Zimbabwe before the elections: Airplay is only for the “patriots” Zimbabwean musicians are bracing for a crucial election set for the end of March 2008. While the radio keeps rotating songs that praise the current regime, opposition and dissenting voices are silenced, and things fall apart, writes Freemuse executive committee member Maxwell Sibanda in his review of the situation.
By Maxwell Sibanda, journalist, writing from Harare, Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe the country’s president, 84-year-old Robert Mugabe, features in songs while ministers jostle to compose or sing songs in praise of him and his ruling Zanu PF party. For instance, he features in a song titled ‘Beitbridge’ which is a favourite on the sole state-controlled radio Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
Song bird Nonsi sings the song’s lead vocals which are spiced with sections of a speech by Mugabe sometime ago while on a visit to Beitbridge, a town on the border with neighbouring South Africa. The song is produced in local pop fashion fused with some traditional jiti.
Like previous propaganda songs, it is played with nauseating frequency on all stations. Nonsi sings:
“…Come to Zimbabwe and see the city of Beitbridge A symbol of a lovely country The future of our children lies in our hands…”
Mugabe complements in local Shona language:
“…Forward with developing Beitbridge Food to the people of Beitbridge…”
This new release follows a 2005 CD and cassette compilation entitled ‘Mugabe Speaks’ which was released through recording firm Gramma Records. The compilation comprise some of his landmark speeches since black independence in 1980. Then, the Minister of Policy Implementation, Webster Shamu told the state-controlled Herald newspaper the recordings “would not only provide good home entertainment but would be useful to scholars”.
Some of the speeches date back to the late 1970s, when Mugabe and other key nationalists were waging a guerilla war against the former white minority government of then Rhodesia. Shamu said the record “will assist our children and will also educate people on where we came from and where we are going”.
While it is Mugabe or his ministers’ democratic right to participate in any recordings, the sad aspect in Zimbabwe as the global Music Freedom Day was marked on 3 March is that other independent voices have been suppressed completely. The opposition MDC party has released albums that have never seen the day at the state broadcaster, and so has Jonathan Moyo and the National Constitutional Assembly. Several songs and individual musicians have been blacklisted on state radio in which government enjoys a monopoly.
Patriotic musicians When Mugabe celebrated his 84th birthday on 21 February this year (2008), “patriotic musicians” led by gospel musicians Zexie Manatsa and Amos Mahendere recorded a birthday song for him – a remix of the traditional “happy birthday”. Minister Shamu coordinated the recording with the assistance of popular DJ Tich Mataz. The birthday song which included a video has been receiving a lot of airplay on the state broadcaster.
Manatsa, one of the country’s veteran musicians of the pre-independence era and now a church pastor said during an interview while commenting on the production of the song that there were two fathers, one who was in heaven (God) and the other (Mugabe) who was on earth.
This year Mugabe celebrated his birthday party in Beitbridge, the inspiration of the before mentioned song, ‘Beitbridge’. His birthday celebrations, spiced with revolutionary songs and dances, where beamed live on state television and radio.
Just recently the ruling party held what it called the Patriotic Musicians’ Workshop at its headquarters in Harare. The workshop was organised by the Zanu PF information department and held under the theme “Music as a tool for mobilising the people”.
Speaking at the workshop Zanu PF Secretary for Information and Publicity, Nathan Shamuyarira, said it was “our policy that workers who are patriotic have better lives and the media and artists should work towards the dissemination of information that promotes the development of the country.”
Minister of State for Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment, Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana, said the government was committed to the development and empowerment of musicians. But the only musicians benefiting in Zimbabwe today are those who are “patriotic”. They receive massive airplay on state radio and get invitations to play at state functions and music galas.
New government stations While government is refusing to let new players into the broadcasting sector, it recently launched a new 24 hour radio station, Voice of Zimbabwe. The propaganda radio news channel has been on the drawing board since 2000 and it was the brainchild of now sacked Minister of Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo.
According to the general manager of Voice of Zimbabwe, Happison Muchechetere, broadcasts will be intended to reach target audiences in South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom and USA.
Officiating at the switch-testing ceremony in Gweru on 25 May 2007, George Charamba, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Publicity said the project was designed to reach out to Zimbabweans in the diaspora, remote parts of the country and the broader international audience, thus providing them with first hand news about Zimbabwe.
The government accuses SW Radio Africa, Voice of America’s Studio 7 and Voice of the People based in London, Washington and Netherlands respectively of broadcasting propaganda aimed at inciting Zimbabweans to rise against the government.
