Tsitsi Dangarembga – A Case of Freedoms and Reforms on Trial

Tsitsi Dangarembga

Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (C) and a colleague Julie Barnes hold placards as they are arrested during an anti-corruption protest march along Borrowdale road, on July 31, 2020 in Harare.

© Zinyange Autony/AFP

Tsistsi Dangarembga is an international award winning Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker. She is a Booker Prize nominee.

I had the opportunity to attend Tsitsi Dangarembga’s ongoing trial today (1 June 2022) at 9 am at the Rotten Row Magistrate Court in Harare. I sat next to Tsitsi and and Julie Barnes (co-accused) who looked tired, distraught and frustrated by the process which has stalled for two years.  Presiding officers adjudicating over the case have been swapped around in the last two years and the judge presiding over the current proceedings is the third one. The trial has been postponed countless times due to unavailability of presiding officers or witnesses. Sometimes Tsitsi and Julie would pitch up for court only to be told the presiding officer had travelled. The first state witness only testified yesterday (31 May 2022), leaving Tsitsi and Julie completely mesmerised about his evasion and version of facts. Today, only one state witness turned up for examination. The court adjourned to Monday 6 June, 2022 at 9am as the second witness was not available. He travelled, so we were told.

Talking to Tsitsi and Julie, one could sense that the two still battle to come to terms with the prosecution, as nothing seemed to make sense. It was heartrending to see them sitting in the dock, tortured through this arduous process simply because they are demanding reforms, and political and media freedom. Tsitsi and Julie are accused of unlawfully demonstrating against corruption, calling for media and political freedom. They are further charged with attending an illegal public gathering and contravening COVID-19 regulations.

The witness on examination today was an Inspector in the police force. He was part of the three arresting officers. Tsitsi and Julie are concerned that the state evidence presented at court (the placards they carried on the day) has been tampered with, and some of the evidence is missing: two of the posters presented in court were not in fact the original ones, hence they have not been certified as evidence. The witness confirmed this as well. The accused women worry that their constitutional right to a fair trial has been violated without recourse, and the trauma of being forcibly bundled into a police truck with 28 police officers in it, remains. Selective application of the law, especially with regards to freedom of expression and right to protest, was blatant throughout the trial today. The state witness, who is a police officer, unconvincingly argued that the contents of the posters calling for freedom of journalists and political activists, and for better reforms undermined our government, incited public violence and could lead to a breach of the peace. The gruelling drill that Tsitsi and Julie are going through is a reminder of our government’s relentless efforts to criminalise freedom of expression, demonstration and protest. It is an attack on our constitutionally guaranteed and protected human rights. Tsitsi and Julie are meant to be an example to all ‘would be’ protestors of the state’s wrath awaiting them.

Tsitsi and Julie are meant to be an example to all ‘would be’ protestors of the state’s wrath awaiting them.

Fungisai Sithole

Trial Day, 27 June 2022

Today was the 27th time that the accused had to appear in court. The presiding officer was to give her ruling on the defence’s application to have the case dismissed. Ms Barnes was in court, however Ms Dambarenga was not in court. An explanatory letter and medical certificates had been served by the defence on the prosecutor and the presiding officer on 24 June 2022.

The presiding officer decided;

  • Not to give her ruling, because not both accused were in court
  • She will give her ruling on Thursday, 4 August 2022
  • She issued a warrant of arrest for Ms Dambarenga, which she refused to suspend

The presiding officer could have given her ruling today, without any problem. The prosecutor argued that if the ruling were not in the accused's favour, then maybe Ms Dambarenga would not come back to Zimbabwe. She also argued vigorously that a warrant of arrest be issued against Ms Dambarenga and that the warrant be not suspended. The presiding officer agreed on all these points with the prosecution, against the defence.

It is therefore possible that Ms Dambarenga could be arrested at the airport in Harare as soon as she arrives. Whether that is likely – we don’t know, but the State now has that option.


Trial Day, 6 June 2022

The last state witness presented himself for court today. He is an Assistant Inspector in the Zimbabwe Police Force and is one of the three arresting officers. The witness confirmed that Tsitsi and Julie were arrested on the basis of a suspicion that they might be committing an offence. He intimated that it was possible they could have been arrested for an offence they did not commit as police officers work on suspicion. The witness had a distorted memory of what was inscribed on the placards. He however, told the court that nothing on the placards was obscene, insulting, promoted violence or could lead to a breach of peace. Nothing incited bigotry. No violence occurred as a result of their presence. Tsitsi and Julie did not address anyone. The witness went further to confirm that nothing is illegal about asking for a better society or media freedom.

Three witnesses have testified so far and none has convincingly confirmed the alleged offences. The defence intends to apply for discharge at the close of the state's case. Application for discharge will be submitted by Monday, 13 June 2022, state response by the 17th June, replication by 23rd and the ruling will be delivered on 27 June 2022 at 11:15 am. 

The state clearly has no case and it is my hope that the case will be dismissed. The case has dragged for two years now, emotionally and mentally draining for the two accused persons. The pain and suffering they have endured is irreparable but I believe the government has achieved its objective of using them as a reminder of the state’s ruthlessness on democracy activists.

The article is written by Fungisai Sithole, Project Manager at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom's office in Harare, Zimbabwe.