The mysteries of Dr Thomas Mapfumo

By Mtandazo Dube

Twelve years after Dr Thomas Mapfumo left Zimbabwe, The Sunday Mail tries to piece together why the revered singer won’t come back home.

Chimurenga music legend Thomas Mapfumo
Chimurenga music legend Thomas Mapfumo

In an eventful 10 days, which culminated in Zimbabwe’s long-serving President Robert Gabriel Mugabe resigning and Emmerson Mnangagwa being installed in his place — could one of Zimbabwe’s most illustrious music and cultural icons finally be on his way home?

While Zimbabwe’s undisputed king of pop, Jah Prayzah, dominated airplay and continues to do so — Dr Oliver Mtukudzi’s “Bvuma Wasakara” had its fair share of the airwaves and so did Dr Thomas Tafirenyika Mapfumo’s many hits, including “Pidigori”.

Mtukudzi and Jah Prayzah are locally based while Mapfumo has not set foot in Zimbabwe in 12 years. Surprisingly, though, there remains an undeniable appetite for his music judging by the number of cars, clubs and open air joints that have been continuously playing his music lately.

Some mischievous internet users even took one of his videos in which he was assuring his fans in the UK a few weeks ago that he was set to fulfil a show there, and misrepresented it to appear as if Mapfumo was actually on a flight to Harare.

Yet, there still is no word from one of former President Mugabe’s harshest critics and this makes many wonder if he will ever come back to Zimbabwe.

Many ask; does he have a case to answer at the courts? Or did he plan to leave Zimbabwe for good as long back as 2001? It is a mystery, one which is made worse by the artiste’s vague answers when asked about the issues over the years.

Every year since Mapfumo’s last visit in 2004, local media has speculated on why the artiste celebrated for his culturally rich and hard-hitting lyrics never made the journey back home.

Each year, stories are written about Mapfumo’s “impending return” to the country but that never happens. The man, adoringly referred to as Mukanya, his totem, has been gone a long time. Some of his younger fans and music lovers in general have never seen him in person and have thus lost the connection that the older generation has.

Most arts critics of today never attended a single Mukanya show — yet he remains a popular figure not only in Zimbabwean music but society as a whole. His commentary is one of the most sought-after by journalists.

There are many theories as to why Mapfumo might never return to Zimbabwe. One of the most peddled ones is that there is an open police docket, which could see him get arrested for buying stolen property back in 2001.

Commenting on the issue in 2011, the then chief police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said, “As long as there are witnesses and the complainants to the case, we do not close cases. Mapfumo’s criminal case like that of any other whose docket had been opened by the police, should have to go through all legal processes. The case has to be finalised and Mapfumo’s case hasn’t,” said Bvudzijena at the time.

Mapfumo, however, is on record refuting the allegations, saying the charges were trumped-up. He also demanded his cars back, which he says were confiscated by the police.

Mapfumo’s case stemmed from a docket opened in 2001, charging him for buying stolen cars.

Back when the case came to light, regional magistrate Godfrey Macheyo called for Mapfumo and his wife Verna’s prosecution for buying stolen luxury vehicles from George Sibanda, a suspect who was on the run and facing 20 charges of car theft and fraud. The Mapfumos were suspected of buying an unspecified number of luxury BMW luxury vehicles from Sibanda.

After the magistrate’s call, Mapfumo moved his family to Oregon, United States of America, where they have been based ever since.

However, this theory falls away because in the three years that Mapfumo religiously returned home every festive season after the magistrate’s call, he never got arrested, although he abruptly stopped coming after his 2004 visit.

Mukanya is not on the local police wanted list or that of Interpol, where if, for instance, he was a fugitive from justice, he would naturally be found.

Efforts to get a comment from the police were unsuccessful as the chief police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Charity Charamba was not answering her mobile phone.

We contacted the National Prosecuting Authority where the acting corporate affairs manager Ms Munyeriwa promised to dig through archives. However, efforts to follow up on the issue did not yield results as Ms Munyeriwa’s mobile phone was unreachable while her office landlines were not being picked up.

Another popular assumption is that Mukanya has never returned home for fear of persecution by his own Government because of the lyrics of songs such as “Corruption”, “Mamvemve”, “Musatambe Nenyika”, “Asingadi” and “Disaster”, to name just a few.

The artiste himself is on record alleging the same.

However, now that a new dawn has come to Zimbabwe, politically, could Mukanya finally make his way home? If Mukanya has been protesting against the rule of former President Mugabe, could he be headed home now that the 93-year-old is history?

The other theory has been that since Mapfumo applied for political asylum in the United States, he cannot freely come into the country. But that assumption flies in the face of the fact that in 2011, Mapfumo was issued with a new Zimbabwean passport, number CN124799.

Mapfumo’s manager, Austin Sibanda, responding to some of the WhatsApp messages sent to him, repeated the usual mantra, “There are a few promoters that have approached us and we haven’t come to terms yet”.

Sibanda also dismissed talk that there are issues, political or otherwise, that are stopping the artiste from coming back home.

Attempts to contact Mukanya directly hit a brick wall as the phone went unanswered.

In 2014 when Mapfumo performed in South Africa, he told this publication that his return was imminent as “very senior people” were making arrangements for that to happen. It has been three years since then.

Not even the death of his mother could bring Mukanya back to Zimbabwe. This has led some to speculate that perhaps complicated spiritual family matters could be responsible for the artiste deciding not to set foot in Zimbabwe.

When Mapfumo performed in Messina, South Africa, his sisters drove all the way from Harare to meet their brother. Previously he had performed in Botswana and Johannesburg but never crossed the border.

Perhaps the artiste planned it long back that he was moving to the United States for good — as he told this publication’s Garikai Mazara back in 2002 that, “I am now resident in the United States and come here once a year in December, mainly because it will be winter there and we cannot have shows.”

During that interview, Mukanya indicated that his children had stayed behind. Mukanya is not the only high profile Zimbabwean to abandon his homeland. One of the most popular, talented and respected artistes, Lovemore Majaivana, has not returned to Zimbabwe since the turn of the millennium when he left for the United States of America.

Businessman Strive Masiyiwa has not set foot in Zimbabwe since March 2000 while James Makamba and Mutumwa Mawere have also been gone a while. The Sunday Mail