Talking politics across transnational space: Researching linguistic practices in the Zimbabwe Diaspora

Susan M. Fitzmaurice, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, The University of Sheffield


This paper situates the communicative practices used in the diaspora in the Zimbabwean political and historical context. The data for analysis consist of internet commentary produced by individuals in response to op-ed articles posted on the internet in web-based newspapers such as The Zimbabwe Times and the Zimbabwe Independent. The principal matter for consideration is the extent to which the readers’ posts reveal evidence that they observe conventionally prescribed or more local vernacular language norms. The content of these posts is explicitly political in nature and commentators conventionally state their patriotic interest in matters they regard as directly relevant to their own diasporic identities on the one hand and to the lives of their families in Zimbabwe on the other. Linguistic analysis of these materials indicates that readers rarely adhere to conventional discourse practices appropriate to public genres such as the ‘letter to the editor’ and instead adopt more idiosyncratic strategies such as code-switching and ‘textspeak’, the abbreviated code used in text-messaging. These strategies serve several functions. The choice of specifically Zimbabwean cultural and linguistic reference points might be taken to assert the writer’s familiarity with and proximity to the interests and concerns of a specific national and patriotic group. However, the choice of languages such as Shona or Ndebele within an English language context could be construed as marking the commentator not only as an interested party, but as an authentic member of the Zimbabwe nation on which the news focuses.

1. Introduction

It is believed that more than a million Zimbabweans live in exile in the UK and more than two million live outside Zimbabwe in Southern Africa mainly in South Africa and Botswana. The Zimbabwean will, for the first time, give a voice to these Zimbabweans, who constitute some 25% of the total population. It will build links and encourage readers to tell their own stories and those of their families, as well as articulating their fears and frustrations about the issues concerning them.

The paper will seek to harness the energies and synergies of exiles, many of whom find themselves isolated, marginalised and voiceless, yet who constitute Zimbabwe's professional, skilled and intellectual cream. They are hungry for news about home and effectively cut off from their families and each other. Many do not have access to the internet at work or at home and are dependent upon costly internet cafes and e-mail.

(‘About Us’, The Zimbabwean, 12 November 2008. Accessed 13 November, 2010.)

Thus The Zimbabwean, a newspaper specifically targeted at Zimbabweans ‘in exile’ announced its aims in November 2008 under the tagline: ‘the voice of the voiceless’. The paper is edited by Wilf Mbanga, founder and first Chief Executive of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, the publishers of The Daily News which was closed in 2003 under the terms of the Zimbabwe Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Geoffrey Nyarota, formerly editor-in-chief of The Daily News, launched The Zimbabwe Times, an online paper produced in the UK in November 2006. The newspaper was published under the slogan ‘without fear or favour’, and sought to reach the Zimbabwe diaspora as well as readers at home, until March 2010, when The Daily News was relaunched. This anecdote illustrates the rapidity with which changing political factors coupled with the use of the internet to disseminate news can shape how Zimbabweans abroad keep in touch with one another as well as with the news at home.

Simon Turner (2008: 1161) observes in the case of Burundi, that the expanding political space that comes with political reforms changed the role of the Burundi diaspora as a forum for peoples’ expression of political views that would have resulted in retribution if expressed inside the country. The rebirth of the Zimbabwe-based Daily News in place of the diaspora paper, The Zimbabwe Times, provides some support for Turner’s argument that the political situation in the homeland is pivotal in shaping ‘diasporic opinion and transnational engagement’ (2008: 1161). In Zimbabwe too then, the internet has been a critical means of enabling transnational communication among exiles and migrants as the space has expanded to accommodate the uneasy politics of the Government of National Unity (GNU) coalition of ZANU-PF and the MDC. [1]

I explore the ways in Zimbabweans living all over the world communicate in this virtual environment, principally using English as a lingua franca. Such an analysis affords a close examination of how individuals assert national identity when the medium in which they perform identity is virtual rather than being concretely or physically situated in space (see Gupta & Ferguson, 1992; Collins & Slembrouck, 2009). People of different political stances engage in discussion forums associated with online news media with other readers by posting their responses to the news and to one another’s comments. This is an exploration of the ways in which ‘diasporic opinion and transnational engagement depends strongly on the political situation in the homeland’ (Turner, 2008), and must be explored in light of participants’ self-identification and positioning relative to that situation.

Migration has been a feature of Zimbabwe’s demographic complexity since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980. In the first four years after Independence, nearly 60,000 whites departed for South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. In the 1980s, conflict in Matabeleland and the resulting massacre, now known as Gukurahundi, of more than 20,000 people of Ndebele backgrounds led to further mass migration. In the early 1990s, the implementation of the IMF/World Bank sponsored ‘Economic Structural Adjustment Programme’ (ESAP) resulted in economic decline and the out-migration of many skilled workers, mainly health workers (Bloch, 2006: 69). The most recent and sustained wave of migration began in 2000, when Zimbabweans started to migrate in their hundreds of thousands to the neighbouring states of Botswana and South Africa as well as abroad to Britain and the USA. Among the factors influencing flight are political turmoil, mass unemployment and continual economic crisis.

According to Bloch (2006: 69), the ongoing crisis means that ‘migration has become a crucial way for households to diversify their livelihood survival strategies’. The deterioration of human rights since 2000 in Zimbabwe is reflected in increasing numbers of Zimbabweans seeking asylum in the UK (7,554 in 2002) and in SA. It is hard to ascertain the total number of Zimbabweans outside Zimbabwe for several reasons. Firstly, because some migrants acquire the nationality of their destination country, their status as Zimbabweans is not evident. Secondly, the ‘patriality’ system in the UK means that former white colonial and post-colonial migrants are not subject to immigration controls. Finally, there is a highly mobile and unquantifiable number of undocumented Zimbabwe migrants in the southern African region.

The result is a large mobile transnational community composed of ‘a new class of immigrants, economic entrepreneurs or political activists who conduct cross-border activities on a regular basis’ (Guarnizo et. al. 2003: 1213). [2] Migrants who venture beyond the southern African region to the UK, the USA, Australia and Canada might maintain material links with the homeland by sending money, goods and groceries home and emotional and psychological connections by keeping abreast with Zimbabwean news using the internet as well as seeking out other Zimbabweans in their hostlands. The waves of migration documented since 1980 have resulted in a Zimbabwean diaspora, a transnational community, that is highly diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, immigration status and political affiliation. [3]

Bloch’s observations about the nature and status of Zimbabweans outside Zimbabwe provide the basis for the questions to be pursued in this essay. Specifically, if migration serves as a survival strategy, as she suggests, how do Zimbabweans outside maintain contact with their families in Zimbabwe and how do they engage with one another in the diaspora? The research questions that arise from this survey are:

  • What are the features of the language of engagement?
  • How far do the linguistic practices observed adhere to conventionally prescribed norms ordinarily associated with published interactions?
  • How do individual participants perform identities as Zimbabwean, and how authentic are these identities?

I offer a survey of the various sites and means of contact used by Zimbabweans in the diaspora, both with families at home and with their compatriots outside Zimbabwe in the context of recent work on the transnational political and communicative practices of migrants (for example, Ribeiro, 1997; Whitaker, 2004). I am particularly interested in exploring the ways in which commentators locate their identities through language in the diaspora, relative to the homeland.

Two case studies drawn from the internet news stories and their reception provide the basis for exploring the extent to which participants (writers and respondents) observe conventionally prescribed language norms in this mode. I look at examples taken from online newspapers as representative of public, commercial media, exploring the nature of the language adopted. Then I examine the language of individuals engaging with one another as readers and responding to the online media in the form of online comments and chats. The challenge for this kind of research is the fact that the sources on which many of the statements are based are not only virtual; they also tend to be ephemeral.

These materials form the basis of a virtual corpus of texts produced under different circumstances, governed by different generic conventions and written by a range of different actors. Unlike the corpora that linguists are used to working with as research tools for the study of language across time and space, the virtual corpus of texts that I mine in the present study is not really comparable with the corpora – large principled collections of natural texts – that underpin much research on language use. For instance, it cannot be considered to satisfy the key criterion of representativeness (of speakers, genres or registers and situations). The worldwide web has recently been exploited in lexical and morphological studies of innovation (e.g. Chapman, 2008; Denison, 2008; Robinson, 2010), and there has recently been considerable work on marshalling the web for corpus studies (e.g. Webcorp). However, the internet has not, to my knowledge, been used as a source of data for the study of national identity through the investigation of ordinary people’s language use.

Although the defining features of newspapers as a register or genre are well understood (e.g. Biber et. al. 1999), the multidimensional nature of the virtual platform allows news to be presented in a non-linear and much more dynamic manner than the paper medium permits. This versatility for presentation means that the newsmedia on the internet can include a wide range of visual styles as well as diverse linguistic styles. Different angles on the same story can be presented via access to the same site, enabling the reader to approach the material in different ways. This versatility can be immensely difficult to capture because its content can be removed at any time. For example, between the time when this study was started in 2008 and the present (2011), the principal online newspaper that I consulted (The Zimbabwe Times) has disappeared. In the meantime, comparison sites for Zimbabwe news like The New Zimbabwe Situation on the one hand and online newspapers targeting readers in the diaspora, like ZimDiaspora have appeared.

The texts produced by individual readers in response to the internet newsmedia are even more complicated and difficult to characterise because we have absolutely no information about those readers beyond their words. In consequence, we can have no confidence about the identity of the authors. For example, there is rarely any explicit or concrete information about the sex, age, first language, level of education, ethnicity, location or place of origin of the authors of these ephemeral comments. This aspect of the ephemeral nature of the language we encounter outside of the frame provided by the editorial domain of the newspaper presents major challenges to the analyst. In some respects, those challenges are comparable to those posed by the fragmentary text survivors of distant historical periods and require comparable forensic approaches to their analysis. Specifically, we have to draw upon all and any contextual information in order to assess the material as evidence for claims about the identity of the authors of internet language.

At the same time, the fact that people located in very different geographical locations in vastly different material and political conditions can both access the same material and react to it in a concrete manner means that it is possible to investigate the transnational nature of communication about a topic, event or theme. The globalisation of internet communication opens up the possibility of exploring the ways in which writers who profess identity of a particular kind interact with one another regardless of their physical location. In what follows, I attempt to approach the question of how people appear to perform their identities as ‘Zimbabwean’ in different forms and modes of internet communication. The implications of the mobility and ephemeral status of such sources for the reliable study of virtual communication are significant as they affect our assessment of the value and reliability of the evidence we adduce.

