Leading Playwright Arrested

Cont Mdladla Mhlanga, co-founder and artistic director of Amakhosi Theater Company in Zimbabwe, leads this theater class coordinated by Bill Morse of Cal Poly Pomona, CA. (Photo:

The fear of free expression has the government of Zimbabwe tied in a knot. South African musician Johnny Clegg could not have put it better when he said: "Censorship is based on fear" — because the Zimbabwean government has ruled by fear. Its list of 'enemies of the state' has new entrants each day, and the latest targets are artists. One of them is the flamboyant Cont Mdladla Mhlanga, founder and artistic director of the Amakhosi Cultural Center and performing arts academy in the city of Bulawayo, located in western Zimbabwe.

Mhlanga is arguably a living legend, and a theater icon not only in Zimbabwe but also on the international stage where his works have received acclaim and awards. Mhlanga was arrested and briefly detained early last month on the grounds that his plays were anti-government and meant to incite an uprising against the regime of longstanding President Robert Mugabe.

In particular, one of his plays, "Tomorrow's People," has drawn the ire of authorities after it premiered at the Harare International Festivals of the Arts (HIFA) held in April. The play is billed for Bulawayo, if the police do not arrest its cast and ban it from being staged.

"We will continue doing what we are doing; our job is to produce plays and promote them throughout the country," Mhlanga told the Financial Gazette (May 17). Amakhosi, together with the Bambelela Arts Ensemble and Qhube Productions, produce the hard-hitting play. It tackles some of Zimbabwe's most pertinent issues such as political violence, corruption, the culture of intolerance, and questions the benefits of the 1987 Unity Accord between the ZANU PF and ZAPU political parties. Another play featured at Amakhosi, "Pregnant With Emotion," also looks at the plethora of problems facing Zimbabwe.

Police officers from the Law and Order section hauled Mhlanga to their offices and in a veiled threat told him that his plays were anti-government. They have since demanded that he hand over all the scripts of the plays that have been and will be staged at Amakhosi, and informed that the entire cast of "Pregnant with Emotion" must be interviewed by the police. In simple terms, Mhlanga must sanitize his plays or effectively precipitate the banning of Amakhosi.

The straight-talking Mhlanga may have hung his pen up in 2000 but he will not give in to the threats. Art in general and theater in particular, Mhlanga told Worldpress in an exclusive interview, is the conscience of any nation, and in Zimbabwe one of the last standing posts for portraying the real struggles of the ordinary people.

Artists are in the government's line of fire line for their perceived 'bad verses,' provocative images, and inflammatory words. In less than 10 years, Zimbabwe has moved from an open, democratic society to a closed one, characterized by the emasculation of the judiciary, the muzzling and closure of the independent press, and the erosion of fundamental constitutional and human rights. The country's constitution has been amended a record 17 times, with each amendment chipping away the rights of its citizens. Words like 'police state' and 'autocracy' describe the current situation in Zimbabwe. If words alone are not enough, the pictures and footage of the government-sponsored demolition in Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) unleashed in May 2005 comes close to telling the story of Zimbabwe's slide into a political and economic abyss.

It is the untold stories of the ordinary people that theater tells, argued Mhlanga, who founded Amakhosi in 1982. The Center started off as a youth karate club and turned semi-professional in 1988. It created the first pilot center, the Amakhosi Performing Arts Workshop (APAW), which produced and toured with theater plays written and directed by Mhlanga.

"Plays are my job, that is why we have Amakhosi. Our job is not to censure plays; we look at the quality of the play, its content and whether it is socially relevant," said Mhlanga. "There are always individual stories of how things and events impact on their everyday lives such as the personal stories of Murambatsvina. These are stories that theatre tells because we have to tell them if we are concerned about our nation. In that nation there are individuals with stories to be told."

Mhlanga recalled a tragic story of a family of three who were moving their worldly belongings one night when the man was struck and killed by a speeding public transport vehicle. The man died on the spot and the personal property they were moving was scattered all over the road. The man left behind a three-year old son and a traumatized widow.

"The reason these people were moving was because the shack they were staying in had been razed to the ground. The story is what happened to that three year old boy, where is he today?" Mhlanga asked, before lamenting how artists in Zimbabwe are being cowed into silence by poverty, fear and political patronage.

Described by colleagues and associates as candid, bold, perceptive, yet calm, Mhlanga is a gift to theater. What South African peoples' poet, Mzwake Mbuli speaks out against in his poems, Cont Mhlanga castigates through his penetrating plays. Amakhosi established itself as Zimbabwe's full-time arts training workshop for all disciplines. Since starting regional tours in 1995 with the performance in Botswana of "Nansi Le Ndoda," Amakhosi artists have taken their work to the international stage with the group's first tour of Scotland and Wales performing "Stitsha," a play about the politics of land ownership and use.

While Mhlanga has lost count of the number of plays he has written, he vividly recalled the impact of some of his more politically-laden and socially acerbic works such as "Dabulap," that addressed the problems of migration, and "Workshop Negative," a political satire focused on the issues of land, wealth, political patronage, and the dispossession of the masses. In many ways Mhlanga's plays are apocalyptic, yet at the same time didactic.

"I write with a kind of prediction … I predicted that Zimbabwe was going to be a bankrupt state, with people fighting each other. When we presented "Workshop Negative" in Los Angeles last year, it was so relevant I'm surprised to look back and see how it reads like a prediction of the current situation," said Mhlanga. "The lines from the play just came alive about how the unresolved issues were the causes of Zimbabwe's problems. All my plays come from deep inside me; they are like my children. I write with a social message and those that come from within are not commissioned. I write because I feel."

