Zimbabwe: Complete control – Music and propaganda in Zimbabwe

20 September 2004

Complete control: Music and propaganda in Zimbabwe
The Zanu PF government’s involvement in the commissioning of propaganda music productions has introduced a new form of censorship in Zimbabwe. In commissioning several propaganda music albums, jingles and videos, the government has managed to elbow what it calls “politically incorrect” music compositions from the airwaves.

Article by Maxwell Sibanda, former Arts & Entertainment Editor of the Daily News newspaper in Zimbabwe. Sibanda has just completed writing a publication on Politics and Music in Zimbabwe.


WHEN world class musicians staged the memorable 1987 Human Rights Concert in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe theirs was a peaceful protest and reminder to the world on the need to principally respect basic human rights. It was also a reminder to Zimbabweans who had just witnessed and survived the brutal murders of people from the Matebeleland region by President Robert Mugabe’s armed forces which saw the loss of an estimated 20.000 innocent lives.
A live performance before a capacity audience by Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Eric Donaldson, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour and Maxi Priest couldn’t have matched for any other better celebration of that urgent need. And what a big jam it was, and one that shook the country too! The songs’ lyrics were rich, direct and undiluted. The sound had hit the ears of many. And many danced. What could you do? What with some music fans who had travelled from South Africa and other neighbouring countries.
But that was to be the second high profile concert in Zimbabwe after Black independence. Reggae star Bob Marley also gave a rare performance in 1980, at Zimbabwe’s first Black independence day where he introduced Zimbabweans to conscious and hard hitting reggae sounds. Marley was invited to grace the occasion because of his militant songs that preached Black freedom, good governance and peace. And his music spoke!

In Zimbabwe, music has for years held a special place in the country’s political history. During the colonial era Zimbabwean musicians recorded inspiring compositions that sought to remind the black populace of its need to free itself from oppression. Most of the songs were banned by the colonial regime government fearing that such compositions would incite a Black uprising.
During its bitter eight year old war with the colonial Ian Douglas Smith Patriotic Front regime, the ruling Zimbabwe National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) launched its own pirate radio station, Voice of Zimbabwe that used to broadcast from Mozambique. Militant songs were composed by the party’s choirs and broadcast on the station as a moral booster to its fighters and supporters. Music, thus became central to its war strategy. Indeed even after Black independence in 1980, a number of Zanu PF choirs throughout the country continued to sing and record political songs. But with relative peace in the county and competition from secular musicians, most of these choirs gradually disappeared.

  Freemuse report on music and censorship in Zimbabwe
See also the Freemuse report on Zimbabwe (2001)

But years down the line the ruling Zanu PF government suddenly found itself confronting a band of musicians criticising its policies and bad governance through published songs.
For the ruling Zanu PF government, there was only one way out of the mess: Revisit its publicity strategy during the liberation war of the 1970s when it used to record and broadcast music to promote its policies and keep the morale of the people high. The government’s strategy was first to blacklist songs that were against its policies and all those that talked about human rights abuse, corruption and the abuse of power by the establishment. These were to be “banned” from the airwaves so as to pave way for those songs that preached the “true gospel”.

And it is government’s involvement in the commissioning of propaganda music productions that has introduced a new form of censorship in the country. In commissioning several propaganda music albums, jingles and videos, the government has managed to elbow what it calls “politically incorrect” music compositions from the airwaves. Two cabinet ministers have directly participated in some of the recordings. The Minister of Information And Publicity in the President’s Office and Cabinet, Jonathan Moyo under which radio and television directly falls coordinated the recording of four albums, two of them double albums comprising 44 music songs.

It all began in 2000 when as Chairman of the media committee of the ill-fated government-appointed Constitutional Commission, before his appointment as minister, Moyo coordinated efforts in which several prominent musicians recorded songs in support of the idea of a new constitution for Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans later rejected the draft constitution, which would have entrenched the government’s stranglehold on power. The efforts were futile. In 2001 he and a host of musicians, among them former war veterans Dick Chingaira and Marko Sibanda backed by the Police band secretly recorded an 18-track album, Hondo Yeminda – 3rd Chimurenga (War for Land – 3rd Struggle). The album’s songs promotes government’s controversial land re-distribution exercise.
The album was launched at a Harare hotel and attended by government cabinet ministers, top government officials from the police, the army and state secret agencies. The ruling Zanu PF party officials also formed the bulk of the guests.
In 2003 Moyo coordinated the recording of the album, Come to Victoria Falls Down in Zimbabwe, sung by Ruvhuvhuto Sisters comprising among others well known musicians Ivy Kombo-Moyo and Plaxedes Wenyika. The album was aimed at marketing the mighty Victoria Falls as the premier tourist attraction in Africa.

