The scene is a busy, dusty, unpaved thoroughfare somewhere in Harare. In the foreground, a Zimbabwean police spokesperson addresses a news camera. She is denying reports of police brutality. “Those videos that are circulating on social media, they are not ours. They have been doctored by our detractors from the West.”
In the background of the video, seemingly oblivious to the camera, a policewoman is extravagantly assaulting two prisoners. She raises her baton above her head and brings it down on their backs. She uses that same baton to put one of them in a chokehold. With her black leather boots, she gives the other one an almighty kick in the balls.
The policewoman’s name is Samantha Kureya. She is a satirist. The scene has been staged to make a point about police brutality. Kureya did not know then, in 2016, that just three years later this scene would be repeated in real life, but that she would be on the receiving end of the beatings.
‘I didn’t think comedy was a powerful thing’
Kureya is a household name in some parts of Zimbabwe. Her mother was an actor, and she was heading in the same direction before she was recruited by Bustop TV, which has made a name for itself by producing short, viral skits that lampoon the absurdities of contemporary Zimbabwean life.
She got her stage name, Gonyeti, from her very first skit, which took on an all-too-common problem: potholes. It is not uncommon for unemployed men to repair potholes themselves and then ask for tips from passing motorists. In this skit, however, the road was empty and the men were frustrated — until they see Kureya approaching. “Gonyeti means one of those big haulage trucks. So, as you can see …” she laughs, and points at herself. “They saw me coming from a distance and said, ‘Look, there’s a gonyeti!’.”
Just as she never intended to become a comedian, her political consciousness developed gradually. “Seeing situations, seeing things happening, then you decided, ah, I need to focus on this — this needs to be heard,” she told the Mail & Guardian in an interview in Johannesburg.
Bustop TV rarely takes on the government directly. “In Zimbabwe there are some things that you cannot say direct. You cannot go and challenge the authorities. But we use comedy to say our minds, to express what needs to be done. We use humour because we can’t go direct,” said Kureya.
She soon realised that Zimbabwe’s authorities did not appreciate her talking about politics, no matter how obliquely. “We do not have freedom of expression. We can say there is freedom of expression, but no freedom after expression. Because once you express your thoughts, your feelings, you will be targeted.”
Initially, this targeting was troubling but not too serious. At one point her press card was revoked; and she and her colleagues were barred from attending certain national events. “Back then, I didn’t think comedy was a powerful thing. Now I know.” Because when the targeting did turn serious, it turned very serious very quickly.
‘You are being paid to mock the government’
They came for her a little after 9pm on August 21 this year. She had only been home for about 10 minutes, and was just getting ready for bed. There was a knock on the door. “Police!” they shouted. “Where is Gonyeti? Where is she?”
At first Kureya thought the neighbours were playing some kind of prank. Then her front door was kicked down and three masked men rushed into her bedroom, carrying big guns. That’s when she knew she was in real trouble. The men refused to let her put on a dress — she was wearing only a top and panties — and forced her out the house, bundling her into vehicle.
With her head shoved into the footwell, she had no idea where they were taking her or even which direction they were heading in. Eventually they stopped somewhere and dragged her out of the car. The place stank. It was some kind of sewage facility.
“They pushed me and ordered me to sit in sewage water. They were saying ‘You are too young to mock the government. You are being paid to mock the government.’ They started beating me.”
She had smuggled her phone under her armpit, hoping to use it call someone to rescue her. But her attackers found it. She recalls them saying: “‘So you have your phone; you want to record us? Give me that phone!’
“Then they broke it using these big guns. They broke the phone and they said ‘Stand up!’, so I stood up. They said remove your panties so I was completely naked. They said lie down in the water. They said do what we do in the military training. So I started crawling. Then they started beating me again. They said, ‘If you by any chance report this we won’t hesitate to put a bullet in your mother’s head’.”
She does not know how long the beatings and torture went on for. It felt like hours. Finally, they ordered her to gargle the sewage water and then to submerge her head in it. Muffled by the filthy water, she heard a car engine start up and drive away. She kept her head under the water until she was absolutely certain they were gone.
‘Gonyeti, the state you are in!’
It was late at night and very dark. Kureya was lost and alone. Her phone was broken and her clothes were gone. She saw some lights in the distance and walked towards them, eventually reaching a row of houses. She called for help, but no one came out — they were afraid. She reached another house and tried again.
“I called for help and they looked through the window. I told them ‘It’s Gonyeti’ — people know me. Then they closed the window. They took some minutes, then [a woman] opened and threw a dress. All I wanted was something to cover myself.”
She kept walking, looking for some way to get home. Every time she saw the lights of a passing car she would hide, thinking perhaps the gunmen were coming back for her. In the quiet of the night, she heard a faint chorus in the distance. Funeral music. She walked towards the singing. As she got closer, she ran in to two women who were on their way from the funeral. They recognised her immediately.
“Gonyeti, what are you doing at this time of the night?” the two women asked. “What happened to you — the state you are in!” With their help, she contacted her family who rushed to fetch her. Her ordeal was over but it was also just beginning.
Since then, Kureya has not spent a night at home. She’s been staying with a good samaritan while she recovers from her injuries. Although a police report has been filed, there has been no progress yet on the investigation.
She finds it hard to sleep — “They gave me sleeping tablets. At first I would take one, it didn’t work. I was told to take two, it didn’t work” — and instead stays up worrying about the people she may have put in danger. Her family. And the family who have given her a temporary home.
She also worries about money. Lots of people rely on her income, but it was hard to find the strength to go back to work. It was only a few weeks ago that she returned to Bustop TV. Despite everything that has happened to her, Kureya cannot imagine doing anything else. “Those who follow you, those who like you, they say, ‘Gonyeti, where is Gonyeti?’ They wanted more. That’s what made me go back.”
‘Controversial drama queen’
In late November, Kureya was announced as the Human Rights Defender of the Year by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. “She works with marginalised communities, being able to identify issues that affect communities, and then break them down into satire in a way that makes people laugh while being engaged on serious issues,” said the network’s head, Arnold Tsonga.
Not everyone is so impressed. Kureya’s account of her abduction and torture has been repeatedly discredited by pro-government sources. “There is strong suspicion that the alleged abduction on the night of August 22  was stage-managed for political expediency or to raise the stock of the controversial drama queen,” wrote Nyore Madzianike, a senior reporter for the state-run Herald newspaper, in words that sound as if they could have been penned by a sketch writer for Bustop TV.
Instead, Kureya’s satire has now become her reality. “I was abducted because of comedy. Because of satire. But I still need to work. Comedy is my job. It’s my life,” she said.