Full Transcript: Thandiwe Newton speaks to Violet Gonda on Hot Seat
Zimbabwean journalist Violet Gonda speaks to Emmy Award-winning actress Thandiwe Newton on her Hot Seat programme. Newton clarifies her Zimbabwean roots, gives her views on Zimbabwean politics, her advice for opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and many other topics.
Violet Gonda: Thandiwe Newton, a prime-time Emmy Award-winning actress joins us today on the programme, Hot Seat with me, your host Violet Gonda.
The Hollywood star who is currently on the cover of the UK Vogue Magazine (May) has enthralled us in many romantic movies and high-octane dramas including Be-loved, Good Deeds, Mission Impossible 2 and is currently starring in the HBO science fiction series Westworld.
Thandiwe has also been using her social media platforms to champion human rights causes in Zimbabwe and many welcome her powerful voice. Welcome Thandiwe.
Thandiwe Newton: Awww Violet! Thank you, my love. It’s so so good to be here with you.
Violet: Oh and it’s wonderful to get this opportunity to talk to you, so thank you very much for this.
Thandiwe: Pleasure and a privilege.
Violet: First let’s clear something. Where is Thandiwe from? As I understand there have been two countries actually, Zambia and Zimbabwe, that have been feuding over this issue with each claiming you (laugh). So where are your origins?
Thandiwe: Well, let me explain. My mother is from Zimbabwe, she originates from Zhombe, and my mother and father met in Lusaka. My father was a laboratory technician, and my mother was a midwife; and they met, fell in love and they were married there and I was born on a trip back to London soon after they were married; and then they returned to Lusaka where my sister and brother were born.
My sister unfortunately didn’t make it, but my brother did and we continued to live in Zambia for a few years until Herbert Chitepo (Zimbabwean nationalist) was assassinated. He was a friend of my family’s, and there was a lot of unrest. They didn’t want to leave but they decided they would leave for a short while and unfortunately, they never returned to Zambia – we settled in England after that.
Violet: So you identify as part British and Zimbabwean?
Thandiwe: Yes, my father is British and my mother is from Zimbabwe, from Zhombe. Her nurse training was in England, although she didn’t know my father on the trip to England where she trained to be a nurse because she always intended to train in England and go back to Zimbabwe.
And she did go back to Zimbabwe but got a posting in Lusaka where she went to work, and she met my father there. So she never intended to be in England, an English woman but as I said when unrest started to really turn into quite serious struggle in Zambia my parents decided that it was time just to let the politics run its course and unfortunately we never went back.
Violet: I think I also saw a post, I don’t know if it was on your Twitter page, where you said you are Samanyika. Did I get that right that you are from Manicaland?
Thandiwe. Yes exactly. That’s where my family originated.
Violet: Oh so you are my homegirl? (laugh)
Thandiwe: [laughs] I feel like it, already! It’s amazing. When I met you this morning one of your colleagues is called Thandiwe, and her daughter is Thandiwe so I feel very very at home.
Violet: That’s nice. Actually she’s my sister-in-law and so that was my week-old-niece you saw. [laughs]
Violet: Lovely, isn’t it! You know, that actually brings me to the issue of identity and names but I just need to go back a bit and get a bit of background first as some Zimbabweans might not know much about your work. Can you tell us about that because those who do know you have seen this amazing work and I’ve said it in the introductions – the blockbuster movies that you’ve starred in – but at the same time the work has come with challenges. So, historically what challenges have you faced as a woman of colour in the film industry and also with the media representation of women?
Thandiwe: I’ve been an actress in film which is its own peculiar, particular genre for over thirty years now and whatever difficulties and challenges there are, I have faced them. And intersectionality is a term coined by a dear friend of mine, Kimberly Cranshaw, who is a professor at law in America and she coined the #SayHerName, which is something that is very important to me looking at police violence against women of colour in America.
Anyway, Kimberly coined the term intersectionality and in a way it was such a relief that an academic had really pinpointed the challenges faced particularly by women of colour because we are dealing with misogyny or sexism, and as a woman of colour you are also dealing with potential racism, and yes all of those things I suffered. I would say that mainly it was ignorance.
I was very aware of the fact from the beginning which is why, thankfully, I didn’t internalise shame around the colour of my skin, I did not. If I realised that someone was treating me in a disrespectful way and it was to do with the colour of my skin I would immediately disregard that person because I felt that they were my subordinate in terms of just their mental capacity.
Because race, if you just consider it for any degree of time, is a complete fabrication which is a hangover from colonialism as a way of making the colonialists and the colonised as different to each other as possible so that it could justify brutal behaviour and the kind of master-servant mentality. And we are not in that, we are no longer masters and servants in this world, right.
