When First Lady Grace Mugabe allegedly went on the rampage in South Africa and assaulted a model she found partying with her sons, Zimbabweans saw the funny side of it and were quick to come up with memes and jokes about how the situation played out.
Candour: NQABA MATSHAZI
There was one meme, where Grace was said to be in a cross-border kombi, as South Africa had reportedly closed its borders to block her from leaving, but the sneaky transporters always have a way and some thought this was the First Lady’s best chance to flee the neighbouring country.
Then after she left South Africa following the affirmation of her diplomatic immunity status, a new crop of memes emerged, with one showing a person drinking alcohol atop a police vehicle and it is captioned: “When you have diplomatic immunity.”
There are many such memes that have gone viral on social media, as Zimbabweans saw the lighter side of the Grace incident, which some believe had all the makings of a diplomatic tiff between Zimbabwe and South Africa.
One of the key features of politics in Zimbabwe in the past few years is the use of satire and parody to make light of what evidently is a dreary and sometimes even dangerous political scene.
One statement that has gained ubiquity is that Zimbabweans are able to laugh at themselves and this sense of humour takes them through their daily travails.
It is as if Zimbabweans are living in a Shakespearean tragedy, where once in a while there is the use of comic relief to try and lighten what is clearly a dark and foreboding scene.
In this regard, there has been a deluge of social media memes and jokes targeting the country’s political leaders, as Zimbabweans try to make light of whatever they are going through.
Criticising the ruling elite, particularly President Robert Mugabe, is considered sacrilege in some circles and this is often accompanied by a climate of fear, many have had to resort to memes and jokes, so they can laugh at a situation they clearly cannot control or they are afraid of.
In a nutshell, one may argue that jokes and memes are a coping mechanism, as without these Zimbabweans would be weighed down by their political and economic circumstances leading to depression.
While jokes and memes provide a temporary escape for some Zimbabweans, the government’s response has often been harsh and it is clear that authorities are uncomfortable with any caricature of the President and his government.
Hardly a week passes by without someone being taken to the courts for insulting or undermining the authority of the President through the use of social media memes and jokes.
There is an example of a Bulawayo man, who was charged after he appropriated the Lord’s Prayer to make fun of the government, which seemed quite innocuous I thought, but in the end, he had to face trial.
A lady from Bulawayo was also charged after she circulated pictures of a supposedly nude Mugabe, while jokes about the President have also drawn the ire of the authorities.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights has handled literally hundreds of cases to do with the undermining or insulting the President, and with social media becoming more ubiquitous, we can expect more such cases being brought before the courts.
This shows that Zimbabweans’ fear of the ruling elite is papered over by a sense of humour that keeps the political conversation going on even in the scariest of circumstances.
There has also been the rise of Zambezi News and Bustop TV, where subtle political points are made in a jocular and sometimes inoffensive manner, which get people laughing at their situation and also at the same time questioning their present realities.
Humour and satire are considered very influential means of political activism and engagement, which could get a previously apathetic people interested in how they are governed.
Satire helps level pointed criticism at the government without being overly abrasive or being pointedly critical of authorities, meaning many people easily find comfort in it and are easily engaged.
However, while humour can play a key part in spreading a political message, there is a real danger that we are hiding away from our troubles and taking refuge in humour without confronting what really bothers us.
Instead of humour inspiring action, it has become a refuge, where when we laugh at something we think has lost its aura and we do not take further action.
Yes, as Zimbabweans we have a wicked sense of humour, where we can laugh at our own problems, but this has done nothing to alleviate our troubles.
We have become comfortable in being “keyboard warriors”, hiding behind our computers and phones as we laugh at our situation, but ultimately do nothing about our circumstances.
Clearly, humour is too little and inadequate to address our problems and while we can have fun at our leaders and at our own expense, there is really nothing that we are doing to correct our circumstances.
In such an environment, humour should trigger action, like encouraging people to vote or standing up for a cause, as it should highlight what needs to be changed, rather than where we just laugh and then forward the jokes to friends and family.
I sometimes feel humour has become a form of escapism, where, just momentarily, we laugh and then pretend everything is okay.
They say laughter is the best medicine, but in Zimbabwe’s case, it has not done enough to heal our problems and we should be doing more to highlight issues, so that people can act.
It does not necessarily need to be a political issue, it could be an environmental one or a gender one, but the emphasis of humour and parody should be on ensuring that problems are highlighted so that the audience takes action.
As it is, memes have been made about political leaders, we have laughed at the jokes and forwarded them, but our situation remains the same, meaning humour, as an activist practice, is yet to play its part in helping Zimbabweans confront their problems.