutandiri, on behalf of ZSF, has called 30-odd members of Zimbabwe’s civil society together to talk about how to move forward.

Bishop Paul Verryn is seated at the head of the speaker’s table. The Central Methodist Church, he tells the group of communists, trade unionists, academics and human rights activists, has never been fuller. “I don’t know what will change the mind,” Verryn says, his church collar propping up his tired face. “I’ve been on a course of non-violence my whole life. But I don’t know what will change anything in Zimbabwe but a bloody revolution.”

Some heads nod and some pound tables in solidarity, clearly amused that it has taken a man of the cloth to bite so deftly into this raw, hard truth.

“People are not leaving in small numbers,” he says. “This is a displacement. This is a political problem. It’s not a refugee issue. We need to move into the realm of practical realisation of the struggle.”

3pm, November 25 2009, National Constitutional Assembly offices, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
In a sparse, threadbare office on the first floor of an ageing high-rise, Mutandiri is at work in the NCA offices in the Action Support Centre, which is also a hub for the Peace and Democracy Project and the ZSF. A well-read copy of Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence is placed over his notepad.

Another deadline has passed for the government to implement the basic tenets of the government of national unity (GNU); the MDC has disengaged with the ruling Zanu-PF; there have been xenophobic attacks against Zimbabweans in Cape Town.

And the born-free freedom fighter has been poring over Mugabe’s speeches from the past decade in preparation for a paper on the history of Zimbabwe’s civil society movement from 2000 to 2008. But his laptop has just crashed and the paper, gone.

Mutandiri takes off his glasses, squeezes his eyes shut and presses his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger to relieve the pressure, as is his way. Then he tells me his story.

Mutandiri first got involved in student politics at Chinhoyi University of Technology, where he was twice suspended. He has been arrested 13 times. But in June 2007 it all came to a head. Mutandiri and Beloved Chiweshe, former secretary general of Zinasu, were picked up by police and beaten until they collapsed. The police took everything they had before leaving their limp bodies half lying in sewer water. Mutandiri thought that he had died. Three weeks later he left for South Africa.

Not long after arriving in Johannesburg, he joined the NCA, working from outside the borders to raise the profile of the MDC, with the hope and promise that someday he will free his country.

“If we don’t do it, nobody will do it for us,” says Mutandiri. “But the national struggle and the individual struggle will, at some point, get to you and you say to yourself, where are we going? Can we really negotiate Zimbabwe? Is this something that we are winning? You start to question whether you can make a difference. You start to question the whole world order. But it would be unfortunate for us to try to abandon, to change course. Is that a legacy I want to be remembered for? To abandon the people who believe in me? For personal gain? No, I don’t regret the course I have taken. It is worth the cause.”

5.30pm, December 5 2009, Life Church, Sea Point, Cape Town
The puffy-faced leader of the MDC, Prime Minister Tsvangirai, is wearing a grey suit and red tie. He has just come out of a day of meetings in Franschhoek with 65 high-level men and women from the diaspora, hosted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation at the swanky Le Franschhoek Hotel & Spa. It was a virtual who’s who, another heart-breaking testament to all Zimbabwe has lost: The brightest minds in the diaspora, from activist Brian Kagoro, named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader in 2005, to Petina Gappah, an international trade lawyer based in Geneva whose collection of short stories recently won The Guardian‘s First Book Award.

The church hall buzzing, Tsvangirai, who by now has re-engaged the unity government, enters to the whoops and whistles of 300 Zimbabweans who have gathered in the Mother City. Flanked by two burly men in dark suits, Tsvangirai takes the stage. His message to the diaspora: Come home. “You have the resources and the skills Zimbabwe needs to rebuild itself,” he says.

After the discussion Mutandiri — who has been hosting ZSF’s series of discussions with Cape Town’s civil society on the same weekend — mills in the reception area to the church hall. The diaspora has gathered, the excitement high among old friends who haven’t seen one another in far too long.

I ask if he’s surprised by Tsvangirai’s message. “What else can he say?” says Mutandiri with a shrug. “There is 90% unemployment in Zimbabwe. He’s being diplomatic. How can one go home in those circumstances? We will only add to the unemployment. For us to think we can move forward without radical decisions, we are lying to ourselves. We are postponing a crisis. It’s a time bomb and it will blow.”

3.30pm, December 7 2009, Vida Café, Greenside, Johannesburg
“It’s difficult to talk about anything that isn’t Zimbabwe,” Trust Matsilele, wearing a powder blue shirt, grey slacks and dress shoes, tells me over coffee. “We are Zimbabweans.”

