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theatre rattles ruling party
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Yamikani Mwando (AR No. 139, 17-Oct-07)
October 17, 2007
The authorities are attempting
to squash a resurgence of political or protest theatre, which is
providing biting criticism of Zimbabwe's leadership ahead
of crucial elections early next year.
With the political and
economic crisis in full swing, amid controversial concessions made
by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, to the ruling
party to amend the constitution for the 18th time, theatre aficionados
appear to have been provided with more than enough fodder.
However, this is increasingly
proving to be an occupation of virtual daredevils. Arrests and bans
are coming fast and furious as state-sponsored repression in this
battered nation of more than 13 million people is ratcheted up ahead
of what are seen as watershed parliamentary and presidential elections
Earlier this year, Junior
Information Minister Bright Matonga warned, after the banning of
a play, that political theatre is the "work of political activists
masquerading as artists".
The play that was banned
was the hard-hitting The Good President by Bulawayo-based theatre
veteran Cont Mhlanga, who has been a thorn in the ruling party's
side since the 1980s with his protest plays. Mhlanga's High
Court challenge against the police action stopping the performances
In September this year,
a journalist and two actors in a play entitled Final Push were arrested
in Harare during a performance. The actors, Silvanos Mudzvova, who
wrote the play, and Anthony Tongani, were forced to perform it a
dozen times while in custody in front of police and intelligence
According to a statement
issued by Reporters Without Borders soon after the arrests, Final
Push makes fun of Zimbabwe's political crisis. Its title refers
to protest marches organised by the MDC in 2003, which were violently
dispersed by the police.
The play, along with
Mhlanga's The Good President, which remains banned in Zimbabwe,
is material certainly likely to rattle the ruling party as 83-year-old
president Robert Mugabe stands for yet another term in next year's
elections - despite signs of resistance from his former trusted
The history of political
or protest theatre in Zimbabwe can be traced to the early 1980s,
when the likes of Mhlanga began noticing the direction Mugabe was
taking, changing lanes from liberation war hero to autocrat.
The first signs were
the Gukurahundi massacres, when the Fifth Brigade, a crack army
unit trained by North Koreans, was dispatched to areas thought by
the government to have haboured insurgents which Mugabe suspected
belonged to what was then the main political opposition, led by
Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo was later to become the country's vice
president under a unity government, with Mugabe at the helm.
However, it is the country's
rapid decline from what was seen as a model democracy for Africa
to what is now regarded as a failed state that has fed the creativity
of theatre dons like Mhlanga. In apparent reference to the age-old
adage of the pen being mightier than the sword, the playwrights
And the authorities have
stood up and listened.
"Because we are
seeing the arrests and the bans, it means we are saying something,"
Raisedon Baya, an award-winning playwright whose productions have
fallen victim to political censure, told IWPR.
"But it has to
be understood we are merely artists, not activists of any sort.
Yet, this is a point that has yet to make sense to the police, who
accuse us of dabbling in politics."
Mhlanga explains on his
website about The Good President that "the third scene is
about the president celebrating and defending state violence on
TV. This is what President Mugabe did in March 2007 and this is
what inspired me to write the play".
This is art seemingly
imitating life, and predictably, with the events here in the past
eight years, life in Zimbabwe has provided ample material to get
audiences - and the authorities - paying attention.
March 2007 is when images
of a bruised MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirayi were beamed across the
world after members of the opposition party travelling to a rally
in Harare were battered by riot police. One person was shot and
killed by the police.
Early this month, Mhlanga
announced that the state-controlled Chronicle, the only daily newspaper
in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, had refused to
carry adverts of a play he had produced and directed.
The play, Overthrown,
written by Stanley Makuwe, is set to be staged this month, but Mhlanga
says he was told by staffers at the daily that "superiors"
were not happy to publicise a play by someone known to be a harsh
critic of the regime.
Baya said he believes
political theatre cannot be separated from the people's everyday
lives and therefore is inevitably on a collision course with the
was used during the apartheid years in South Africa to replay the
signs of the times then. It is no coincidence that it has inspired
Zimbabwe theatre artists," he said.
Though they have been
met with arrests and intimidation, the playwrights maintain they
have not written anything treasonous.
Yet as the country approaches
a watershed election next year amid growing disgruntlement among
the people, protest theatre appears to have provided the sole platform
for the probing of Zimbabwe's leadership, albeit on a scale
outside active political opposition.
"In my sector,
the culture sector, in performing arts, the current situation in
the country demands not poetic theatre, not romantic theatre, but
protest theatre," said Mhlanga.
Yamikani Mwando is the
pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe
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