Obituary — Cont Mhlanga was relentlessly committed to arts development and free speech

Zimbabwean Dramatist Continueloving “Cont” Mhlanga died in Bulawayo on Monday (1 August), aged 64. The highly regarded theatre director also made his mark as screenwriter, actor, arts manager and broadcaster. Banned and arrested by Robert Mugabe’s government, he was also fearlessly committed to free speech.

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city was a dusty feeling and an expressive ambience. I was crashing floors, chatting up editors, looking for my spiritual fit on my first visit to the city. Some days I approached a random flat, for the Court in its name, and asked the first resident I saw what papers one needed to become a magistrate. I was just as provincial when I pulled up at Amakhosi Cultural Centre, asked to see Cont Mhlanga and told him about my struggles with getting published. “You are important, my friend. You are talking to Cont Mhlanga. That must tell you, you are important,” Mhlanga sarcastically reassured me, told me to stand on my confidence, and to do what I had to do. It was an attitude I would remember well. 

Playwright, actor, theatre director, arts administrator and broadcaster Continueloving Mdladla Mhlanga died in Bulawayo on Monday (1 August), aged 64. Mhlanga was admitted at United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH) 10 days before his death. “Whilst his situation seemed to stabilise, it took a different turn in the last three days,” National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ) director Nicholas Moyo said in a statement. As a dramatist, Mhlanga had few peers, with more than 20 plays, including Citizen Mind, Nansi Lendoda, Ngizozula Lawe, The Good President and Workshop Negative. He also created the popular TV shows, Amakorokoza and Sinjalo for ZBC in the early 2000s. Banned, arrested and surveilled by the Robert Mugabe administration, Mhlanga was approvingly noted for his commitment to free speech. 

Banned, arrested and surveilled by the Robert Mugabe administration, Mhlanga was approvingly noted for his commitment to free speech

As a Bulawayo figure, Mhlanga was an institution synonymous with the city like Highlanders FC, Lovemore Majaivana or Pathisa Nyathi. Bulawayo City Council (BCC) mourned a “visionary and pioneer who spearheaded many projects in the creative arts industry” in a statement. Mayor Solomon Mguni noted the culturally immersed and politically engaged director’s achievements, including a 2002 civic honors award given in recognition for his role in the development of Bulawayo theatre. “This was in recognition to the fact that the community theatre became world-renowned and was a great tool in the marketing of the culture and inspirations of the people of Bulawayo,” Mguni said. 

Mhlanga also dabbled in politics, forming Zapu 2000, serving as an independent councillor in Lupane during Zimbabwe’s GNU era. He retired from the arts to become a Lupane rancher in 2016. Back in his home village, he still sought out talent and shared opportunities with his people. He was occasionally back in Bulawayo for business and political engagements, speaking for people back in the village, particularly their preferred resolutions to the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s. An administrator of many hats, Mhlanga had recently moved into broadcasting, sitting on the Fairtalk Communications board that gave Bulawayo its first private radio station, Skyz Metro, and was now making good on a free-to-air television licence with the imminent launch of Keyona TV.

The karateka who hung his belt for drama  

Barely into his his 20s, Mhlanga formed Dragons Karate Club with his friends. “His aim was too keep the tough township youth off mischief. He was a no-nonsense disciplinarian,” recalled Lenox Mhlanga, a TV presenter who worked on some Amakhosi projects. One day in 1979, the karatekas turned up at Stanley’s Hall in Makokoba and found a theatre workshop in progress. They sat through the theatre session and, in the years that followed, upskilled and diverted from karate to drama. 

While Amakhosi Productions, the successor club which would go on to define Mhlanga’s legacy, had its roots in this accidental revelation, the former athletes immediately understood their assignment. They wanted their new drama club to be the organic pulse of Makokoba, Bulawayo’s oldest township and most important cultural hub. “We wanted what we did to be of significance to a local audience, and they should be able to recognise themselves in what we were doing,” Mhlanga said in Southern Eye publication on the occasion of Bulawayo’s centenary celebrations in 2014. “So the lines in the plays were to a large extent based on what I heard people saying and the way they talked, in the workplace, in bars, and so on.” 

Mhlanga’s plays took on colonialism and also faced up to new evils by the Zimbabwean government. Workshop Negative was banned in 1986, and The Good President got the him arrested in 2006 for criticising Robert Mugabe’s government

Mhlanga’s plays for the travelling group took on colonialism but also faced up to new evils by the Zimbabwean government. A seemingly innocuous early choice was the production of Ndebele plays, beginning with Ngizozula Lawe in 1984. Community theatre in the mother tongue gives governments with spots to hide something to worry about. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s imprisonment concerned the Kikuyu staging of Ngaahika Ndeenda while The Honourable MP playwright Gonzo H. Musengezi allegedly opened himself up for surveillance for his grassroots theatre in the 2000s. It was, however, Mhlanga’s subsequent plays in English that got him in trouble with government. Workshop Negative was banned in 1986, and The Good President got the dramatist arrested in 2006 for criticising Robert Mugabe’s government. 

Cultural midwife, people’s hero

An accomplished artist, Mhlanga will nevertheless be most remembered as a philoprogenitive cultural midwife. The institution he built, Amakhosi Cultural Centre, is active in both talent development and art production, with 30 high school graduates enrolled for music, dance, theatre, video production and arts management every year. Its alumni famously include Iyasa, Edith weUtonga, AK, Sandra Ndebele, Beater Mangethe and many others. 

The outpouring of homage from peers, students and admirers continues. “The death of Cont Mhlanga like watching a whole library of Zimbabwe’s arts and culture burning down… and yet we still find time and space to celebrate this giant from Lupane,” Fairtalk Communications board chairperson Zwelibanzi Ndlovu said in a statement.

Mhlanga will be most remembered as a philoprogenitive cultural midwife. The institution he built, Amakhosi Cultural Centre, is active in both talent development and art production

“How do you exit at this most crucial moment of times?” veteran dramatist and director Dave Guzha wrote on Facebook. “They don’t make men like you anymore! You were made of sterner stuff!! Fearless! Humble! Noble in your method of challenging dissent. A provocateur,” said Guzha. Amakhosi alumni recalled the made who put them on stages, and an intense director who was all in on his productions. 

While Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa has announced a state-assisted funeral, some artists and politicians are calling for Mhlanga to be declared a national hero. “If I had the power, I would declare him a national hero because he has contributed a lot to the arts industry of our country,” said celebrated poet Albert Nyathi. Urban-grooves era artist MC Picnic concurred with an open letter to government. 

Zanu PF’s central committee is exclusively privileged with naming national heroes, leading to many controversial choices in the past, and a growing perception that burial at the National Shrine is a “defilement,” as one of Nyathi’s Facebook interlocutors pointed out. For the central committee to confer the hero status, recommendations are  usually made from the party’s regional structures. There may be an opportunity for Mhlanga’s case to tabled, with Zanu PF’s Lupane chair Permanent Sibanda strongly arguing hero status for the dramatist.

Mhlanga was born in 1958 at Fatima Mission in Lupane, and moved between Lupane and Bulawayo for his primary and secondary education. He is survived by wife Thembi and six children. According to his brother, Stix Mhlanga, a memorial service will be held at Amakhosi Theatre before Cont is laid to rest at his rural home in Lupane.

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