Speaking truth to power in Zim – and laughing about it

The Zimbabwean minister of impending projects stands proudly in front of a diamond 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 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 Zanu-PF.

Frankly, our show started off by fluke. Outspoken and I have backgrounds 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.

Growing appetite for satire
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 in which our newscaster, Mandape Mandape, showed how easy it was to vote – unless you were 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 pushed it heavily on social media and  shared the videos on YouTube.

Interest was so great that we then produced 10 000 DVDs, which were requested in more than 100 different towns and villages in Zimbabwe. Since then we have had 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 United States.

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 presents 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.

Spies are watching
But being a leading satirical show and poking fun at the powerful comes with risks: people we suspect are state security agents have threatened one of our main Zambezi News actors. 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, and we often get attacked by bloggers aligned with Zanu-PF who write that we produce “anti-government propaganda”. Earlier this year, as we prepared to launch our third season, the police called to ask if we had “police clearance” to do so.

We 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 they are watching our show, so half our job is done.

We are not alone. Other online satirical shows are emerging, including PO BoxThe Comic King Show and Lylo, to name a few. PO Box has been a viral success in Zimbabwe with its weekly, five-minute skits posted on Facebook 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 … are the voice of the ordinary people to the elite,” said PO Box creator Luckie Aaroni.

Laughter as a form of protest
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 stand-up 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 part of modern life in 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 has grown into something more daring, where comedians continually push boundaries. But 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 that you have freedom of expression, but not freedom after expression.

Carrot-and-stick approach
Zimbabwe is not an easy place in which to perform. The state has basically used a carrot-and-stick approach with artists. The carrot is the 75% 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 if you are praising it. And if you’re known to be obedient, Zanu-PF might book you to play at one of its many galas, where taxpayers’ money is used to enhance 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.

But 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 US.

With more and more young people in Zimbabwe sharing videos and content on Facebook and WhatsApp, we now have more and more alternative means of disseminating our content.

And considering that 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, aka Comrade Fatso, is an award-winning activist and artist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. A version of this article, which has been edited for the Mail & Guardian. 
Read the full article in the summer issue of Index on Censorship magazine, along with other features including Ken Saro-Wiwa Junior writing about his memories of his father and Harold Evans on a forgotten free speech hero.

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