HARARE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It’s no joke being a comedian in Zimbabwe.
In a country where open criticism of power can spell trouble for journalists, politicians and activists, comedians say they, too, risk consequences - arrest even - for taking aim at the authorities or satirising the hardships of daily life.
The long-awaited end to President Robert Mugabe’s rule in 2017 had raised hopes of a more open society, ending years of repression and economic mismanagement that had driven 63 percent of people into poverty, according to U.N. data.
But the arrest of four comedians in recent months, confirmed by police, has dampened this confidence and any hope of using humour to vent popular frustrations over living with too few jobs, too little food and scant faith in any fix.
“We live in a country where politics is the order of the day. When people in authority do bad things, as comedians, we speak out,” comic Prosper Ngomashi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Government must see us as supporting pillars, not enemies.”
The government says it has no problem with dissent, in keeping with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s pledge that free speech - a right routinely denied during his predecessor’s 37 years in power - would be indispensable in a “new Zimbabwe”.
“Government supports freedom of expression as enshrined in our constitution; artistic expression, satire or even dark comedy, is part of that freedom; government is not overly sensitive to criticism or satire. It is part of artistic expression,” Nick Mangwana, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But with dollar shortages battering the economy and rocketing inflation destroying savings, the government has reacted forcefully to any resistance on the street. The country faces a laundry list of problems: food and job shortages, an HIV epidemic, unaffordable public spending and overwhelming poverty.
Lawyers and witnesses said civilians protesting over fuel hikes were beaten and detained early this year.
An internet blackout in January left many without social media, exposing the government to accusations of censorship and emboldening satirists who say they cannot sit idly by.
“Comedy works for reconciliation. I don’t live in fear because I don’t ridicule government,” said Ngomashi. “Government feels mocked by our works of comedy; they don’t fear us.”
Around the world, comedy has long acted as an outlet to rail against political oppression, dictatorship or economic hardship.
And comics find plenty of fodder in modern Zimbabwe, run by a former Mugabe security chief nicknamed ‘The Crocodile’.
“Comedians were amongst the people that marched alongside the country’s military calling for former President Mugabe’s resignation in 2017,” Claris Madhuku, a political analyst and director of the Platform for Youth Development, a civil society organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Seeing that freedom then, they thought they would still see the same (liberty) under the so-called new government ... but that is not the case, because just like Mugabe, Mnangagwa does not need anything to deter his stay in power.”
Comics are even lamenting the demise of Mugabe in sketches that underscore their acute disappointment with the new regime.
In November, Prosper Ngomashi, popularly known as Comic Pastor, said he was arrested after posting a pro-Mugabe video on Facebook in which he said “we are suffering from the side effects of your departure from office, old man”.
Ngomashi said he was released without charge.
A top police officer at Harare Central police station - who asked not to be named as he is not allowed to speak to the media - confirmed the arrest.
“But we found no charge to prefer against him following his social media video allegedly in support of Mugabe,” he added.
Ngomashi, along with his U.S.-based partner Alfred Kainga, made headlines in January when they ridiculed Mnangagwa for cutting short his vacation to resolve a doctors’ strike - that started more than a month before his break began.
A month later, there was more conflict on the comedy circuit when police arrested two performers after a video showed them in police uniform, one thrashing arrested suspects while the other denies any police brutality.
The pair - real names Samantha Kureya and Sharon Chideu - were each fined 20 dollars (about $8) for unlawful possession of police uniform and freed.
“The police didn’t like the way we exposed their brutality via our comic video; that’s truly why they arrested us,” Kureya, 31, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kureya said she was “still traumatised” by police storming her Harare home and worries about escalating repression.
“We are not safe at all; we don’t know what will happen to us as comedians. I think we are moving in that direction where at the end of the day they (police) will start coming to our shows to monitor our content,” said Kureya.
The government denied any crackdown and said it welcomed vibrant, free speech and fair criticism.
“Government has absolutely no problem with political satire,” Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Monica Mutsvangwa, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Yet she also stressed there was a limit, saying: “Comedians should always be carefully guided by the country’s laws.”
The comedians vow no letup in their mission.
“It’s scary, but we love our work and it’s our life,” Kureya said. “Comedy is growing and our content is influential and our viewership as the alternative is scaring the state.”
But she said the duo now censored its material to stay safe, while her partner Chideu, 27, said scrutiny was the new norm. “Police are not happy with our content and our work and they follow our production with keenness,” said Chideu. “Anything can happen to us.”
For ordinary Zimbabweans, laughter is more vital than ever.
“The comedians narrate our challenges in funny ways,” said 27-year old Roseline Musawu, a jobless sociologist.
“They have become some pills for us to escape from the realities of the hardships we encounter in this country.” (Reporting by Jeffrey Moyo, Writing/Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)