Cont, a true legend of the arts

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Cont Mhlanga

By Peter Churu
AUGUST 1 will forever be a dark day in the creative history of Zimbabwe.

This is the day Cont Mhlanga breathed his last.

News of his death hit me like a hammer blow. A true legend had fallen.

Mhlanga is a hero of our times.

You could not bracket or box him in any one facet of our Zimbabwean narrative.

He had a vision for a free and democratic Zimbabwe and gave his life for its attainment.

He had a vision for a disciplined Zimbabwean youth and set up training programmes in Makokoba in the City of Kings and Queens.

Mhlanga had a vision for a creative Zimbabwe and went about setting up Amakhosi, which became a vibrant creative hub long before others fashioned the nomenclature.

His biggest vision was that of the empowered creative entrepreneur and he went about creating art as business.

The Amakhosi, Skyz Metro, Breeze FM and Keyona brands become the expression of that vision.

One needs not go far to see his passion, clarity of thought and eloquent expression of his ideas than his theatre plays, published opinion pieces and books, and rare yet priceless interviews given only to a few worthy platforms.

Yet today, Zimbabwe is in mourning. We mourn this proud yet humble, elegant yet gracious iconic yet self-effacing, enigmatic yet modest husband, father, friend, teacher and to most, just Malume.

His legacy has already been etched indelibly in the Zimbabwean psyche.

In spite of his diminutive stature, Mhlanga was a larger-than-life character.

He carried himself with extraordinary charisma which transcended age, tribe, race or nationality.

There was always something very special about Mhlanga, that is why he had the resolve to dedicate himself to the liberation of his country.

The same discipline saw him attain the highest karate recognition.

His generous nature very quickly led him to round up young people off the dusty streets of Makokoba and instruct them in karate.

The Makokoba Karate Club was to later morph into Amakhosi.

Mhlanga had no university education, but was gifted with remarkable intellect.

He had an uncanny gift of deciphering complex matters of arts, culture, politics and business which made him at home on any stage or boardroom anywhere in the world.

It is that awareness combined with his combat training that made him such a driven achiever in all things he set his mind on.

The institutions he built, including Amakhosi, Skyz Metro, Breeze FM and lately Keyona TV, are critical landmarks on the Zimbabwean creative landscape.

More than anything else, it is for his work at Amakhosi that he will be fondly remembered.

For me, his play Workshop Negative firmly engraved his artistry and role as a human rights defender long before it was in vogue and others had made careers out of it.

With a multi-racial cast including Christopher Hurst, the late Mackay Tickies, Thokozani Masha and Pedzisai Sithole, the play toured Zimbabwe drawing huge crowds and invoking frenzied post performance debate and discussion.

The theatre movement gained a lot of traction inspiring many young people to create their own brands of protest theatre.

Indeed, the accompanying theatre skills workshops conducted by Mhlanga and his cast left an indelible mark on my own practice as well as many others in the townships.

Mhlanga becomes one of a special group of Prince Claus laureates based on his pioneering and ground-breaking work with Amakhosi.

Many of the most accomplished Zimbabwean creatives at home and abroad will trace their artistic birth to Amakhosi.

I dare not name anyone at the risk of slighting them.

Finally, Lupane, Mhlanga had a deep connection to his roots and culture.

He drew his creative inspiration from the soils of Lupane.

Lupane was much more than a home for him. He loved Lupane and his people there.

He introduced modern farming and animal husbandry methods.

His ambition being to improve the livelihoods of his people and encourage urban rural migration.

Indeed, at some point, Mhlanga served in the Lupane district council. Therefore, where it began, so shall it end.

He will be going to Lupane for his final resting place. Of that he was unequivocal and his family have put in place plans to take him home to his people.

I have no doubt there will be multitudes waiting in Lupane to welcome him home and many more travelling to pay their last respects in Lupane.

Go well Mhlanga, lala ngoxolo Malume. Mutaririre mudzimai, vana nemhuri yenyu yamasiya (Rest in peace uncle. Watch over your wife, children and family you left behind).

Peter Churu is creative director at Complete Arts Project.

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