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The Conflicted Legacy Of Zimbabwean Musician And Revolutionary 'Chinx' Chingaira

Dickson "Chinx" Chingaira, a Zimbabwean revolutionary and musician died of cancer last week at the age of 61.
Courtesy of Mhoze Chikowero
Dickson "Chinx" Chingaira, a Zimbabwean revolutionary and musician died of cancer last week at the age of 61.

Dickson "Chinx" Chingaira, a Zimbabwean revolutionary and musician who died of cancer last week at the age of 61, may be considered a hero within the rank-and-file of President Robert Mugabe's administration. However, many lament the aid Chingaira's music gave to the long-time ruler of this southern African country.

After Chingaira's death Friday at a Harare hospital, a national debate erupted over whether he should be declared a national war hero.

Many of Chingaira's songs receive regular play on both national television and state radio stations throughout the country, and can often be heard as the soundtrack to rallies of ZANU-PF, the ruling party founded and led by Mugabe, who has been Zimbabwe's leader since the country attained its independence from Britain in 1980 after many years of civil war.

Fellow musician Knowledge Kunenyati, a gospel singer a self-proclaimed supporter of ZANU-PF, tells NPR that Chingaira's legacy will live on.

"Even young people nowadays continue to listen to the music that he sang during the liberation struggle. The fact our liberation history will never be erased, as we continue to be reminded by the country's leadership, means that no one will ever forget about Chinx's music, as that history cannot be told without talking of how music was used to galvanize ex-combatants into fighting for an independent Zimbabwe," Kunenyati says.

Younger locals however, like Mukudzei Chabikwa, 28, tell NPR that the emergence of more modern music, like Zimdancehall, may lead to a dwindling profile for Chingaira's work.

"Times are changing. Right now, Zimdancehall has taken over, and the people of my generation do not want to hear anything [else]. At the rate at which Zimdancehall is growing, many of us will have forgotten about Chinx in a year or two," says Chabikwa.

Some former freedom fighters, like Victor Matemadanda, secretary of the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans' Association, say Chingaira's music helped boost morale for former freedom fighters like him.

"Our hard-won independence could not have been the same without the likes of Chinx, who cheered us up with his revolutionary songs when we were fighting during the bush war. Hence, we are enjoying our freedom today," Matemadanda tells NPR.

Zimbabwean economist John Robertson explains that President Mugabe's agrarian reforms — which had white farmers ejected from lands that were then redistributed to blacks who often had little farming experience — were the source of Zimbabwe's economic meltdown, causing the country to print all-but worthless money during a hyper-inflationary period in 2007.

"Today, the government cannot feed its people because of the political disturbances that affected many white farmers on their properties during the land reform program. Those new, black peasant farmers that now occupy the land have no farming equipment or access to financial resources to adequately use the farms," Robertson says.

"Chinx contributed to the deaths of innocent people," says prominent actor Silvanos Mudzvova. His album Hondo Yeminda [War for the Land] incited violence, which resulted in drunk youths and war veterans moving in on farms, murdering farmers, their families and their workers," Mudzvova tells NPR over the phone from the U.K.

"Chinx and other war veterans went to the farms where those revolutionary songs were sung to violate human rights, they were sung on farms where more than 20 white commercial farmers were killed — Chinx was promoting violence and singing for Mugabe's supper," political analyst Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, tells NPR. "They sang for the entrenchment for Mugabe's one-man rule — not rule by many people, as they fought for during the liberation struggle. He was not simply calling for fair distribution of land but also the entrenchment of a dictatorship that has lived beyond him."

Chingaira was far from the only artist involved in the country's war for independence. Others, like Thomas Mapfumo also played their part. To some, Mapfumo's music is the more epochal, because the legendary musician addresses both present and future.

"Mapfumo sings about current affairs in the country," Obert Gurure, 69, says. "He seeks to address the socio-political issues affecting Zimbabweans [today], whereas Chinx was still stuck in the past ... that is why [Chinx's] music has not been celebrated outside the country's borders, like Oliver Mtukudzi or Mapfumo's music. I'm not trying to underrate Chinx's participation in the war, but what we have is a Zimbabwe that exists in a global village, and issues that affected Zimbabweans long back are not the same issues that are affecting us today," Gurure says.

Mapfumo, who is living in self-imposed exile, does not sing the praises of Mugabe's post-independence rule, as Chingaira did. Instead, Mapfumo has become one of Mugabe's fiercest critics, singing many songs that criticize the current political order in Zimbabwe, like "Mamvemve" ("Rags") which details how Zimbabwe has been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Mugabe is threatening to embark on fresh land grabs, telling his supporters at a rally held just outside the capital Harare this month that all remaining white farmers should be kicked out of their properties to pave way for landless black Zimbabweans.

Despite his praise, Chingaira's own experience was illustrative of Mugabe's policies, reflecting what many see as Mugabe's misrule. Chingaira "did not have a house of his own until a house was donated to him recently," Ruhanya says.

Mugabe, who turned 93 in February, was endorsed by his party to stand for re-election next year, despite his deteriorating health. Opposition parties, meanwhile, are mulling the formation of a coalition to increase their chances of removing Mugabe from power in elections to be held next year.

Internally, Mugabe faces serious internal pressure, openly admitting on June 2 that senior officials in his party were organizing behind-the-scenes, with a view towards succeeding him.

"Mugabe is old, frail and not fit for purpose anymore. This is why we are saying we are going to intensify our protests this year to put pressure on him to resign immediately," Mkwananzi tells NPR.

Similar protests were crushed by the Zimbabwean police in 2016, with hundreds of protestors in some parts of the country arrested and charged for public violence. Some of them are still awaiting judgment in court.

"The poverty that we are seeing in Zimbabwe today," Mkwananzi says, "the numerous roadblocks that we see on our roads, the high unemployment and the harassment of activists is not what heroes like Chinx and others fought for; they fought for a Zimbabwe in which people's socio-economic and political rights are respected in their totality."

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Frank Chikowore