Zimbabwe: Reality TV, Race, and Reunification – by Brooks Marmon


In early August, Robert Mugabe hosted one of his more bizarre state functions when he bequeathed $50,000 USD to a white Zimbabwean whose nationality and character had been questioned by the state press only months earlier.  Wendall Parson, a 23 year-old airline pilot, shocked many when he was named the co-winner of the pan-African reality television show, Big Brother Africa, which has a viewership of roughly 40 million.  The situation in Zimbabwe is a confusing and complicated one and the backstory of Zimbabwe’s representation on the 6th season of Big Brother Africa highlights the country’s complex racial and political environment.

Parson’s victory elicited congratulations and a call to invest his $200,000 prize money locally from Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, head of the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) political party that has battled Mugabe’s ZANU-PF since its formation in 1999.  Saviour Kasukuwere, the ZANU-PF youth minister leading an empowerment and indigenization drive that seeks to transfer majority ownership of all foreign companies in Zimbabwe to local entities, also heaped praise on Parson and called upon the nation to show their support by greeting him at the airport.  If the reception was anything similar to the turnout I personally witnessed for Munyaradzi Chidzonga, Zimbabwe’s representative on the show’s 5th season, Parson’s victory was a strong indication of the racial tolerance of countless teenage girls in Harare.

While Wendall Parson may have played a cosmetic role in temporarily bridging Zimbabwe’s political divide, the more interesting (and less optimistic) saga from Zimbabwe’s most recent Big Brother Africa delegation emanates from the country’s second representative on the show, Ms. Vimbai Mutinhiri.  Vimbai, a self-described model, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and “lady mogul in the making”, is the daughter of Tracey and Ambrose Mutinhiri, who are both ZANU-PF parliamentarians representing constituencies around Marondera, a town approximately 40 miles east of Harare.

Before Mugabe and ZANU-PF succeeded in transforming Rhodesia to majority ruled Zimbabwe, Marondera was known as Marandellas.  Winston Field, who preceded Ian Smith as the head of the Rhodesian Front that vowed to not relinquish white rule for 1,000 years, was a tobacco farmer in the area and Marandellas boasted an extensive community of white farmers who enjoyed one of the country’s highest elevations and proximity to the cosmopolitan life of Salisbury (now Harare).  The first death during the land invasions that began in 2000 was that of a policeman defending the Marondera farm of Ian Kay (the first death of a white farmer was in Macheke, just east of Marondera).  Ironically, Kay’s father had been a ZANU-PF MP and Deputy Minister for Lands, Agriculture, and Resettlement in the 1980’s.  Kay rebounded from the loss of his farm and was one of several white Zimbabweans to win a parliamentary seat on the opposition ticket as a representative of the Marondera Central constituency (the district borders the Marondera East constituency that elected Tracey Mutinhiri) in the bloody election of 2008 that led to the formation of a national unity government the following year.

Zimbabwe’s land reform process has benefitted many political elites and Vimbai Mutinhiri’s parents were no exception.  However, the Mutinhiri’s are unique in that the Waltondale farm they forcibly seized in 2002 from Guy Cartwright, a Marondera commercial farmer nearly 70 years of age, was invaded this July when it was under the control of Tracey Mutinhiri, a deputy minister representing the same party that had encouraged fast track land reform.  The unsuccessful assault, allegedly launched on the order of a senior ZANU-PF official, came while Vimbai was captivating Africa’s urban youth on the screen and formulating strategies that would allow her to revitalize her modeling career and launch a new fragrance line.  While this move revealed the lack of a true empowerment philosophy regarding the land issue within ZANU-PF, it also highlights the inability of the party to effectively engage youth on a continent where the demographics are overwhelmingly skewed toward that group.

Over the past five years, MP Tracey Mutinhiri rose quickly within ZANU-PF and was placed beside her ex-husband on the EU sanctions list when she was named Deputy Minister for Indigenization and Empowerment, a position she held at the time that parliament shepherded into law the indigenization bill that Saviour Kasukuwere is now using to wreak havoc on international investment in Zimbabwe.  However, Tracey Mutunhiri was never associated with the same level of militancy as her ex-husband, a former general whose name makes the MDC’s “˜Roll of Shame‘, a document that lists individuals who played a prominent role in fomenting violence during the 2008 election campaign.  She was even removed from the sanctions list in February 2011, while she was the ZANU-PF minister for Labor and Social Welfare in the inclusive government.

When a close relative of hers who was active in the MDC died in a car crash following the MDC’s 11th anniversary celebrations in September 2010, Tracey made a conciliatory speech at the funeral, which was attended by Prime Minister Tsvangirai and other prominent MDC officials.  That month marked the high tide of Zimbabwe’s government of national unity (such as it was), as ZANU-PF officials began to adopt a more aggressive tone in pushing for early elections to end the marriage of convenience soon thereafter.  It was Mutinhiri’s appearance at the funeral that set the course that resulted in a mob of hundreds invading her farm this July and her expulsion from ZANU-PF only weeks later.

