Cont (short for Continueloving) Mhlanga is the Zimbabwean playwright who has risked his life challenging the regime of President Robert Mugabe. His plays have questioned state ideologies, policies and corruption for over 25 years, with his most recent play The Good President (which presents a fictionalised account of a ruthless dictator) being banned in the state of Zimbabwe. On the 26th November 2008 his commitment to freedom and human rights was recognised and he was awarded the ArtVenture Freedom to Create Prize. ArtVenture is an organisation that aims to use the power of the arts to improve the lives of people living in some of the world’s hardest countries. We were therefore honoured that Cont could take the time to sit and talk with Flavour Magazine.
How do you feel winning the ArtVenture Freedom to Create prize?
I feel deeply humbled by this award. It gives my theatre work – as a voice for protecting and defending human rights – international recognition and it energizes my freedom to create more work under such depressing conditions currently prevailing in Zimbabwe…. it is heart warming and encouraging to know that the world at least notices even small fighters; like us creative artists who stand up against such heavy weight human rights violators such as Cde Mugabe.
Do you feel winning the award will help bring your plays international exposure?
Maybe, maybe not….However, I feel that it will make it easy for me to enter into exciting and rewarding collaborative production processes with international theatre practitioners.
Have any offers come in yet to produce The Good President overseas?
Not yet. But two theatre directors in the United States, one in the UK and one in Australia have asked me to email them the script of The Good President and they hope to at least organise some public readings of the play once their current workload is over.
How did you get into playwriting?
I got into theatre by accident. I owned a karate club, The Blue Circle Sankunkai Dragons, in my home township community. Sometime in 1980 my students and I found the community hall booked by the National Theatre Organisation to run a week long theatre skills workshop for urban township youths to encourage them to engage in theatre and dramatic works….I paid my last 25 cents and went into my first ever theatre workshop and joined 45 other people who had come. By the end of the week I was one of the only six that remained in that workshop to the end. That is how I caught drama fire!… After that workshop I wanted my karate students to act plays but every time we started to rehearse a published play they got terribly bored….so I sat down and started writing and in eight days finished my first script ‘Ngakade Ngisazi’ which was published by The College Press the following year as a novel.
Why did you decided to use playwriting as your tool to challenge Mugabe?
It’s the only art form that I enjoyed doing…I noticed that people were not happy with the direction the government was going from as far back as 1983 but I also noticed that they were very afraid to discuss their concerns freely and in public. It is that fear that my plays were aiming to address by putting their concerns, worries and fears in my first play Workshop Negative in 1984. It was a challenge not to Cde Mugabe but to all his members of government. However when corruption increased and Mugabe protected the corrupt ministers and kept recycling them in government it became his weakness and my plays started to focus on him as leader of his corrupt government. I saw him as a president who promotes corruption and human rights abuses.
In all the time you have been writing plays, have you seen a positive change in the regime?
No they have not changed for the better, they have gotten worse. Positive change has taken place amongst the audiences and communities as I encourage them to break the silence and culture of fear and use their right to hold Cde Mugabe and his government accountable. As more people openly spoke out and challenged his governance, he has reacted more violently making life worse for everyone except those that he is protecting.
Finally, what do you hope that your plays will do for the country of Zimbabwe?
Bring about respect for human rights and good governance as more people become aware that they have the right as civil society, to hold those that they elect to public offices accountable.
Words by Karla Williams
Photography by Philimon Bulaway