What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part V: The struggle dreams in mbira

This is the final in the five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

The Shona word “chimurenga”, meaning “revolutionary struggle”, became part of Zimbabwe’s political lexicon in the second half of the 20th century. At independence in 1980, the word was quickly monopolised by Zanu-PF’s apparatchiks who circumscribed its use and deployed it to serve narrow party political ends. 

Outside of this nationalist enclosure, the use of the word in everyday conversation was, in the main, championed by Thomas Mapfumo, whose cultural project, put simply, involved the electrification of mbira music, the spiritual sound of the Shona. The musician has a discography replete with albums that, as suffix or prefix, extensively use the word chimurenga, which references Mulenga/Murenga, a 19th-century shaman who carried a massive head on his shoulders and is credited with inspiring the 1896-97 resistance to white settler rule. 

After independence, it was only Mapfumo who continued to use the word in a dialectical and secular fashion, as if every day, at home, in the workplace, at school,  there was a new chimurenga to be waged. Revolutionary struggle, the musician said, is an eternal process that didn’t stop in 1980 when the Union Jack was lowered and its red, green, black, yellow and white successor was raised.  

Earlier use of the word for his album titles – Chimurenga Masterpieceand Chimurenga International, for instance – might be described as humdrum and adjectival, even hubristic, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, on albums such as Chimurenga Rebel and Chimurenga Explosion, he returned to the word again and redeployed it in its old, which is to say, rebarbative sense.

Around this time, he fell out with the Zanu-PF establishment, which, of course, banned his music from national radio. Soon, he wound up in exile in Oregon, in the US, where he has lived since 2002. 

Over the decades, his songs have mirrored the nation’s political mood in a way no other artist could approximate. In the early 1970s, reflecting the quest for the nation, the cause that had people such as Robert Mugabe languishing in prison for years, Mapfumo was among the first group of artists who abandoned covering Western artists in favour of composing songs in Shona or electrifying folk songs. In the early 1980s, reflecting the euphoria of independence in northern and central Zimbabwe, he sang panegyric songs in praise of the Zanu-PF revolution. In the late 1980s, as graft became a way of life, he composed a song to bemoan corruption. 

Mapfumo reminds me of what the Times Literary Supplement wrote about poet Thom Gunn: “He states afresh and with great force questions which have troubled poets and thinkers in all ages. But he is aware of them as existing now, in his life, and he contributes something new to the old debate.” 

His most militant pro-worker album is 1989’s Varombo ku Varombo(The Poor Will Remain Poor), an eight-track album “dedicated to all the poor and oppressed people of the world”.

The title track’s refrain, “Varombo kuvarombo / Vapfumi kuvapfumi / Ndomagariro atisingade” sets him on a collision course with the neoliberal mantras of the 1990s imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He sings against a society with entrenched divisions between the poor and the rich.

In the song, he chants, his father was a poor man because Rhodesian society was exploitative. “Nhasi yave Zimbabwe (Now we are in  Zimbabwe) / Chokwadi tasununguka (We are truly free) / Zvino chasara chii (What’s missing) / Imari yatiri kushaya (It’s money we don’t have have) / Vatongi ve Rhodesia (Those who ruled in Rhodesia) / (And a few of the blacks).” 

Robert Mugabe’s ouster by Emmerson Mnangagwa, his long-time lieutenant whose administration spouts the neoliberal mutterings of Zimbabwe being ‘open for business’, has made it possible for Mapfumo to come back home.

In April 2018, his show in Harare was his first in his homeland since 2004. His legendary show began after midnight and continued until 5.45am. It was a pungwe – a word Zimbabwean freedom fighters operating from Mozambique adopted to describe their all-night political meetings doing commissariat work. 

New Frame visited him at the Monomotapa Hotel in Harare, where he was based. When asked about what defines his music, what it is about, he replied: “When I listen to most of my songs, the running thread, the motif, is the same – the story is struggle. We will not sing about anything else because people are still struggling, and it’s not just in Zimbabwe but the whole world.”

The ‘open for business’ mantra is going to be brutal on Zimbabwean workers. Already, the country’s minerals, land and wealth are being signed away in hasty and dodgy deals by a “new” regime that was out in the cold for so long and now desperately wants to be embraced again by global capital.

While until now the job of Zimbabwe’s left has been, in the words of Munyaradzi Gwisai, “survival,” the coming years could be crucial. About Nelson Chamisa, Morgan Tsvangirai’s successor who fakes a chummy camaraderie with Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, and the MDC’s lurch to the right, Gwisai said: “Their right-wing phase won’t last”, and, anyway, the party is “not the force that it was in 2000 that managed to squeeze out the left”.

On the forthcoming elections, Gwisai said: “My position is vote opposition, don’t vote for the junta.” The present administration in Zimbabwe “represents a particular threat, both to bourgeois democracy as well as the [adoption] of austerity and neoliberalism”. 

Gwisai argued that although Chamisa might be inclined to adopt a neoliberal approach, that he is a better candidate than many of his compatriots who orchestrated the coup that toppled Mugabe. These are men who “have real experience in brutality and authoritarianism”, going back to the slaughter of Ndebeles in the 1980s to the election Mugabe ‘won’ by brute force in 2008. 

Reclining in his seat to signal the end of the interview, Gwisai predicted a “showdown” between the junta and a “radicalised working class, middle class and urban population”.

But given that Zimbabwe’s history is “full of encounters that never occurred”, would you bet on it? 

This is the final in a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

Read more:
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part I
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part II: Less than conscientised
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part III: Too late for change
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part IV: Mugabe’s only constant

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.