The magistrate floundered his hands bewildered. The accused, a Chinese gold miner, allegedly shot his workers twice in their thighs when they asked for their wages but he could not be tried promptly because very few court officers in Zimbabwe understand a word of Mandarin.
Zhang Xuelin, 41, who earned global notoriety in June over the alleged offense, got an easy reprieve because the Zimbabwean court refused to listen to the uncertified Mandarin interpreter his attorney had engaged.
“This happens daily in courts. Zimbabwe is in a catch-22 situation when it comes to Chinese offenses and the language dilemma,” says Brian Ngwenya, an independent sociologist in the capital, Harare. “The tripling volumes of Chinese investment and political influence is matched with the uneasiness of some of our Chinese residents committing crimes.”
Zimbabwe’s courts cannot swiftly prosecute Chinese residents who run afoul of the law. This is not only due to language complications but also diplomatic fears of annoying China which is the country’s largest foreign direct investor too, adds Ngwenya.
Mandarin language teaching institutes are actively being opened in Zimbabwe, in universities, charities or select secondary schools. Zimbabwe is the leader in Africa when it comes to training of local Chinese language instructor, says Pedzisai Mashiri, a professor and founding director of the Confucius Language Institute at the University of Zimbabwe. The University of Zimbabwe opened the Confucius Language Institute in 2007, thus becoming part of the family of the 400 Confucius Institutes worldwide. “There is no prize for guessing that speakers of Mandarin are going to be the most sought-after and highly paid workers here in Zimbabwe, but such interpreters don’t work in courts where salaries could be as low as $30,” says Brian Ngwenya the sociologist.
So despite the allure of Mandarin, a dire shortage of accurate interpreters of the language means justice is suspended in court proceedings where Mandarin dialect interpreters cannot be found.
This leaves prosecutors and judges in a quandary when it comes to crimes committed by Chinese residents in Zimbabwe be it in wildlife trafficking, customs goods fee-dodging or importation of unsanitary foodstuffs. In Zimbabwe´s social media broadcasts, errant Chinese employers are accused of whipping their workers with pistols, grabbing land to mould bricks or diverting fresh water streams. Some citizens view Chinese residents with hostility and accuse them of siding with the country´s powerful army-led government to siphon gold or diamond minerals in unscrupulous deals.
No one is sure about the number of Chinese residents living in Zimbabwe with casual estimates claiming 10 000 in a country of 15 million inhabitants, but there´s a feeling that Chinese who break the law can use language as a way to escape punishment. “Quite a number of Chinese residents here in Zimbabwe can speak credible English, but once they land in court they suddenly forget English and use confusing hand signs or Mandarin dialect. This could be a clever act,” claims William Bande, a retired criminal defense lawyer in Harare.
About the writer: Ray Mwareya is a freelance journalist for Reuters, Coda Story Magazine and China Plus.