So why are we still using these terms which were only relevant at a time when you had masters and servants? And the only way of course, the reason why it is still there is because it benefits people who often don’t show themselves, what I mean is powerful people for whom its valuable for them to have most citizens fighting with each other so that they are not concentrating on what’s happening in the higher echelons of society where deals are being done and pieces are being moved around that board which we have no idea, we are too busy hating on each other because of this fabrication that is called called race.
So I came from that place of not seeing race, and it’s mainly my mother, who is Zimbabwean. She found herself in an isolated part of England, Cornwall, way down the bottom of the country. There were no people of colour, no people of colour except her and her offspring.
It was a very very challenging time for her. She was hyper aware of the racism, the ignorance, as I said, but ignorance unchecked can obviously turn into racism. And racism is where it gets really dangerous because if you call it racism- and the whole term, race, is an illusion, it means there is no way of tracking, real-ly, whether it’s valid or not. If you call it what it is, which are ignorance or hate crimes then you know where you are and how to deal with it.
Violet: Going back to the challenges you faced in the past, in the critically acclaimed series Westworld you play a robot that regains its memories of its past life. Did your role in Westworld influence any of your decisions to reclaim your identity?
Thandiwe: Funnily enough, just before Westworld I had managed to extricate myself from a project which I was so heartbroken over because of its sexism and casual racism and I had talked to the producer about it, I had tried to make changes within but when I realised that none of that was going to happen I managed to remove myself from a long term contract which takes a lot of courage and I was frightened but I managed to do that because of those things.
And then I wasn’t planning on working. I’d had a new baby, I have three children now, I wanted to write. I realised that there were things I wanted to actually frame myself, I was frustrated by always saying other people’s words. Sometimes that would be okay and would align with my own ideas about things but more often it wouldn’t so it was always frustrating, and that’s what I decided to do.
And then Westworld came along and I was just so surprised by how radical it was, you know, to literally take things like misogyny and violence and ethnic hatred and subvert them so that we can actually comment on why humanity does that and the way we do it is by using host, robots as metaphors for the dispossessed in the world.
So, I played this robot and it was one of the most cathartic experiences in my life. I felt like as an activist, a political rights activist for human rights, everyday when I was working on that show, I was working, I was an activist.
Because through the story of Maeve in Westworld where she starts to break down and she starts to remember a past which has been denied her, now at this point in my life as a woman who is both from Zimbabwe and from the UK through my parents, as an actress of colour I realise that I’ve been lied to again and again and again about who I am, about my authority in the world, my power and I’ve been lied to by the stories that we are told. I’ve been lied to by the OWN stories that I’ve participated in telling.
But when I was working on Westworld for the first time, because this character through the information that she remembers about her own life she realises who she is. And then in an effort to gain her freedom, she knows that she needs to discover the truth of everything. And that’s really it. Once you know the truth, how you gonna deal with the situation is up to you, you know, once you are liberated by truth you might not even want to retaliate.
That’s the thing I’ve found so stunning in the work I’ve done across the world and when I’m in the field with people who’ve suffered the most horrific human rights, all they want is peace, they don’t want anyone to be killed in response, I mean by and large that is. They just want peace and for it not to happen to anyone else, right. They want to move on. So that’s how I felt with Westworld.
I felt like I was everyday engaged in the pursuit of trying to free the oppressed, you know, and the robots in the show are a metaphor, as I said for the oppressed. And from then on I realised I’m not an actress for hire anymore, you know. I do things because I really want to, because it gives me the sense of purpose in my life, that I would get even if I wasn’t hired, right. and also it has really freed me up with the sense of paying it forward.
I have a very different attitude to what I even do with my earnings for things. Call it generosity if you like but everything that I am comes from these powerful women in Zimbabwe, powerful women my ancestors from Congo. I did my DNA test and it turns out that before Zimbabwe my family was in Congo, which makes a lot of sense because I do a lot of work in Congo.
And that’s who I honour so actually my life now really is about trying to discover truth and share truth and share tools, psychological tools and also tools for dealing with breaking down the system that disenfranchises so many people. And what I get from that, what benefits me, I make sure that I am uplifting those in the part of the world that have literally given me life.
Violet: Changing your name from Thandiwe to Thandi, was that just a clerical error or a race thing to conform with society? And why is reclaiming your name important and why now?
Thandiwe: Umm, yeah ‘cause I’m not changing my name I’m restoring it and it’s a story I’ve now come to know because so many people have shared their stories with me as a result of this Vogue article of being erased, of your culture being erased when you enter a new host environment.