2. Sites of Engagement in the diaspora

2.1 Remittance practices

More than 3 million Zimbabweans in the diaspora maintain strong links with home through a variety of activities. One of the most striking ways that Zimbabweans outside Zimbabwe maintain contact with their families at home is by sending money to them. This practice involves migrants working abroad regularly remitting money to family members at home. In February 2011, the Zimbabwe Reserve Bank reported that remittances from non-resident Zimbabweans increased by 32.9% in 2010 to US$263.3 million (The Zimbabwean 2-02-2011). Recent estimates are that remittances from the diaspora total 7.2% of Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product (IOM 3-12-2010).

Economists have argued that because of the potential for remittances to play a major role in the country’s economic reconstruction, non-resident Zimbabweans in the diaspora need to send their money to Zimbabwe via formal channels to enable private capital as well as government to tap into this resource. [4] The government has actively engaged with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to seek assistance in quantifying and defining the nature of the Zimbabwean diaspora ahead of the 2012 census. The government of Zimbabwe has also increasingly encouraged migrants abroad to invest in their homeland in property deals. Most recently, the government cooperated with the African Export and Import Bank (Afreximbank) to launch a three-year ‘Diaspora’ bond to encourage Zimbabweans in South Africa and Botswana to invest in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure (AllAfrica 26-11-2010).

In May 2010, the New York-based Council for Zimbabwe conducted a survey of 108 Zimbabweans living in the diaspora (57 in the US, 18 in the UK, 13 in South Africa, the remainder in countries including Botswana, Australia, Canada, Swaziland, Mozambique, Switzerland, Denmark, Wales, and Singapore). The report concludes that Zimbabweans in the diaspora most wanted to become involved in Zimbabwe by ‘voting/shaping policy and investing in Zimbabwe’ (p. 8, Report on a Survey on the Reception of the Zimbabwean Diaspora Migration Policy; 2010. Council for Zimbabwe).

As the ZimCouncil report makes clear, the nature of nonresident Zimbabweans’ involvement in their home country goes beyond financial contributions. Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011: 1) note that

Migrants from the developing world bring labour, skills and know-how to the countries where they settle, while continuing to contribute to development in their countries of origin by sending remittances, investing in businesses, introducing knowledge and skills and contributing to charity.

Zimbabwean migrants also practise ‘social remitting’ by contributing funds and other material (in-kind) support to institutions like schools, hospitals, and orphanages. In addition, those migrants intending to return home after acquiring skills and experience elsewhere may potentially contribute significantly to the development of the knowledge economy at home.

2.2 Communication in the diaspora

Zimbabweans use the internet to communicate with one another both at home and in the diaspora. Since 2000, a number of social networking websites specifically targeting Zimbabweans abroad have sprung onto the internet. For example, the website Zimdays has members register to identify their schools and home towns in order to find friends and post comments about the pictures collected on the website. [5] Many of the comments are in English, but a number of posts are in Shona [6] or Ndebele [7] and many feature code-switching. It bills itself as the ‘leading Zimbabwean nostalgia and reunion community’ and currently boasts 56699 members (February 27, 2011). With the advent of Facebook, a number of these sites have either disappeared or have been relaunched as Facebook groups. There are Facebook pages devoted to particular cities (e.g. Bulawayo, Gweru), to school associations, sports clubs, and people (e.g. comedians, musicians).

A number of diaspora activist groups communicate using the internet. The Zimbabwe Vigil Coalition is a group founded in 2002 to meet every Saturday afternoon outside the Zimbabwe Embassy in London to protest against human rights violations in Zimbabwe. In addition to its regular meetings in London, this group connects with its constituents via their website. Activists who participate in the Vigil may also be members of the self-declaredly ‘non-political’ organization, ROHR – Restoration of Human Rights, which has regional member groups throughout the UK. They publicize their diary of events on the Vigil website. Also connected to this coalition is Sokwanele/Zakanaka, self-described as the ‘Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group. Campaigning non-violently for freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe’, whose tagline is ‘enough is enough’.

These online communities form a network of sites where Zimbabweans and their supporters in the diaspora interact and communicate about political and humanitarian issues in Zimbabwe. Many of these groups also use Facebook to reach an audience via social networking, adding to the range of connections among them. Increasingly, these virtual communities describe themselves in terms of the nature of their engagement with Zimbabwean affairs., begun in 2006, is an ‘online community for Zimbabwean activists’; it is a site where authors ‘share analysis, comments and thoughts on activism, politics, community and social justice in Zimbabwe’. Its ‘authors’ post regular updates about Zimbabwe’s internal political situation, poems about their experiences, and subscriber comments on the posts. In addition to online communities like, there are innumerable weblogs, produced both by professional journalists as well as by private individuals. Zimbloggers is a directory of Zimbabwe blogs on all topics produced by a diverse set of bloggers. [8]

2.3 Membership of Zimbabwe’s diaspora

The evidence of a wide range of communicative practices and vehicles used by Zimbabweans abroad supports Bloch’s observation that the Zimbabwean diaspora is highly diverse. Following the scholarship in development (e.g. Østergaard-Nielsen, 2003; Patterson, 2006), Pasura (2008) has discussed the terms ‘diaspora’ and ‘transnationalism’ and has described the membership of the diaspora in terms of its members’ level and type of engagement with Zimbabwe. He identifies those people who are intensively active in diaspora politics as ‘visible’ members. These people actively seek to improve the lives of fellow Zimbabweans abroad in the ‘hostland’ as well as those back in the ‘homeland’. In terms of the present discussion, these members are those who are intensively active in such groups as the Zimbabwe Vigil, Zimbabwe Association, MDC, Diaspora Vote Action Group, Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, and Sokwanele.

Pasura identifies as ‘epistemic’ members, those who ‘engage in online discussion groups or internet radio debates to influence and harness public opinion on issues relating to both their hostland and homeland’ (Pasura, 2008: 131). They are also labelled ‘cyberspace’ or ‘desktop activists’. Epistemic members contrast with visible members because of the ‘cultural capital’ and methodology of their engagement. He notes that ‘epistemic members typically have amassed cultural capital, for example, educational qualifications, jobs, and property in the hostland’ (Pasura, 2008: 131).

Pasura defines as ‘dormant’ members those people who may be passive yet still informed observers of current affairs that concern the homeland. He notes that this group typically includes undocumented migrants, for whom active engagement may be prevented by fear of security issues, illegal migrant status, the necessity to work outside the metropolis in the hostland, for example in rural areas and perhaps in unskilled occupations (Pasura, 2008: 132).

The final category of diaspora member is the ‘silent’ member, who may be distanced from national identity politics but not from diaspora politics. In the present case, these members may identify themselves as Rhodesians or as ex-Rhodesians – that is, as affiliated to a non-existent anachronistic entity. By suppressing or forging an alternative identity, silent members are on the margins of the diaspora; many may not even identify at all with the diaspora, seeking instead integration into country of settlement (e.g. ‘Rhodesians’) (Pasura, 2008: 133).

3. Journalism in the Diaspora

Zimbabweans in the diaspora, regardless of their place in Pasura’s taxonomy of diaspora membership, consume and respond to a wide range of online news media both produced in Zimbabwe and abroad. Between 2000 and 2008, paper news media opposed to the ruling ZANU-PF party government were banned in Zimbabwe and many journalists forced into exile. However, as illustrated by the quotation that introduces this paper, the internet facilitates the maintenance of a thriving political press in the diaspora, providing a virtual discussion forum for Zimbabweans all over the world.

The New Zimbabwe Situation is a website linking a range of news sources on Zimbabwe. The site provides access to a number of online news resources of all political stances, comparing news stories across the media, as well as links to blogs. One of these is Zimbabwe Reporter, a Harare-based online news resource; another is Zimeye:

an integrated information-network of professionals in various fields including the arts & journalism disciplines, all among many people scattered across the world who are reporting daily at close range, the facts, the myths, commentaries, and daily events on Zimbabwe and Africa at large


Zimbabweans also participate in and support other media in the diaspora. Zimbabweans staff an internet radio station that is based in London, SW Radio Africa, which is devoted to cultural commentary, news and opinion and music. [9]

People in the diaspora have internet access to a large set of Zimbabwe-based on-line news media. The online press includes a number of Zimbabwe-based newspapers with internet portals. [10] The Zimbabwe government-owned Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd. has a website which features stories from its stable of domestic newspapers.

The Harare division includes The Herald, The Sunday Mail, Kwayedza (Shona language weekly), H-Metro, Southern Times and the magazines Zim Travel and New Farmer. The Bulawayo-based titles include the Chronicle, The Sunday News and the Ndebele language weekly paper Umthunywa. The Manica Times is published weekly in Mutare and the company also publishes a regional weekly paper, The Southern Times. The Herald has its own internet portal, Zimbabwe Herald online, as do some of the other titles in the government-owned group.

Despite a history of government censorship of independent news media in Zimbabwe, there are Zimbabwe-based independent newspapers (as illustrated in the anecdote recounted in the introduction). The Zimbabwe Independent tags itself as ‘the leading business weekly broadsheet’ and is published with a daily paper, NewsDay, and a Sunday paper, The Standard by Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), ‘an independent media house free from political ties or outside influence’. It has connections with South African newspapers, including the Mail & Guardian.

The Financial Gazette is a weekly business oriented paper, owned by Zimbabwe investors. It was started in 1969, and bills itself as ‘Southern Africa's leading business and political newspaper well known for its in-depth and authoritative reportage that is anchored on providing timely, accurate, fair and balanced news’. It estimates its weekly readership of the print version to be 400 000. [11]

Table 1. Zimbabwe-based Newspapers with on-line editions.

Title Description

Daily News

Independent newspaper (Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe)

The Herald

Flagship daily paper of Government-owned Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd.

The Financial Gazette

Weekly business paper


Independent daily newspaper; launched 2010

The Zimbabwe Independent

Independent weekly business paper

A number of newspapers are produced in the diaspora, like New and The Zimbabwean. They carry conventional news articles and letters to the editor. ChangeZimbabwe is a UK-based online news resource launched in 2004. It describes itself as

the most informative multimedia news about Zimbabwe to the whole world on time, accurately, reliably and with commitment. We aim to promote peaceful change in Zimbabwe and to facilitate commerce both at individual and company levels and at local and international levels


ZimDiaspora is an online ‘paper’ with the tagline ‘voice for the voiceless’, which carries news about and for Zimbabweans in the (UK) diaspora. [12]

Table 2. Diaspora Newsmedia.

Title Source Description



Outward-looking multimedia news resource



On-line newspaper

The Zimbabwean


Online newspaper



News media focusing on and about Zimbabweans in the UK

The news reports in the online newspaper formats surveyed are written in English only, and as such do not reflect the multilingual nature of Zimbabwe’s citizens. [13] News stories reflect adherence to the standards of conventional journalism on both ‘home’ and ‘diaspora’ news sources.

