The mayor and the ‘crocodile’
As he comes to the end of his term in office, our investigation reveals the apparent political associations of Corby mayor Tafadzwa Chikoto have caused widespread concern throughout his mayoral year
By Sarah Ward
Sign up for all of our news by adding your email here
“What is a mayor of a small town having a meeting with the president? That is why people are raising eyebrows. He is not an easy person to get an audience with.”
When Labour councillor Tafadzwa Chikoto became mayor of Corby last May, it was big news in Zimbabwe where he was born. Corby’s first black mayor, weeks later images of Cllr Chikoto being held aloft and carried through the streets of the town’s old village as part of historic Pole Fair celebrations, were shared widely in Zimbabwe.
Cllr Chikoto, who had only been elected as a town councillor the year before, spoke about how he wanted to use his mayoral year to support young people from underprivileged backgrounds and chose The Lakelands Hospice as his charity for the year.
But then a photograph emerged which raised eyebrows, both in Zimbabwe and in Corby, where many Zimbabweans have made a home in recent years.
Cllr Chikoto and his wife Sandra were pictured with the Southern African country’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa, leader of the Zanu PF political party, and the man who took over the running of the country in 2017 after the coup against the controversial former president Robert Mugagbe. Smartly dressed and bookending the president, the married couple appear serious in the presence of the country’s head of state.
The photograph caused concern in both countries. Many Zimbabweans living in Corby, wondered why Chikoto would meet with a man who represented a regime which had caused them to leave their country and which they considered to be running it corruptly.
The photo also came to the attention of one of the country’s leading independent journalists Hopewell Chin’ono - a fierce opponent of Mnangagwa’s regime (he has in recent years been imprisoned by the Zimbabwean government). Chin’ono tweeted the photo of the mayor and Mnangagwa, bringing it to the attention of his half million followers.
The meeting was so significant that online newspaper Zimbabwe Daily produced a cartoon of the meeting (which it has permitted NN Journal to reproduce.)
Last May I tried to contact Chin’ono to find out more about why the mayor’s meeting with President Mnangagwa was of so much concern. But I was unable to get a response and things went quiet, so I moved on to other stories. But a chance conversation in January with a healthworker from Corby’s Zimbabwean community made me realise there was possibly more to the story and some were suspicious of the Corby mayor and so I started to ask questions in order to find out a bit more about Cllr Chikoto and why he would have been a guest of the president.
I have spoken to members of the Corby Zimbabwean community, human rights activists and academics, as well as the mayor himself and a prominent ZANU PF UK activist.
What I found is that the divisive politics of Zimbabwe are resonating and even causing fear among those who are living in Northamptonshire. I also discovered that written threats were made against the mayor himself, which the town council’s leader says has impacted the amount of duties he has been able to undertake during his time as mayor.
The Zimbabwean situation
University of Northampton lecturer Nathan Dodzo, who worked as an international political journalist in Zimbabwe was one of the first people I spoke with.
Now teaching media and journalism, he says the images of Chikoto with Mnangagwa raised many questions and led to suspicions about the Corby mayor among the Zimbabwean diaspora living in the UK.
“Why is a mayor of a small town having a meeting with the president of a country? Would you see that elsewhere? That is why people are raising eyebrows. He is not an easy person to get an audience with.
"What was the reason for that visit? What was he trying to achieve knowing a lot of his constituents escaped Zimbabwe because of economic reasons or political persecution?
“If it was an official visit what was the agenda?
“There has to be an element of trust. To be seen with a controversial political leader then leads to questions. We have to bring it back to ethics and morals.”
Dodzo said currently in Zimbabwe ‘people are getting brutalised each week’. The country is due to have elections and international media has been reporting concerns that the election will be fair and democratic.
Nathan Dodzo said the levels of wealth in his home country are extreme.
“Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Southern Africa. It is very rich in minerals, they are mining, gold, platinum, uranium, even limestone; you’ve got everything - diamonds. But the common person is struggling. Wages are 200 US dollars. But the money is there somewhere.”
