After 16 years in self-imposed exile, Thomas Mapfumo, one of Zimbabwe’s most popular and outspoken musicians, has returned home displaying the same defiance that forced him to flee.
“I was speaking out against the government and what was happening,” he told AFP as he recalled his vocal and much-celebrated opposition to Robert Mugabe, who was ousted from power in November.
“There was no rule of law. Everything was just out of order. There was a lot of dictatorship going on. I don’t tolerate dictatorship.”
Mapfumo, 72, has remained a beloved national hero despite moving to the United States, and he has been mobbed by fans since flying back into Harare to perform at an all-night concert on Saturday.
“We were happy to hear that Mugabe was gone… (but) it seems we are not developing,” he said.
“Most of our people are still living in squalor. Our health system is going down. Our education system is going down.
“The economy is in shambles. We don’t have our own currency. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer.”
Mapfumo’s popularity dates back to before Zimbabwe’s independence when his songs called on youths to take up arms and fight against white-minority rule.
One tune – “Mothers send our offspring off to fight in the war” – became a rallying call and unofficial anthem, spurring many to join the independence war.
Mapfumo played at the country’s independence celebrations in 1980, after Bob Marley’s famous set.
But he soon became a critic of Mugabe, who held onto power for 37 years during which music became a key expression of resistance.
In 1989, Mapfumo released a protest album titled “Corruption” which was banned on state radio and television but was still a huge underground hit.
As Mugabe cracked down on any sign of dissent, opposition gatherings were banned and security forces brutally targeted any critics.
But Mapfumo refused to be cowed, earning himself a string of names including “Gandanga” (“Rebel”), “Hurricane” for his hard-hitting lyrics and “Lion of Zimbabwe” for his bravery.
Before he left for the US, police had accused him of buying stolen cars and he faced a long jail term if convicted.
‘I miss Zimbabwe’
His first album in exile “Rise Up” urged fellow Zimbabweans “too fearful to speak out while hurting inside” to stay strong under the authoritarian regime.
Mapfumo, who last made a brief trip to Zimbabwe in 2003, now lives in Oregon where the friend who advised him to flee gave him one house for himself and another for his band.
“I came back home because I miss Zimbabwe. I miss my family. I miss my friends. It’s been a long time since I played music here,” he told AFP.
He sees the country as still deeply mired in problems.
But he gave a cautious welcome to an anti-corruption drive by the new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is a former close ally of Mugabe and a veteran of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
“They are trying to do away with corruption… arresting some of the corrupt people,” he said.
For Mapfumo, the priority is for voters to focus on elections expected in July.
“This is their chance to choose the right leadership – somebody who is going to stand with them,” he said.
“(Zanu-PF) have been there for 37 years and what have we achieved? We have achieved corruption and poverty.
“People must have a voice, especially the youth. This is your future – don’t let them destroy it.”