3.1 Internet newsmedia audience design

I have considered newspapers based in Zimbabwe as well as those produced outside Zimbabwe because they have an internet presence as well as a print format. This dual format means that newspapers can adapt their internet audience design to those readers located outside of the country as well as those at home. It is worth reflecting on the nature of what I call their ‘internet audience design’ and how this differs depending upon the location of the producers of the paper on the one hand and on that of their readers on the other. For example, the Zimbabwe Independent on-line looks quite conventional with the standard news categories listed on the left of the front page. ‘Local’ in this context refers to Zimbabwe. The spatial deictic orientation then is toward the ego, situated in Zimbabwe. At the same time, the advertisements are oriented to where their readers are located, so as a reader in the UK, I am invited to book holidays at the Victoria Falls, or donate money to Zimbabwe charities. The digital editions of all the newspapers acknowledge the location of the consumer, whether local (internal) or abroad (external).

On the front page of the Zimbabwe Independent captured in the screengrab in Figure 1, I am invited to subscribe to a site selling vouchers for discount restaurant deals in Nottingham, for example. On the opinion page of Zimbabwe Independent, it is possible to click on a button to share your thoughts with the Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. This might be thought to highlight the paper’s political orientation to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the junior partner in the Government of National Unity (GNU). Unlike paper media, the online versions are able to foreground items not only according to their newsworthiness (‘latest’ stories) but also their interest to readers (‘most popular’).

Figure 1. Screen-grab of Zimbabwe Independent.

The audience design of the Zimbabwe-based Government-controlled Herald is slightly different from that of the Zimbabwe Independent. In 2008, the online edition had two portals, one local (inside the country) and one external, and the reader was directed to select the portal according to his/her location. At the present time (2011), there is a single portal, as illustrated in the screengrab in Figure 2 below. The navigation tools on the front page are those typical of websites, including the double arrows and page numbering. There are links with drop-down menus to departments including ‘News Categories’, ‘Photo gallery’ and ‘Archives’. The ‘Top Stories’ are highlighted in a loop with accompanying photographs. By clicking on the live ‘read more’ link, the reader can stop the loop and open a window containing the full story.

The first ‘top story’ out of three in the issue featured in the first screengrab in Figure 2a reports the results of the anti-sanctions petitions drive launched by Mugabe in March 2011. In the full story, the Herald reporter gives the number of petition signatures collected in different areas of the country and outlines the next steps, namely the delivery of the results to the Sadc (Southern African Development Community) to make a case to the UN to end sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Figure 2a. Screengrab of top story 1: Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Herald.

The second ‘top story’ (Figure 2b) focuses on local Harare politics. A photograph of Dr. Tendai Mahachi, Harare Town Clerk, accompanies a story about the garbage collection strikes in Harare exacerbated by the city council’s failure to pay its workforce on time. The story draws attention to the conflict between the city council and the local government minister. As indicated in the selection of newsworthy topics, the paper is concerned with government messages on the one hand and stories with popular appeal on the other.

Figure 2b. Screengrab of top story 2: Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Herald.

The third top story out of three ‘Envoy’s bid to sue embassy staff flops’ reports the alleged attempts by Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Australia to sue Zimbabwe embassy workers (Figure 2c and Figure 3). Comparison of the Herald’s coverage with that offered by The Zimbabwe Guardian reveals the fact that the Ambassador, Jacqueline Zwambila, is a member of the MDC-T, the political party in the GNU coalition with ZANU-PF. The story actually appears to be an attempt to discredit the MDC to the advantage of ZANU-PF as the controversy centres on the legal wrangles following Zwambila’s charge that embassy workers leaked information to The Herald in 2010 about an anti-government website that she was running. The Herald’s take invites the reader to respond to its focus on the Ambassador’s alleged ‘stripping’ in front of the embassy workers as evidence of her lack of political gravitas.

The other headlines have less partisan appeal as far as politics are concerned; ‘Has Chunga Failed?’ for example refers to the record of the CAPS United football coach, Moses Chunga, after the team’s 0-2 defeat by Motor Action. There is also a quotient of scandals and sensational stories (‘Man tears off roof, rapes granny (85); ‘ “Call me back” spawns lawsuit’).

Figure 2c. Screengrab of top story 3: Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Herald.

Figure 3. Screengrab of Zwambila story in The Zimbabwe Guardian (

3.2 Opinion and editorial content

Most of the newspapers surveyed include op-ed pieces and all of the newspapers assume readers’ expertise about and familiarity with the topics and the major actors discussed. Among the opinion makers are the Zimbabwe Independent’s ‘Muckraker’, whose columns regularly skewer politicians. Muckraker regularly scours the op-ed pages of newspapers like the UK newspaper The Telegraph as well as the local Herald for topical items to comment on.

In a recent post, Muckraker comments on readers’ responses in the traditional form of the ‘Letter to the Editor’ of the Herald about the anti-sanctions petition story illustrated in Figure 2a above, and pokes fun at the ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric of one of the Herald’s correspondents in Britain:

We were amused to see a letter to the Editor of the Herald from someone calling himself “Cde TJ Mapfumo of Mapfumo & Partners, Legal Practitioners, Eastgate, Harare.
The letter, headed “Let’s all rally behind the anti-sanctions drive”, occupied the place normally reserved for the regime’s spokesmen. It said the anti-sanctions campaign was a “master-stroke which has come at an opportune time in the people’s struggle against imperial depredations”.
“It is a master-stroke in numerous respects, the primary one being that in conjunction with the indigenisation and empowerment drive, the struggle against imperial plunder of resources is very much in earnest.”
This is as it should be, the comrade lawyer continued, because the resources belong to the people and “it is they who must defeat the imperial monster”.
He proposed centres where people could just walk in and “throw their anti-sanctions missiles through the barrel of the pen”.
Can you imagine this guy in court throwing his missiles around the court room!
What is funny is that the next letter headed “Hands off our diamonds” sounded very much like the last one! Either that, or there are a number of comrade lawyers hanging around!

Muckraker was hugely amused by a letter to the Herald from one “Cde Cad Mash”. He had this to say: “Zimbabweans in the know are fighting hard to keep the British out of Zimbabwe’s politics. The MDCs are working hard to smuggle them in. Involving the British in Zimbabwe’s politics is akin to entrusting a hungry tiger with the treatment and recovery of its wounded prey.”
And where was “Cde Cad Mash” writing this patriotic epistle from? Britain of course!


The Financial Gazette’s ‘Cabinet files’ column also assumes an openly ironical stance. The writer impersonates the president in his ‘letter to the cabinet and politburo’, writing about the highly unpopular anti-sanctions petition on March 3, 2011:

COMRADES, I can assure you that we will collect much more than the two million signatures that we initially targeted for our anti-sanctions campaign . . . from my humble predictions, we could get three to four fold that figure . . . which will go a long way in showing our detractors not only how popular our party and its causes are, but also why we are always winning elections by such huge margins.
I am told that the various organs of our great revolutionary party . . . the Women’s League, the youth, war veterans and others are doing a lot of groundwork to ensure that we get as many anti-sanctions signature as we can. These figures will definitely boost our confidence as we go for the constitutional referendum and the elections that will follow. I have no doubt what-so-ever that our party is on the rebound. [14]


The opinion and editorial pieces in the on-line formats of the papers focus on and assume readers’ familiarity with the fine detail and historical background of the internal affairs of the country. They all invite reader responses in a virtual discussion forum for on-line consumers regardless of their editorial ideological stance. The comments posted by readers reflect particular perspectives on the column’s heavily sarcastic stance.

Given the institutionalization of the internet for the publication of online newspapers, it is possible that standard editorial norms shape internet publication in the same way that they do conventional print publications. At the same time, the writing of readers who respond through internet or email commentary to internet media is not regulated in the same way. However, readers’ comments may be monitored for content and language and occasionally rejected or removed as a result. [15] Let us turn now to the readers’ reception of and responses to the news they access online from all over the world.

3.3 Internet Readers’ responses

The consumers of the op-ed articles posted on the internet in web-based newspapers such as The Zimbabwe Times and the Zimbabwe Independent are neither passive nor silent. All of the internet newsmedia examined in this survey appear to trigger readers’ responses and in some cases provoke exchanges among readers. The content of these posts is explicitly political in nature and commentators conventionally state their patriotic interest in matters they regard as directly relevant to their own diasporic identities on the one hand and to the lives of their families in Zimbabwe on the other. The internet platform for news media provides a heterogeneous range of opportunities for the expression and shaping of opinion.

Let us look in detail at two case studies in order to examine the interplay among journalists and individuals. The first is the domestic and diaspora media treatment of the death of the first Vice President, Joseph Msika in August 2009, and the nature of the responses that the story generated among readers both at home and in the diaspora. This case illustrates the extent to which readings carry assumptions of detailed common knowledge both of the complex political history of the liberation struggle and of recent internal political events and tensions.

The second case study is the diaspora media treatment of a welfare story about a woman in Arizona, USA, who claimed to come from Zimbabwe, and the nature of the attitudes expressed toward the subject of the story and her putative identity. The case illustrates the extent to which Pasura’s different kinds of diaspora members engage with the symbols of Zimbabwe national identity in order to assert their own national identities.

4. Politics in the homeland: the death of first Vice President Joseph Msika

On August 4, 2009, a number of news sources reported the death in office of the 1st Vice President, Joseph Msika at the age of 86. Msika was a member of Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) during the civil war, and was a member of the delegation at Lancaster House that forged the independence of Zimbabwe. In the first post-independent government in 1980, Msika was one of three members of ZAPU in Mugabe’s cabinet. In 1982, Nkomo and Msika were dismissed from office for allegedly attempting to remove Mugabe in a ZAPU coup. Mugabe used the Fifth Brigade in Operation Gukurahundi [16], the prolonged massacre of people in the ZAPU stronghold of Matabeleland. Nkomo disbanded ZAPU and with Msika signed Mugabe’s Unity Accord in 1987. Nkomo was made Vice President, and on his death in 1999, Msika succeeded him.

Msika remained loyal to Mugabe, and despite being severely debilitated by a stroke in 2005 and suffering continuing ill-health, he remained in office until his death. [17] In the year before his death, ex-ZAPU members withdrew their support from the Unity Agreement, leaving Msika the only ZAPU cadre in Mugabe’s government. Online newspapers, like The Zimbabwe Times, New Zimbabwe and ZimDiaspora [18] reported the news on August 4, 2009. [19]

Figure 4. Screengrab of the headline page of New Zimbabwe on the Msika story reported on August 4, 2009.

