Prologue: Promoting Local Culture to Repress Dissent

 Amakhosi Arts Academy

Amakhosi Arts Academy

The Paradoxical Strategy of Zimbabwe’s Information Ministry Under Jonathan Moyo, 2000-2004

Prologue of thesis presented by Amar C. Bakshi in July 2006

Every morning at 9 a.m., the twenty students of the Amakhosi Arts Academy in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe line up on the stage of an outdoor amphitheater to stretch their physical and vocal limits in an intensive three-hour workout.  Afterwards they sit down to write original songs, choreograph dances, develop ideas for documentary videos, and design their own theater productions.  When classes end at 5 p.m., the exhausted students return to varied home lives.  Some sit down to dinner with their parents.  A few feed their own young children.  Others have no immediate family left alive and turn to friends or relatives for something to eat.

Once hailed as the breadbasket of Africa, by 2000 Zimbabwe could no longer feed itself.  Since then its economy has contracted by a third, “a far worse decline than was seen during full-scale civil wars in other African countries.”[1]  Fuel rations ran out, inflation soared, and business ground to a halt.  Unemployment among youth in the Amakhosi students’ 18 to 24 year-old age group grew from 50% to 80%.[2]  At the time and in this context, no Zimbabwean teenager would have dreamed of supporting himself through art.  Today, however, things have changed.

One man transformed the prospects for aspiring local artists.  In 2000, President Robert Mugabe made Jonathan Moyo, a former political science professor, Zimbabwe’s new Minister of Information.  Once in office, Moyo turned the government’s TV and radio monopoly into a platform for local artists.  He produced “cultural galas,” which gave new musicians a chance to tour the country with the state providing room, board, and a salary.  Moyo even helped record, market, and distribute twenty new music albums during his years in office.  His ministry invested ZW$2 billion (official exchange rate: US$2.4 million; unofficial: $660,000 in 2004) in movie directors and scriptwriters between 2000-2004 to help them come up with documentaries and television dramas.[3]  And in 2001, Amakhosi’s new video production studio received ZW$500,000 (official: US$10,000; unofficial: US$6,250) from the Ministry of Information to produce a new TV show called Amakorokoza, which featured the talents of its students.[4]  This was the first grant Amakhosi ever received from the government.

This is puzzling because Amakhosi has never been, and still is not, a friend of the government.  Since 1980, its founder Cont Mhlanga has been one of the strongest voices to oppose the regime.  As one writer put it, "The mere mention of his [Mhlanga’s] name [has always] invoked thoughts of a growing band of young and talented artists seeking, against all odds –including being monitored by those men in “dark glasses” – to expose ZANU-PF [ruling party] evils through song, dance and poetry."[5]

Mhlanga’s 1986 satirical play Workshop Negative was an internationally acclaimed satire about the corruption and hypocrisy of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.  Again in 2000, Mhlanga launched citizen mobilization workshops in rural areas, using community-based theater to empower citizens.  Mhlanga has long urged his audiences and his students to become proactive citizens and reclaim Zimbabwe from what he considers a cruel and callous regime.  Why, then, is he getting money from this regime?  Why are many of his arts students grateful to the government for giving them the chance to realize their creative dreams?  Why is the government supporting a generation of young artists and filmmakers who will likely use their voices to covertly and openly criticize the ruling party?

These questions became particularly poignant when, arriving in Harare, Zimbabwe on July 4, 2005, I witnessed the results of the recent “Operation Murambatsvina,” (“Drive Out the Trash”) campaign.  The operation was the ruling party’s most destructive attempt to quash urban opposition in two decades.  Army and police brigades marched unannounced into urban communities and tore down homes.  It is not clear why; perhaps it was a punishment for voting against ZANU-PF or an attempt to prevent popular uprisings in the future.[6]  Brigades gave inhabitants one hour’s warning before pushing them out onto the streets.  With winter approaching, 550,000 Zimbabweans out of a population of 12 million lost their homes.  They were transferred to guarded displacement camps and were locked within while police patrolled the perimeter.[7]

I lived for three weeks with a journalist in the city.  On my third day several Zimbabwean reporters invited me to join them as they snuck into a displaced persons camp.  They said few international eyes had ever seen these camps in person or through photos.  I took up their offer and we drove together in an old Red Cross van past heaps of brick, concrete, and burnt wood where there were once communities.  We passed through a police checkpoint and then into the shantytown.  Hundreds of women stood in a line.  They had waited all day for sanitation pads.  Old men and young children stood before their new homes, which consisted of open garbage bags stretched thin across scrap metal and wood.  The journalists fanned out and started taking pictures surreptitiously of people surviving off of radishes and children shivering in the cold.

I walked alone until an elderly man in a dark blue three-piece suit caked in dust called me over.  When forced from his home at gunpoint, he had insisted on wearing his best attire, trying to maintain dignity when his life was stripped away.  He said he was a hardworking, respectable man with a son studying engineering in South Africa.  He looked tired as he insisted that he, like others in the camp, were decent people.  State radio broadcasts all said otherwise, describing how “criminal, lazy or insane” urban squatters had been “successfully transplanted to real homes.”[8]

Soon after I left the site that afternoon, the police arrested one of the photojournalists. She was taken to headquarters and interrogated for twelve hours.  Luckily, only her camera was confiscated and she left unharmed. The police told her that the camp was a politically sensitive site and that “journalist spies” had to be stopped from undermining national security.  Back home and safe, eating puffy mealy meal sadza, she joked that people reduced to penury, old homeless men and malnourished children, could hardly threaten the security of a twenty-five-year-old regime.  Nevertheless, as a journalist, she hoped that their broadcast stories and images could inform and empower citizens.

I was compelled by the idea of using representation to counter repression.  Over the next two months, I decided to live and work at Amakhosi Arts Academy teaching documentary video to youth alongside Cont Mhlanga.  Yet each day I wondered why the threatened ZANU-PF government would give cameras to students who form its core political opposition while so anxiously monitoring the images produced.  It is common for repressive regimes to rely on harsh restrictions of media output to solidify power.  But why did Zimbabwe increase creative access at the same time?  This thesis attempts to answer that question, and to make sense of the contradictory experiences that first captured my interest in representation and repression in Zimbabwe today.

Contact Amar for a copy of the full thesis.


[1] Todd Moss and Stewart Patrick, “After Mugabe: Applying Post-Conflict

Recovery lessons to Zimbabwe,” Africa Policy Journal (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard: 2006), 2.

[2] U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook 2000: Zimbabwe, (Washington DC: 2006) http://www.cia.gov/cia/download2000.html.

[3] Over the past decade, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe has skyrocketed from 10% in 1997 to 1000% in 2006. Conversions throughout the thesis are made into the same-year U.S. dollar (USD) equivalent.  Relative to the Zimbabwean dollar at least, the USD has proved relatively stable throughout the years and has not changed too substantially in value.

[4] Zwakele Sayi, “Has Cont Mhlanga Sold Out?” Zimbabwe Standard, July 30, 2002.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to Assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina (United Nations Special Envoy of Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe: 2005), 20.

[7] Ibid, 31.

[8] Ibid, 43.

ZimbabweAmar Bakshi