To what extent did playwright Cont Mhlanga succeed to articulate the socio-economic and political misdemeanours of the government of Zimbabwe through his Sinjalo and Stitsha productions.
Cont MdladlaMhlanga is a retired Zimbabwean playwright who was based in Bulawayo since the 1980s and has been in the arts industry for 36 years. His long stint in the arts sector saw him scoop numerous awards like Prince Claus, from his literary works, productions and directorial debuts. He established Amakhosi Cultural Centre in 1982. The Centre started off as a youth karate club but switched to professional theatre in 1988. From 1988 theAmakhosi Performing Arts Workshop (APAW) produced and toured with theatre plays written and directed by Mhlanga. In 1995 Amakhosi established the country’s first privately owned cultural centre located within the boundaries of the townships in Bulawayo. Mhlanga has written more than 20 plays which includeThe Good President, The End, Sinjalo, Children on Fire, Games and Bombs, The Members and Vikela. Cont has three books to his name. He adapted the popular play,Stitsha to a TV series featuring the late Beater Mangethe.He has directed BamqgibelaEphila and OmunyeUmngcwabo.
Cont Mhlanga’s works carried protest and political themes that bemoaned the socio-political order of the day and to that end some of his works were banned by the government including The Good President and Workshop Negative (Bartlett, 1987). AlthoughThe Good President was presented as a fictional account, its depiction of an African dictator who has ruled his country since 1980 closely mirroring the events in Zimbabwe by then.Mhlangastarred as MtutureliNiekwu in an anti-apartheid movie A World Apart which was released in 1988.He was arrested and briefly detained in May 2006 on the grounds that his plays were anti-government and meant to incite an uprising against the regime of longstanding President Robert Mugabe.Mhlanga also produced Amakorokoza and Sinjalo for ZBC.
It is evident from the short biography of Cont Mhlanga that his contributions to the establishment, growth and development of art in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe is tremendous. His works also contributed immensely to the articulation of the socio-economic misdemeanour of the Zimbabwean government as he dealt with everyday issues as well as drawing inspiration of his works from the current affair. Thus, his works were more of socio-political commentary as well as conscientizing the masses to take action.
Bruce Ndlovu, writing for the Sunday Mail, had this to say, “Few television productions have captured the imagination of Zimbabweans like the Cont Mhlanga-penned Stitsha did when it made its debut on the small screen (Sunday Mail). Stitsha was produced during the golden age of Zimbabwean television and captured a sizable audience with rave reviews. The film showcased the tension and struggle between Thuliplayed by Beater Mangetheand her tough on-screen brother, Mopho. The narrative was hugely Zimbabwean showcasing compelling Zimbabwean stories by Zimbabweans. According to Cont Mhlanga, Stitsha was a product of the turmoil in his own personal and professional life propelled by personal strife and doubt early in his career.
“Stitsha is a painful story because it has a painful back story. NaThuli was my mother and Thuli was me. Her rebellion was meant to represent what I went through trying to be a writer because I was chucked out of home seven times by my father who didn’t believe I could make a living as a writer,” said Mhlanga during an interview with The Sunday Mail. Not only did Stitsha interrogate the challenges that the girl child went through in the backwater of rural Zimbabwe, it also painted a vivid picture of the divorce between tradition and modernity, rural and urban life as well as talent based personal choices versus parental expectations.
During these years Zimbabweans were going through a transition in which rural to urban migration was on the rise and the educated youths were choosing careers totally opposite to what their elders had gone through and expected of their posterity. The elders expected their children to become teachers, headmen, soldiers and nurses. The children on the other hand had discovered talents such as singing, playing football and arts and crafts and desired a career in their respective talented fields. This also became a source of conflicts and the emergence of Stitsha on the television screen was respite for the children, lessons for the parents as well as an awakening to the government for the need to establish centres and programswhose sole purpose was to identify, groom and nurture talent to high performance levels.
