The Zimbabwean Minister of Impending Projects proudly stands in front of a mine that he has christened Mine Mine. “Because,” he says, “it’s mine. And because a diamond mine is a minister’s best friend.” This corrupt politician who has never completed a single programme in his department, is a fictional character on Zambezi News, a satirical show I helped create, with fellow activist Outspoken.
Zambezi News has become Zimbabwe’s leading satirical programme, reaching millions of viewers across the country and the whole continent. The show is a parody of the state-controlled propaganda machine, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and mimics the station’s sycophancy to the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF). Quite frankly, our show started off by fluke. Outspoken and I have a background as spoken word and hip-hop artists and were approached by a friend involved in a local film festival to do a live news skit. When it aired at the festival and was really well received, we knew we were on to something.
We shot the first season in 2011 as a faux news show with three comic newscasters. The show cut between the newsroom and satirical reports from the field and featured a string of outrageous characters. We even did a special episode for the 2013 elections where our newscaster, Mandape Mandape, showed how easy it is to vote – unless you are young, urban and likely to vote for the opposition. We publicised the show around the country using partners ranging from community radio stations to activist groups. We also pushed it heavily on social media and shared the videos on YouTube. Interest was so great we then produced 10,000 DVDs, which were requested in more than 100 different towns and villages in Zimbabwe. Since then we have shot two more seasons. The show has been viewed by six million Zimbabweans, and we have been invited to do live shows in Sweden, South Africa, Swaziland and the USA.
The fact that there is thriving satire in Zimbabwe and that we, as the cheeky cast of Zambezi News, are still alive confuses a lot of people. Most TV and radio in Zimbabwe is controlled by the state or cronies of the ruling party, so the public has a growing appetite for comedy and satire that present an alternative voice. People like to laugh and think about our crazy situation at the same time.
“Political satire has provided comic relief to many Zimbabweans, but, above all, it has been an innovative way of speaking truth to power,” said political commentator Takura Zhangazha. “Zambezi News is key in carrying on this tradition especially across various media spectrums and between generations.” The fact that we’re still alive? Well, I guess that’s down to luck and the fact that we hide in plain sight.
Index on Censorship has been publishing articles on satire by writers across the globe throughout its 43-year history. Ahead of our event, Stand Up for Satire, we published a series of archival posts from the magazine on satire and its connection with freedom of expression.
14 July: The power of satirical comedy in Zimbabwe by Samm Farai Monro | 17 July: How to Win Friends and Influence an Election by Rowan Atkinson | 21 July: Comfort Zones by Scott Capurro | 24 July: They shoot comedians by Jamie Garzon | 28 July: Comedy is everywhere by Milan Kundera | Student reading lists: Comedy and censorship
However, being a leading satire show and poking fun at the powerful, comes with risks: one of our main actors in Zambezi News has been threatened by people we suspect are state security agents. The actor was approached after we launched our first season in 2012. He was threatened for working on an “anti-government, regime-change agenda” and told that he would be “dealt with”. Our content is blacklisted on state-controlled radio and TV, while we often get attacked by Zanu PF-aligned bloggers who write that we produce “anti-government propaganda”. Earlier this year, as we prepared to launch our third season, the police called up to ask if we had “police clearance” to do so. We also get harassed by the officials from the censorship board and the Central Intelligence Organisation who ask us: “Do you have accreditation and clearance to do this?” I guess this means that they are watching our show, so half our job is done.
We are not alone. Other online satirical shows are emerging, including PO Box, The Comic King Show and LYLO, to name but a few. PO Box has been a viral success in Zimbabwe with its weekly five-minute skits posted on Facebook with the skits getting 20,000 views in two days. The show deals with the country’s social and economic issues and has the cast playing everything from corrupt politicians to victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa. “Comedy and satire depict society’s stance and are the voice of the ordinary people to the elite,” said PO Box creator Luckie Aaroni.
Many outsiders wouldn’t expect to discover Zimbabweans poking fun at the powerful, or mocking the president and his wife, an act that was taboo until recently. “It’s a reflection of the times,” said leading comedian and comedy promoter, Simba The Comic King. “Things are hard, so people might as well laugh about them. That’s their form of protest.” There are also standup shows in the main cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Bulawayo’s gritty Umakhelisa Comedy Club regularly features the city’s top comedians, who joke about the tough social and economic realities that are modern Zimbabwe. Harare’s two leading monthly comedy events, the Bang Bang Comedy Club and Simuka Comedy, often attract capacity crowds to their hard-hitting shows.
Stand-up comedy emerged in Zimbabwe in the 1990s but today has grown into something more daring, where comedians are continually pushing boundaries. However, the authorities don’t always think the jokes should be shared with the public. “A couple of times I have been approached by presumed state security agents who have told me that certain jokes are funny, but get them out of your set if you want to live till the next show,” said Simba. Such threats are real and common in the country. It’s a recurring joke in Zimbabwe among artists: you have freedom of expression, but not freedom after expression.
Despite these trends, Zimbabwe is not an easy place to perform. The state has basically used a carrot-and-stick approach with artists. The carrot is the 75 per cent local-content policy on all state-controlled radio and TV, introduced in April 2000 by the Zanu PF government. For musicians, this means your songs will get played if you aren’t dissing the government and they will get played even more so if you are praising it. And if you’re known to be obedient, Zanu PF might also book you to play at one of its many galas, where taxpayers’ money is used to enchance the party’s image. The stick approach is more straightforward: critical artists get no state support, won’t have their songs played on radio and TV, and are likely to be harassed and threatened.
Artists such as comic character Dr Zobha get airplay on state-controlled radio as they are seen as obedient and toeing the party line. Whereas Zimbabwean music legend Thomas Mapfumo, a national hero for his role in the liberation struggle, was hounded out of the country in 2001 after releasing music critical of Zanu PF. Mapfumo now lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.
With more and more young people online in Zimbabwe sharing videos and content on Facebook and WhatsApp, we now have more and more alternative means of disseminating our content. And considering our politicians aren’t going to stop being clowns anytime soon, we definitely won’t be running out of things to say. So we’ll keep striving to build a new country. One joke at a time.
© Samm Farai Monro
This article is part of the culture section of a special issue of Index on Censorship magazine on academic freedom, featuring contributions from the US, Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico, India, Turkey and Ireland. Subscribe to read the full report, or buy a single issue. Every purchase helps fund Index on Censorship’s work around the world. For reproduction rights, please contact Index on Censorship directly, via [email protected]