He said there are credible reports that £15bn in diamond revenue has gone missing from the economy in recent years.
Currently Zimbabwe is in the midst of an economic crisis, with living standards plummeting. Life expectancy for men is 59 and 62 for women.
The country, which is home to 16 million people, is accused of running a corrupt regime, with members of the political opposition facing persecution and allegations of vote rigging to keep Zanu PF in power.
A former ally of Mugagbe’s and a key player in the country’s fight for independence from its white minority rulers (the country was formerly known as Rhodesia when under British rule) many think that Mnangagwa, who has the long term nickname of ‘crocodile’, has been involved in some of the country’s most recent dark periods, including the genocide of as many as 20,000 people from the country’s Ndele tribe in the immediate post independence years in the early 1980s.
Britain has sanctions on the country and there was concern when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with Mnangagwa in 2021. He was also present at King Charles III coronation earlier this month, but his attendance was protested by All Parliamentary Group for Zimbabwe (chaired by liberal democrat Peer Lord Oates) which wrote a letter to foreign secretary James Cleverly arguing that Mnangagwa should not attend. The letter cited the death last year of an opposition supporter at a rally, in which 17 other people were injured.
“ . . political violence and human rights abuses are widespread with the opposition. “Members of parliament and party members harassed, beaten, imprisoned and murdered; corruption is rife, extending to the very highest levels of government, destroying the economy and impoverishing the Zimbabwe people and the judiciary, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and all institutions of the state have been suborned to the ruling party.”
Minister for development and Africa Andrew Mitchell responded saying that Mnangagwa’s invitation had been agreed by the foreign office and the Royal household, although he did indicate he sympathised with the position, writing:
“I share your concerns at the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. As a human rights priority country, we continue to monitor and raise human rights in Zimbabwe and engage at senior levels, both publicly and privately. The UK wants to see Zimbabwe move along a pathway to being more peaceful, prosperous and democratic. Whilst we have welcomed some areas of progress in recent years, human rights and corruption remain areas of concern.”
According to the Office of National Statistics data there are 128,000 Zimbabwean’s living in the UK.
What the mayor said
It took a while to track down the mayor. He has been out of the country on several occasions during his mayoral year according to Labour party sources.
A check with the town council’s office about the number of public engagements showed that between his investiture in May and the end of January he had only attended 30 engagements and was unable to attend 23. (In the same period Kettering’s mayor had carried out more than 90 engagements and Wellingborough’s 60).
I knocked at his home in Corby’s Oakley Vale area on a few occasions and after turning up at a town council meeting last month, I was told he was away on holiday for ten days. Finally last week, with the assistance of Corby town council leader Mark Pengelly, I was able to arrange a phone call.
Asked why he had met with the president he said it was an ‘honour to meet him’ and he has no regrets, despite the backlash from some within the local Zimbabwean community.
“People have got mixed views, but I would also like to remind you that he is the head of state. I got an invitation to go and meet the head of state and I did. I went and had a meeting with him - he called me just to congratulate him.
“It might be insignificant to other people [his being elected as Corby’s mayor] but for him [Mnangagwa) I think it is a big thing because he does meet a lot of Zimbabweans who have done well in different parts of the world and I was fortunate enough to get that invitation.”
He says the invite came when he was in Zimbabwe on a family visit.
“It was very informal. He invited me the person - so I was not representing Corby in any way, shape or form. I think I spent less than five, ten minutes with him. He asked me ‘how did you get to where you got?’ and said his congratulatory messages and then left. I think he was more fascinated with - ‘how did you become a councillor in the UK? How did you get to where you got to?’ and I explained to him and that was it.”
He said he is not a member of ZANU PF and does not support any Zimbabwean political party.
Asked if he could understand why some Zimbabweans living in Corby were concerned about his visit to meet a president who in many people’s opinion runs a corrupt government, he said:
“I’m sure every single one of those people who are concerned - if they got invited to the state house they would be running there. They would go, I can tell you that for sure.”
He said he would love to meet a Zimbabwean who was afraid to return to the country currently.