I’ve heard about people who arrived from China and they were given names. I’ve met people who don’t even know what their name is because of their westernised name. Of course they will make their name their own but if you think of how effective a tool that is for erasing the culture where you come from to even take your name away. And for me it happened very easily and simply.
I was very shy about my name when I was a child because it was so different to everyone else’s. People called me Thandi not Thandiwe because it was such a mouthful, also be-cause Thandi people pronounced wrongly they’d say THandi (TH pronounced as in thunder) all the time or they would just say it wrong which was just so punishing for me, talk about being an outsider anyway.
And so people would call me Thandi. And as I got older and more confident I would insist on – Thandiwe – it’s such a beautiful name, it means beloved. It speaks to me about my mother’s family and Shona, even though it’s not a Shona word it’s actually from Zulu, the word, which is also incredibly romantic and gorgeous, and it kept me attached to my history.
So I was still Thandiwe to a few and then I remember when I made my first movie I was sixteen years old. It was in Australia, it was a complete fluke. I wasn’t planning on being an actress at all, I was a dancer and studying hard to be accepted into life. And I did this movie and it was in Australia and the director had named this character a Hebrew name even though it was an African – (I realise now in retrospect that he knew so little about modern Africa its almost pathetic) but he knew I was called Thandiwe and he was so like “Oh God what a beautiful name and it’s also authentic!”, so in order to make his character and his writing more authentic he took my name and he called the character Thandiwe and I was so flattered that anybody would even, not only was he…it was the opposite to what I dealt with normally where people were like “What are you saying? What? What name is that?” You know, horrible, crap. He was like “Ooo, what’s that?” because he was appropriating, that’s cultural appropriation but I was just so jazzed that it wasn’t something that was gonna be a problem.So he used my name but then in the credits to the movie they used my name that everyone called me which was Thandi, you know, which was easy.
So that stuck forevermore. My name was no longer Thandiwe it was Thandi. You don’t get to be in a movie that of-ten, do you, so obviously I was like Ahhh, my whole identity was wrapped around this incredible thing – “I’m in a movie!” because I didn’t think I would ever be in another movie. It was a total fluke.
Anyway, so only now as an adult, and for years and years I was worried that if I reverted to Thandiwe I would lose all my fans who only know me as Thandi. But now as a grown woman I’m sure that you might, Violet, understand what I mean where you get to an age where I don’t need to have this fame around me. People are gonna find my work. It’s not about me, it’s about the things I’m trying to give out. People can’t possibly know me, you can’t possibly know me if I’m on a screen.
It’s the work that I’m offering and then I get to have my name back and that’s what I feel so great about. Look, if I’m gonna be called Thandiwe in my movies I wan-na be called Thandiwe in my life. And that’s all I really want – to be called Thandiwe in my life.
Violet: In recent months you have become very vocal about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. What triggered this?
Thandiwe: What triggered it? The violence. The violence triggered it. I’ve known about the violence surrounding political issues for a long time. I’ll tell you what it was. It’s partly to do with the pandemic. The fact that people were being forced to wear masks and it felt to me that it wasn’t the whole story, it was a cover for something more, it wasn’t the whole story.
Using the pandemic as a way of controlling people. When I first went to Cambridge, all those years ago, I had a reading list and the top of the reading list for an anthropology student was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions. I read that book thirty years ago and it changed my life.
It connected me to Zimbabwe in a new way because it was a modern telling of modern women, modern family. So when I saw that Tsitsi had been arrested when she was on a peaceful demonstration and put into prison, I was like “What? What’s happening?” and that’s when I just couldn’t turn away. I wanted to help Tsitsi first, that’s what began.
Look, a writer’s voice, people who comment on society, whether it’s journalists, whether it’s anthropologists, all of us can of course, but people whose role is to create safe places by speaking the truth about where they are from, we have to protect.
And obviously I felt a real kinship too. And then journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, and then the three girls Joanah Mamombe and co (opposition activists) who were abducted and who were found weeks later dumped on the side of the road, who had experienced concussions and had very hazy memories of what happened, and were traumatised, and to see pictures and then to be told that these pictures weren’t real and to be told that what they were saying wasn’t truthful.
And I’ve worked for 20 years in the field as a human rights activist focusing on women and girls and we believe women, we start there! We start from that place. Why would someone talk about something as shameful as being abducted and sexually abused? Who wants that as an identity? I tell you what? No you don’t. I was sexually abused. It’s really hard to talk about it.
The only reason I talked about it is because I didn’t want it to happen to other people. It’s a sacrifice on my part because you be-come… it’s like you’re stained, right. You are an example of the bad things that can happen so keep the bad things away. So I would even be dismissed by people, other women, you know, other actresses in my field so you believe women, that’s where we start.