The New Zimbabwe story generated a flurry of reader responses, 98 on the same day that the story appeared. [20] Here are two pithy examples that illustrate the commentators’ confident grasp of the details of their respective histories of independent Zimbabwe:


People who do not the true history of Zimbabwe will talk ill of Musika, Zapu, Nkomo etc. These are the people who were colonised by Mugabe. PF-Zapu went into the unity agreement after 20 000 people had been masacred by Mugabe from 1980 to 1987. The majority of the MDC T were party of this masacre. Tsvangirai himself was a political commisar in Zanu-PF. Nkomo stood his ground for 7 solid years. But realised late that the people were dying and Mugabe was serious. That Musika was a frank talker and could say anything cannot take away the sympathies following his death. From the time MDC was formed to now how many MDC suppoerters did Mugabe kill.? To tell the truth its less than a paultry 300. Simudzai Mureza & Zvipiko, St Kitt's, You may dislike Musika, he never did anything wrong. Joining ZanuPF was good for our lives, some of us who were affected

(Mthandazo Dhlamini, East London, South Africa; Comment Date: 4 August 2009)

Dhlamini implicitly identifies with Msika’s party, ZAPU, and explicitly acts as an apologist for Msika and Nkomo as he characterizes ZANU-PF’s approach to ZAPU’s capitulation to ZANU-PF in the Unity Accord as ‘colonisation’. He quotes part of the first line of Zimbabwe’s national anthem in Shona, ‘Simudzai Mureza’ (‘raise the flag’) and then a curse in Shona (‘zvipiko’), possibly underlining the irony of his invoking the national anthem. The commentator also emphasizes the impact of Mugabe’s Gukurahundi on Matabeleland (‘some of us who were affected’) by minimizing ZANU-PF’s antipathy to Tsvangirai’s MDC to claim that fewer than 300 MDC supporters have been killed. The final assertion is a clear statement of personal identification with the survival tactics used by ZAPU as well as a claim to membership of this group. In (2), the commentator opens his condemnation of Msika’s collaboration with ZANU-PF with a quotation from Shakespeare. Like Dlhamini, kudkwahe underpins the pronouncement by offering evidence of detailed knowledge of the recent history of Zimbabwe politics. This takes the form of naming individuals alleged to have been tortured to death with the collusion of the state.


'the evils that men do often lives after them", mark antony said it. msipa and zanu pf are responsible for the deaths of pple who did not share their view. tichaona chiminya, [21] fortune mujuru, the list is endless. although they helped liberate zimbabwe from minority rule they are evil dictactors. if isay rest in peace i will be lying.i hope god holds you accountable for your role in this evil regime

(kudkwahe zuze, gweru Zimbabwe; Comment Date: 4 August 2009)

Detailed examination of the readers’ comments to this and other stories indicates that they use a range of different styles and strategies to express their views on the one hand and their identities as Zimbabweans on the other. Examples (1) and (2) illustrate the extent to which they refer to specific material and historical detail to assert familiarity with and partisan knowledge of Zimbabwe’s political history.

The commentators do not generally adhere to conventional discourse practices that are appropriate to public genres such as the ‘letter to the editor’. Instead, they adopt a range of strategies that seem to be more characteristic of interactive, conversational modes of discourse. For example, many readers switch from English to Shona or Ndebele. Others adopt the abbreviated code commonly used in text-messaging, a ubiquitous mode of (written) communication practiced by Zimbabweans at home and abroad. [22]

Yet readers also adopt everyday formulae and idiomatic expressions. In readers’ responses to the specific story of Msika’s death, we see the repetition of salutations with which most Zimbabweans of all colours would be familiar, but expressed in a range of forms. A ubiquitous Zimbabwean exclamation of sympathy, disgust, or concern is ‘shame’ (which occurs 8 times in these posts and is illustrated in 7 below). The conventional abbreviation for ‘Rest in Peace’ (‘RIP’) prefaces no fewer than 18 of the posts examined and the full phrase is used 19 times, modified once by ‘never’. In (4), ‘norest chingwere’ uses the traditional liberation era title ‘comrade’ in his brief ‘textspeak’ eulogy to Msika. Post (5) adopts the traditional African farewell ‘hamba kahle’ (Nguni, lit. go well) before lamenting Msika’s political shift from liberator to ‘traitor and assistant dictator’.


RIP son of the soil. (Jonathan Moyo, Harare, Zimbabwe)

(Jonathan Moyo, Harare, Zimbabwe)


RIP comrade musika. yu were juss one of a kind. yu have taken yo way. go well

(norest chingwere, harare, Zimbabwe)


hamba kahle Bruno. kubi ngoba uzewafa ungamelanga iqiniso. you graced mugabe up to your grave. its sad for such a gallant son of the soil who did so much for zim to die a traitor and assistant dictator!

(mzansi, Francistown Botswana, Comment Date: 4 August 2009)


Thank your ever so much for going without our (ZIMBABWE.) We counting down one day you will all be gone tigonyatso sara tichinyatso tonga

(matendlegu, Birmingham; Comment Date: 4 August 2009)

The strategies illustrated in these examples serve several functions. The choice of specific Zimbabwean cultural and linguistic reference points might be taken to assert the writer’s familiarity with and proximity to the interests and concerns of a specific national and patriotic group. However, the choice of languages such as Shona or Ndebele within an English language context could be construed as marking the commentator not only as an interested party, but as an authentic member of the Zimbabwe nation on which the news focuses.

The reader comments posted to New include the reader’s country location, and some readers choose to provide the city or town in addition to their country. What is striking about the New posts is that a good number are posted by readers in Zimbabwe, many of whom (like Chunga Chengetai in post 7 below) were beginning to wonder about Msika’s successor at the same time as dispatching ‘Mdala’ (old man) to history:


Shame. Rest in Peace Mdala. The person to replace the late should be non other than -- JOHN NKOMO. That kind of choice would bring stability and a bit of sanity to ZanuPf. My recommendation though is somebody inconpicuous like Thenjiwe Lesabe. [23] that way we know the ZanuPf will not be as strong as it can be... Dumiso??? ZAPU!!!!

(Chunga Chengetai, Zim)

The diaspora press leapt onto the issue. On August 5, 2009, columnist and editor of the Zimbabwe Times, Geoffrey Nyarota argued that Msika’s death presented problems for Mugabe’s succession plan. Msika’s replacement presented a problem because the VP positions were a simple means to reflect Zimbabwe’s liberation history without compromising the working structure of the executive. Specifically, the VP positions – one nominally a ZANU elder and one a ZAPU elder – acknowledged the historical contributions of the two Nationalist groups to the liberation of the country at the same time as effacing ZANU-PF’s violent retribution in the Gukurahundi exacted against Matabeleland, ZAPU’s recruiting ground. The emergence in 1999 of a new political party, the MDC, which, unlike the two traditional Nationalist parties was not based on ethnic allegiances and divisions, added new complexity to the situation.

In 2008, Mugabe ‘won’ the 2008 election when the MDC leader withdrew from the second run-off to end the political violence that had plagued the elections, and in 2009, a new inclusive government (GNU) was formed. In his column, Nyarota points out that to all intents and purposes, ZAPU no longer exists, and he argues instead that if there were to be a new VP, it should be a member of the GNU partner, the MDC. [24] Nyarota concludes his column:


In fact, logically, it is the MDC, Zanu-PF’s new partner in government, not the non-existent PF-Zapu, that John Nkomo represents, which should now be entitled to the Vice Presidency.
But it is patently clear, however, that the only beneficiary of the appointment of a new Vice President will be the incumbent himself or herself, not the generality of the people of Zimbabwe. For what benefit has Zimbabwe derived so far from the services of two vice presidents?
We are a poor country. Our economy is in ruins thanks to the performance of the government after the signing of the Unity accord.
This is an appeal to President Mugabe. Rather than crack his head over whom to appoint as the next second Vice President, the government should just scrap the position. Zimbabwe should have one Vice President. In future the regional origin of the Vice President or of any government official should not be taken into consideration when appointments are made.
Only merit, not ethnic or other form of balancing, should influence appointments in government.

Nyarota’s column generated comments by 24 readers who engage with the topic, with the writer and with one another in a vigorously interactive manner. ‘Uyahlanya’ accuses Nyarota of failing to acknowledge the Gukurahundi massacres as a newsman, and attacks him for pronouncing on Zimbabwe from his ‘ivory tower in some place other than Zimbabwe’. The post provokes Nyarota to plead with him to reread his article, implying that he has plainly misunderstood the argument (see asterisked italic note posted below 9):


Nyarota is crazy. The reason there are two VPs in Zimbabwe is so that people like you who seem to see Zimbabwe from an ethnocentric position of comfort do not continue to ignore the ethnic imbalances in Zimbabwe. You were editor of the chronicle during the genocide against amaNdebele and you said nothing. i suppose you would have argued that “Zmbabwe doesn’t need a newspaper from the second city” at that time because clearly it didn’t serve us at all and never told the story of what was happening there. there are many benefits that having a second, ethnic based and ZAPU based VP has had to zimbabwe – some obvious, and others latent.”
It’s so disingenuous for you to sit there in your ivory tower in some place other than Zimbabwe talking such trash about ZAPU, the unity accord, or ethnic issues in Zimbabwe.
When those in the majority do not see or cannot empathise with the minorities, then there is indeed need to become very afraid. Very afraid. (uNyarota Uyahlanya)

*Please read my article for the second time, Uyahlanya, while I read your comment for the third time!

‘Uyahlanya’ also implicitly identifies himself as a member of ‘amaNdebele’ throughout his post, ending with a warning that an unsympathetic majority is a significant threat to the safety of minorities. In (10), ‘King Kong’ chides Uyahlanya for attacking Nyarota and then labels him as a ‘Zanoid’ – a hard-line ZANU-PF zombie footsoldier and a ‘tribalist’. [25] Importantly, his initial greeting identifies him not only as a fellow Zimbabwean, but as a fellow Ndebele.


Zwana ndoda, we should desist from calling anybody names. For you to suggest that the Editor is mad is uncalled for. It makes sad reading. I am actually happy and more enlightened after reading Mr Nyarota’s opinion piece. You want to continue with the ‘apartheid’ of ethnicity in Zimbabwe in the 21st century? You sound like a Zanoid, arrogant, die-hard, irresponsible, impositor, hypocrite, villain, desperado and off course a tribalist. This is the summary of the cult that we wish removed from power in order to usher in an era of progress, peace and quiet.

(King Kong: @uNyarota Uyahlanya)


Please Mr Editor
Your article while it has raised genuine and important issues has some parts that cannot go unchallenged. It reads like `Sermon on the Mount.’ You seem to declare `he who follows the new resurrected Zapu shall be lead into freedom and prosperity. ‘In fact you seem to be acting as a Publicity and information officer of both Dabengwa and Makoni, and by suggesting they join forces in order to end the MDC’s dominance of Zimbabwe politics.