In 2004 the minister composed and arranged 26 songs for the double album, PaxAfro whose theme revolves around Africanism. The album was launched in a boat at the resort town of Victoria Falls. Like at the first launch, it was attended by government cabinet ministers and top officials. In 2001 Elliot Manyika, then Minister of Youth And Employment Creation and now Minsiter Without Portfolio coordinated the recording of the album Mwana Wevhu (Son of the Soil). He sang the lead vocals on the “hit” song Nora, a praise song for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

Jonathan Moyo. Minister of Information – and a recording artist.

The government went on to commission several other musicians to record music albums promoting its policies. They included Nhaka Yedu by the Air Force of Zimbabwe Band; Rangarirai by Peter Majoni; Hoko by Simon Chimbetu and; Tongogara and More Fire by Andy Brown. These albums received excessive airplay on radio and television which led to several other musicians, who without being commissioned by government began to record favorable songs so as to capitalize on this need, and in the process receive airplay. Others like Brown were awarded with funds by government to build a recording studio with the rest awarded contracts to play at state functions and major national events.

Television and Radio Campaign Jingles
Apart from recording music albums, government had other ideas for television and radio. It began to record and release a series of Chave Chimurenga (its now war) music campaign jingles.
By September 2004, there were several music jingle titles dominating the airwaves and they included Kwedu Kumachembere, Sisonke, Our Future, Siyalima, Mombe Mbiri Nemadhongi Mashanu, Uya Uone Kutapira Kunoita Kurima, Rambai Makashinga, Sendekera Mwana Wevhu and Zesa Yauya neMagetsi. Save for Zesa Yauya neMagetsi which centers on the rural electrification programme, the rest of the music jingles promote farming and the land redistribution programme.

Before the launch of the music jingles, government terminated television and radio advertisements contracts for private companies saying it was the corporation’s new programming policy.
The termination of these contracts was facilitated so as to create space for the new music jingles which were to occupy all prime time slots on both radio and television. The music jingles are played every time before and after the hourly news bulletins on all four radio stations, and the sole television channel. To many listeners and viewers, the music jingles are irritating as they dominate all programming, exhorting all viewers and listeners to the land issue.

Munyaradzi Hwengwere, the then Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) chief executive until 2003 defended the Chave Chimurenga music jingles saying they “were not propaganda material but advertising, paid and initiated by government and it would be a crime for the national broadcaster to limit people’s freedom, ideas and creativity”. An estimate made in 2003 for one Chave Chimurenga music jingle titled Rambai Makashinga showed that for radio (four stations) it was being played approximately 288 times a day, which amounts to 8 640 times per month. On television the advert was flighted approximately 72 times a day, which amounts to 2 160 times a month.

Zimbabwean poet and musician Chirikure Chirikure said the music jingles were shallow, poorly targeted and a waste of state funds. “I have seen people switching off their radios when these music jingles play. They are insulting,” says Chirikure adding that instead the government should be promoting national policies.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe Charter says the Chave Chimurenga music campaign jingles were discriminatory in their use of language and derogatory of those with dissenting views. “The music jingles in fact violate norms governing language use, especially in an African context. The music jingles violate the expectations of viewers and affect receptivity hence the outcry by listeners and viewers.”

Government Control of Radio and Television
And in ignoring calls to liberalise the airwaves so as to open the doors for independent players who can broadcast the so called “politically incorrect” songs, government has made sure that such compositions are never heard by the majority of Zimbabweans who rely on radio and television as their source of entertainment and information.
Zimbabwe, apart from Swaziland is the only country in the region whose electronic media is directly under the control of government. There are four radio stations and one television channel in Zimbabwe.

