5. “Please free those in Zambia. And to the rest of the freedom fighters in this world: don’t give up” – a message from an iconic African artist and activist

Q&A with Thomas Mapfumo

Legendary musician Thomas Tafirenyika “Mukanya” Mapfumo fled his home country Zimbabwe in 2000 after his pointed criticism led him to becoming a target of the Robert Mugabe regime. The arts have always played a crucial role in in the fight for freedom, human rights and democracy. But artists all over the world, from Uganda to Afghanistan, and elsewhere are continuing to come under attack. In Zambia, six activists, including a musician along with civil society leaders, have been charged over a peaceful protest in September 2017. Ahead of the start of their scheduled trial on June 25 in the country’s capital Lusaka, and to mark 25 years of CIVICUS and civil society action, which includes the arts, Mapfumo, 72, dubbed the “Lion of Zimbabwe”, spoke to CIVICUS:

Tell us a little about yourself as a musician.

I sing about freedom, justice and equality. I have been doing this for ages and I will not look back until Africa is free. While yesterday we fought against colonialism and racial segregation, today our main challenge is a tendency for rising dictatorships in Africa. Human rights continue to be sacrificed. Our leaders continue to ignore civil liberties. Persecution cases are on the rise. Free speech is expensive in Africa. 

Credit: Chimurenga Music Company

How important are the arts as a means of freedom of expression?

Very, very important, really important. We have to fight for democracy in this world, since a lot of poor people are suffering because of the situation that the world is facing today. We need to do something, we need to speak up, stand up and speak up.  We must appreciate art as a means to communicate ideas and the means to find common ground and promote civility among people. Art brings people together so once we find artists being persecuted, it becomes a common concern. 

You spoke to musician Chama Fumba, also known as pilAto, one of the six charged in Zambia, recently, to give him your support. How is he holding up?

Yes I did. He was good. 
Would you say you want to send out a message to the authorities in Zambia to drop the charges against these activists?

Yes, I do. Zambia has attracted a global spotlight but for the wrong reasons this time. There are six activists including pilAto charged. It's not easy for the world to take us seriously as long as we continue to treat each other like slaves. I think people who are actually appreciative of democracy shouldn’t be put in prison. That voice of the voiceless speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, give them a chance to say what they want to say. While we pray for justice, there is no justice to discuss when the arrests are unjustified persecutions. The government of Zambia can do better. 

We appeal to President Edgar Lungu to consider this case seriously. The persecution of activists will not advance the Zambian cause on the international arena. It's about time civility should prevail. Please free the six activists for a better Zambia. 

What was it like living under the Mugabe regime with the restrictions on the arts?

When Mugabe was still in power I never thought I could go back to Zimbabwe, because I was a marked man and I was taken as an enemy of the state. 

This is the reason why I’m living in America now, because of Mugabe’s regime. I’m looking forward to going back (to Zimbabwe) now. I was there in April for a concert. It went down very well, we had a very big crowd. So, I need to go back there and carry on fighting. 

Do you follow events in Zambia, Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa closely? 

Yes. I’m not in America for good. I don’t want to stay here for long, I have a home. I need to go back home and actually work with my people. 

I want to go back to Zimbabwe and help the poor people there. I’ve always stood by the poor people, those are my people. And I need to make sure that they’re free, that they have a voice. 

The crackdown on arts isn’t just an issue for Africa, though, is it?

No, no, no, it’s not just for Africa only. It’s for the rest of the world. The rest of the world, yes. 

Will you be back in Zimbabwe for the upcoming elections?

No not for the elections. I’ll be there after the elections. 

(But) my vote will be for the youth of today. The youth of today must take over. My generation is a long time gone, I’m in my 70s now. We (my generation) have failed. We need the young generation to come in and take over. Let’s give the youth the chance to run, to change this situation. We need to give them a chance because they’re the young generation and this is their future. 

Do you encourage them to use the arts to spread their message?

Yes, I do encourage the youngsters to take over and to also exercise democracy. I’ll always stand by the poor people and I’ll always fight for freedom and that’s my goal. My goal is to fight for the freedom for poor people around the rest of the world. It’s not Africa only, it’s the rest of the world. Poor people are still suffering (everywhere) today.

Are there any other artists from Africa or anywhere else who really inspire you?

Musicians like the late Fela Kuti, who was a messenger of the people. Also Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. (There’s) a lot of black activists fighting for freedom.  And also I’m a big fan of Nelson Mandela

Lastly, what’s your final message?

I want to say to the rest of the freedom fighters in this world they mustn’t give up. They must carry on fighting for freedom, fighting for people’s rights, fighting for equal justice.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world. 

If you would like to repost this article, or contribute an idea of your own to the series, please email   

Intro image courtesy of Chimurenga Music Company.



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