Creativity in the face of clampdowns

  In Zimbabwe, you have no option but to be creative. When you’re faced with a repressive regime, an ever-imploding economy and a ruling party that thinks it owns the country, you don’t exactly have loads of options, writes Samm Farai Monro from Magamba Network.  

Samm Farai Monro AKA Comrade Fatso is Zimbabwe’s trailblazing political satirist, a leading activist for freedom of expression and a media disruptor. Comrade Fatso is founder of Magamba Network, one of Zimbabwe’s most dynamic organizations working on the cutting edge of culture, media, activism and innovation. As a satirist he is the co-creator of the internationally acclaimed Zambezi News satire show and the weekly political news show The Week. Comrade Fatso’s satirical work has been highlighted
and featured on CNN, BBC, Channel 4 (UK) and The Guardian to name a few. Through his groundbreaking comedy and activism Comrade Fatso has reached millions across Zimbabwe and beyond.

In Zimbabwe, you have no option but to be creative. When you’re faced with a repressive regime, an ever-imploding economy and a ruling party that thinks it owns the country, you don’t exactly have loads of options.

Plus, the ruling party – Zanu PF – controls the only TV channel in the country, and most radio stations. And is now intent on taking over independent newspapers too. So creativity in the face of all this seems like a no-brainer. A different way of doing things is the only real option.

Zimbabwean anti-riot police look at a supporter of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) taking part in a protest against alleged widespread fraud by the election authority and ruling party. (Photo: LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images)

And so Magamba Network was born, our network that works on the cutting edge of arts, digital media, activism and innovation. Magamba Network was born at a poetry slam. 

Its co-founder, Tongai Makawa (AKA Outspoken) had seen my dreadlocked, cocky self on TV talking about how I was the dopest poet around; and he decided to come and battle me at the House of Hunger Poetry Slam – a slam that a few other poets and I had launched as a space for rebellious free expression in the pre-social media age. 

And so we battled. With words. With a dozen other ferocious young poets. Through the first round. And the second round. Until it was just me and him in the final. And we tied – according to the dubious judges. 

So we had to split the prize, which was a quarter chicken and chips and a book. I was hungry, so I took the chicken and chips. Outspoken was hungry for knowledge, so he took the book. And that’s when we realised we could work together – and the idea of Magamba Network was born.

Early days

2007. The year before 2008. Which as everyone knows, was the year Zimbabwe entered the record books for having the highest-ever inflation rate. (Take that, Weimar Republic.) It got to the point that it would cost you a trillion dollars to buy a beer. Wallets were no longer of any use, as you had to walk around with a backpack to hold all your wads of useless Zim Dollar notes. 

So yeah, 2007 was the pleasant environment in which we decided to launch Magamba. At the time Robert Mugabe had been the only President I had known my whole life (and I was 28), the country was still reeling from World Bank neoliberal reforms in the ‘90s, and Zanu PF had rigged and beaten their way to remaining in power. 

Me and Outspoken saw how much disillusionment there was among young people. How there were so many NGOs, but so few that spoke to young people in a language that they understood, and that could inspire them to take action. 

So the idea behind Magamba was to use creative forms of youth activism to open up democratic space. We wanted to go to where young people were at. We started off organising hip-hop and spoken-word events that gathered hundreds of young people and pushed the boundaries of free expression, at a time where Facebook really wasn’t a thing. 

We then began to embrace other forms of popular, urban youth culture that could connect with young people and inspire them to be part of a change in their country. We literally made it up as we went along. So we began to branch out into blogging, satire, festivals and innovation hubs. 

We started out running Magamba part-time from the lounge of our Avenues flat, and grew it to become Zimbabwe’s leading creative and digital media organization, which reaches millions of young Zimbabweans annually. 

We now run two major programmes and seven projects. These include an urban culture festival, a political satire TV production studio, a creative hub, digital media projects, a nationwide socially conscious music competition, and a film fellowship that incubates a new generation of film-makers committed to social justice. 

Over the years we’ve seen how our work has helped to expand space for free expression online, inspire a new generation of political satirists, support the emergence of critical new voices, and use digital media to drive campaigns that force progressive policy changes. 

Making Parliament accessible

Our Open Parly ZW initiative is a good example of our digital innovation work. We realised that young people felt disconnected and cut off from the corridors of power where decisions are made that affect them. So we trained young citizen journalists to go and tweet live from Parliament, to break down all the bullshit into language that young people understand. 

And it’s really blown up! The platform creates dynamic interaction between young people and decision-makers. An MP may fall asleep in Parliament – so our Open Parly handle tweets that such and such an MP has fallen asleep for the fourth time this Parliamentary session. Twitter goes wild, with young people saying, “How dare he fall asleep. I voted for him!” The MP himself becomes aware of the furore, and jumps onto Twitter and tweets at Open Parly, saying, “I wasn’t sleeping. I was just resting my eyes!” And there you have it – accountability, in just 280 characters. 