The next step of Tracey Mutinhiri’s downward spiral came in April of this year, when her fellow parliamentarians accused her of voting for the MDC candidate for speaker of the lower house of Parliament.  In an ironic twist that illuminates the deeply intransigent nature of ZANU-PF, the vote was called after the Supreme Court nullified the original election of the speaker, Lovemore Moyo, on the grounds that the 2008 ballot had not maintained the strict confidentiality required by law.   In the early weeks of Big Brother Africa, not long after Moyo’s re-election, the state press ran a piece exploring Vimbai Mutinhiri’s alleged “˜identity crisis’ and possible drug use.  MP Mutinhiri was quoted in the piece in vigorous defense of her daughter.

The week before her farm was invaded on July 9, Mutinhiri had been a member of a delegation led by Prime Minister Tsvangirai that toured Manicaland Province.  It was reported that the group was barred from visiting resettled villagers in the area around the controversial Marange diamond field controlled by ZANU-PF securocrats, indicating just how little power the MDC has in the coalition government.  Unlike Guy Cartwright in 2002, Mutinhiri was able to defend her land with the assistance of armed police.  She spoke to several representatives of the private Zimbabwean press at the time and claimed that ZANU-PF was working to ensure that her fate would be the same as that of hundreds of MDC activists killed during the 2008 election.  She blamed the invasion on Minister of State Security Sydney Sekeramayi, the Marondera representative in the upper house of parliament.  Mutinhiri allegedly claimed that Sekeramayi turned against her after she resisted his sexual advances. Minister Sekeramayi is one of the leading contenders to take over the helm of ZANU-PF from Mugabe.

Less than a month after Vimbai Mutinhiri had returned to Harare, had dined with President Mugabe and received a $10,000 award, her mother was expelled from ZANU-PF.  One of the reasons given was that MP Mutinhiri, mother of urban Zimbabwe’s newest idol, had called the 87 year-old Mugabe “˜old’.  The general electoral confusion surrounding Zimbabwe’s unity government extends to this case as there is considerable debate concerning Mutinhiri’s ability to retain her parliamentary seat following the expulsion (reports are circulating that Sekeramayi’s wife, Tsitsi, has been selected by ZANU-PF to replace Mutinhiri).  Officials of the larger MDC faction have already announced that she is welcome to join their party.

August was a bad month for the women of ZANU-PF, with some former white farmers in particular saying that the chickens had come home to roost.[1] The husband of Vice-President Joyce Mujuru died in a mysterious fire on a farm that he had appropriated from a white commercial farmer and days later a Wikileaks cable revealed that she had secretly met with the US ambassador.  The Mujuru’s are associated with a moderate faction of ZANU-PF who many commentators believe can work with the MDC factions to rebuild Zimbabwe’s battered economy.  It has been suggested that Ambrose Mutinhiri is aligned with this clique and received their backing in 2009 for an unsuccessful quest to become Zimbabwe’s Vice-President.

Zimbabwe’s Big Brother Africa saga reveals the success ZANU-PF has had in shaping the discourse on Zimbabwean nationalism, a platform that plays to their strength as a liberation party whose existence predates the formation of the MDC by almost four decades.  The state press obliquely attacked the national allegiance of both the country’s representatives on the show and Parson declared that he was “very proud to be Zimbabwean” at his luncheon with Mugabe. In turn, Mugabe used to the moment to opportunistically claim that the competitors’ performance on the show mirrored the resolve of the country in withstanding “all the machinations of those who would want us to collapse.”

These attacks on individuals like MP Tracey Mutinhiri, seen as representing moderate, reconciliatory elements within ZANU-PF, bodes ill for future governance and economic recovery in Zimbabwe.  The MDC’s weak and inconsistent opposition to the indigenization bill is also cause for concern.  Sekeramayi’s treatment of Mutinhiri indicates that even post-Mugabe, ZANU-PF may continue out of expediency an ardent nationalist tone that needlessly harks back to the liberation struggle.  Mugabe’s party has stifled criticism on Facebook, prosecuted activists debating the Arab Spring, and repudiated Libya’s ambassador in Harare when he broke away from Qaddafi.  At almost every opportunity, ZANU-PF has embarked on a course that blocks the newfound voices of African youth.

If there is a silver lining in the cases discussed here, it is the potential of Zimbabwe’s emerging generation in the face of these institutional obstacles.  Wendall Parson has mentioned that Barack Obama, who criticized Mugabe during a meeting with African youth leaders at the White House in 2010, is one of his heroes.  Vimbai Mutinhiri, who was educated in England, the former Yugoslavia (where her father was ambassador), Cape Town, and Marondera discusses Wikileaks, Steve Biko Day, and Angola’s victory in the Miss Universe competition on her twitter account.  She tweets that “all young people need to dare to dream.  That’s how tomorrow’s successes are created.”  Tracey Mutinhiri has described her daughter as “˜confident’, “˜strong’, and “˜not a pushover.’  If the millennial generation of Zimbabweans are to define themselves as global citizens, and not remain prisoners to ZANU-PF parochialisms, the country’s youth will need to exhibit all of those characteristics.


Brooks Marmon is an international program assistant at the American Political Science Association.

[1] Cathy Buckle, the writer of the linked piece, is a dispossessed Marondera farmer and author.

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One thought on “Zimbabwe: Reality TV, Race, and Reunification – by Brooks Marmon

  1. I appreciate Mr. Marmon’s comprehensive and compelling overview. I feel like I learned something new.

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