By controlling radio which is easily accessible to the majority of the 13 million Zimbabweans, government has managed to censor and control music content on the airwaves.
While the government has silently blacklisted songs by outspoken musicians that mysteriously disappear from the airwaves, it has also muted a programme in which it is recording music that replaces the “banned” songs. The participation of cabinet ministers (and Moyo in particular who is charge of the electronic media) in the music productions was itself a clear message to all radio Disc Jockeys (Djs) and presenters that they had to favourably play the series’ releases regardless of their popularity with listeners. It was also a clear message that those songs which were against government policies had to be done away with. At Radio Zimbabwe, the most listened to station which broadcast in Zimbabwe’s two main languages of Shona and Ndebele, management issued presenters with continuity sheets which spelt all programming for various shifts and what time to play particular music productions. The continuity sheets became the daily instruction manual for presenters.

Popular Radio Zimbabwe presenter and producer Eric Knight who had worked for the radio station for more than 12 years fled the country in 2003 for the United Kingdom citing fear for his life after he refused to play songs from the government sponsored productions. He alleges that his friends from the army, police and Central Intelligence Organisation advised him to flee from the country as his life was in danger.
“My only sin was refusing to be a yes man. I and my other colleagues who also left Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) were labeled opposition Movement for Democratic Change political party supporters. I personally refused to play the album Hondo Yeminda on air. “I joined ZBC as a broadcaster and not as a politician. There was lots of ‘rubbish’ that we were required to broadcast but I resisted,” Knight said in an article he wrote for Zimbabwe’s banned independent daily newspaper Daily News while in the United Kingdom.
Brenda Moyo, a presenter who had worked for Radio Zimbabwe for more than 18 years was struck-off the station’s register after she played two black listed songs. She left the country and is now based overseas. Brenda Moyo had played Black Roots song Jongwe (the ruling Zanu PF party symbol of a cock) and Portia Gwanzura’s song Zvinhu Zvanetsa (things are difficult). These songs had been black listed and banned from radio because of their focus on the political gridlock and economic hardships prevailing in Zimbabwe. In Jongwe, the singer calls for the killing and cooking of the cock while in Zvinhu Zvanetsa, the musician talks about the tough economic situation that Zimbabweans face everyday. After the alleged ban of her song Zvinhu Zvanetsa, musician Portia Gwanzura relocated to the United Kingdom in fear of her life.

  Andy Brown
Andy Brown – paid by the government

Songs by Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata, Chirikure Chirikure and Raymond Majongwe form part of the list of other creative works which the government has found too critical for comfort. Mapfumo relocated to United States in 2001 after the ban of songs from his Chimurenga Explosion album fearing the safety of his family. “I need my children to go to school and they have to do this is a free environment,” said the internationally renowned musician who has for years refused to be silenced. His music blends traditional Shona mbira music with western instruments and a political message replete with traditional metaphors. During the liberation war, his militant music was popular among the Black populace fighting to free themselves from colonial oppression. Even after independence Mapfumo remained consistent, fearlessly speaking his mind. Many of his other songs remain banned from Zimbabwean radio, including his 1988 song Corruption, which ridiculed corruption. It was followed a year later by Disaster, a song that similarly railed against graft and corruption. Since then a number of his songs from albums Chimurenga Rebel and Toyi Toyi have disappeared from the state broadcaster’s playing list.

Most songs from Zhakata’s 2003 album, Hodho (short gun) were among those struck off radio play lists. Zhakata says of the ban: “When I heard about the ban I went to ZBC to enquire, but officials at the corporation professed ignorance of the ban. I am not sure why they banned the songs.” But early this year (2004) Zhakata was quizzed for more than 30 minutes by Harare police over the appearance of his song, Ngoma Yenharo on an album compiled by a shadowy pressure group called Zwakwana (Enough). The song, off his album Hodho, features on Zwakwana’s compilation album entitled Red Hot Riot – Rocking The Regime Into Retirement. Zhakata distanced himself from the compilation of the album by the underground organisation. “They just included my song without consulting me. I do not know the organisation,” said the musician who in the past has had to cancel live show performances in certain parts of the country after receiving threats over his songs’ contents.
The controversial album also features songs by Raymond Majongwe, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lovemore Majaivana, Collin Sibanda, Vusi Mahlasela and South African Afro-Jazz exponent Hugh Masekela who has released a song critical about President Robert Mugabe’s rule.

