Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
One of the great difficulties with satire is that often those who actually get it are those who are already on board with the message. This has been the case for Zambezi News, Zimbabwe’s leading satirical show.
Co-founder Samm Farai Monro, aka Comrade Fatso, says: “An old member of parliament may not understand our show or some of the content will go over their head, but this isn’t our target audience; our aim is reaching young Zimbabweans.”
Zambezi News parodies the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, “the state-controlled propaganda mouthpiece”, for its uncritical approach to Robert Mugabe’s government. Unsurprisingly, you won’t find the show on Zimbabwean television, and the cast is frequently harassed by state officials.
The show shot its first season in 2011 and self-promoted through independent radio and activists groups. “When we first started the show, we printed thousands of DVDs and distributed them ourselves across the country,” he says. “But now with the advent of social media and people’s access to the internet through mobile phones, we can distribute through Facebook and WhatsApp to get the message out there.”
The snubs by the state clearly haven’t hurt Zambezi News. The show has been viewed by six million Zimbabweans, and the cast have performed in Sweden, South Africa, Swaziland, the USA and with Index on Censorship in London.
Still, given the treatment of critics and dissidents in Zimbabwe, there is no doubt that Monro and his comedy troupe are risking their freedom and even their lives to make some of the hardest hitting satire in Africa. In 2010, artist Owen Maseko exhibited paintings critical of Mugabe, depicting government-led massacres in the country in the 1980s. As it’s against the law to insult the president’s authority, Maseko was arrested, interrogated and faced a possible 20-year prison sentence.
Other critics, such as activist Itai Dzamara, who had told the country’s 92-year-old dictator that he was too old to run the country and was causing Zimbabwe’s economic woes, have been disappeared. Dzamara was abducted in March 2015 never heard from again.
For Zambezi News co-founder Tongai Makawa, aka Outspoken, the danger satirists specifically find themselves in around the world “is a testament to the power of the medium”.
“Satire affords ordinary people an opportunity to connect with a message or conversation in lighter terms outside of the regular intellectual jargon that you find these politicians spouting on a daily basis,” he says. “It allows that engagement to keep flowing without people disconnecting or just feeling depressed or hopeless.”
Satire also has a knack of being able to bend its targets out of shape. “There is a group of government supporters who are really disgruntled by what we do,” says Makawa. “With satire, there has to be a degree to which people agree with you, while at the same time leaving a lot of ruffled feathers in its wake.”
Makawa and Monro have certainly ruffled many feathers, in whatever medium they are working in. Both have backgrounds in spoken word, hip hop and as activists. They run Magamba, “a cultural activist network”, which uses arts and culture in the struggle for social justice in Zimbabwe, and Shoko Festival, Zimbabwe’s “biggest festival of urban culture”.
“Shocko is about creating a space for free expression, debate and giving people a platform to talk about social and political issues, often using the vehicle of hip hop,” says Monro.
Long before his involvement with Zambezi News, Monro’s band Chabvondoka saw their debut album House of Hunger — which mixes hip hop with traditional African music such as Chimurenga to discuss political and social issues — banned from state-controlled radio and TV.
“We released the album two weeks before the presidential elections at the time, and it’s heavily critical of the government,” says Monro. “The symbolism behind the album was a book by Dambudzo Marechera, the great Zimbabwean writer, which talked about how Rhodesia was a house of hunger, but we’ve still got that situation in places.”
An estimated 1.5 million people – 16% of the population – were projected to be food insecure in 2015, a 164% on the previous year. And while the white colonial rulers of the past may be gone, the oppressors have “now been painted black and we still have the same structure of repression in places,” Monro adds.
The repression has also taken the form of an intensified campaign of artistic censorship by the government since the early 2000s, especially against defiant art.
“Hip hop, by its nature, has always been a defiant genre, something that speaks against the status quo and gives an alternative voice to a group of people who don’t have any other means of channelling their feelings,” says Makawa.
Although busy making with comedy — the pair have just toured a new show and have recently begun recording more Zambezi News— Makawa and Monro still have time for the music.
“I’ve grown to understand that we live like those superheroes who have to do admin work by day and their activism by night,” says Makawa. “I still write rhymes and think about concepts for music, so it really doesn’t ever die, it’s there gathering dust until that time when you need it.”
Monro has just completed his second album, which he has been working on for three years, due to be released later this year. He has kept his skills sharp by making hip hop “a big part of Zambezi News”.
“On the show we have these characters called the Even Mo Lil Swaggery Boys, who are like our alter-egos, a gangster rap crew, and on every season of Zambezi News we record a few hip hop tracks that take the piss out of different issues from elections to power shortages,” he says. “It’s just another way of using hip hop and satire to communicate the important political messaging and get dressed in very silly, over-bling outfits at the same time.”
– Poetic Pilgrimage: Hip hop has the capacity to “galvanise the masses”
– Colombian rapper Shhorai: “Can you imagine a society in which women have no voice?”
– Jason Nichols: Debunking “old tropes” through hip hop
A conference followed by a day of performance to consider hip hop’s role in revolutionary social, political and economic movements across the world.
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]