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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 August, 2004, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
Theatre - Zimbabwe's last free speech?
By Gordon Glyn-Jones
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

Zimbabwean actors
Audiences for theatre performances have shot up since the Daily News shut down
In world terms, the theatrical scene in Zimbabwe is so small as to be almost insignificant - but it reflects a society that has, for all the wrong reasons, grabbed the news headlines internationally.

Since the Zimbabwean government introduced tough media laws in 2002, theatre has taken on a new and edgy role.

It is a place where entertainment can express, yet mask, deep-rooted anger; where in the face of a dying culture, humour and humanity can be tended like glowing coals, ready for igniting in the future. And since the media crackdown, audiences have started to grow exponentially.

"Ever since the Daily News closed down, we have had audiences of 150 per day," Daves Guzha, producer of Rooftop Promotions, who perform at Theatre in the Park in central Harare, told BBC World Service's Focus On Africa magazine.

Hard life

Guzha's play Super Patriots and Morons has been seen as a watershed piece of theatre, as it criticises the ruling elite. And raising a moral voice amongst those who might be most corrupt appears to be the main goal of the Harare-based theatre crews.

He has also just finished filming the third series of Waiters, which takes a satirical look at the hardships of life in Harare.

Zimbabwe's government-owned The Herald newspaper
All newspapers in Zimbabwe are now government-controlled
The television show is based on the stage plays written by Stephen Chifunyise, who for many years was secretary for education, sport and culture.

The sitcom continues to be shown on local television despite strict censorship laws, although Super Patriots and Morons has now been banned.

Guzha points out that Zimbabwe is frustrating, corrupt and nepotistic.

He argues that for him, theatre is a business and he has to face the daily struggle for survival. He lives in a world that will have to take a long hard look at itself once Mr Mugabe fades away - his removal will not be a panacea of all of the country's problems.

Generally speaking, Zimbabwe's black community is split between the Shona group from Mashonaland in the north and the Ndebele from Matebeleland in the south. Whilst united as one country, this divide is seldom forgotten.

For Zimbabwe to reach peace, the animosity between the Shona and the Ndebele also has to be addressed.

In Matabeleland, most power-wielding civil servants are Shona-speaking, which is highly resented, and the legacy of the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s still hurts. More recently, Ndebeles have been subjected to worse food shortages than their northern counterparts.

Revolutionary approach

But within this atmosphere there thrives a true hero of resistance theatre - Cont Mhlanga, who runs Amakhosi Theatre Company - a man of vision and seemingly inexhaustible dedication to his cause.

"After the 1980s, we needed to move on from protest theatre," he told Focus On Africa.

"We needed to give the people tools and skills to make action for change.

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe's government is the subject of a number of satirical swipes
"No longer was it: whose fault is it? Now it was: it is your fault for electing this man and here's how you can get rid of him."

Mhlanga has pioneered a system where he takes theatre workshops out to the rural areas, separates young talent, teaches them theatrical methods and content.

Then he gives them specific guidelines about how to take a show into their areas.

This way, within three weeks, the message is vibrating further and further, which is far more effective than if they had just gone and done one show in the region.

"We have been banned," he said.

"We have been beaten. We are under surveillance 24 hours a day.

"But things must be said. We don't say it because we are foolish or because we don't like our government or our country. We say it because our future hangs in the balance."

Zimbabwe outlaws satirical play
11 May 04  |  Africa
Zimbabwe songs struggle to be heard
14 Feb 02  |  Entertainment

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