“We have hastened the project because of the onslaught from the west that has reached alarming levels. The station would be a way of telling our story and to react to hostile Western machinations aimed at undermining the credibility and legitimacy of our government,” the Minister of Information and Publicity, Skhanyiso Ndlovu, told the state media.
The government has over the past few years tried to shut out the three independent radio stations claiming that they beam hostile Western propaganda. The three have however gained popularity among Zimbabweans eager to hear alternative voices. In 2000, the police closed Capital Radio and seized its equipment. Radio Dialogue a Bulawayo-based community radio station met the same fate.
Singing ministers The trend of using music as a tool for promoting party politics began back in 2001 when two cabinet ministers, Jonathan Moyo (Information) and Elliot Manyika (minister without portfolio and the party’s national commissar) decided to compose and record propaganda songs for Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu PF party. Between them they coordinated the recording of more than 10 propaganda music albums with Manyika singing in one of the “most popular” songs, Nora.
The recording project, whose songs were to help in election campaigns involved the Police and Airforce musical bands. Popular musicians sympathetic to Zanu PF took part in the recordings.
In contracting the musicians, government set them against opposition party supporters who felt agitated by the deep economic crisis engulfing all fabrics of Zimbabwean life. Inflation alone stands at more than 100,000 per cent.
And the urban population’s response to these musicians was swift, with many boycotting shows, while nightclubs refused to book them. Some had to hire bodyguards for their security.
The musician has to be free and that refers to both the ruling party and the opposition. But in having cabinet ministers sing, the ruling Zanu PF was killing two birds with one stone. The first being to instill fear among state controlled radio and television station’s DJs and producers. These had to be patriotic as well and could not be seen promoting hostile and politically hard hitting compositions rebuking the Presidum. And the second: by using ministers who happen to be civil servants, all production costs would be paid by the ordinary taxpayer.
Record company take-over The biggest record company in Zimbabwe, Gramma Records was bought by Zanu PF faithfuls. Josiah Tungamirai, the late and former Minister of State for Indigenisation and the Zanu PF MP for Gutu North was a shareholder in the company. Musician Elias Musakwa, who is standing in coming parliamentary elections on the ruling party ticket is also a shareholder of Gramma Records.
Musakwa was also the producer of Minister Manyika’s 2005 campaign album. This automatically means that another record company, Ngaavongwe Records is now under Zanu PF influence because Musakwa owns it. Musakwa sits on the board of the state-controlled Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) which issues broadcasting licences and is an official at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.
Is there any freedom in such record companies for independent voices? Indeed things have fallen apart as politicians try to control all dissenting voices.
Protest theatre In a bid to counter government’s shutting out of critical voices, Zimbabwe’s leading playwright Cont Mhlanga launched the Voices For Change aimed at promoting protest arts.
Speaking to the media, Mhlanga said Zimbabweans no longer had a voice as the media was tightly controlled “the only independent radios operate over short-wave frequency, only for a few hours and it is expensive to find a receiver.”
Mhlanga said silence and fear had replaced dialogue and discussion in Zimbabwe and that artists in Zimbabwe had a duty to restore the voice of the people through art forms. Mhlanga’s recent play ‘The Good President’ was banned when armed police stormed Bulawayo Amphitheatre before its premiere. The play is critical of Mugabe and his government.
Government music galas As a way to reward “patriotic musicians” the government launched state sponsored music galas. There are several of these state galas, among them two that commemorate the deaths of Zimbabwe’s two vice-presidents, Simon Muzenda and Joshua Nkomo. The Unity Gala commemorates the unity agreement between the ruling party and ZAPU, led by Nkomo. Another one celebrates the Heroes Day on a day that honours Zimbabwe’s fallen heroes while the other one is on Independence Day.
The country’s information ministry has the budget readily for these programmes, hosting more than 30 bands in a single concert. The concerts are broadcast live on television for 12 straight hours – 6pm to 6am – the longest uninterrupted live televised musical show ever seen in Zimbabwe. The galas are merely the ruling party’s propaganda vehicle where party officials get together to drink and dance the night away with the crowds.
The galas are popular with a helpless populace who are happy to dance their worries away and also the fact that most musicians are gathered together for a single show. At the galas most of the “patriotic musicians” have the chance to play their propaganda songs to wider audiences.
Unfortunately for most of the musicians who sing independently, these galas are out of bounce. Such is the music freedom and association in present day Zimbabwe.
Maxwell Sibanda is a former Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Daily News newspaper in Zimbabwe