BY WINSTONE ANTONIO
AS condolence messages for the veteran playwright, actor and theatre director Cont Mhlanga continue to pour in, many creatives have described him as a fountain of knowledge and champion of freedom of expression through art.
Mhlanga breathed his last yesterday morning after being hospitalised for almost 10 days. He died of a pneumonia-related illness at United Bulawayo Hospital.
He was 64.
Mhlanga is survived by wife Thembi Ngwabi and six children (three boys and three girls).
Mourners are gathered at House number 488 Nguboyenja, Bulawayo.
Confirming Mhlanga’s death, National Arts Council of Zimbabwe executive director Nicholas Moyo said the nation would be informed of further details of the unfolding situation in due course.
Moyo said while his situation seemed to stabilise after being admitted to hospital, it took a different turn in the last three days.
“It is with a heavy heart and intense sadness that the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe board and management announces to the nation and the Cultural and Creative Sectors in Zimbabwe and internationally the sad passing on of the legendary Cont Mhlanga,” he said.
In a follow up interview with NewsDay Life & Style Moyo said: “Mhlanga family is meeting tonight (yesterday) and we will know the burial date, but will be interred at his Lupane home.”
Mhlanga, the founder of Amakhosi Theatre Productions company, was a critic of the then late former President Robert Mugabe’s government and was arrested often for public expressions of his views.
He has mentored a number of artsits in dance, music, film and theatre. who are making it in their careers locally and beyond the borders.
At the time of his death, Mhlanga had been recently appointed as a member of the National Team for the creation of a national strategy for the Zimbabwe Film Sector.
Mhlanga was expected to provide leadership and useful insights into the development
trajectory of the film sector which is being re-engineered to contribute significantly to the
economy leveraging on his career in the cultural and creative industries.
Taking to microblogging site, Twitter, exiled former Information minister, Jonathan Moyo described Mhlanga, as a cultural genius and creative director whose legacy can be testified by the existence of Amakhosi Theatre and Skyz FM.
“Sad news that the inimitable Cont Mhlanga is no more,” Moyo said.
“He (Mhlanga) was a cultural genius; a legendary playwright, filmmaker, creative director and a grounded political activist whose institution-building legacy is epitomised by Amakhosi Theatre and Skyz FM. Lala ngokuthula qhawe likaZulu!”
Cinema Society of Zimbabwe, Rodney Mabaleka said Mhlanga was a loud and proud voice for many of Zimbabwean creatives.
“It is a sad day to witness, as one of the most talented and most profound creatives, passes on. His drive, tenacity and creative influence helped in creating our film and television industry,” he said.
“His work and contributions inspired a whole generation of creatives which helped in shaping the creative culture, which is still prevalent and he will surely be missed.”
Mabaleka said Mhlanga impacted the lives of many.
“Mhlanga helped most of us creatives to keep believing in ourselves and to never give up on our creative talents and gifts despite the challenges we faced,” he added.
Savanna Trust Theatre director Daniel Maphosa described Mhlanga as the father of the theatre sector in Zimbabwe and a thought leader of our time.
“The passing on of Mhlanga is a big loss to the cultural and creative industries in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole,” he said, adding that Mhlanga was a cultural doyen, whose work inspired society in a tremendous way.
“Mhlanga was a visionary, who with other esteemed cultural practitioners modelled the modern-day theatre practice in Zimbabwe. He was a walking library of the theatre sector. His knowledge and practice shaped all of us.”
Maphosa said it was difficult to speak of Mhlanga in the past tense.
“We can only say the giant has rested. Sleep easy Malume. Your wisdom will be sorely missed,” he said.
Poet, musician and journalist, Nqobile Malinga said the nation had been robbed of a legend, father figure and cultural icon.
“A man who was proud of his culture, champion of freedom of expression, our hearts are torn with grief. Some of us drank from his calabash of creativity and are proud of Amakhosi. Lala ngokuthula,” he said.
Poet, musician, writer and actor, Albert Nyathi said he was devastated by Mhlanga’s death.
“This is a tragedy. I have no shoulder to lean on anymore. He is gone (Mhlanga), my mentor. Sad indeed,” he said.
Brush with the law
Mhlanga was arrested and briefly detained in May 2006 on the grounds that his plays were anti-government and meant to incite an uprising against Mugabe’s regime.
A glimpse of Mhlanga’s works
In Zimbabwe, one cannot talk of theatre without mentioning the name Cont Mhlanga.
No doubt, a conversation on the growth of the country’s creative sector, theatre in particular, cannot be concluded without renowned playwright, actor and theatre director Mhlanga’s name being cited.
Sadly, nature has its ways.
When he established Amakhosi Cultural Centre in 1982, the centre started off
as a youth karate club and turned semi-professional in 1988.
It created the first pilot centre, the Amakhosi Performing Arts Workshop, which produced and toured with theatre plays written and directed by Mhlanga.
In 1995 Amakhosi established the country’s first privately-owned cultural centre located within the boundaries of high-density suburbs, now popularly known as the Township Square Cultural Centre.
Mhlanga and partners founded Skyz Metro FM, one of the first independent radio stations in Zimbabwe.
Away from theatre, the decorated Godfather of arts, Mhlanga published three books and wrote more than 20 plays.
Among the plays written by the international art and cultural icon are The Good President, The End, Vikela, Sinjalo, Children On Fire, Games and Bombs and The Members.
He directed Bamqgibela Ephila and Omunye Umngcwabo.
Mhlanga’s politically-charged play The Good President won him an Art Venture Freedom to Create award, shrugging off challenges from nearly 1 000 entrants from 86 countries.
Although presented as a fictional account, The Good President’s depiction of an African dictator who had ruled his country since 1980 closely mirrored the country’s status quo before the death of Mugabe.
The play was, however, banned in the country.
Mhlanga also adapted the popular play Stitsha to a television series that featured the late Beatar Mangethe.
He also adapted the popular Amakorokoza and Sinjalo for national broadcaster ZBC and he starred as Mtutureli Niekwu in an anti-apartheid movie titled A World Apart which was released in 1988.
Mhlanga’s contribution to the creative sector has not gone unnoticed.
Together with his Amakhosi Cultural Centre, Mhlanga received several awards in honour of outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.
In 2015, Mhlanga and Amakhosi received the Prince Claus award, named after Prince Claus of The Netherlands.
In 2021, Mhlanga was one of the National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) 40 Legends who were
given honorary awards as part of Zimbabwe’s 40th Independence anniversary.
At the time of his death, Mhlanga had retired in the creative business after 36 years to focus on agribusiness in his Lupane rural home.
- Follow Winstone on Twitter @widzonato