Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
By Stanley Kwenda
In September 2008, the Global Political Agreement (GPA) was greeted with hope by many Zimbabweans. Along with a host of critical reforms, they thought it would bring an end to years of media and artistic censorship and lead to greater freedom of expression. However, more than two years down the line, that particular hope seems to be fading away – illustrated by the continued arrest, harassment and intimidation of journalists and artists.
Over the past three decades, censorship has become a repressive fact of life in Zimbabwe – with the situation worsening drastically since 2000 as the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) regime found itself facing a genuine threat to its political pre-eminence. As restrictions tightened, few dared to speak – or paint, draw and sing – out against ZANU-PF and President Mugabe’s rule. Zimbabweans from all walks of life learned how to censor themselves. Everyone had to – and sadly still has to – look around before speaking about politics and other controversial topics.
Art stands out as one of the foremost casualties of the crackdown by the authorities – as well as the resulting self-censorship of many artists.
By exploring and acknowledging emotional and spiritual wounds, art can help to break the destructive cycle of suffering, anger and violence that permanently disfigure societies. It can help to promote awareness and discussion and support truth seeking, peace building and national reconciliation. But even though it seeks to encourage public debate and contribute to the process of individual, community and national healing, art has often been regarded as a negative force by the authorities – and just as often banned.
The existing Zimbabwean constitution provides for freedom of expression under Article 19, but limits these freedoms in the ‘interests of defence, public safety, public order, state economic interests, public morality and public health’. Previous ZANU-PF governments have regularly used this vague language to criminalise and charge artists, while also using several other pieces of repressive legislation to censor works of art.
Several artists have tried through their work to stand up to the system and promote these vital goals. But their attempts have ended in arrests and detentions – with their exhibitions boarded up, their concerts cancelled and their plays shut down.
Sadly, the Inclusive Government (IG) has not been able to open up the space for artists, despite the commitments in the GPA – and a host of artists have suffered the consequences, including Owen Maseko, Leonard Zhakata, Hosiah Chipanga, and Rooftop Promotions due to their play Rituals.