In 1995 Amakhosi established the country's first privately owned cultural center located within the boundaries of the townships, now popularly known as the Township Square Cultural Center. To date the center remains the only economic anchor for the arts and cultural industries in Bulawayo's business district. Buoyed by the creativity of its singers and actors, and solid scripts backed by professional production teams, Amakhosi has nurtured artistic talent in Zimbabwe and used theater for social commentary, redress and introspection. Some of their memorable plays include the political loaded "Sinjalo," "Members," and "Tomorrow's People." If past theatrical offerings are anything to go by, Mhlanga suggested that "Pregnant With Emotion," which has earned him many kudos, does not contain 'explosive' material.

Mhlanga, who has stopped playwriting to focus on training artists and overseeing stage productions, is one of a growing list of artists who are falling afoul of the government for speaking out against the rot, the corruption, and the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans.

"I am disappointed with the artists in Zimbabwe. With a society such as ours, which is suppressed and depressed, artists should be the voice of reason, the conscience of the society," he said. "Some of our artists fell for (Jonathan) Moyo's galas, bribes, and endless shows. Now they are afraid to be reflective, or to speak out for fear they will not be invited to galas, or get airplay. For me, artists in Zimbabwe are not reflective of the problems in Zimbabwe and that is why it has taken so long to solve them."

Mhlanga gave the example of how artists in South Africa brought down the system of apartheid, which was entrenched for 40 years, through their works, songs, poems, books, paintings, film, drama, and theater.

"Artists have been used for political scores, and that is why they have targeted me and other artists because they know the power of art," he said. "I feel artists are prolonging the suffering of the masses. We must not forget that we are part of the solution."

Artists, like journalists, civil activists, judges, and farmers are being persecuted by a government that has branded any dissenting voices as enemies of the state. Laws have been passed to restrict the freedom of information, association, and expression. Zimbabweans are slowly being hounded into submission, subjected to unbridled fear, violence, and punitive laws. Plans are underway to pass a law to legalize wiretapping and eavesdropping, as well as sanctioning government monitoring of all electronic and postal mail. In democratic governments, free speech, a free press, and a just judiciary are givens; in Zimbabwe all of these things are being suppressed.

Zimbabwe is in its eight year of economic decline that has many manufacturing companies downsizing if not closing shop, and has seen a drastic cut in GDP along with soaring unemployment that threatens to culminate in national protests. Despite it all, the government has continued to turn a blind eye and instead is beefing up its arsenal of intimidation and repression.

Those who have spoken out have been threatened. Early last month, prominent Zimbabwean musician Hosiah Chipanga was forced to cancel a scheduled performance at Workers Day celebrations organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), after he received death threats over his mobile phone.

Chipanga, famous for the commentaries in his songs about the situation in Zimbabwe, told the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) that he received threatening phone calls two days before he was due to perform at the May Day celebration at Gwanzura Stadium.

"The anonymous callers would ask me if I still valued my life. I then decided against proceeding with the performance for my own personal security," said Chipanga, indicating that despite the threats he will continue to sing about the many social, economic and political problems.

"I preach my gospel through music. Human threats will not deter me and I will continue to express myself through music in order to help Zimbabwe," he said.

Last year, reported that Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) agents warned Chipanga to stop singing anti-Mugabe songs during a musical gala to honor Zimbabwe's fallen heroes held in the Midlands city of Kwekwe.

According to, a top South African DJ and music promoter, Cleophas Monyepao (known as DJ Cleo), was banned from performing in Zimbabwe because he had "uttered bad things" about President Mugabe.

Other artists have continued to tell Zimbabwe's story from outside its orders. Internationally renowned graphic artist Chaz Maviyane Davies is one of the most outspoken artists against the dearth of human rights, freedom of expression and information. On his Web site, Davies commented about his work: "Over the years I have tried to use images and ideas to cut through complacency and apathy while trying to raise consciousness about an array of social issues from discrimination and human rights to health and the environment. Creating an alternative vision as my expression in a pervading regressive body politic has never been easy, but design is my weapon and therein lies the challenge that I call 'creative defiance.'"

Chimurenga music guru, Thomas Mapfumo, is viewed by some as a national hero for his combative style of music, which includes singing theme songs for the revolution. Mapfumo, who hailed the new political dispensation in 1980, sang songs praising the new leaders but soon turned his wrath on them after realizing they were falling into greed and corruption. In 1989, he sang "Corruption" which decried 'rottenness,' and the following year,"Jojo," warning people not to be used by politicians.

In the late 1990s Mapfumo focused his attention on corrupt leaders in Zimbabwe whom he felt had let down the electorate, and his songs were taken off the air. This was especially so for those from his 1999 album, "Chimurenga Explosion," most notably "Disaster," which was prophetic about the current situation in Zimbabwe and the launch of the violent land redistribution program. After a series of threats against him and the banning of his music, Mapfumo and his family went into voluntary exile in the United States.

When all has been said and done, how does Cont Mhlanga want to be remembered?

"I want to be remembered for being able to inspire one person to bring power to the people. I feel that people are not governing, they are not part of the world community in shaping their own future," he said.

By speaking fearlessly about the censorship of artists, Mhlanga may inspire more than one person when fear is no longer a barrier to freedom in Zimbabwe.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.