My compassion, and the horror, and I’m a human rights activist, why should I stop being a human rights activist when I look at Zimbabwe? When I’m engaged in work in Zimbabwe it’s with organisations that do amazing work on the ground but I never make a big show of it. I don’t let people know that I’m doing it because I don’t want it to seem political.
Violet: That’s what I was actually going to ask you about…
Thandiwe: I know everything is political. I know people say everything is political but it isn’t about politics for me. This is about a lot of young people being abused by a system in place or being abused and we don’t even know who’s doing it.
I just want to know who’s doing this and they have to stop. Because here is the thing, who-ever is doing that, whoever abducted and dumped these women two weeks later on the side of the road if it isn’t the government then surely the government wants to know who’s doing it, so they can do something about it.
As someone from another country looking, on I am asking, I guess I’m asking everybody including the government, just if anyone has any information about how these things are happening ‘cause if it isn’t the government then they’ll sort it out, right? ‘Cause that’s what they are there for.
Violet: That’s what I wanted to ask you that it’s good that a celebrity of your stature is involved but the next question is “Then what?” Are you just raising the issues generally advocating, or beyond highlighting the issues what, in your view, needs to be done?
Thandiwe: Well, I’m one person, although I recognise that one person can do so much, it’s not just Twittering, I speak to those three women’s lawyers, I find out how I can help, I have also been looking at other non-profits organisations that have been springing up through Zimbabwe trying to deal with the problems there like in Chitungwiza a soup kitchen there which I interviewed Samantha, the young woman who runs it and started a year ago.
She had a handful of people, friends of hers that would come over and now she feeds up to 3000 people a day. I started off donating and then I suddenly realised, it was actually my mother that said “Oh we must tell people in different parts of Zimbabwe, let everybody know because it’s incredible that this is possible!” And I thought, oh my goodness I should use my social platforms to just spread the word. Not only to people who maybe want to kindly donate but just to be aware.
Look what’s going on, look at this incredible woman, look what one person can do maybe it will inspire another person to help with something else. Of course it would be great if the government can do everything but that’s obvious not the situation.
So it’s not just me talking and tweeting about human rights, or about the terrible things that happened in that place but it’s also me looking at the wonderful things that are happening, the incredible efforts that people are going to great lengths to perform and highlighting their work and celebrating them, and empowering them.
I want to stay in joy Violet, I want to stay in a state of positivity because here is one thing when you have been oppressed one of the worst things that happens is that you internal-ise that and you become your own worst enemy. You start to give up. And there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Zimbabweans, they don’t give up. My family there, we are always hearing about issues, and electricity being turned off, and no petrol, and not being able to use the Zimbabwean dollar anymore. Look, the Zim Diaspora in the world, I’m talking to you now, Diaspora.
My mum’s been doing that for the last 30 years… if you know anyone going to Zim you send them a suitcase full of stuff, “Take it!”, to give to family and friends. Do you know that the diaspora pays $20 billion annually, into Zimbabwe? We matter. We matter. And what I get from my fellow Zimbabweans is this spirit of survival in me, that is where it comes from.
Because believe me Violet I’ve asked myself again and again because I don’t know why I manage to rise out of situations the way I do, honestly I don’t. And it is the Zimbabwean in me.
Violet: Yes, we are an incredibly resilient people.
Thandiwe: It is the Zimbabwean in me. I see it in my mother, I see it everyday in her. It is the Zimbabwean in me. And now I know that, I feel like “Okay, I’m good. I’m good. Whatever happens I’m good.” And from this position, I’m never gonna stop. So it’s not just focusing on these horrifying, mysterious crimes, it’s also recognising that people are managing to survive in very difficult environments. They’re not waiting to be told what to do, you know.
Thandiwe: They’re not waiting for handouts, you know. And people wanna help. And I’m doing a lot more, and I’m also very well connected, I guess, out here. I’ve been doing a lot of work for years, I’m on the board of an incredible organisation called V-Day which has been working in Zimbabwe for years and years as well as all over the world.
So these tentacles go far. So yah, I am one person but it’s not just about tweeting, it’s about being involved, staying aware- that’s the other thing, which is why social media is amazing, be-cause it means you can stay aware, there’s really no excuse any-more, is there, about being ignorant.
Violet: And Thandiwe has Hollywood actually noticed because Zimbabweans are noticing, as you can see from the comments and the responses that you get online, but I’m just wondering when you talk about Zimbabwe to your Hollywood friends what is their knowledge and understanding? Is it an issue that can gain traction? What do your colleagues in the industry say? Do they support you?
