Thursday, 27 August 2015

Theatre and Arts ‘Must Remain to Be With the People’


Benefits of freedom of expression to peace, democracy and national development in Transformative Theater.

A presentation to the Edzai Isu Arts Project, Transformative Theater Training Workshop,
Zimbabwe Hall, Highfields, Harare, Zimbabwe
Thursday 27 August 2015,

By Takura Zhangazha*

Convener and Director of Edzai Isu Arts Project Cde Tafadzwa Muzondo and the facilitators of this very important meeting on Transformative Theater and its relevance to freedom of expression,
The facilitators of the specific training that this meeting is undertaking with the support of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA)

The artists here present and among them I must include Cde Jingo James and Mai Masango with whom I have had a long association when together we were involved in organizing community driven theater and drama on the importance of broadcasting and community radio stations for development in Zimbabwe,

Comrades, colleagues and friends,
I have to thank you for the invitation to one of the oldest townships in Harare, Highfields, where arguably  the mustard seed of freedom of expression, association and assembly were initially sown by our nationalist heroes. Like Mbare, Makokoba, Sakubva, this township was witness to the first expressions of anti-colonial nationalism through, song, written word, transformative theater and other cultural activities that helped fortify the ideological beginnings of the struggles for our national independence. 

I have made reference to the somewhat religious term mustard seed because it is an historical fact that many of our African Pentecostal churches emanated from this important township.  These would include ZAOGA among others and their contemporary offshoots across the iconic Harare River, the Mukuvisi. 

It is the historically binding understanding of the democratic significance of freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information at urban grassroots level that not only brings us together but also helps to explain our understanding of our contemporary realities. Political, religious and cultural practices exercised with the stubborn intentions of exercising the right to  freedom of expression and association shaped our understanding of not only our struggles but also of our human development challenges.  

And I need here to therefore add what should be a truism.  There is no single nationalist, late or living who can claim that they had no influence culture  in relation to education, musical, theatrical activities into coming into full liberation struggle consciousness.  Indeed Marxism and Communism were to help militarise the struggle but we owe it to the broader cultural expressions of our identity in its unified but diverse forms that we came to understand freedom not only in its redemptive fullness but its pragmatic import for our own betterment as a people. 

It is in this context that the artistes here present have to place themselves. Not that they are war veterans or political national heroes leaders but more because we must understand the historical significance of our right to freedom of expression as is now universally given. 

Even the topic of this presentation, where it relates to national development and the role of freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom cannot skirt this historical fact. 
Therefore when we talk of freedom of expression and its benefit to national development we are essentially talking about our past, present and future. There are therefore no PhDs required here. Just our collective understanding of who we think we are as a people, country and as citizens.

To this end our theater, music, novels, paintings and all other forms of artistic expression are of the utmost importance. They all help to define what can be referred to as our national character across political economic and social spectrums. It is this binding and democratic national character that then helps keep us at peace with each other and assists us in our collective understanding of what our national development should look like. 
But there are many contemporary challenges to this definition of our national character and national consciousness. 

This is because freedom of expression has been relegated to the periphery of our national values. Indeed it is found explicitly recognized in the new constitution’s Bill of Rights but faces the monumental tasks of overcoming the unfortunate cultural perception that it remains a privilege and not a right.  That is why it is still a criminal office in our statute books to express yourselves as artistes in a manner that is deemed to compromise national security or malign the office of the president and various other government institutions. Or even send what is viewed as a malicious letter, text or voice call to another citizen.

This is why there remains a culture of not just caution, but fear and self censorship among even specialized practitioners of freedom of expression such as theater companies, journalists and musicians.  Not to say there are no exceptions to the general rule but these are too far between have a broader and consistent national impact on this negative aspect to our national development agenda. 

So there are key tasks to mitigating this that must come from important theater companies and collectives such as yourselves.  Initially we must learn to believe in freedom of expression as a key aspect of development.  Even where it becomes uncomfortable or causes consternation, it should just generally be a given that we all have this important human right. 

Secondly artistes must combine their belief and support of this right with that of seeking the protection of not only the law but the people from being hindered in their professional work.  This means artistes must demonstrate not only professional integrity but also, as the late national hero Maurice Nyagumbo used to say, ‘must remain to be with the people’. 

Thirdly, in order for important historical knowledge of the development of theater and its importance to development, there must be continued organic knowledge production about the work being done by theater companies such as yourselves. In other words, plays have to be written before they are acted, recorded where they are acted, and safely stored in libraries and learning institutions for posterity or the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next.

Fourthly, there must be active collaboration between all freedom of expression professionals (FOXP) to defend their right to work without undemocratic, undue and unnecessary state interference and in the best public interests of our democratic national consciousness.  Journalists, theater companies, musicians and television actors/producers have to find this common ground or else the state will continue to defiant it negatively for them.  Or ignore them altogether as has been the case with the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry Report of last year.
In conclusion, we must have a firm understanding that our liberation struggles, our post independence development are all predicated on the right of the people to initially express themselves about their grievances, pain, joys and successes.  We should never lose sight or let go of this historical fact in determining our democratic national consciousness.
Thank you comrades.

*Takura Zhangazha speaks here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)