Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Graffiti Protests Multiply

Political graffiti surges in popularity because of the crackdown on nearly every other means of expression.
A few streets away from Robert Mugabe's heavily guarded official residence is a wall painted with screaming red graffiti telling Zimbabwe's president that "At 80, it's time to go".

Mugabe - who will actually celebrate his 82nd birthday next month with a multi-million dollar bash - passes the scarlet advice almost daily as he is driven in his huge heavily-armed motorcade to his ruling ZANU PF party headquarters in the city centre.

Other graffiti insulting the president and ZANU PF have multiplied recently on walls in Harare and other major cities and towns. Along a street named after the president himself, a dissident artist has scrawled, "Mugabe is a dictator."

With nearly all avenues of protest closed, Zimbabweans frustrated by the Mugabe regime use graffiti to express their anger with the system. The words on the walls are a clear indication that the majority of the people in the towns and cities are completely fed up with the ruling party and yearn for change.

Graffiti writing started off as a minor case of delinquency common to all the world's urban centres, but in Zimbabwe it has blossomed into a major form of protest and self-expression for people who find themselves with fewer liberties with each passing day.

So popular has this type of protest become that nearly every wall along the streets of Harare is painted with graffiti. Some hurls insults at the president's young wife, Grace, known as "The First Shopper" for the way she spent huge amounts of money in the top boutiques of London, Paris and New York before Britain, France and the United States banned her and her husband from entering their countries. Grace, a former secretary, was once photographed at Singapore's Changi International Airport with fifteen trolley-loads of exotic foods and electronic goods at a time when the World Food Programme said half the Zimbabwe population was starving.

But mostly the writings implore the president to leave office for the sake of the country. For example, along Samora Machel Avenue, named after Mozambique's first president, the slogans say minimally, "Please go." And as the democratic space continues to shrink, the activists have become more and more fearless and cunning, even painting walls only a few metres away from State House, Mugabe's heavily guarded residence.

When underground activists were campaigning to stop England, Australia and New Zealand playing matches in Zimbabwe during the 2003 Cricket World Cup, they targeted a wall less than 50 metres from State House. The guards rubbed them out overnight, but in the course of the following night the graffiti reappeared. The slogans included, "Mugabe has killed this country", "Never trust ZANU PF" and "Mugabe's hands are full of blood."

Mugabe finally put a stop to the graffiti writing by putting a 24-hour armed guard on the wall.

But since then the messages conveyed by the graffiti have grown angrier and stronger - and multiplied on road signs, advertising billboards and in toilets, as well as on walls.

Chirikure Chirikure, one of Zimbabwe's most popular poets and songsters, believes the graffiti is a sign of people trying to communicate their pain to both the leadership and the rest of the public. "It is an expression of anger, pain and at times dialogue," he said. "For myself, staying silent is impossible, even though protest poets get assaulted by government thugs at public readings. I have to speak out. It is my duty to my people."

Chirikure said that although graffiti had its origins in Ancient Rome and was revived in the inner cities of modern America, Zimbabweans have woken up to its effectiveness as a means of protest in a country where street demonstrations are illegal and ruthlessly suppressed. "It has become a voice for the voiceless," he said.

The graffiti increasingly takes the form of an exchange of ideas, with other graffiti artists responding to earlier slogans. "That is the dialogue that the people are yearning for," said the poet. "They used to write letters to the papers, but now that those papers have been closed they have turned to graffiti."

Graffiti writers, who face up to five years imprisonment if caught going about their work, say they hope their art will help convey to the outside world the desperate state of the nation, where millions are hungry and jobless, where inflation is touching 600 per cent and unemployment 80 per cent. Its beauty is that it is one of the few types of art that the government finds difficult to control and censor.

ZANU PF has tried, though without success, to counter the graffiti either by rubbing it off or writing counter-messages, which suggests that the critical graffiti is unnerving the regime. British premier Tony Blair is a favourite target of Mugabe's graffiti teams.

Graffiti has become so widespread because of the crackdown on nearly every other means of expression. Mugabe's government has closed four newspapers since 2002. The state has also promulgated laws that outlaw public meetings and street demonstrations without permission from the police. Several citizens have been arrested for criticising the president in public.

Critical plays have also been censored. Dave Guzha, a leading theatre producer and playwright, said the emergence of graffiti “is a sign that the people are desperate to

say something to the Establishment".

Guzha has had his plays censored or banned. One satirical work, Super Patriots and Morons, was outlawed in the middle of last year's Harare International Festival of Arts. It pokes fun at an iron-fisted African head of state who is intolerant of opposition and sees all dissenters as enemies and "neo-imperialist stooges" who have to be "eliminated". Mugabe's ban ensured that the play would enjoy international success, including rave reviews at the Edinburgh International Festival

Guzha said Zimbabwe's crumbling economy and the withdrawal of funds from cash-strapped donors has forced many artists, for whom graffiti has become a vital outlet, onto the streets. More than 330 community theatre groups have shut down over the past three years. "For me, graffiti is filling the gap left by newspapers, musicians, theatre groups and street demonstrations," said Guzha.

The art of graffiti has also been institutionalised by underground opposition groups who use it to protest against the regime. One particularly active subversive group, Zvakwana, Shona for "Enough is Enough", has become the leader in this type of protest. Zvakwana now has a website and also prints dissident pamphlets which are widely distributed.

Zvakwana has also produced a CD of anti-Mugabe and anti-government protest songs, while the authorities themselves have cracked down hard and tirelessly on dissenting musicians. Thomas Mapfumo, Zimbabwe's best-known musician, who achieved fame singing protest songs against pre-independence white rule, is now in exile in the USA after being hounded out by the government.

Mapfumo was banned from the airwaves of the four state-controlled radio stations for his new flood of critical songs, including the wildly popular and regionally famous "Mamvemve", a Shona word that translates as "tatters".

In Mamvemve, Mapfumo sings, "The country you used to cry for is now in tatters. Let's get out of here. The country you used to cry for is now run by crooks."

Mapfumo, who now lives in Oregon with his family, said it was easier to get his protest songs played in the days of the former white Rhodesian government. "Today we have a black government and it's even worse," he said. "You are trying to tell the people the truth, what is happening in their country, and somebody is trying to shut you down. Everything [the government says] is just propaganda. They are trying to fool the people."

Those dissident musicians that remain in Zimbabwe like Leonard Zhakata, Portia Gwanzura and Raymond Majongwe, the target of a botched assassination attempt last year by government agents, have also been censored and are not played on the national radio stations.

Musicians willing to become Robert Mugabe's praise singers are heard endlessly on government-controlled radio. In one such song, singer Tambaoga complains about Tony Blair's alleged efforts to recolonise Zimbabwe. Since the British leader's surname also happens to be the brand name of rudimentary pit toilets common across rural areas, Tambaoga suddenly switches out of Shona to sing his punch line in English, "The only Blair I know is a toilet." The joke used to amuse even those who hated Mugabe, but has now worn thin.

Dzikamai Chidyausiku is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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