Thandiwe: Well that’s a really interesting question. I don’t live in America. I’m here now because I’m shooting Westworld and it is a home away from home in many ways but I am a British person so I guess it’s more about my British family, friends. Hollywood? (scoffs) I don’t engage with Hollywood over Zimbabwe, no. I mean I engage with Hollywood over the way women of colour are treated and I guess in some ways that is engaging Hollywood with Zimbabwe because you know, women of colour are everywhere, but specifically about Zimbabwe, no.
It’s something that’s way bigger than Hollywood, for me. People in Hollywood, are they gonna be able to help? I mean, I guess, celebrity is a big pool but I think, one thing I am aware of is that people are sacred to… people are frightened of losing their popularity, that’s what it is.
I have been so unpopular for speaking out against sexual violence, both in the industry and out. I’ve been unpopular for that. So, I’m glad to be unpopular because now, turns out, you’re popular for talking out about… You see what I mean.
In a space of 20 years I’ve gone from being unpopular to…so for me, it doesn’t matter. Popularity is bullshit, you know, particularly, what are you popular for, right?
But Hollywood is a place where it’s all about popularity so is it gonna make you popular to speak out? And I think because I’ve tried to engage Hollywood for a long time about sexual violence and it fell on deaf ears for a long time, which I don’t judge, I get it.
It’s interesting actually there is another actress who recently changed, she restored her name too and she was very excited. Tanya Fear is the name she goes by, her stage name but I don’t know many Zimbabweans. I know Danai a little bit, Danai Gurira (Black Panther), amazing, amazing actress and force. I saw her play. Oh my goodness Violet. Did you see her play, love? Exceptional!
Violet: I did. It was amazing!
Thandiwe: yes, with Letitia Wright, oh my goodness. And it was dealing with colonialism and how it affected the spirit of indigenous Africans, well in the case of the play, this young woman. It was stun-ning, stunning. And I look at Danai and I think there is a way of influencing through your work, right. I don’t know, I haven’t spoken to Danai about Zimbabwe but we don’t know each other, we are not friends per se, we see each other at events and things but I don’t think that, I don’t know whether she would be open to it talking about it, about Zimbabwe but she’s doing it with her work.
I appreciate that, I do and I think that it’s very powerful, it’s very powerful. But I would like to gather more members of the Diaspora together so that we can encourage peace and encourage the truth to be revealed. It’s very difficult obviously when you are not on the ground, you’re not in the country but like I said to you I speak to Zimbabweans regularly now, you know, on the ground and I’m aware of what’s going on, on a human rights level and trying to connect people to serve that will help, that’s what I’m doing right now. Honestly it’s more short term but with a view to long term.
Violet: Maybe Westworld should go to Zimbabwe. [laughs] What do you think about that? Perhaps that is something that could go in a script somewhere to highlight the situation in Zimbabwe?
Thandiwe: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Westworld has never gone into any real specifics of what’s happening literally now but I love how it’s kind of, it’s predicted things, and there is definitely satire in the commentary. Like I said before, the hosts for me are the metaphors.
And I must say we’ve been to Shogunworld, we’ve been to Warworld, I mean obviously these different “worlds” that are created in the show, they are theme parks so I dread to think what Africaworld would look like, okay. I hate to say but would it be the kind of like Disney Lion King version of Africa, like, we don’t need that. But I have thought to myself “how can we bring African into Westworld, how?” I wish we could. I wish the same treatment would- I have fantasies about that, ‘cause I really- I’m so desperate – look, things are changing so much, so much!
When I first started out, people of colour on screen- you know Violet, I don’t have to say it, but it was a drought. Drought of good material for people, drought of scripts, roles, my goodness. Now It’s amazing! Incredible. I can’t keep up with all the incredible actors. I could name all the black actors when I started out, practically, you know, the mainstream.
Now it’s incredible, it’s extraordinary, this explosion of talent and desire for stories for the stories of African Americans, right. And I want to see that from Africa – filmmakers. And we have them, they are there. Tsitsi Dangarembga has made movies.
Of course those films, they are coming, they’re coming, they’re, they’re coming! In fact you know documentaries. It’s tough though, it’s not easy to make a movie in Zimbabwe. I’m a friend of Camilla Nielsson who is a documentary maker and she made Democrats a while ago and she has a new documentary coming out called President which she made around the last election, and she was there in Zimbabwe, on the ground.
The material she got, Violet, was extraordinary. She’s a filmmaker, she’s from Denmark, she’s amazing and she just would not stop, she would not be curtailed from the journey. And she followed them, you know, opposition leader Nelson Chamisa gave her full access.