Now don’t get me wrong Mr Editor you can support whoever you want its within your democratic right, but you hide your misgivings of Tsvangirayi’s leadership by continually writing cryptic articles.Well your support of Jonathan Moyo’s Third Way is well known, but where is the evidence that people are joining Zapu en massse. Dabengwa was chairman of the Zambezi Water Project, and what happened to all the millions raised. Please Mr Editor this is a bluff. In Zimbabwe we say do not hit a dog whilst hiding the stick


In (13), Mutonhadza writes a comparatively conventional post in the form of a letter to the editor in which he accuses Nyarota of very specific views about the current political situation in Zimbabwe. He invokes the names of three figures, Jonathan Moyo, a former ZANU-PF deputy secretary for Information and Publicity, Dumiso Dabengwa, a veteran former ZAPU politician, and Simba Makoni, a rumoured successor (and now possible challenge) to Mugabe as president. [26] However, the allusion to topics such as the ‘Zambezi Water Project’ in this post might seem quite opaque to the outsider who might be unfamiliar with the minute detail of the recent history of Zimbabwe’s political parties.

Importantly, none of the last three commentators gives any indication of their location; although ‘Uyahlanya’ talks about Nyarota’s location outside Zimbabwe, it is not clear where any of them are. Given their explicit oppositional stance to ZANU-PF, it is conceivable that they are licensed to offer explicit political comment because they are outside the country. If we consider their interventions in terms of Pasura’s diaspora categories, they seem to be those of ‘epistemic’ members, those who are actively engaged with the political events and debates concerning the homeland.

By August 13, 2009, there was widespread critical comment on the state and state media treatment of Msika death and implications for cabinet positions. Muckraker, the Zimbabwe Independent’s gadfly columnist offered his opinion on the media coverage of Msika’s death thus:


ZTV presenters this week sought every platitude to portray the late VP Msika as a gallant fighter and founding father of nationalism. This has never been in doubt and there was therefore no reason for the presenter, Justin Mahlahla, to tell us that Zipra forces brought down a passenger plane with a landmine.
     This was no mean achievement. How did they get the landmine into the air in the first place? Has anybody at Pockets Hill heard of a SAM? [27] ZTV should not be allowed to harm genuine nationalists with nonsense of this sort.
Did you see, by the way, how all the documentaries chronicling Msika’s contribution to the struggle were put on fast-forward between 1982 and 1987? [28] To ZTV that part of our history does not exist. In the best Stalinist tradition it has been airbrushed out!

Muckraker relishes the basic error in the ZTV report of Msika’s death, which included the reference to Zipra’s (Zimbabwe Revolutionary People’s Army) 1978 and 1979 attack on Air Rhodesia civilian Viscount planes, killing 102 people. Unsurprisingly, Muckraker’s op-ed piece provoked readers like Tavafadza S. who responds in detail and range:


Everytime I see a "letter" in the Horrorlied I just get surprised at the extent to which people choose to lie themselves and rejoice in their own self deception. One such letter from "patriot" is Roy Zvinorova Mutanda (17/8/09) purpotedly from Mutare Polytechnic who was unleashed to attack Giles Mutsekwa's victory party whilst "national hero" Joseph Musikavanhu lay in his coffin awaiting burial! Does it mean life must come to a halt when a ZanuPF 'heavyweight' goes to the other world?
Firstly in honesty the victory party was prior planned for the Aug 9. Even the boot lickers at Herald Hse could not foretell that by then Msika would be in his coffin on that date, let alone Giles Mutsekwa! Secondly, and may be m*re importantly, from the way the clown narrated the course of events at the Mutsekwa party, Roy WAS ACTUALLY THERE!! And for a "super patriot" like him to attend a party is making Mutsekwa's crime look even m*re trivial for it can be taken that maybe Mutsekwa cared less for Msika whilst did care but he went to the party all the same!
Fools always shoot themselves on the foot no wonder they are always limping. As for the heroes of Zimbabwe I bet everyone has their own lists. If Biti thinks Jongwe, Tandare, Chiminya, Mabika are heroes Zvinorova is equally free to name Border Gezi, Hitler Hunzvi, Kitsiyatota, Chinotimba, Mwale, Gono as his own. We are all different and we will never think the same if we are normal. Kana tava kudero tenge tava kutoita zvinorova - acting.

(written by Tavafadza S, August 17, 2009)

Tavafadza S responds to Muckraker in kind. The term ‘letter’ is presented in scarequotes as if the idea is a travesty. He gives the same treatment to the terms ‘patriot’, ‘national hero’ and ‘super patriot’ as if presenting these labels thus is to convey a heavily ironic tone in attributing the labels to the items being referred to. Tavafadza S. introduces a set of new characters to the discussion, including the MDC Minister for Home Affairs, Giles Mutsekwa, and The Herald’s (‘Horrorlied’) correspondent, ‘Roy Zvinorova Mutanda’, whose condemnation of the celebrations coinciding with the mourning of Msika attracts derision.

The commentator seizes the opportunity to list ideologically contrasting categories of Zimbabwe ‘heroes’, following Biti’s ‘good’ list with one he suggests might be the Herald correspondent’s own. The MDC Finance Minister Tendai Biti’s list includes MDC activists killed in political violence, including Gift Tandare, an MDC activist shot by Zimbabwe police at a rally in 2007, [29] Learnmore Jongwe, an MDC MP who died in prison waiting to answer charges of murdering his wife in 2002, [30] Tichaona Chiminya, former aide to Tsvangirai, and Talent Mabika, an MDC youth activist, whose car was petrol-bombed in 2000.

In contrast, Tavafadza S suggests that the Herald’s correspondent has an ‘evil’ list of heroes. The latter includes names synonymous with ZANU-PF sponsored political violence of the first decade of the 21st century. They include Border Gezi, a close Mugabe ally, former Governor of the Mashonaland Central Province and then Minister of Gender, Youth and Employment who gave his name to the Border Gezi National Youth Service, also known as the ‘Green Bombers’; Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, leader of a faction of the War Veterans Association and major supporter of the land reform programme; the eccentric, self-appointed war veterans leader, Joseph Chinotimba, [31] and Joseph Mwale, a Central Intelligence Officer accused of murdering MDC activists in Buhera in 2000. [32]

The key point to note is that the commentators on the political implications of Msika’s death are both highly partisan in their politics and well-informed about the figures and recent historical events in Zimbabwe. Interestingly, by 2009, it appears possible for politically interested citizens within Zimbabwe to voice their views in cyberspace, certainly in the form of reader responses written under a pseudonym or simply a first name. [33] These readers’ responses have detail that is sufficiently specific and current to suggest that they are active ‘epistemic’ participants in the virtual Zimbabwe political community, whether they are in the diaspora or indeed at home.

5. Zimbabwean national identity in the diaspora: the strange case of Matri Amma

On July 23 2009, the Zimbabwe diaspora media, led by The Zimbabwe Times, ran a story that first appeared in the Tucson newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star. It concerned a young black woman who had been found apparently living on the driveway of a small-holding owned by a businessman, Russell T. Dove. Why did the story attract so much attention from the Zimbabwe diaspora media? I argue that the reason is that the woman claimed to be from Zimbabwe, somebody cast adrift and vulnerable in the diaspora. The Arizona Daily Star’s reporter presented the claim as follows:

The woman, who Dove at first thought was a teenage boy, appears to be suffering from some type of mental illness, or severe effects of a trauma. She says she is 26, and that her name is Matri (pronounced May-tree) Amma. She also says she is from Zimbabwe, and that she’s been in the United States for seven or eight years. “I don’t put her in the same category as most homeless people. She ain’t typical,” said Dove, 75. “I don’t feel right about putting her out there into the world all alone. Maybe eventually we’ll get someone interested in doing something.”

When she speaks, Amma sounds American – she has no trace of an accent. She knows the names of the immediate past presidents as well as President Obama. She knows that Abraham Lincoln is on the penny. She’s also knowledgeable about music and sings songs ranging from Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to TLC’s “No Scrubs.” She also dances and likes to talk about movies – “The Matrix” was one of her favorites, and she says it has deeper meaning about our society.

Her past, however, remains a mystery.

She does not articulate how she got to the Doves’ property. She talks about being separated from a group and says they were walking on the highway together. Her greatest consistency is a belief that there are people coming back to get her, and that she doesn’t need anyone’s assistance.

(Arizona Daily Star, 23 July, 2009).

The first story, reprinted by The Zimbabwe Times, generated 37 comments from readers on the newspaper’s website, as illustrated in Figure 5.

Figure 5. Screengrab from the Zimbabwe Times, 23 August, 2009.

The first comment posted in response to the Zimbabwe Times reprint is instructive in conveying the attitudes of Zimbabweans in the diaspora to stories about Zimbabweans in the diaspora:


‘Mr Editor, I think this is a typical case where our embassy has to be involved and if necessary repatriate this lady back home. The diaspora is a tough terrain especially for the ill-prepared. It would be interesting to see how our embassy tackles the case.’


Jaccob’s comment is composed as a letter to the editor, with the appropriate salutation, ‘Mr. Editor’. The comment indicates that the reader has unquestioningly accepted the subject’s claim to be Zimbabwean. He conveys his conviction by inviting the involvement of the Zimbabwe Embassy in the potential repatriation of the woman. The issue of the woman’s national identity and the responsibility of the embassy shape the focus of the other 36 comments. [34] A number of comments reveal readers’ suspicion and scepticism about the woman’s identity, as well as their reluctance to accept that a Zimbabwean might be vulnerable and need help in the diaspora. Murefu expresses skepticism about the woman’s identity, sparking a number of posts suggesting ways to determine the validity of her claim.


‘It might be true that she comes from Zimbabwe or else someone is trying to tarnish the image of our country’

(Johnson Murefu)


‘Some Zimbabweans in Diaspora have lost our values and senses. Mr Murefu the country’s image has long been tarnished by Mugabe, Chinotimba, Jonathan, Chinamasa and all those clowns. What image are you really talking about? Today Zimbabweans ran away to furthest of the earth… Greenland and Alaska, Falklands and St Helena all from Mugabe. This woman cannot just guess that she is Zimbabwean. Poverty is distressful by nature, can psychologically damage anyone mentally. Hey come on guys be merciful, if there is anyone with a good spirit please help this little lad [sic] regardless of her country of origin’


Izikiel’s post (3) scolds Murefu for implying that if the woman is impersonating a Zimbabwean, she is giving the country a negative image because of her state. He also asserts, that Zimbabweans themselves have contributed to the country’s negative image, people like Mugabe himself, the war veterans’ leader, Joseph Chinotimba, ZANU-PF’s Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, and Patrick Chinamasa, Minister of Justice in 2009. The listing of particular figures conveys the impression that the writer is informed about the internal politics of Zimbabwe, but unlike the highly detailed tranch of politically specific information offered by Tavafadza S in his riposte to the Herald correspondent above, Izikiel’s list reflects the fragmentation and dated nature of the information that might be gleaned from the news about Zimbabwe published abroad, in the diaspora. The list of ‘clowns’ contains figures known for misdeeds carried out largely before 2004, suggesting that Izikiel is somewhat out of touch with recent events. ‘What is GNU’ immediately responds to ‘Izikiel’s’ plea in the last part of his post:


There are Zimbabwean people in Tucson I know and Zimbabweans in Phoenix as well-people who I believe can rescue the lady. Editor, can you provide some way of contacting Mr Dove, please.

