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

Zimbabweans Find Relief in Laughter

Witty and subversive emails maintain people’s spirits amid the gathering gloom.
By Josephat Moyo
Faced with catastrophic economic crisis, Zimbabweans are finding some relief from their general misery in witty emails and mobile phone text jokes about President Robert Mugabe and his government.

By SMS and email, they are able to make candid comments about their president, the collapsing economy, widespread hunger and a near-worthless currency that is the laughing stock of the southern African region. If made more publicly, such remarks could land them in jail.

The topics for jokes range from inflation, now standing at an annual rate of 920 per cent but expected to top 1,000 per cent by June, to the quality of the country's leadership.

As conditions under President Mugabe’s ZANU PF government grow ever harsher, the stories, once merely humorous, become more biting and satirical. With 90 per cent of the population living below the poverty line of one US dollar a day, jokes have become essential as therapy to lighten the daily gloom.

They also reflect people's honest views of the regime to a much greater extent than the results of rigged elections.

One of the thousands of jokes, most of them too crass or obscene, or simply too long, to publish, goes as follows.

"A man is caught in a traffic jam when someone taps on the car window. The driver lowers the window and asks what he wants. The other man says, 'President Mugabe has been kidnapped and the ransom is 50 million [US] dollars. If the ransom is not paid, the kidnappers are threatening to douse the president with petrol and set him on fire. We are making a collection. Do you wish to contribute?'

"The man in the car asks, 'On average, what are people donating?'

"The other replies, 'About two to three gallons.'"

A new vein of humour has come from "Breakfast With Mugabe", a play currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. One complaint taken from the drama is now whizzing around cellphones and emails in Zimbabwe - "It's hard work being a despot. There is never a break for me."

Late last year, Mugabe appeared on TV laughing off SMS jokes suggesting he had died. Other tall stories have speculated about his health, while many poke fun at his marriage with Grace, his former secretary, whose official title is First Lady. Zimbabweans more often call her the "First Shopper" for her millionaire lifestyle and extravagant trips abroad to buy designer-label clothes and shoes, cosmetics, electronic goods and handmade chocolates.

Mugabe has demonstrated a severe sense-of-humour failure when it comes to his citizens' taste in comedy. The government has been working desperately behind the scenes for almost a year to find a way to stem the flow of jokes.

There are already laws making it a criminal offence to ridicule the president or to gesticulate rudely at his armoured motorcade. Now his civil servants are working on a law that will give the government powers to spy on citizens' emails and bug their cellphones. The Interception of Communications Bill, due for tabling in parliament soon, is the latest piece of legislation designed to suppress mass discontent.

Legal experts assert that the bill, which is certain to be passed, is completely unconstitutional and will place further curbs on the already severely limited freedom of expression.

The law will give the chief of defence intelligence and the director of the Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, powers to tap mobile phones and landlines. Government spy agencies, which fall under Mugabe's office, will be empowered to open people's mail passing through post offices and courier services. A special Monitoring Centre controlled by the security agencies will be set up to sift through the mail.

Unlike other countries where such powers are granted only temporarily on the basis of reasonable suspicion that some kind of offence has been committed, the Zimbabwean law will give ministers sweeping powers.

Offences under the legislation will carry prison sentences of up to three years.

Although still in draft form, the Interception of Communications law has sent waves of fear through the professional classes in the main cities and towns, where people clearly see it as an effort by Mugabe and the state to end their freedom to communicate.

"It's scary. I'm genuinely scared by that law," said Nelson Murumbi of Harare. "It's Mugabe's paranoia and it's now becoming more apparent."

Arnold Tsunga, director of the human rights advocacy organisation Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the bill does not meet minimum democratic standards. "It's a sad development," he said. "It's one more bill in an array of repressive and draconian laws that have been cobbled [together] by the Mugabe regime."

Tsunga and others lawyers argue that it violates Article 20 of the constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and speech and the right to hold opinions.

What troubles the informed public is the selective way in which such draconian laws are applied by the government. From past experience, the new law will be used only to target political opponents, the independent media and anyone else critical of the way the country is governed.

The 2003 Public Order and Security Act, POSA, for example, has been used to rein in opposition leaders and independent journalists. More than 200 arrests have been made so far under POSA. Another law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act passed the same year, has seen the arrests of scores of journalists and the permanent closure of four independent national newspapers.

The government is now working on a Suppression of International Terrorism law, which was promulgated three weeks after the government failed to back up allegations that opposition leaders plotted to assassinate Mugabe. And another draft law, once enacted, will force lawyers to reveal confidential information from their clients.

Joseph James, president of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, told IWPR that the volume of repressive legislation indicates a government paranoid about its own legitimacy.

"The Interception of Communications Bill is a relic of fascist and authoritarian government which does not reflect the will of the people," he said. "Such laws have no place in a democratic society."

James's sentiments echo a report in January from the African Union's African Commission on Human and People's Rights, which criticised the passing of draconian laws that hinder civil freedoms. To the fury of Mugabe, it said, "There has been a flurry of new legislation and the revival of old laws used under the Smith regime [Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith] to control and manipulate public opinion."

The report was also critical of the role played by the CIO, which falls directly under Mugabe's office, in applying the laws.

Human rights lawyer David Coltart said the communications bill is particularly dangerous because it contains no safeguard clauses to prevent abuses such as the silencing of opponents by Mugabe and his government.

Once the bill becomes law, it is a moot point whether the current national sport of emailing and texting jokes about the head of state will be possible any longer.

Josephat Moyo is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.