If that’s someone who’s got no skeletons in the cupboard I don’t know what, you know what I’m saying? Like, full access, right there you are like “Oh okay. He’s got nothing to hide.” That was great, and you follow this story. That’s gonna come out soon. It’s gonna come out soon, and it’s powerful.
Violet: It is powerful. I know Camilla and I understand I have a little role in that film, a little, little role but I still have to see it. I can’t wait to see it.
Thandiwe: Tell me, where you interviewed?
Violet: No, I think she used some of my questions at press conferences – because I was in Zimbabwe during that period in 2018 and she was there at the same time covering the elections. So one of the clips… (interrupted)
Thandiwe: You were at the press conference?
Violet: Yes, I was asking the president (Emmerson Mnangagwa) a question…
Thandiwe: That was Violet!?!?
Violet: That was me! [laughs]
Thandiwe: No no no, that’s no small thing. That’s no small thing. You asked the question. No you did. You asked the question, thank you. Thank you. My goodness. Yeyyy!
Violet: Thank you very much for that. That actually brings me to the question about politics. Some are labelled anti-government if they criticise the system and automatically labelled opposition. So are you aligned to any political party? Do you support any political party in Zimbabwe?
Thandiwe: I do not, because I don’t feel that I – if I was going to support a party I would do due diligence but I would also want to be in the environment. I would want to have a stronger sense of what is needed around, you know, and I’m not a Zimbabwean. I can’t speak to that. I just can’t.
But I saw the documentary and I’m aware of the players in the documentary because I wasn’t so sure about Nelson Chamisa years ago, I was just concerned, I thought Morgan Tsvangirai’s successor was going to be a woman, and then suddenly she wasn’t, you know, – after he tragically died. It was Nelson that became his, and I just thought why not a woman? Is this sexism? What’s happening? Then I watched this documentary and I’m just so grateful for the information inside it because it really taught me, certainly I felt grateful that even though only 40 years old Chamisa has the might, and he’s dedicated and he is alive emotionally and that was heartening.
There were no interviews with Mr. Mnangagwa so I wasn’t able to say the same thing with him. I haven’t seen that kind of in-depth, maybe if we did see that then I would be able to say “Oh he’s cool”. So to answer your question, I don’t support a political party. I’m not a member of the Diaspora that could vote because, I’m a British citizen but my goodness! There is a potential for the Diaspora of Zimbabwe to vote!. How cool would that be! And it can happen and it must happen.
Violet: What are your thoughts about Nelson Chamisa?
Thandiwe: [pause] The complexities. The lack of infrastructure. I mean, how do you get to the people in the rural areas? There are so many obstacles that seem to be erected. I think the documentary answers a lot of those questions and I don’t really wanna speak to it because it’s gonna come out. I would encourage people to watch it, and experience it. And as I said to you before, my reservations about Nelson Chamisa were really challenged when I watched the documentary so I think that really answers your question.
At the moment it’s so hard to really – I don’t think we are ever gonna go back to normal – that’s a reality, right, so in a way now he has to innovate, he has to keep growing and chang to meet the demands , he is going to, of course.
And I very much hope that he will because in a democracy it’s important to have opposition. It is. Let’s hope that he provides good opposition. People of Zimbabwe deserve it. And I hope that he gets good opposition too, in the government, because the people of Zimbabwe deserve that too. They deserve a fair election. A free and fair election.
Violet: Some of the challenges also have to do with fatigue. Because it would appear that the crisis in Zimbabwe has been going on for a very long time, even as far back as independence in 1980. A lot of things have happened.
Thandiwe: I know. 2008? I mean, my goodness. 2008 was a – I mean, I think people are still recovering from what happened in that election, you know. There is so much effort in recovery, so how do you then generate newness?
Violet: So what did you think when Mugabe was overthrown in a coup in 2017?
Thandiwe: I was very surprised. I was absolutely astonished actually. I was astonished! And that it could have come from inside too. That Mnangagwa, you know, it was just so confusing. I think people were preparing more for a future after Mugabe, right?
Not for a continuation of anything similar. Yah, I’ve yet to see evidence of it being what Zimbabwe needed, that change. There’s been a lot of talk about democracy, and freedom and empowering Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans, there were a lot of those promises. We are just waiting to see them materialise. But yeah, it was so shocking.
Violet: What about the role of the international community? What can you say about the way it’s handled the Zim situation and also do you think America, for example, is doing good for the people of Zimbabwe via its so-called targeted sanctions, because it’s divided the society in Zimbabwe?
