Graffiti protests multiply

BY DZIKAMAI CHIDYAUSIKU HARARE - 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 celebrate his 82nd birthday next month with a multi-million dollar b

ash – passes the scarlet advice almost daily as he is driven in his huge heavily-armed motorcade to his ruling Aanu (PF) party headquarters in the city centre. 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. 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.” 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. 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, Zwakwana, Shona for “Enough is Enough”, has become the leader in this type of protest. Zwakwana now has a website and also prints dissident pamphlets which are widely distributed. Zwakwana 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. 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. – IWPR

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