The film also highlighted colonial injustice towards the colonized as depicted with the ensuing conflict between NaThuli who had a protracted struggle against a white farmer who had killed her goats for straying. NaThuli revenged her goats by killing the white farmer’s goats when they strayed into her field. Not only where colonial injustices subtly captured through Stitsha, other issues such as racism, tribalism and the conflict between superiority and inferiority complexes were showcased since there was enmity and stigmatization between the Shona and Ndebeles.
“Stitsha was an example of what we call theatre of the poor. We wanted to have music as the centre of the project but we could not afford musical instruments. So instead we went for the African drum. In a sense the drum became a whole orchestra….” Cont Mhlanga (Sunday Mail).
Another of ‘Mhlanga’s films, Sinjalo, was a darling of many as it explored everyday challenges in the life of two friends, Sakamuzi and Foromani. Sakamuzi was a Ndebele while his neighbour and friend, Foromani, was a Zezuru. Through this narrative Cont Mhlanga tried his best to teach the world that both Ndebeles and Shonas could live together as friends with no enmity and prejudice between them. The film came at the backdrop of racial and tribal tensions in society and in the government structures.
In as much as Cont has contributed tremendously to the film industry, championing the human rights cause as well as articulating the socio-economic and political misdemeanours of the government of Zimbabwe through his productions, much of his contributions are shadowed by his fragile and confrontational temerity. Cont is short tempered, rude and vindictive at times and these tenets normally portrays him more as a dictator than a champion of the people. Perhaps his militant approach is a result of his earlier training in karate as well as the post-independence traumatic disturbances that rocked Matabeleland. During the production of Stitsha Cont had an altercation with Montrose Studios and this resulted in the show being withdrawn.
“Montrose Studios was hell for us. Even nowadays when I pass near there I feel like I’m going to hell. You would get there and hear the people that work there saying that we should get our young actors away from them because they smell bad.We had a young man called Thula Dlamini who had such a passion for TV. He would even sleep at Montrose just to get the necessary know-how. They hated him more than most because he had dreadlocks,” Mhlanga said.
As a show of defiance Mhlanga showcased his fight with Montrose Studios in the last episode of Stitsha.“The murder scene at the end of Stitsha was intentional. I used that scene as a metaphor. Mopho stood for not only for my father but also Montrose Studios which I felt stood in the way of creativity and therefore needed to die. So the success of Stitsha was not the success of Cont but the success of young kids from the townships who felt that they should get a platform to tell their story,” Mhlanga said.Cont has not come of age, in February 2018 he rebuked the minister’s aide after he expressed the urgency of their visit. “Why did the minister come here in the first place, if you are now telling me that the minister has to rush to Gwanda. Minister, please take your boys and get out of here,” he charged.
It is also worth noting that Cont Mhlanga and a couple others formed their own party ZAPU 2000 and contested in presidential elections which they dismally lost. This also dented his reputation as a human rights defender and portrayed him as much as a politician who has used his arts background as a springboard to power. “In 2008, Mhlanga contested as an independent candidate in local government elections in Lupane and won. However, the same Mhlanga soon dumped the community. He failed to run a village and now wants to operate a provincial radio station. What guarantee is there that Mhlanga will not ditch the station?” One participant asked while fighting for Cont and Skyz Metro FM’s application for a radio licence.
The public continue to quiz his legitimacy considering that he spent almost 35 years fighting the government, yet he had the temerity to join hands with the same government agencies such as Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) in producing his works such as Stitsha and Amakorokoza. His final move before retirement was to bid and win a licence to operate a community radio station – Skyz Metro FM in Bulawayo and The Breeze FM in Victoria Falls. Every contribution he has ever made is overshadowed by sleeping and dining with the enemy and at the end of the day it appears more as lip service, window dressing and mere theatrics meant to attract attention and public sympathy while a person pursues a well protracted personal agenda.