“There are some, but the majority, I would like to meet one of those people who has not been back to Zimbabwe several times. I would love you to put me in a room with them and have a conversation and say ‘I hear you’re scared to go home’. It is sad.”
He said he is happy to meet with anyone from the community who has further questions.
He acknowledged some of his fellow Zimbabweans had moved to the country in fear for their lives, but said ‘he did not know’ if Zimbabwe was an unsafe country.
He said he did not think his visit would have caused such a fuss and said he was not the only British politician who had met with the president.
He could not say how many times he has visited Zimbabwe this year, although it is more than three, but said he was dealing with ‘severe family issues’ which necessitated this. He said he has a home there. He has lived in Corby for more than 15 years, moving her as an economic migrant.
After our conversation ended, I came across an image online of Cllr Chikoto at the national Zanu PF Congress in Harare in October, which was attended by senior Zanu PF ministers from the politburo. Asked why he had attended, after stating he was not a Zanu PF member or supporter, he sent a text message to say:
“I attend events from different political parties to gain an understanding of different ideology and become more informed.”
ZANU PF associate
The mayor was photographed at the Congress alongside another Corby resident called Masimba Mavaza - a prominent Zanu PF member who lives just a few streets away from Cllr Chikoto on the town’s Oakley Vale estate. Mavaza, is a lawyer and self proclaimed journalist who writes many vitriolic pro-government pieces which are published in the national media. (He was removed from the Corby magistrates bench in 2011 - he says due to fraud charges for which he was later acquitted).
Mavaza’s Zanu PF links mean that many Zimbabweans who have moved to the UK due to economic or political reasons are wary of him.
Panyika Karimanzira, the spokesperson for Restoration of Human Rights (ROHR) Zimbabwe, lives in Northamptonshire, having left his home country in 2006 as he says his life was under threat due to his political associations.
He told me:
“As human rights activists we look at Masimba Mavaza as one being used as one of the tools by the powers in Zimbabwe. They (Zanu-PF) are trying to extend their tentacles.
“When this guy [Chikoto] became mayor there was a lot of excitement in Corby. But when it became apparent he was linked to Masimba Mavaza and Mnangagwa we got concerns. We don’t know the purpose of the visit or what he was doing.
“I like to think birds of a feather flock together.”
“We see Zanu PF UK as the same as Zanu PF in Zimbabwe. The only difference is the rule of law - they would not do things in this country that they do in Zimbabwe.
“It’s scary for us. It is scary. The UK government turns a blind eye to what is happening.”
After putting a letter through his door I received a phone call from Masimba Mavaza a few days ago.
He said he had no involvement in councillor Chikoto’s meeting with the president, and is not a friend of Cllr Chikoto.
“I don’t see any problem with any person meeting the president. Zimbabwe has not been declared a terrorist state.”
Asked why some Zimbabweans say they are afraid to return to their home country Masimba said:
“They are lying - they just want visas.”
He says the leader of the opposition [Nelson Chasima - president of the Citizens Coalition For Change] is in Zimbabwe and not in prison.
He told me:
“What you are doing is simply driving a racist agenda. You don’t want a black man as the mayor. You want to tarnish his image. There is nothing wrong with Chikoto seeing the president of Zimbabwe.”
He said the economic problems are the fault of the British.
“We can’t sell our gold. We can’t sell our diamonds. We can’t sell anything. Why? Because you took our land. And this is unfair. You would not want to be treated like that. Zimbabwe has been suffering under sanctions for the past 23 years. And we will survive.”
The town council
Corby’s town council leader Mark Pengelly said he had asked questions of Cllr Chikoto last May and had received in writing a statement from him that he was not a member of Zanu PF. He said after the council had received a letter about Cllr Chikoto containing supposed threats against him that the council had consulted the police. Next week will be the end of Cllr Chikoto’s mayoral year.
Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Our reporting is paid for by our members. Longer, investigative reports like this take more time. If you can help fund our reporting and ensure we continue please consider taking out a monthly £6 subscription