Thandiwe: Oh I’m sure it has divided the society. I’m sure it has, because we’re also talking about how Zimbabwe, like the rest of Africa, is being treated by the rest of the world. Let’s face it. And I think one of the reasons – Mugabe, he gained independence for Zimbabwe and it’s huge, huge – and that comes at a price.
And it feels like, in terms of big scale thinking, everything that’s happening now is almost sort of shifting it away from this fight with colonialism and it’s now looking more internally, you know, Zimbabwe internally and that’s a whole new frontier.
So I can imagine the distrust of the international community is high. And why now? Why this? Why not before when things were going difficult? And similarly, I remember talking to people, talking to Desmond Tutu, about what people have to understand too is the regard for the older generations, in Zimbabwe and Africa throughout. It’s something that has been lost in a lot of the world, the respect for the elders. You know what I’m saying Violet. You do not disrespect your elders in Zimbabwe.
Am I wrong in saying that? That’s a tradition. It’s deep rooted. And it’s one of the reasons why it’s particularly difficult in a political situation because if your leader is also a man, an older man, you don’t disrespect your elders! It’s almost like even history is now being smashed up and thrown on a fire of revolution, right. Because you can’t hold onto what used to happen, because that used to happen out of respect for your elders, right. Now maybe that’s even being threatened.
Look at even the youth. That boy dumped out – who dumped that boy (Lavender Chinayi) outside his home, dead, covered in a Hello Kitty blanket that we all saw, right. These young people, they don’t wanna disrespect their elders.
Not at all! I just remember Desmond Tutu saying that and it made me understand Mugabe in a whole different way. You know, this titan, someone who brought independence. But I feel like we are hanging on to an old kind of triumph and it’s not helping people anymore.
Violet: …perhaps on a lighter note, I saw one of your interviews where you talked about how your daughter, Ripley, once confronted British prime minister Boris Johnson.
Thandiwe: Oh he wasn’t prime minister then.
Violet: Oh he wasn’t prime minister then? Okay!
Thandiwe: My daughter is, she’s a straight shooter. She would have said it even if he was prime minister. But the reason she was so impassioned is because Brexit had just been announced, this was 5 years ago, and it had just been announced and Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were the key architects of Brexit.
He was sitting in the theatre, and so was Ripley Parker, that’s my daughter, and Brexit was a devastating, devastating experience. And when that was passed it was truly a very bleak day for a lot of people in England. So that’s what compelled my daughter to call him a word that he understood to be really bad (laughs).
Violet: [laughs] But can you imagine Ripley saying that to an African leader, like Mnangagwa, you know, facing up to our politicians?
Thandiwe: Well, I don’t know… hmmmm, would she if she was a 20 year old young woman raised in Zimbabwe? Would she? And that’s what I mean. You can’t be a British person impose my ideas of things onto a Zimbabwean. I can’t, as a British person, advise or anything.
All I can do is respond to what I’m aware of. So no, Ripley would not be entitled to do that because she’s not speaking from the heart of the country where that comment would matter. But she’s a British girl and to the British prime minister, yes, she did a good job. But I’d like to think that maybe someone like Ripley would have the courage to speak her truth to anybody.
But what I do know is that as a fellow Zimbabwean – I’m not a Zimbabwean citizen – but all my childhood, when I did get bullied or dismissed, passed over – the thing that always kept me proud is that I knew that these idiots who were being mean to me didn’t know where I really came from.
And I used to think about that. I used to think of the stories my Mum told me, my family in Zimbabwe, my grandfather, how we were part of a royal lineage, and it gave me pride and a kind of force field around me. And that is what I’m responding to now.
It’s the Zimbabwe that I know, may-be it’s romantic, it is a little, that has inspired me so much and has been the secret safe haven for my soul when I was dealing with crap as a black British girl, and then a black girl in the industry and so on. So people who hurt fellow Zimbabweans, aren’t Zimbabweans to me.
Violet: How do you deal with online harassment, as some trolls have been really scathing, you know, with their attacks?
Thandiwe: I haven’t read any of them. I have a thing on my, I’m not very techy, so I have a thing where I don’t see responses unless they follow me and I follow them, I think.
Thandiwe: So it’s a community that I’ve already, I mean you know, so if I don’t follow you then I’m not gonna read. And I’ve seen some things from people that I even follow, you know, and I’m like “Whoa, what you doing?” but I accept it, I utterly accept it. Everyone has a right to an opinion as do I because I would very much like you to accept mine.
We might disagree but I’m allowed to speak it and then that’s how we have a dialogue. It doesn’t end there. There’s this idea that it ends there, it doesn’t, okay, maybe on social media it ends there because the other person you don’t let them speak back to you, because you don’t have a dialogue, necessarily. But, how do I deal with it?I guess that’s the one way, I don’t engage, or I don’t always engage with it. Sometimes I do. I want to learn too, Violet. I want to learn too.
