By Alex T. Magaisa
When Zimrights, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest civil society organisations, awarded a human rights defender award to Zanu PF MP and war-veteran, Joseph Chinotimba towards Christmas, I thought the organisation may have been overwhelmed by the spirit of goodwill that comes with the season of festivities. Predictably, Zimrights were pilloried from all corners.
There was palpable shock and disbelief all round, that a figure like Chinotimba had actually been declared a human rights defender, given his chequered history on the political landscape. Zimrights came out with some explanation, probably intended as a defence, but that, too, sounded lame and hollow.
Chinotimba is a controversial figure who divides opinion. But he is also everyone’s favourite punching bag in the local humour-mill. In this regard, he inherited the late Vice President Simon Muzenda’s mantle as the butt of numerous jokes in the Zimbabwean humour circuit. There are many ‘Chinoz jokes’ – some of which are very funny, while a few others are flat. But overall, the man and his character, real or as caricatured, has become a source of great laughter. To his credit, Cde Chinoz, as he is often referred to in the jokes, has taken it all in his stride.
Knowing that people like to poke fun at him and that there are numerous Chinoz jokes out there, he has, rather admirably it has to be said, embraced his image and used it to some effect and, often to his advantage. Once, he arrived late at a public event where a high level panel of diplomats and senior political figures was making presentations on the political situation in the country. After the moderator had picked contributors, Chinotimba nevertheless stepped up to the front and grabbed the microphone and for a considerable amount of time went on a rant against Western countries and how their sanctions had caused untold suffering among the people. He insisted on using the Shona language, suggesting that the Western diplomats would have to find an interpreter if they did not understand him.
This impromptu tirade was greeted with much laughter by the audience. This was Cde Chinoz just being Cde Chinoz, after all. To many, he’s the sort of pantomime villain that people seemingly despise but tolerate and to some extent, can’t have enough of.
But to many others also, he’s far more than just a pantomime figure. To them, he is a villain, period.
The abiding image of Chinotimba is that of a dishevelled character wearing a straw hat and a menacing gap-toothed grin, leading a pack of war veterans as they prosecuted the land occupations during the farm invasion era in early 2000s. He and the late Chenjerai Hunzvi, who revelled in his war name, “Hitler”, will probably go down in history as the faces of that tumultuous and ground-breaking era. For those who benefited, he is a hero. For them, he was pursuing social justice and therefore, also fighting for the human rights of the landless. But for the victims, especially in the white farmers and black farmworkers in the farming community that bore the brunt of his acts, it is hard to think he can be anything other than a villain in their eyes.
Further, Chinotimba has been accused of leading violent political campaigns against opposition supporters during election periods, especially in the rural areas. Grave allegations have been pointed in his direction, although there is no record of any convictions against him. In 2002, he was controversially acquitted of attempted murder, in a case of election-related violence in Harare.
It is this dark side that caused many to protest when Chinotimba was given the human rights defender award by Zimrights. But to add to the confusion, the award also came on the back of what appeared to have been a re-invention of the man and his image.
In 2013, he went back to his rural home, Buhera and won a seat in the National Assembly elections, becoming an MP for the first time. He had contested before, notably in a by-election in Highfields and lost. His victory in 2013 marked an important turnaround for a man who, before his starring role as self-styled commander of the farm invasions, once occupied the humble station of security guard for the Harare City Council. Out went the straw hat and in came the shiny suits. But there was nothing to disguise the gap-toothed grin or his previous record.
To his credit, however, he has made quite an impression in Parliament, representing his constituency and the ordinary person with admirable zeal. When a young girl in his constituency was mauled by a hyena, Chinotimba was quick on the ground and showed leadership. He claimed to have used personal resources to ensure she got treatment. Those who are familiar with his work in the constituency say he has done a good job, at least compared to most MPs.
Chinotimba has been quite vocal but perhaps most of all, what has endeared him to most is his seemingly common-sense approach to things. He comes across as an ordinary, if raw character, who seems to have understands and speaks the language of the ordinary people in a manner that eludes most politicians who are arrogant and too full of themselves. Chinotimba is just a plain character and he speaks plain language which ordinary people understand. It is for this reason that Chinotimba has, not surprisingly, attracted some plaudits since he came into Parliament.
But now it seems that this carefully cultivated image is deceptive. His conduct now seems to confirm the old adage that a leopard cannot change its spots. Having wormed his way into people’s hearts and suggested that he is not, after all, as bad as his detractors say, Chinotimba has lately resorted to type, showing that he is as greedy as his peers. Current reports indicate that Chinotimba has invaded a farm occupied by one Collin Gura, a fellow black farmer, in the Chipinge area. Chinotimba already has a farm in prime territory elsewhere in the country but this latest land-grabbing venture is apparently intended for the benefit of his son.
Never mind the logistics or the legalities of the exercise, the fact that, in this day and age, a politician who some thought had shown some progressive characteristics recently, is going around taking land by force and dispossessing a fellow Zimbabwean is nothing short of despicable greed and selfishness. When you consider that the current user and occupier has invested a lot of resources on the property, in a farming venture that is long-term, one can see the callousness and cruelty of it all. There is no justification for such conduct – not in this day and age. It is just abuse of power, really, and there is nothing honourable or heroic about it.
It is this kind of conduct that kills hopes for a country that is in dire need of goodwill from all quarters and better image-management. How does the country promise investors that their investments will be safe and secure when a lawmaker shows complete and utter disregard for property rights and other people’s investments? The Government is always going on about the implementation of Zimasset. But I doubt that Zimasset includes land invasions and dispossessions and disregard of property rights in this manner. If anything, I would have thought the idea is to stop multiple farm ownership, either directly or disguised through family members or corporate entities.
As for Zimrights, this must, surely, be an embarrassing chapter for them. Their decision in December was ill-judged, whatever their efforts at explaining it. If, as is likely, they did it to appease and encourage Zanu PF and its members, that they can be rewarded if they behave well, then clearly, Chinotimba’s latest antics have reminded them of the basic truth that as a general rule, policies of appeasement do not work.
But they must also remember that just as awards are given, they can also be withdrawn. Indeed, that they have the option of withdrawing that award, suggests that the award itself could turn out to be a blessing in disguise after all, for withdrawal would be a big statement of disapproval. And a reaffirmation of common sense.
Alex T. Magaisa can be contacted via email: email@example.com
Photo credit: www.nehandaradio.com