(What is GNU)

This positive contribution seems to generate a set of less sympathetic suggestions for ascertaining the woman’s identity:


‘She is most likely not a Zimbabwean. Whoever heard of a black Zimbabwean with such a name? Her true identity or nationality needs to be determined’



‘Look here, this woman is not from Zimbabwe, period. The name sounds Ghanaian to me. Her ancestry should be linked to Ghana and not Zimbabwe. She does need help yes, but the link to Zimbabwe is cynical in the highest fashion’

(Kakono GH)


MR Editor
Softly, softy, we need to exercise some caution.
This woman speaks with an American accent with no accent, her social terrain as suggested by her understanding of history, musical appreciation, etc may suggest she really is indegeneous American. I had to re-read the article to realise her only claim to being Zimbabwean is she mentioned that at some point…no one found her singing Mapfumo or Tuku songs, she was never heard to be hallucinating Mugabe or Tsvangirai`s names or the like…in other words, besides being black,and mentioning she is Zimbabwean, no one can with any certainty say she is Zimbabwean.
I will give a very personal example.Here in the Diaspora, some chap once annoyed me as we were sharing a drink. We exchanged words,and I left. Some days later, i heard he was telling chaps, “That Nigerian chap is a *#%&^*!” Needless to say, i did not correct him – the less he knew, the better.
In short, people will mask their real identities to a casual intrusive observer just to get them on the back, but there are always litmus -verification-tests which we would have thought the Editor would have made before rushing to print.
But then again, why let too-much inquisition and all that get in the way of a good copy?

(Kudzai Mhudhadha)

These readers adopt a forensic approach to the question of the woman’s national identity. They select particular rather unstable indicators of origin, such as race, accent and the provenance of her name to challenge the assertion that the woman is Zimbabwean. Mhudhadha also invokes less tangible criteria such as evidence of cultural knowledge. The Star reported that the woman knew the names of past and present American presidents, sings American pop songs, and likes American movies. In response, Mhudhadha argues that the lack of any link to Zimbabwean cultural markers such as knowledge of Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi, two highly popular (and internationally known) musicians on the one hand, and of the two key Zimbabwean politicians then in the news, Mugabe and Tsvangirai, indicates that the woman cannot possibly be Zimbabwean.

Nazario’s post ignores Mhudhadha’s comment and attends to a matter of direct interest to Zimbabweans in the diaspora, namely the role of Zimbabwe’s embassies abroad. He starts out by lamenting the incompetence of Zimbabwe’s embassies but swiftly reconstructs incompetence as politically motivated malevolence.


In case you not aware let me tell Jaccob that the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington is a waste. So are the rest of the other embassies dotted around the world. They cannot even do the simplest of things, literally every matter has to be referred to Harare. It is much easier to get a relative back home to do what can and should be done by these useless embassies. One wonders what these Ambassadors and their staff do all day.
We Zimbabweans who live in the diaspora cannot even apply for a passport, it must be done in Harare. Why all this fuss over a simple matter, it is all political. I hate to compare, but lets face facts, citizens of third world countries who are not politically affiliated are at the mercy of party bureaucrats. In the USA a passport application is dealt with by the post office, its so easy and convenient, this is processed and mailed within a three weeks.
Jacob our embassy will do nothing, they are there to serve narrow interests and like all institutions under Zanu PF they have become nepotistic bodies.

(Nazario Lunat)


I think this may be a mental case that calls for psychiatric help. She may not be even Zimbabwean but just happen to know that there is a country called Zimbabwe. Is there an Zimbabwean who said they know her? Does she have an ID?



This is a very sad story and unfortunately a believable one. I have come across some really mentally disturbed Zimbabweans in the US.There were not totally crazy but there were getting there. It would help if Mr. Dove had given the editor a face photo. This woman if she is Zimbabwean would be better off in Zimbabwe. I would like to think she has parents and family she left there.
Someone should try to speak to her in Shona or Ndebele.



There is no way that the embassy can get involved since there is no proof that the woman is a Zimbabwean. Perhaps Mr Dove has to report the woman to the police that she is a trespasser who will be obliged to establish her identity. Only after she is identified as Zimbabwean, then the Zimbabwe embassy will be in a position to take appropriate action.

(Robson Nyundo)


That name and surname are not Zimbabwean


The rest of the posts quoted here (9 to 12) do not pick up Nazario’s thread although they do mention the embassy. Instead they express token sympathy before addressing the question of the woman’s identity. So Moms (9) asks whether any Zimbabweans have been asked to vouch for her and whether she has a (presumably national) form of identification; Jane (10) suggests that a ‘face photo’ would be helpful in confirming the woman’s identity before suggesting further that somebody should check whether the woman has any knowledge of one of two of the indigenous languages spoken in Zimbabwe, Shona or Ndebele. The final posts (11, 12) simply throw their two cents’ worth in to add to the growing consensus that this woman does not appear to be Zimbabwean.

The Zimbabwe Mail followed swiftly afterwards, carrying the Arizona Star reporter Stephanie Innes’ story together with the same photograph of the young woman in the driveway of Dove’s property [35]. This reprint of the story generated 9 comments, two from the same reader. The comment is interesting for the manner in which three readers approached the story:


Shame, if this woman is a Zimbabwean, our government should definately take her home.

(Alexander Chigumira 23/07/2009 12:23:24)


Chigumira l supported you on the other article ya Tete who wrote a ill-advised artcile on MJ. But on this one you are rushing things up man...
What this Dove of yours is trying to say is all Mentally ill people in Arizona are from Zimbabwe, that is silly and stupid to think so....
If you read this article you can tell there is no where mentioned constistantly that she is from Zimbabwe....
Ask your self those guys infront of Pres.Obama`s white House who look mentally ill to passerbys are there from Zimbabwe?
Ask this Dove of yours whether , those homeless who sleep in front of the Veterans Building in DC., infront of the train station are there from Zimbabwe?
Ask the same guy those people who gather to get free food infront of the small Park near the Veterans Building in Washington DC. just 5 minutes walking distance from Mr Obama`s white House who are dirty and look to me like there are all homeless, are there from Zimbabwe?
Zimbabwe is not like Mexico where mentally ill people can just walk cross through the arid boarders of Taxas.
That name is more American than Zimbabwean...We could have known already if one of us had gone insane in the USA... This women has an American Ascent... that statement is the only statement that is correct in the whole article...
l am failing to understand why Zimbabwe is coming in here?
We have more mentally challenged and ill people along Rhodes Island Avenue NW in Washington DC... than we have in Harare....Go around New Hampshire Avenue NW.Try drive past DC -USA shopping Centre going up, you will see areas, were insanity is the order of the day...Even Obama can not drive past through those street after 6pm...We are talking Washington DC. not Los Angels, NY the Hood or Vegas?
Insanity knowns no boundary, so we can not say everytime we think of anything that is negative we want to bring in Zimbabwe....
You can not suggest our Government to get involved here, they should have asked Morgan Tsvangirayi our Prime Minister who had USD$11million dollars to spend in trying to lure investor on his 3weeks European and USA tour to bring her home, if she was Zimbabwean....
l hope that guy who is sleeping in the Trailer at Dove`s property is not lieing to his Boss, that is his Girl friend, because they never talk about incidents where she found sleeping or using bushes as toilet. How come the dogs are used to her. Dove should inestigate his driver, he knows better..
You have to appeal to the Prime Minister, since he is the one who is not on the sanction list to go and verify if she is from Zimbabwe then?

(Magejo 23/07/2009 13:46:21)


Why can't this reporter contact our Zim embasyy in USA.The woman 's name doesn't sound Zimbabwean though.If she said she's Zimbabwean then she should be our sister and our govt should take her home.

(Misheck 23/07/2009 14:01:02)

These readers conduct a conversation among themselves. Alexander Chigumira’s expression of sympathy for the woman’s plight and the suggestion that the Zimbabwe Embassy get involved provokes a tirade from Magejo, who posts not once, but twice. Firstly, Magejo addresses Chigumira directly, offering idiosyncratic readings of the article and posing a series of parallel imperatives which begin with the injunction: ‘ask yourself’. The commentator latches onto the points made in the newspaper that the woman in question may be suffering from some mental illness and her purported Zimbabwean identity in order to expand on the ubiquity of illness, ‘mentally challenged’ people and ‘insanity’ in the USA. Magejo asserts that the woman cannot possibly be from Zimbabwe for two reasons. The first is that that her name ‘sounds more American than Zimbabwean’. The second reason conveys the extent to which this reader’s perspectives are rooted in a deep cultural prejudice regarding mental illness. Specifically, Magejo asserts that the Zimbabwe diaspora community ‘would have known’ if a Zimbabwean had ‘gone insane in the USA’. [36] Magejo also alludes to the recent USA and European visit by Morgan Tsvangirai to attract foreign investment in Zimbabwe on the one hand and to the existence of a list of Zimbabweans banned from travelling to the USA (‘the sanction list’), indicating awareness of recent international news items about Zimbabwe outside the country. This post is striking for the indirect but persistent way that the writer identifies as a Zimbabwean. This is achieved by using plural first person pronouns in phrases such as ‘one of us’, and ‘we have in Harare’, ‘our Government’, ‘our Prime Minister’.

The two sets of readers adopt a common approach to their construal of the situation. Specifically, they all invoke the presence or absence of specific national attributes in order to determine the woman’s national identity.

The second story appeared on July 26th, reporting the woman had been taken into custody, generating 10 comments. This was based on an updated Star story, which was reported by Zimbabwe Online Press. [37] On July 31, again in the Zimbabwe Times¸ Geoffrey Nyarota reported that Amma was to be admitted to a mental hospital. The content of this story reflects the concerns of the readers whose comments are reported in examples 1 through 12, including the question of the woman’s familiarity with indigenous languages. He reported:


Apparently Dove had phoned The Zimbabwe Times without alerting The Daily Star to the latest development in Amma’s case.
Innes said she had hit a brick wall in trying to confirm that Amma was indeed a Zimbabwean national, once she was removed from the Dove property and confined beyond access. She said it had occurred to her that Amma might have adopted a new name as many foreigners do in the United States.
“She did say that she speaks Swahili though, which I now understand is not spoken in Zimbabwe,” she said. “But she mentioned Zimbabwe to other people.”
Once Amma is confined to a mental ward it will become even more difficult to establish her true national identity and, if she is indeed a Zimbabwean, who and where her family is.
“I warned them to get the young lady back with her people,” Dove said referring to his dialogue with the Kino County Attorney’s office on Thursday.
“It’s help that she needs. I don’t believe a mental ward is what she needs.”

