The Last FrontLine

The Pan Project

Lady Sqanda, a leading female chanter the ZimDancehall scene performs at Zimbabwe Youth Festival, 2012.

Lady Sqanda, a leading female chanter the ZimDancehall scene performs at Zimbabwe Youth Festival, 2012.

It’s five  o'clock on a Monday evening. Most people in Harare’s central business district are on their way home.  But there are hoards of young people streaming into The Book Cafe, a popular live music venue in the city. It feels like it's  break of dawn for most of these young people as they get ready for the Open Mic session, a platform that brings together undiscovered talent. On the other side of the city, Samm Monro, popularly known as  Cde Fatso,  is pacing back and forth in his office getting ready for a press conference of the fourth edition of the Shoko Festival- a festival he founded. In other parts of Harare the Zimbabwe International Film Festival (ZIFF) is getting ready for the 17th edition while in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, the Intwasa Festival, a cultural show case is having final touches for its 6th edition.

The late MizChif, one of the pioneering hiphop artists in Zimbabwe, performing at Shoko 2011

The late MizChif, one of the pioneering hiphop artists in Zimbabwe, performing at Shoko 2011

Zimbabweans living in major towns have seen a rise in a variety of arts festivities. In a country where meaningful entertainment is often scarce and freedom of expression systematically thwarted, these festivals have become alternative platforms for self expression. The performing arts events are just a few examples of growing community of voices confronting Zimbabwe’s socio-political establishment. They have attracted thousands of audiences from all walks of life nurturing various forms of subcultures through their platforms. Where political rhetoric and elections have failed to redress the country’s problems and the media has been systematically incapacitated, the arts might be the last frontline in the battle for free expression.

Check out this photo story on one of Africa's biggest festival.

Samm Monro captures the elevated function of the arts, “A  festival like Shoko is not just a festival for festival’s sake. It is a festival that goes beyond the arts and concerts, it is a living laboratory for activism  and social change”. A view that is  shared by Tsitsi Dangarembga, a celebrated  novelist and filmmaker, “The role of an artist, in adding value to society, is to show people things that are happening around them in a way that people who are not artists have no time or desire to engage with”. 

Shrinking Freedom of Expression

Patrice Naiambana in The Man Who Committed Thought, (Hifa 2011)

Patrice Naiambana in The Man Who Committed Thought, (Hifa 2011)

Even though Zimbabwe has laws that profess sanctity of freedom of  expression, there are countless others that repress it. In recent years the enforcement of these laws has systematically made it difficult for independent media to grow. According to the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), freedom of expression, although a guaranteed right in Zimbabwe’s constitution, has had its enforcement hindered by the continued existence of laws that infringe on how citizens express themselves.  “AIPPA, BSA, POSA and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act have been used as weapons of choice to repress the right to free expression in Zimbabwe”, the MMPZ noted. The shrinking of freedom of expression through draconian media laws has set Zimbabwe as one of the most difficult places for media to operate. Zimbabwe is ranked as number 135 out of 180 in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

A group performing at Music Crossroads bands competition

A group performing at Music Crossroads bands competition

Despite repressive media laws and a predominantly state controlled media, at least a handful of small to medium arts festivals have sprouted across the country over the past decade. The nature and contents of these festivals have been a head-on confrontation with a wide range of issues. Topics around quality, social justice and human rights, though very sensitive in Zimbabwe, have been some of the key themes in these festivals. According to Daniel Maposa, the director of the Protest Arts International Festival (PAIF), their work mobilizes people to confront oppression and injustices. “ Our art raises awareness of injustices that are perpetrated particularly against marginalized communities. It also stimulates , citizen participation and dialogue on community issues that are of concern to the society.”

Counter Measures

These events have not gone without attracting the attention of the authorities. Operating in Zimbabwe has increasingly become difficult. According to Daniel Maposa, “Zimbabwe is a closed society where freedom of expression and association is limited. Particularly works of art that challenge the establishment face a lot of barriers that include censorship.”  The regulatory restrains have been tightening in recent years. Bringing foreign acts has even become more difficult for event organizers.  Samm Monro who is in the final stages of organizing the fourth edition of the Shoko Festival noted that, “To put up this kind of event you need clearance from at least six government agencies.” These measures have been considered bureaucratic, “ It makes it difficult for free expression to flourish in Zimbabwe” remarked Monro. 

In May 2014, the SouthAfrican afro-pop group Freshlyground were barred by the State from performing at Zimbabwe’s biggest festival, the Harare International Festival of the Arts. This might have been the Zimbabwean government’s reaction to  Freshlyground’s 2010 collaboration with the cartoonist Zipiro on ‘Chicken to Change’ a video mocking President Mugabe for his long hold onto power.

The MMPZ has raised concern over the increasing throttling of free expression with the enforcement of the media laws encroaching into social media and the arts. “Over the years, MMPZ has recorded cases of harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests and assaults on media personnel. This is in addition to previous arrests of citizens for airing their views on public platforms such as Facebook as well as artistically. We have seen such approaches being used to stifle opinion and ultimately, muzzle citizens voices.” said the MMPZ spokesperson. 

It remains to be seen whether these platforms will continue to flourish as alternative platforms for voicing community concerns and unifying people or they will succumb to the ever repressive hand of the government.