by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
Hopefully, readers may remember the piece I wrote for The WIP in May 2007 about prominent Zimbabwean playwright Cont Mhlanga, and the premiere of his most recent and controversial play yet, “The Good President.” The play had opened in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city, on April 12, to good crowds. While theatre buffs praised it as a highly entertaining play which was admirable for calling for the society to take the moral high ground, its plot certainly provoked serious debate.
To quote myself from the May article, 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. And it goes on from there.
This play tells the political history of Zimbabwe, and some of this history is something that President Robert Mugabe would be willing to pay millions of dollars to keep in the past. Except that Cont is not one to accept a bribe.
As one reviewer from the Association of Zimbabwe Journalists commented, “The State media, which reflects Government thinking, did not waste time dismissing the play as the work of enemies of the State who wanted President Mugabe out.”
In May, I wrote with a sense of excitement and wonder. Ours is a volatile country, where anything remotely critical of the government can and has landed many in trouble with state security agents. The reaction of the establishment was predictable. At least two major State dailies and a weekly declared that the play was without national value, that it was “sick” and only intended to stir up emotions, especially hate. Worst of all in their opinion, it was clearly motivated by the desire to speed President Mugabe out of office. In fact, one paper actually accused some in the diplomatic community of supporting the production just to embarrass the government.
However, while the diplomatic community may have enjoyed the broad comedy, the play was yet another product of a long-time collaboration between Mhlanga, founder and head of the Amakhosi Cultural Center, and Daves Guzha of Rooftop Promotions, who often produces Amakhosi productions. Guzha confirmed that, immediately declaring for the record that his production house was indeed the sole support of “The Good President.”
Mhlanga, on the other hand, boldly asserted not only that the play was solely his creation, but that it was inspired by Zimbabwe’s current political landscape. To the amazement of many of us in his audience, this self-proclaimed playwright of protest theater seemed to have no fear of the consequences: “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... as far as I am concerned, this play is about a grandmother.
It was inevitable that Mhlanga would attract the ire of President Robert Mugabe and his government cronies.
“The Good President” is a “politically charged satire” that summarizes the country’s 30 years against British colonial rule, focusing on events leading to Zimbabwe's independence”. It also tells the story of Zimbabwe’s 27 years since gaining independence in 1980 from British colonialists, and focuses on how Robert Mugabe has ruled the country since then.
In short, “The Good President” tells the story of how soon after independence in 1983, Robert Mugabe sanctioned the murder of more than 20,000 Ndebele people during what has become known in history as the Gukurahundi.
This term Gukurahundi refers to the civil war that erupted in Zimbabwe soon after independence between two ethnic groups—the Shona and the Ndebele.
Mugabe claimed that the people being killed (among them women and children) were dissidents who were out to disrupt the newly found peace in the country. He even hired security forces from North Korea, known as the Fifth Brigade, to execute the massacres. This is just one of the skeletons that Cont brought out of the closet in “The Good President.”
The play also highlights the confusion generated by merging of presidential and parliamentary elections coming up next in March 2008. The play shows how desperate Mugabe is to hold on to power: the president figure has opposition leaders beaten to intimidate them into dropping out; he bans rallies to prevent them for campaigning and uses the army to impose curfews in the country’s urban suburbs.
The play highlights Mugabe’s abuse of state entities: he has turned both the police and the army into his ruling ZANU PF party’s campaign material. Instead of protecting and safeguarding civilians’ rights, the police and army’s riot squad units are used to silence any dissenting voices. They beat and arrest civilians who dare to violate state imposed curfews as well as anyone who takes part in any demonstrations not sanctioned by his the police. (According to the Public Order and Security Act [POSA], all gatherings of more than five people must seek police clearance.)
For two months, this play ran in various parts of the country, exposing the things Mugabe’s government does routinely to quash dissent.
By the time the play got to Bulawayo, Mhlanaga’s home town, the government-controlled Censorship Board finally banned it.
In protest against the ban, Cont and the producers, Rooftop Promotions, launched a High Court appeal in Bulawayo, but it was dismissed. The presiding judge ordered Cont to settle out of court with the police. However, he has since launched another appeal--this time in the capital Harare. It is currently pending before the courts there.
But that is that, Cont Mhlanga’s play is no more. It has been officially banned. What I have found most interesting is that his quite remarkable dedication to protest theater, which dates back to when he was in high school.
This tough talking playwright’s love for the performing arts has been long lasting, and is certainly undisputable. Cont founded Amakhosi Theatre Productions in 1982 in the oldest township of Makokoba in the city of Bulawayo.
It started off as a youth karate club that he ran in his mother’s back yard in urban Bulawayo. Later on Cont realized the talent that was budding in Bulawayo and turned Amakhosi into theater production. Cont wrote plays and dramas and fused them with dance and music to make them interesting and soon his style had followers.
Cont and Amakhosi won numerous national awards after this and before long Cont were training upcoming artists in their fields of interest. In 1985 Amakhosi made their first regional appearance with a play entitled Nansi Le Ndoda (This Man).
Cont and his company’s breakthrough on the international scene came in 1990 when the group first toured Scotland and Wales with numerous other plays and performances. Amakhosi has been touring worldwide since then and many artists who have made their name in the world of theatre and acting owe it to this great man’s vision.
When I recently visited Bulawayo I managed to track him down at his Amakhosi Theatre Production House. Cont says he cannot understand why he should be intimidated into stopping now. "I have been in the arts since the birth of Zimbabwe and I have been writing protest plays all this time.”
Cont remains defiant: “I am sorry to say that I will not my change my script as suggested by the police because it is based on true historical events. There was Gukurahundi isn't it? Didn’t Mugabe kill innocent women and children because they were Ndebele and supported the then opposition leader John Nkomo?
“Mugabe wanted a one party state and didn’t want to appreciate the fact that the Ndebele people had also played a part in the attainment of Zimbabwe’s independence and had every reason to be part of government. This is why he massacred these people, they were not dissidents or political insurgents they were women and children and the elderly. Some were buried alive or asked to dig their own graves. Why should protect a monster like this?”
Cont is no stranger to controversy; he has authored numerous other plays that have given Mugabe sleepless nights.
Last year Cont was arrested over another political satire, "Pregnant with Emotion." The play is about a child who refused to be born, fearing that it might not be able to cope with the political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe. But the Censorship board did no find this amusing.
Quoted elsewhere after the ban of “The Good President,” an eager to please deputy minister of information and publicity, Bright Matonga, attacked this play, insisting it was the “work of political activists masquerading as artists.”
This is the man behind protest theater in Zimbabwe whose love for theater and the arts and his country is so huge that he is not afraid to die for what he believes in. He has surely given President Mugabe chronic insomnia.
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.