Political theatre rattles ruling party

Playwrights remain defiant in the face of growing government intimidation and arrests.
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 in 2008.

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 was unsuccessful.

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 officers.

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 lieutenants.

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 remain defiant.

And the authorities have stood up and listened.

“Because we are seeing the arrests and the bans, it means we are saying something,” said Raisedon Baya, an award-winning playwright whose productions have fallen victim to political censure.

“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 authorities.

“Protest theatre 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. – IWPR

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