Open Parly has become the go-to handle for young people seeking independent political information. It is a radical transparency project that has become one of the Zimbabwean media handles with the highest engagement rates on social media – eclipsing most legacy media companies. We cover more parliamentary sessions than the national broadcaster and the Parliamentary Hansard combined. Open Parly reaches over ten million impressions per month on Twitter. And all this with just a few committed comrades with fast Twitter fingers. 

We have now expanded this exciting media experiment on the continent, having launched Open Parly in Somalia as, and more recently setting up Open Parly ZED in Zambia. Open Parly ZED has already seen some great success, having inspired the Parliament of Zambia to copy its ideas – it now livestreams Parliamentary sessions on its newly created Facebook page. 

Open Parly is also a powerful vehicle for online campaigning, given that it has over 170 000 young followers on Twitter. In 2017, as Zimbabwe geared up for the elections the following year, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) chairwoman Rita Makarau made a controversial statement, that women should get their husbands to sign proof-of-residence affidavits to enable them to register to vote. Makarau also announced planned regulations to make registration more cumbersome for young urban voters who have no fixed address. This seemed like blatant voter suppression of young urban voters and young women voters by the Zanu PF-controlled commission. 

So we kicked off our #DearRita campaign on Twitter, and encouraged young people to share their concerns about how these new proposed regulations would affect their plans to vote. The campaign mobilised thousands of young people online, it became one of the most trending hashtags in the country; and within 24 hours, ZEC was forced to publicly distance itself from Makarau’s statement, and assured the public that it would not put in place such retrogressive regulations. ZEC also re-activated its Twitter handle, to deal with the backlash and to respond to real-time requests. The account remained active and engaged, giving people improved access to voter information online, ahead of the 2018 elections. 

Meanwhile the planned voter registration requirements were relaxed, thus enabling more young men and women to register to vote. Five point two million people registered to vote in the 2018 elections. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission estimated that 60% of the people who registered to vote were between the ages of 18 and 40 years old. The 2018 elections saw historic youth turnout. So yeah, sometimes hashtags can work.

Not the nine o’clock news

We don’t just do hard news and campaigns. We also do political satire. It all started by fluke, really. A good friend of mine who was working for a film festival approached me and Outspoken in 2010, and asked us to read some comedy news at the closing night of their festival. I guess it’s because every time we were on stage performing, we would talk so much shit that we passed as comedians! We told her that unfortunately, we were about to go on tour in Denmark with my band, so we couldn’t do it. She was like, “Guys, it’s a film festival. We can send a camera crew to pre-record your news show.” 

So the day of the shoot came, and 30 minutes before the camera crew arrived I was like, “Dude, we haven’t written anything.” We quickly wrote up a script, titled it Zambezi News, and shot it. We got back a month later from our tour, and were told that it had been a hit at the film festival – we were on to something. So we shot a pilot season of Zambezi News, which is a parody of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, our state TV channel that just issues relentless propaganda. We produced it before social media was big in Zimbabwe, and so we printed 10 000 DVDs that we distributed across the country to over 100 towns, villages and growth points. 

We got overwhelmingly positive feedback; but our favourite piece of audience comment must have been the one from a viewer who wrote, “I can’t believe this is the state of our national broadcaster. I can’t believe ZBC has sunk to these levels!” I turned to our Zambezi News team and said “Guys, we’ve made it! We’ve achieved our dream! They think we’re ZBC. We can quit now, after the first season!” Zambezi News is now five seasons in, has been broadcast on DStv to over two million households in Southern Africa, and has been featured on CNN, BBC and in The Guardian. It’s managed to inspire a new generation of young satirists – and get us into a fair bit of trouble, too. 

In 2016 – as Zimbabweans’ viewing habits changed – we launched a new political satire show called The Week, exclusively for YouTube and Facebook. It’s a weekly political round-up of the news, and reaches an estimated 400 000 young viewers per season. It encourages young people to get involved in civic campaigns, and forces government ministers to respond. We’ve found that humour is a great way to package information for young people, so they can reflect on the news and take action.

When Covid-19 and lockdowns hit in early 2020, we realised we would have to pivot a lot of our Magamba programming. So we switched to fully virtual and digital programming. We set up as Zimbabwe’s first nationwide Covid cases tracker. We then organised a nationwide virtual hackathon to hack together plug ins for the website. We had 16 teams of techies participating virtually from across the country to build innovative access to information solutions. 

We also started observing how Covid funds corruption was becoming a new battleground. So we worked with the Follow The Money movement and the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development to launch, to track how African governments were spending Covid funds and to use virtual means to push for accountability. 

Magamba turns 14 years old this year. We’ve had so much thrown at us over the years: from repression to Covid-19, from internet shutdowns to police raids on our offices. Bring it on! We’re ready to meet whatever that new challenge will be – with some innovative thinking, fast Twitter fingers, and a dash of humour. 

1 March 2021