by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
Zimbabwean theatre lovers have had something to talk about for the past two weeks. Cont Mhlanga's riveting new play, The Good President, premiered here in Harare, Zimbabwe, on April 12.
This politically charged satire, written and directed by Zimbabwe's most controversial playwright, summarizes the country’s 30 years against British colonial rule, focusing specifically on events leading to Zimbabwe's independence. It goes on to highlight what has happened in the 27 years since Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980. All in one tight hour of compelling action.
The play kicks off with a scene in a police station where two police officers are assaulting the leader of an opposition party, acted by a look-alike of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of Zimbabwe’s strongest opposition, Movement for Democratic Change.
In addition to beating him up, they search his pockets and steal all his money and leave him for dead. One of the police officers, Wangu, who had been shown in a previous scene sadly telling his girlfriend that he had no money to meet her demands, is suddenly ready to finance all of her requests.
These events bounce back to haunt Wangu when his grandmother comes to the city for an eye treatment. In one of their many conversations, Wangu is told that his father, himself a former leader of the opposition, was murdered by state agents during the 1983 Gukurahundi, the civil war that erupted in Zimbabwe soon after independence between two ethnic groups—the Shona and the Ndebele.
This piece of news upsets Wangu greatly, forcing him to resign from the police force. He feels it is pointless for him to serve the same government that killed his father.
The play also touches on the chaos that has been generated by the harmonization of presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in March 2008. The beatings of opposition leaders, the banning of rallies, military imposed curfews in the capital Harare suburbs, all of which are shown as desperate attempts by a government to hold on to power.
It shows how the Mugabe led government is abusing its power by turning entities such as the police and army—that survive on taxpayers’ money—into the ruling ZANU PF party’s campaign material. Instead of protecting and serving civilians, the police and army in Zimbabwe are now being used to serve selfish political ends.
The play attempts to prove that Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, was not part of the founders of Zimbabwe's struggle for independence. Instead, Mugabe was roped in because of his eloquence in English. He was the most educated and so he became “president by design.”
The Good President is presented in a daring and refreshingly funny manner, despite the seriousness of the issues raised in the play.
This kind of a play is certainly a very rare occurrence in the volatile Zimbabwean situation, where freedom of expression in any form is under threat and can land someone in trouble with state security agents. It could lead to a ban of the play by the state controlled Censorship Board.
But despite its blatant political content, the creator of The Good President, Cont Mhlanga, is unmoved by the possible reprisals from the play, especially in light of the clampdown on dissenting voices by the Mugabe regime.
“Our job as playwrights is to write on issues that take place in society, whether they are in favour of or against the interests of the powers that be. It is up to the people to respond to the play in a way they might find fit,” Mhlanga says stubbornly
“Whenever I write a play my objective is to stimulate public debate and draw public attention to specific issues, and then leave it up to the audience to decide how they respond. I am prepared to face whatever reprisals this may come with.”
But whatever the political connotations, during the running of this play, Zimbabwe theatre lovers can certainly unwind and laugh at their own problems.
“People are free to generate whatever meaning they want from the play. That is the role of theatre,” Mhalanga offers.
“But as far as I am concerned, this play is about a grandmother.”
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.