The 27-year-old from Mwenezi, who is a journalist by profession, is a regular on the diaspora’s civil society circuit.

In 2005 Matsilele left Zim after a series of systematic attacks on journalists. He went back during the 2008 election period, working with the MDC, and was arrested. The charge: possession of weapons.

He spent one week in jail sleeping on a concrete floor with the wet and dry blood of people who had been beaten, in a cell with violent criminals. One asked what Matsilele had done. “I told him I was in for politics,” he says. “He turned away. We both knew that the murder case was better than mine.”

When he first came to South Africa, Matsilele worked as a gardener in Pretoria. Not long after, he was writing for the UK-based independent newspaper, The Zimbabwean. But during the elections he took a media job with the MDC. In 2008 he started working for a grassroots movement that promotes the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe, holding discussions about “national issues” like, for example, water.

“It then becomes a political issue,” he says. “Why don’t we have water? It’s a strategic way of getting people to participate in the process. Zimbabweans are tired of politics. They just want to send their kids to school.”

Still, he’s sceptical about most NGO work. “The whole democracy agenda has been commercialised,” he says. “You have 20 NGOs in the diaspora that claim to help Zimbabwe but if you say: What have you done? They will tell you they are mobilising, they are advocating. What’s needed now is action, not words. We are very good at writing position papers. If you read them, you will say, ‘this is what Zimbabwe is looking for’. But there is no one to implement it. They are all busy writing position papers.”

1pm, December 11 2009, Westcliff Hotel, Westcliff, Johannesburg
In a bright, orderly conference room a screen has been set up to show the results of a recent survey by Freedom House to a handful of journalists and civil society members.

The NGO paid the Mass Public Opinion Institute (MPOI) to conduct a public opinion survey. The findings were revealing: Three in four Zimbabweans say their economic conditions improved in the past year and 73% say they want elections within the next two years.

But most dramatic were their party preference findings. Just 12% of those surveyed said they would vote Zanu-PF if the elections were held now, 55% would vote MDC and 33% said “other”.

A resounding defeat, if you believe what the researchers say. But Matsilele doesn’t.

“I see a lot of things I query,” he says. “MPOI? Once they know you are coming from there, they know it’s MDC. It all depends on who’s doing the survey, doesn’t it? Zanu will get the results they want, too.”

3pm, January 26 2010, NCA offices, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
The constitution-making process — which started just a few weeks ago — has stalled. The MPs in Zimbabwe are fighting over how to divide the money foreign donors have poured into the process. The unity government, marking a year since it’s signing, is anything but unified.

Mutandiri and Matsilele sit around the boardroom table and argue about when the election will be held. A year? Two? How long can Zanu keep putting it off? They laugh about the MPs who care more about getting expenses for using their cars — cars paid for by the government in the first place — to canvass their constituencies.

I ask what’s next. Mutandiri is preparing to leave for Zimbabwe in a few days for a Zinasu conference; Matsilele is readying for a diaspora discussion in Johannesburg.

But things aren’t looking good for the cause or the unity government; in fact things look much the same as they did in November. Deadlines have passed, the SADC stays mute; each week there are reports out of Zimbabwe about the growing youth militia, of the beatings of activists, of farm seizures and food crises.

Despite all this, Mutandiri is resolute. “History, at some point in time,” he says, “will vindicate me.”

Vote for an informed choice

We’re dropping the paywall this week so that everyone can access all our stories for free, and access the information they need in the run up to the local government elections. To follow the news, sign up to our daily elections newsletter for the latest updates and analysis.

If our coverage helps inform your decision, cast your vote for an informed public and join our subscriber community. Right now, you can a full year’s access for just R510. Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.

Tanya Pampalone
Guest Author

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

‘Terribly scary’: Dysfunctional municipalities are a threat to South Africa’s...

The country’s local governments are a drag on investment, a strain on the fiscus and pose a critical sovereign risk

Local elections 2021: A visual guide on what to expect

What are the biggest election issues where you live? M&G explains all

South Africa must approach its energy transition pragmatically

A sensible climate policy must balance the imperative of decarbonisation, socioeconomic policy and security of supply considerations

Why handing over ICC suspects could help Sudan’s transition

A failed coup in September, weeks of brinkmanship, and a looming crisis in eastern Sudan have laid bare tensions between civilians and military leaders

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…