By Shaun Matsheza
A woman from Bulawayo named Shantel Rusike was recently in court facing charges of ‘causing hatred, contempt or ridicule of the president’ because she sent an image depicting the president, Robert Mugabe, naked.
This crime is defined in Section 33(2)(a)(ii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act or Code Chapter 9:23 of Zimbabwean law. I could just imagine the series of events that led to her being on the dock that morning.
She was probably hanging out, splitting her attention between a story some friend was telling and poking around her phone as people are wont to do nowadays; basically minding her own business, and then a friend sent her that picture on Whatsapp.
I haven’t seen the picture she received myself, but I am 100% positive that there are many more (perhaps even more distasteful) pictures circulating in people’s cellphones. She found it funny, chuckled a bit, prompting her friends to ask her what she was laughing at.
They looked at the picture together, somebody made a wise-crack about the president, then they all laughed and then she thought, ‘I bet Precious will find this funny’. Apparently, Precious didn’t find it funny at all and reported her to the police. Something makes you wonder whether there was some pre-existing beef…
Anyway, whereas our leaders might like to believe that they are infallible, and that they are beyond critique, everyone knows that everyone has their faults. After all, we are all human. Even the Pope, infallible as he may be described, is only infallible when he is in his papal office, not as a person.
Making fun of politician’s and other leaders is a fundamental part of human culture. Zimbabweans’ are not different. How many Muzenda jokes have you heard? And since his demise, how many Chinoz jokes are doing the rounds. They may be told in hushed tones, but they will be told nonetheless.
Political humour allows us to criticize our leaders, while humanizing them as well. Humour is a potent vehicle for serious political and social commentary, and perhaps that’s why our government has stooped so low as to attempt to censor even the random jokes people send to each other on their cellphones.
They know the power of jokes. The jokes people tell can provide you with a keen insight into a group’s collective psyche, and can tell you what people generally think about. If something, or someone, cannot be attacked directly, then humor is one of the bet ways to get a point across.
It is a well-known fact that totalitarian regimes hardly ever tolerate any criticism, and political satire is usually suppressed. The maturity of a democracy can indeed be measured by how much and how openly people can joke about their leaders.
The recent case of Brett Murray’s The Spear making fun of Jacob Zuma comes to mind. I guess South Africa is way ahead of Zimbabwe in that regard.
I know that some people think that we should condemn the image, as a sign of respect to our elders, but politicians should know that they will be criticised; sometimes directly and harshly, and sometimes comically. Politics requires a skin as thick as a rhinoceros, someone once said.
But while it may be funny to imagine that someone is in court for, not creating, but merely forwarding an image on their cellphone, the real tragedy creates a bitter aftertaste.
It is scary when you think that Zimbabwe’s Media, Information and Publicity Minister, Webster Shamu called for the “appropriate regulation of the internet and new media platforms”. The Minister, is calling for this because the potential of the internet to cause ‘strife in society.’
He was quoted in state media as saying to a Chinese government official, during a meeting : [it is] important to instill in citizens and the journalism fraternity progressive values anchored on clear appreciation of national history and cultural heritage so that they appropriately exercise citizen journalism.
The so-called citizen journalism facet of the new media means everyone has the potential to disseminate information that is…sometimes inaccurate or undesirable, information which may indeed be in total disregard of the national interest and lead to uncalled for internal strife in a country.
I hope the Chinese don’t fulfil these wishes and make it practically impossible to send any message at all in Zimbabwe. I feel sorry for Shantel, as she has probably just been chosen to serve as an example to any other people that would think of forwarding such messages.
In the end, we can find comfort knowing that you can take away everything from Zimbabwean people, but you cannot ever take away their indestructible sense of humour.
And Precious Tshuma, I hope your overzealous loyalty to our dear President bears you enough dividends to allow you to sleep at night…and to buy yourself a sense of humour.