On August 1, Geoffrey Nyarota reported that the woman might not be Zimbabwean after all. Figure 6 is a screengrab of the first part of Nyarota’s story.

Figure 6. Screengrab of The Zimbabwe Times story dated August 1, 2009.

The report again pays attention to the identity of the woman:


Someone in the Zimbabwean community in Tucson would perhaps have recognised her by now. Prof Praise Zenenga at the University of Arizona tried to help The Arizona Daily Star to confirm that Amma was Zimbabwean, but then the police quickly whisked her away when they arrested her and refused to disclose her whereabouts. [38]
Amma was linked to Zimbabwe by The Daily Star, the Tucson newspaper that originally broke her story. Reporter Stefanie Innes said Amma had mentioned once that she was from Zimbabwe. Innes said Amma’s English was very American.
“She speaks English with a very American accent,” said Innes. “She sounds like someone who grew up in the United States. Perhaps she has some fascination with Zimbabwe.”
While the name of Zimbabwe is one that features regularly on US news networks, the incidence of mention escalated during Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s recent visit to Washington, DC. Googling Robek Thompson on the internet yields 85 000 results, both names being fairly common family names. No one by that name was identified, although the search was not exhaustive, given the enormity of the task.

One reader responded to this story thus:


I think it’s an unfortunate comment that you make, comrade Editor, that someone’s name can tell their skin colour. In this modern global dispensation, I think it is naivetee to assume one’s colour (or not) just by their name. There are a lot of black Afrikans with Arab, English, Afrikaans, Spanish, Portuguese, French and all kinds of different sounding names other than Afrikan. A lot of Xhosas in South Afrika who cannot even speak English have English last names. With the colonial legacy of the world, I don’t think we can cast doubts on someone’s nationality just because their name does not sound like our ‘home names’.

(Diliza Muthwa Ndlovu)

Nyarota also reports the exchanges between readers and the representative of the Zimbabwe Embassy:


After a barrage of stinging attacks directed at the embassy amid allegations that the embassy did not care for the welfare of Zimbabweans in the United States, officials finally responded by way of submitting comments through a facility on The Zimbabwe Times website.
Nick Mhute, a counsellor at the mission stated: “In spite of your misgivings and anger at this Embassy please be advised that the Consular Office at this Mission does care about the health and general well-being of our nationals in the US irrespective of their political orientation.”
This merely served to prompt renewed attacks.
Finally Mhute wrote to advise readers that the Embassy had contacted the Marana Police Department that had taken Amma into custody. The Embassy had however, been advised that because of privacy reasons they would not disclose her whereabouts.
“However,” Mhute said, “under the Geneva Convention on consular relations, authorities here are supposed to inform us whenever they arrest any one of our nationals. We are following up this case with the competent authorities. Thank you all for your comments, concerns and advice.
“This can only help us serve our nationals better.”
That seemed to pacify the readers in a unique case of Zimbabweans in the Diaspora directly holding their government to account through the Internet.

Nyarota’s final sentence in this report is directly relevant to the discussion of the problem of Zimbabwean national identity as it might be represented or enacted in the diaspora. Specifically, although the principal actor in this story about mental illness and homelessness in the diaspora turns out not to be a Zimbabwean, the key message of Nyarota’s series of articles is that although Zimbabweans in the diaspora are concerned for the welfare of one of their own, they are also highly suspicious of anybody claiming to be a Zimbabwean who appears not to conform to their own expectations of a Zimbabwean abroad. Additionally, the news stories produced for diaspora members reflect their concerns with and interests in topics that affect readers as Zimbabweans who are living outside the homeland, such as the perceived role of the Zimbabwe embassy in helping Zimbabwe nationals abroad in the diaspora.

6. Conclusions: the linguistic construction of national identity in the diaspora

This article has examined the nature of the communication about and among Zimbabweans on the internet, whether in the established formats of internet newspapers or in readers’ comments on those stories. What is of most interest is the ways in which readers respond to the news and how they interact with one another and with the news stories on the internet, and how these practices index their identities as Zimbabweans. Having considered two case studies – one concerning the death of a prominent Zimbabwean politician and one concerning the putative Zimbabwean identity of an anonymous woman in Arizona – let us discuss the readers’ communications.

In both cases, commentators adopt a range of formats. Some readers pay homage to the conventional ‘letter to the editor’ template headed with the salutation, ‘Mr Editor’, and some offer brief statements in the style of the typical Facebook status update or tweet on Twitter. Some readers offer lengthy disquisitions on the topic reported, sometimes switching topic to start a new thread for other readers to pick up. A number of readers orient their comments to other posters, usually in order to challenge or contradict them. This creates a strong sense of ad hominem interactive combat rather than conversation among readers. Their comments are vigorous, occasionally emotive, and highly expressive.

It is possible that the majority of commentators adopt pseudonyms or aliases to sign their posts; if they do use their own names, it is unclear what the hazards would be in doing so in 2009. The majority of the posters use indigenous African names as by-lines; some are recognizably traditional Ndebele or Shona names respectively. [39] Others are less straightforward to classify, for example English-based names like ‘norest’ are ‘Shonglish’ given names (Mashiri, 2009). A number of posters use ordinary, common English names (for example, ‘Jane’). The gender of the poster is hard to determine in many cases on the basis of the names used to sign the comments. In a number of posts, depending on the internet forum they appear on, the reader’s location accompanies the by-line. In many others, however, there is no indication of the poster’s location. The very vagueness of the formal identifiers accompanying the comments might be assumed to compromise any claim that these posts reflect the internet interaction of Zimbabwean people. Indeed, critics might argue that the very indeterminate form of these comments makes them unreliable as evidence for the interaction of Zimbabweans in the diaspora on the one hand and between homeland and diaspora on the other. I would argue that the internal structure, style and content of the comments provide compelling justification for their treatment as Zimbabweans’ internet communication.

All of the posts carry some indicators that might be understood as attempts to assert the reader’s authenticity as a Zimbabwean. These vary considerably in nature. Some posts offer personal testimony as proof of their identity as Zimbabweans. Reference to shared knowledge without elaboration or illumination serves to mark the familiarity of the commentator with features of Zimbabwean life that outsiders are likely not to know or recognize. For instance, in the Msika case, commentators name individuals with personal roles in political stories that outsiders would neither be able to recognize nor properly situate. In the Matri Amma case, commentators do this too, but their references are more predictable and better-known than the obscure detail embedded in the Msika comments.

In the Msika case too, commentators insert phrases in Shona or Ndebele into their largely English language commentary, making an explicit gesture to claim a Zimbabwean identity of some sort. The fact that few of these phrases are translated into English carries the presupposition that the readers assume that their fellow readers and principal interactants are able to respond in kind to their posts (and consequently must also be Zimbabweans). This code-switching is not evident in the comments on the Amma Matri case. Indeed, in this case, none of the commentators uses any language other than English. The sole exception is the second post from Magejo (presented in footnote 29), who uses the Shona word mapenzi ‘fools’. [40] The other readers use English only, the language adopted by the majority of the Zimbabwe diaspora newsmedia at this time.

The posts created on the internet newspaper readers’ fora invite particular inferences about their writers’ relationships with the homeland and its politics. In the Msika case, the commentators apparently have a number of different motives for posting their reactions. For some, the internet comment provides a means of registering their condolences and sharing their memories of the departed politician who seemed to be as well-regarded as he was reviled. This memorial function combines with the function of appraisal – a number of the commentators use the opportunity to make concrete their regard or their contempt for Msika’s record and life. They also use their posts to express their own political beliefs and to speculate about the internal political implications and consequences of Msika’s death. Accordingly, commentators make reference to both major and minor figures and key events over the last thirty years of Zimbabwe’s political situation.

In contrast, the commentators on the Matri Amma case are provoked to post comments by the relative novelty of a story about a Zimbabwean in the diaspora whose isolation and separation from any known community on the one hand and whose apparently destitute and traumatized circumstances on the other make her an object of curiosity and pity. The commentators respond to both aspects of the story, but principally to the question of whether she is actually Zimbabwean as she is reported to have said she is. This mystery generates the majority of the comments posted by readers. They seem affronted by the implication in the initial story in the Arizona Daily Star that a mentally ill Zimbabwean woman has been abandoned to fend for herself. Many commentators take the implication personally and respond by placing the responsibility for the duty of care on the Zimbabwe embassy. The overwhelming response however is to deny the likelihood of the mystery woman being a Zimbabwean.

What is particularly interesting about this story and readers’ comments is that it is the latter that appear to drive the way in which The Zimbabwe Times develops the story after its first appearance. Specifically, Nyarota pursues the question of the national identity of the woman and then as the readers invoke the responsibility of the Zimbabwe Consulate in the USA, reports on their response to the story. This story illustrates effectively how the diaspora news media responds to the expressed views and concerns of its readers in the diaspora.

Writers’ internet communication strategies result in the construction of complex identities that reveal heterogeneous interests and ideologies, beyond the constructed national identity labelled ‘Zimbabwean’. The Msika case illuminates the extent to which the public discourse on the politics of nationalism papers over the more urgent and keenly debated politics of ethnicity for many Zimbabweans. For instance, some commentators make much of the fact that because Msika was Ndebele his ‘colonisation’ by ZANU-PF ultimately betrayed the memory of Joshua Nkomo and ZAPU, established as the natural political party of the Ndebele since the 1960s. They offer views that condemn the two currently dominant parties, namely ZANU-PF and the MDC, arguing that both were complicit in the Gukurahundi in the early 1980s. The claims of authentic membership of the affected groups are expressed through complicated processes of labelling both heroes and villains. Assigning individuals to the correct groups is clearly a political act.

In the case of the Matri Amma case, readers’ interests seem to be oriented to the experience of Zimbabweans in the diaspora regardless of ethnicity or race. The common cause is symbolised in part by the choice of English – the diaspora’s dominant public language – as the only language of interaction. The commentators also seem to be anxious about the impression that outsiders form of Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans. This anxiety is embodied in the accumulation of assertions that the subject cannot be a Zimbabwean if she is mentally ill. This denial of this particular kind of vulnerability amounts to an assertion that Zimbabweans have the capacity for stoicism, strength and resilience; accepting the vulnerability suggested by the US press would be tantamount to acknowledging national vulnerability and possibly weakness too. The Matri Amma case is thus illuminating for the way that it highlights the fragility of national identity in the diaspora. Arguably, the trait that prompts readers to post – their role as Zimbabweans interested in the fortunes of fellow Zimbabweans in the diaspora – is also the trait that comes under most scrutiny. It is the contested status of the identity claimed for the woman that generates the most debate. This debate indicates the extent to which national identity is an attribute that depends on a number of components, some more concrete than others.

