Artists persecuted for raising voices

HARARE - Faced with a vibrant arts industry which pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with controversial political and social issues, the state has turned to a tool it has relied on for decades — repression.

The recent banning of No Voice No Choice, a play by actor Tafadzwa Muzondo, is just the latest in a long string of cases where artists have faced harsh treatment, including arrest, from the state.

No Voice No Choice, is the latest arts production to be banned in recent days by the police.

Zimbabwe’s Board of Censors banned the play alleging it was against the spirit of national healing, “incites religious animosity and cannot be performed in Zimbabwe’s politically pregnant environment”.

The board said the play “is too direct and people can easily read into it — the insinuation of the words and messages and associate them with certain individuals and institutions as well as the vulgar and obscene language used”.

One of the victims of state repression in the arts industry is veteran playwright and former permanent secretary in the Education ministry Stephen Chifunyise.

He has written several peace-building plays and some have been censored or banned completely.

Chifunyise’s play, Rituals, which looked at the complex process of healing and reconciliation in communities following a period of intense violence, was banned by the police.

Hapless actors were detained. Chifunyise has refused to give up.

He has since written another peace-building play, Heal the Wounds, which he says is meant to create debate on ways of healing wounds of political violence.

Other examples galore.

Controversial playwright Cont Mhlanga’s The Good President was banned in 2007.

Raisedon Baya and Chris Mlalazi’s satirical play, The Crocodile of Zambezi, had the cast and crew reportedly tortured by police in 2008 while last year, Bulawayo playwright Bhekumusa Moyo had his Gukurahundi satirical play titled 1983,

The Years Before and After, banned by the police a week before its showcase.

Mhlanga said the continued persecution of artists throughout the country showed Zanu PF’s determination to close out independent voices from marginalised communities.

“The police are working on instructions from Zanu PF because they think these plays will poison the electorate. It is a poor strategy,” said Mhlanga.

National Arts Merit Awards nominees Joyce Mpofu and Mandla Moyo were arrested in Centenary, Mashonaland Central Province, as they toured with the Rooftop Promotions’ play Rituals early this year.

Guzha remarked then: “In the past weeks the Rituals cast has spent more than 24 hours locked at police stations in Centenary and Bindura alone. But each time we have emerged mentally and spiritually stronger with firmer and unshakeable resolve to stand with our craft.”

Guzha, who has produced most of Chifunyise’ plays including Rituals and Heal the Wounds, believes now is the time for artists to have solidarity.

He said while he blamed lack of direction within the arts industry, critically, “the industry has been infiltrated and people are doing politics of patronage”.

“We must ring-fence ourselves. What has become frightening is how certain artists have decided to embrace politicians by giving them positions of influence in their boards or as guests at festivals.”

The artists’ problem with state censorship spills even into art exhibitions as shown in 2010 when Bulawayo artist Owen Maseko’s paintings which depicted the 1980s Matabeleland massacres were banned.

The ministry of Home Affairs banned his work under the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, with a notice in the Government Gazette reading: “The exhibition at the Bulawayo Art Gallery of effigies, paintings and words written on the walls portraying the Gukurahundi era is a tribal-biased event and as such is prohibited.”

Maseko’s work is made of paintings and effigies that show the harsh reality of the Gukurahundi, as well as the decades of oppression and violence that have characterised Zimbabwe.

While in March 2010 the work was shown at the Bulawayo Art Gallery, Maseko was arrested and charged with violating Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which punishes anyone who insults or undermines the authority of the President.

Speaking about the ban Maseko said: “As an artist for the sake of the whole artist community, I have to challenge the ban."

“There is no way we can function as artists if we cannot be free to express ourselves. The most important thing as artists is that we need to be relevant to the society we are living in.”

Musicians also rank among the most affected by purported “bans” and censorship.

Some like Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata, and Raymond Majongwe have had some of their songs blacklisted.

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