Maybe we’ll discover that a lot of the police who have been carrying out these awful, awful inhuman acts – bullying and, I saw a girl being hit around the face because she wasn’t wearing a mask, right. And this is just stuff that gets recorded on people’s phones.
It makes me upset now (pauses)- maybe we’ll discover that they are just some people doing stuff they really shouldn’t be doing and they get kicked out, the ones that were drunk at the event that I saw on my feed maybe they are gonna be given some help for their alcoholism. What I’m saying is, would that happen? I doubt very much but it doesn’t stop me hoping.
We have to have ideas about what is right, about what we can do before we actually then try and get there. These are my ideas, I guess. Just please, no more violence! That’s it. Please! No, it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable.
Violet: Do you see yourself going to Zimbabwe, and perhaps just help-ing directly from there someday? And also when was the last time you were there? I can’t remember at the beginning did you say you’ve been there before or not yet?
Thandiwe: I have been to Zimbabwe. We, as a family, lived in Zambia, like I said, where my parents worked and I took a few trips to Zimbabwe when I was young and I haven’t been back since I was a teen-ager because to start with I was at uni, then my parents didn’t have time and it was expensive.
I talk to people who go home every year and I’m like “What? Really?” We couldn’t afford that when I was growing up. No way. A family of 4 going to Zimbabwe and back? We had to save up, really. And then as I got older going back is difficult because you know, I… it’s difficult. It’s complicated because I know I’m a visible person and it’s always weighing out whether help is gonna hinder or it’s actually really gonna help. A huge amount of my help is invisible, you know. It’s the work that I do.
I don’t make a great big song and dance about it because it’s not about me, it’s about the people that I’m helping so they can help themselves and others. And it’s not for my glorification at all. But I’m desperate to go, desperate! Particularly my husband.
I really want him to experience Africa, well Zimbabwe, we’ve been to South Africa but I want him to feel life! I just feel like it opens you up, you know, and I want that gift for my husband. I want that gift for my children, they deserve it. I want them to see baobab trees again.
Violet: That’s what I was going to ask you , that do you have any positives about the Zimbabwe you know and also does your mum miss Zimbabwe?
Thandiwe: Yes. She goes a lot. She goes for much more because of her relatives, she no longer has siblings anymore. Her last sister passed away. She has a couple of siblings from her father, who had another relationship, based around custom, because her mother had died, you know how that goes, so they’re her half brothers so they are still around.
And I think of Chinhoyi Caves which I’ll never forget as long as I live. I remember being there at 17, and the Zimbabwe Ruins, the baboons, I remember music, just being out and live music and dancing, and sadza, and greens with peanut butter, stuff I eat at home.
Violet: Can you cook sadza?
Thandiwe: No, my mum is sweet. She cooks for me because she doesn’t want me to get burnt because every woman has got that big old hot bubble slap on the skin. I know how to do it, I do, but Mum always does it (laughs). My Mum lives up the road from me so she’ll literally cook like just just before I left to come to the States (I’m not at home at the moment) and that’s how we do it.
I’m going away so she comes with the full sadza, relish, greens, I did the greens in peanut butter. But yeah, we all sit together and eat from the centre. Yah, it’s magical. And of course I’ve got this view of Zimbabwe because it’s romanticised, massively, but what’s wrong with that. I know it’s very different from when I was 17 and back there 30 years. It’s very different.
Violet: I know exactly what you mean, for me when I went back to Zimbabwe in 2018 after almost 20 years, it just felt so good because I had missed the fresh air, the smell of the dust, you know, when it rains, just being with loved ones, the mawuyus that you are talking about, the baobab… all those things a lot of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora can relate in terms of what you are talking about.
So thank you very much for this, Thandiwe. It has been great talking to you. I didn’t think I was going to get an interview with you and I didn’t think you were going to respond straight away and you did, so I really appreciate this and for being the first guest on Hot Seat, this new look Hot Seat. Thank you.
Thandiwe: I appreciate everything that you’ve done and I was so excited to be able to participate. The fact that you have managed to create a voice, no matter where you are, you still manage to speak to and for Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe, I can’t thank you enough. And also it’s so lovely to be able to delight in Zimbabwe with you. And that’s never gonna stop . There’s so much love and concern , and it’s worth it. It’s home.
Violet: It is home. Thank you all for joining me on the new Hot Seat programme. We will have more shows like this so let us know who you would like to see and the issues you want tackled. All programmes are archived on the website www.violetgonda.co.uk and you can also follow Violet Gonda on Twitter and Youtube.
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