The material examined here is emblematic of a process of what Jacquemet (2005: 263) characterizes as ‘reterritorialization’. He asserts, ‘[d]iasporic and local groups alike recombine their identities by maintaining simultaneous presence in a multiplicity of sites and by participating in elective networks spread over transnational territories. These recombinant identities are based on multi-presence, multilingualism, and decentred political/social engagements’ (Jacquemet, 2005: 264). The material also indicates that the construction and performance of national identity in the diaspora are complicated linguistic acts in an environment which does not regulate or prescribe speakers’ choice of language or stylistic practice. Further, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish commentators on the basis of their stated location. The frequency and intensity of the internet debates among commentators – particularly on the politics of the homeland – indicate only the extent to which this ‘epistemic’ community engages with ideas of Zimbabwe.


[1] Evidence to support this claim is provided by recent analyses of the role of Facebook and Twitter in disseminating information about protests in Egypt.

[2] It is important to point out that present uses of the terms ‘diaspora’, ‘exile’ and ‘transnationalism’ are not straightforward to distinguish. Pasura (2008: 35-51) offers a helpful survey. Levitt (2001: 202-3) argues that ‘[d]iasporas form out of the transnational communities spanning sending and receiving countries and out of the real or imagined connections between migrants from a particular homeland who are scattered throughout the world’.

Pasura (2008: 51) suggests that ‘Zimbabweans who identify themselves as belonging to a diaspora might be transnational migrants if they share a sense of belonging to a homeland they are not living in’. The frequent use of the term ‘exile’ to describe diaspora is indicative of a particular attitude to the political or psychological state of the migrant. Pasura (2008: 46) argues that the characterisation of ‘[d]iaspora as exile suggests the forced departure of migrants from the country of origin, and their desire to make a quick return to the homeland’.

[3] For an in-depth analysis of the patterns of in- and out-migration with respect to Zimbabwe in the first decade of the 21st century, see the publications issued by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP). For example, see Tevera and Zinyama (2002).

[4] Note the ubiquity of advertisements for on-line money transfer facilities on the front page of Zimbabwe on-line newspapers. E.g. ‘Worldremit’ on The Zimbabwean.

[5] They have recently begun selling tee shirts with familiar pictures and logos of popular brands to the diaspora community too.



[8] Individuals who identify themselves as Zimbabweans are active bloggers, including Denford Magora [no longer on, cf. Facebook], The Bearded Man (, and cathybuckle. A quick glance at the range of disparate ‘Zimbabwe’ weblogs suggests that the writers target rather different audiences.

[9] Zimbabweans appear to be the principal target listening audience for the online music station, Zimradio, which includes news, including ‘Showbiz’ news as well as music. Although the website’s homepage is accessible, none of the links work, suggesting that this is no longer in operation.

[10] My source for a number of these news sites is Stanford University Library’s list of Zimbabwe newspapers and other news resources, together with means of access and brief descriptions.

[11] The categories of news include the usual business oriented ones of national reports, market reports, companies and markets, property report, weekend gazette, but also a batch of columns, some more active than others. There is a ‘Letter from America’, written by a journalist who takes a perspective that is firmly Zimbabwean (but complicated in terms of its positions on land, colonialism, etc.) There is also a readers’ forum, which is featured on the page. It also connects to the official website of the Prime Minister (Tsvangirai).

[12] For example, ZimDiaspora carried a news item about a domestic violence case involving Barbara Nyagomo, former vice chairperson of ZAPU-Europe and her husband, Michael Mambo, two Zimbabweans who now live in Manchester on February 17, 2011. The report also indicates how well-established the couple is in the Zimbabwean diaspora, noting that Nyagomo ‘was recently nominated in the UK-based Zimbabwe Achievers Awards 2011 for Best Female Personality, Community Champion, and Community Organisation-One Million Zim Voices’.

[13] However, on a research trip to Zimbabwe conducted in April 2011, I discovered that Zimbabweans generally regularly read English language newspapers and express preference for English newspapers. The most commonly available newspapers on the streets of Harare were NewsDay and The Herald.

[14] He continues:

‘Ko aya mashura padunhu! I just hope we got him this time around. I mean this Morgan fellow. For those who might not know, Morgan has a new baby in Bulawayo! While some of us are busy worried about how to get the country back to its feet, some of our colleagues are busy making babies!
I knew we would eventually get him . . . we had to find a way of silencing him for good like we did with Pius. Only recently, he was being named in a love triangle with a married woman. And he seems to have escaped on that one. I just don’t understand how. Surely how can someone take someone wife and get away with it? As if this country has run short of single women. We know that his handlers paid a lot of money to that poor fellow and the crime died a natural death. But how will he get out of this latest one . . . E-eh what would his sons and daughters-in-law say? Some people should really learn to be ashamed! I have no reason in my mind that this one will get him down and out . . . by the time we go for elections, he would be thoroughly discredited that only people who are out of their minds will vote for him . . . that is if he is so unashamed that he could still insist on standing against me. Let’s wait and see.’


The 2 comments that follow this column are interesting in that one addresses the story that the PM Tsvangirai has fathered a child with a young woman in Bulawayo and makes the wry comment, ‘Others are seizing farms, businesses; this m*rgan fellow is busy seizing people's wives. Nhai save kochii?’ The other is more visceral in addressing ‘ME’, the signatory of the letter to the cabinet. ‘Instead of real solutions, innovations, progressive economic policies, you waste time getting signatures from brainwashed people who are not in control of the sanctions in question. No mention of corruption, no mention of sustainable use of the countries natural resources. Ian Smith laughs at you, he overcame a real UN worldwide embargo, yet you cry over travel restrictions. The USA remains the biggest food aid donor to Zim yet you cry Zidera. Like Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese seko, Mugabe has nothing to offer, just trial and error policies. 31 years chabuda hapana (Waste of time, March 05, 2011)

[15] For example, when inviting readers to post comments on various items, ZimDiaspora makes the following appeal: ‘The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. ZimDiaspora is not responsible for what they say. Please keep your comments short and sweet. Obscene, tribalistic, racist, vulgar comments will be deleted.’ (

[16] []


[18] See and, respectively.

[19] The Zimbabwe Times, the replacement of the banned Daily News,reported the event and generated 63 comments from readers. Many of these comments lamented the fact that instead of retreating from politics to allow younger and more radical people to develop Zimbabwe, Msika was ‘one of the stooges who propped up a cruel dictatorship and turned what was supposed to be liberation and independence into a living–for some even dead–nightmare, the liberation of power for a very few, and the continuation of colonialism under a black skin’ (Clapperton Mavhunga, 4 August, 2009). The cached story for this item is no longer accessible online.

[20] I reproduce these posts exactly as they appeared on the websites of the online papers. (For instance, the posts at are no longer available online.)

[21] This refers the murder of Morgan Tsvangirai’s aide, Tichaona Chiminya in 2000.

[22] On a research trip to Zimbabwe in April 2011, I learned that telephone landlines have been almost universally replaced by mobile phone communication. Text-messaging is the cheapest form of communication, with ‘airtime’ in units of USD1 and USD5 being sold by roadside vendors on many street corners.

[23] This is Thenjiwe Lesabe, a veteran woman member of ZAPU who, although involved in the Unity Accord in 1987, left ZANU-PF in 2009 to join a revived ZAPU. She died in 2011. See her obituary in New Zimbabwe:

[24] The additional complication is that the second (and surviving) VP Joyce Mujuru (aka Teurai Ropa) and wife of General Mujuru, had just been exposed as corrupt (Zimbabwe Times, August 8, 2009) by colluding in the theft of sugar cane from a commercial farm.

[25] For illustration of the use to which the term ‘Zanoid’ is put, see []

[26] For discussion of Moyo’s activities late in 2009, see Zimeye, []; for some indication of Dabengwa’s recent activities in ZAPU, see; and for current speculation about Simba Makoni’s political ambitions, see []. For some indication of the combative relationship between Nyarota and Moyo, see Moyo’s critique of Nyarota’s memoir, Against the Grain

[27] Pockets Hill, Highlands, Harare is the studio of ZBC. SAM: surface to air missile.

[28] Between 1980 and 1988, Zimbabwe's post-independence government massacred an estimated 7,000 civilians to stem an insurrection in the southern province, Matabeleland (Sokwanele). This is a reference to Msika’s silence on the actions of the Fifth Brigade.

[29] For a sympathetic account of this incident, see; also see

[30] See

[31] See for an interview featuring Joseph Chinotimba.

[32] See for a story reporting Mutsekwa’s order for the arrest of Joseph Mwale for the murders of Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabika at Murambina Growth Point in 2000 ahead of the elections.

[33] For an account of the Zimbabwe government’s jamming of radio signals and web traffic sympathetic to the opposition between 2003 and 2008, see Mavhunga (2008).

[34] This group includes a comment from a Nick Mhute, a counsellor from the Zimbabwe Embassy in Washington DC.


[36] Magejo continues (23/07/2009 14:36:09):

Now you guys have also become insane, how can you reason like this. Are you saying everytime anyone wokes up and post an article about insane people in America, and just say there are from Zimbabwe we summon our Embassy to meet such people...?
If our own Prime Minister did not even pass through our Embassy, and now you consider insane people to be the only people our Educated and Patriotic Diplomats should only meet up with mapenzi emu America, you must be out of your mind... America has laws and the laws are clear, that is the sole Responsibility of the hosting Country...
USA immigration authority must take responsibility and send her home if it is proved she is from Zimbabwe...Zimbabweans are harding working it is easy for them to go insane whilst in the USA. we live in groups and we should have known by now.......
We have more insane people in America and to start making headlines with benzi rimwe chete riri ku Arizona, is madness of the highest order.
Why did you not ask those Mapenzi who sung and danced when the Prime Minister was addressing people in a Church in London to be checked by our Embassy whether there were from Zimbabwe or not?
We have people like Viomak who are living in the USA..She is more hollier than MJ. And she is not a disgrace she can do a good job. since, she is a Zimbabwean Celebrity...Late her go check if this lady is from Zimbabwe?


[37] []

[38] Praise Zenenga was an assistant professor in Africana Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and originally from Zimbabwe.

[39] Naming is a highly complex social practice for many Zimbabweans. See for example, Lindgren (2004) and Mashiri (2009).

[40] Magejo uses the term to refer to the groups of people who greeted Tsvangirai in London on his visit.




Daily News,

Financial Gazette,

IOM – International Organization for Migration,,



The New Zimbabwe Situation,

Sokwanele/Zakanaka, []

SW Radio Africa,

The Zimbabwean,

The Zimbabwe Guardian,

Zimbabwe Herald online,

The Zimbabwe Independent,

Zimbabwe Mail,

Zimbabwe Newspapers Ltd.,

Zimbabwe Newspapers and News on the Internet,

Zimbabwe Online Press,

Zimbabwe Reporter,

The Zimbabwe Vigil Coalition,





Zimradio, []


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NOTE! The article has been published in 2011, and because of that, the links to some articles are no longer active.