Looking into Dirk Frey
Unlike the majority of white Zimbabweans, Dirk Frey of the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement dares to raise his voice against Robert Mugabe’s government. Kudzayi Zvinavashe caught up with Frey to chat about his life, heritage and activism.
Dirk Frey is one of the activists who started the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement under the leadership of the disappeared Zimbabwean journalist-cum-activist Itai Dzamara. Since 2014, the group has been calling out Mugabe’s inept government and urging him to leave office. After attending a Movement for Democratic Change rally, Dzamara was seized by unknown men and has never been seen again.
Clues to Dirk Frey’s activism could be found in his biographical details. He was born in Tanzania in 1986 to German parents. When he was seven months old, they moved to Zimbabwe and has lived in the country ever since, with intermittent spells abroad. The fact that he was born well after independence, to parents with no direct connection to the local white settler population, must make it easier for the co-founder of the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement to participate in local politics, one of the few whites who do so.
“My generation is mostly a lost generation, because we grew up in a system that worked. We were expected to do well at school, get a degree, get a job and raise a family. Yet the country was collapsing around us and we were left thinking, what do we do?”
He describes his childhood as belonging to Zimbabwe’s ‘golden age’. “I grew up in the Zimbabwe of the 1990s, which my generation remembers as the golden days. We had glass milk bottles delivered to our gate. I was part of that generation of Zimbabweans that grew up together,” he says. It was the fulfilment of Zimbabwe liberation war hero and Zanu PF military supremo Josiah Tongogara’s dream: white, black and brown kids growing up together as equals.
Which is why, in addition to German, French and English, he also speaks fluent Shona, the most spoken language in Zimbabwe. This is perhaps the reason he refers to himself on Twitter as “murungu mutema”, a white black man.
Being a book worm made him politically aware and distinguished him from his mates, who only knew the very basics of politics. After completing high school at Speciss College in 2004, Frey went to Australia in 2005 for his university studies. This was the time when Zimbabwe had begun its slide into the abyss, from which it has never really recovered.
“My high school grades were fairly good so I immediately went to university just to get away from Zimbabwe’s situation. Traditionally, many people take a gap year… I watched people around me grow skinny, food disappearing from supermarket shelves, hyperinflation, and my parents struggling. All of this was happening and I wanted to get away.”
“He [disappeared activist Itai Dzamara] became my captain, he changed me from being a coward to being the person that I am today.”
At Griffith University in Australia, after some soul searching, he opted to study for a bio-technology degree, a programme that fascinated him at the time. But he eventually lost interest and dropped out. Frey is grateful for the time he spent in Australia. It was there that he went through a process of self-actualisation. “For the better part of my time in Australia I would not tell people where I was from. Instead I would tell them about where I was born and my ancestors’ roots. I was hesitant to tell them I am white Zimbabwean because there is this element that says because you are white, you are a foreigner. Only when I started hanging out with fellow Zimbabweans did I affirm my identity as a Zimbabwean.”
He decamped from Australia but didn’t return to Zimbabwe straightaway. Instead he made a detour in South Africa, where he enrolled at Rhodes University in Grahamstown to study economics. He dropped out twice, the first time due to financial challenges and the second time when he joined the now disappeared activist Itai Dzamara in a series of protests.
Time with Dzamara
When Frey was growing up he never had one single career aspiration. He was always swaying, as is obvious from the diverse degree programmes he attempted. Even for such a restless person, activism was never an option. Most of his activism was on social media, like the majority of his compatriots.
His first encounter with Dzamara was at the Africa Unity Square demonstration. He had read about the demonstration online and went looking for Dzamara, armed with a picture from the Internet. The initial encounter was a lukewarm one. Dzamara, naturally, was paranoid and wary of strangers. “When I first met him (Dzamara), he did not say much and he kept looking around. I was later told that after I left, he fumed, asking who had sent this white boy and what I wanted,” says Frey.
Despite the tepid first meeting, Frey relished the conversations with the few activists present. It was a “beautiful conversation between like-minded people,” he recalls. “As of that day I was in with both feet.”
The relationship between Frey and Dzamara got better the following day and even better over time. “He became my captain. He changed me from being a coward to being the person I am today,” Frey says of the activist, who is thought to be dead. “We had grown so close, and he was my comrade, my friend and my brother. It’s such a pity they took him after I had only known him for seven months.” To honour the memory of his friend, Frey routinely refers to Africa Unity Square as Dzamara Square.
He doesn’t have a day job (a fate he shares with 80% of his compatriots), so he often has to hustle to make ends meet. But he stays at his father’s house and has some inheritance money from his relatives. The funds are on the verge of depletion and he has no idea what he will do when they are finished.
Reflections on his generation
Frey says there are a lot of things that are wrong with the Zimbabwean nation and one of them is with their generation.
“Most people in my generation are a lost generation, because we grew up in a system that worked. We were expected to do well at school, get a degree, get a job, raise a family, yet the country was collapsing around us and we were left thinking, what do we do?”
Well, unlike most of his compatriots (both black and white), Frey is doing something to restore the fortunes of the lost generation.