Why Tsitsi Dangarembga’s
suspended sentence matters
By Louisa Joyner, 13 October 2022
On Thursday 29 September, author Tsitsi Dangarembga was wrongly convicted of ‘inciting violence’ for staging a peaceful protest in Zimbabwe, and she received a fine and a suspended sentence (more here). Her editor, Louisa Joyner, writes about the impact of the event, the art of persuasion and why Tsitsi needs our support.
Why might Tsitsi Dangarembga’s suspended sentence for a peaceful protest matter?
Michael Korda describes publishing as ‘the art of persuasion’. It has always struck me as a perfect description of our industry, because it embodies the work publishers do, those acts of persuasion rippling out until a potential reader is persuaded to part with money for one specific written work. It is equally apt as a description of the work itself, be it a novel or a play or a poem – a piece of writing from one person to another – and the act of reading is when the real art of persuasion begins.
As I write this, the editor in me kicks in: I’ve cut paragraphs sharing Tsitsi’s prize accolades and international acclaim, underscoring her legitimacy as a global figure in literature, because I think increasingly the point is less the force of argument that engages readers but acknowledging the fact that it is an active choice to be engaged. I am writing in an attempt to persuade you that of all the pressing concerns on your time and energy, this particular question matters. Do we uphold the right of two women to stand silently holding a placard calling for change, and do we reject the right for this to be met with a criminal conviction? Can I persuasively argue that ‘incitement of public violence’, the threat of fines, incarceration and the silent possibility of worse for them and for others should not be a charge that is allowed to stand? Why of all matters might we choose to give what limited space we have to this?
I think the answer has to be to respect the right to choose not to engage. None of us can hope to support every legitimate cause, to throw our weight behind calling out every injustice. The level of difficulty in our lives is at a pitch that genuinely seems to be unprecedented.
A call for support
It seems to me to be crucial to say, therefore, that to ask for your time and consideration, and perhaps even your support in calling out the travesty that is Tsitsi Dangarembga’s conviction, is not in expectation but in hope. That to persuade you that the erosion of freedom of speech is, in truth, incremental – and the words deployed to describe it control how we envision it: ‘a protest with placards’ conjures entirely different views from ‘a peaceful demonstration’ or ‘two middle-aged ladies standing silently with signs’ – is crucial to our understanding of how voices of dissent are crushed.
It is absolutely true to say that the relief that Tsitsi is not in prison is palpable. This isn’t the worst outcome, and that is to be celebrated, so why the call to action at this point?
While governments like the one in Zimbabwe maintain narrative control over the media outlets that provide the country with its news, the only hope for those opposing that stranglehold on power is in raising their voices to be heard over the booming voice of those in power.
So instead of a clarion call I will share the details of their particular case. Tsitsi and her friend, Julie Barnes, set about their quiet action, preparing and displaying those signs with great care to the rules of state at the time they undertook their protest. Their motivation was simply to allow others in their community to hear the possibility of dissent from the narrative that was dominating Zimbabwe at the time. It was central to their aim that it be respectfully and calmly expressed. But in the two years since that uneventful afternoon, their decision to be two people standing outside a shopping centre silently with a sign has been re-formed by the Zimbabwean government into an offence. Their case has been transitioned from a criminal court to the anti-corruption court, they have made over thirty appearances in court and now they have been punished by the judiciary for a crime said to have the specific aim of engendering violence. This leads, I would respectfully argue, to two concluding questions: who among us could not then be found guilty on those grounds? And what is the logical next step for a government prepared to take this action?
We have shared Tsitsi Dangarembga’s statement in full; it is a beautiful expression of the profound risk she and her home country face as a consequence of the decisions made at her trial. Naturally I hope to persuade you of the enormous significance of this, for Tsitsi, for Zimbabwe, but also for demonstrating the creeping erosion of freedom of speech around the world. A handwritten sign in Zimbabwe, a blank piece of paper in St Petersburg, the attack on a writer of a novel published almost thirty-five years ago to the day under discussion in New York – these acts of oppression have collective weight. As does our rejection of them.
It’s entirely up to you. I can only hope to persuade you of the truth and urgency of this matter – there is no compulsion to act, and isn’t that something to be celebrated and cherished, as it is a right that is not extended to Tsitsi and the people of Zimbabwe.