International Music Ban
Still the government had other ideas as well to cement its censorship of “politically incorrect” songs. A lot of international songs, most notably reggae comprise of hitting lyrics that revolve around the need to respect basic human rights and freedom of association. Songs like Bob Marley’s Them Belly Full (But we hungry), in times when Zimbabweans were dying of hunger while those in the establishment were feasting, had to be dealt with.
In 2001 government announced that it was enacting a law that made it compulsory for DJs and presenters to allocate a staggering 75 percent of all programming to music from Zimbabwe. This was followed later with the announcement that it had to be 100 percent local content. In having 100 percent local content, which meant the Zanu PF government music productions, this meant no alternative voices could be heard from overseas musicians. Several popular DJs resigned after this announcement as they would be left with no choice but to play government music productions day in day out.

The pop teen station, Power FM was to be the most hit with this new programming as it catered for youngsters who were used to listening to gangster and sexually explicit lyrical music coming in various genres – pop, R&B or raga. To counter this, the government launched a recording stable for urban grooves (pop, R&B and raga) that was to be run by the teen radio station. The stable’s recordings were to be sung in the country’s languages – Shona or Ndebele which could give it a local feel. Indeed the teenagers, whose compositions had all along been rejected by record companies as not original and commercially viable, responded favourably to the offer. But their lyrics had to be “correct”. Hundreds of songs were recorded as single records and flooded the station. Most of the compositions have traces of popular international songs but spiced with local lyrics.

But like what Zimbabwean journalist Luke Tamborenyoka said, while it is true that localizing the content of our media comes with great challenges and enables us to realize our potential, “unleashing spin-offs in the creation of locally-produced films and music production houses, a country does not have to become a recluse in the process by playing deaf to artistic voices from outside its borders.”

Protest Theatre
Many critical and thought provoking musical drama or theatre plays by independent Zimbabwean arts companies have also found no space on the state broadcaster. Two of the most prominent theatre companies, Amakhosi Arts Community Centre from Bulawayo and Rooftop Promotions from Harare have over the years produced critical plays that have never been broadcast on television.
In 1986, Amakhosi Arts Community Centre’s controversial play Workshop Negative critically challenged the government and exposed the sham of its declared Marxist ideology in Zimbabwe where senior government officials preached socialism while they amassed wealth. Since then Amakhosi Arts Community Centre’s productions have been viewed with suspicion by the state. Some of the more critical works which could not be broadcast on national television were Cry Sililo, Dabulap and Stitsha a 1989 production about the issue of land.
Cont Mhlanga, a music and theatre producer for Amakhosi Arts Community Centre said the broadcasting industry was still closed to independent productions: “We have the products, but the problem is that there is only one buyer – ZBC. We need a situation where if one buyer says no to a product, one can move on and offer it to someone else.”

In 2004 Rooftop Promotions’ play Super Patriots and Morons was banned in Zimbabwe by the censorship board. Super Patriots and Morons condemns misrule and the abuse of human rights by an unnamed political leader. The play seemed to have ruffled the feathers of government during the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) in April.
Rooftop Promotions spokesperson, Shepherd Mutamba said the ban had deprived Zimbabweans of a fundamental right to choose arts products of their choice. “The ban sought to rob our artistes of a voice and the freedom of speech. But art has many voices and many faces. One fine day when democracy finally comes to town, locals will have the opportunity to watch the play,” said Mutamba.

Equally critical plays by Rooftop Promotions which have failed to get space on national television include A Play of the Giants, Rags and Garbage, Ivhu versus the State and Dare/Enkundleni a joint production between Rooftop Promotions and Amakhosi Theatre Productions which encourages tolerance and dialogue among Zimbabweans who have been torn apart because of their political differences.
Daves Guzha the producer for Rooftop Promotions, a music, film and theatre company says the growth of the Zimbabwean arts industry would never be realized if there were no independent radio and television stations as ZBC was the only buyer of artists’ products. Guzha says: “A number of productions by various independent producers have been rejected by ZBC. There is no clear explanation. We need more players who can look at these products. The position is not favorable.”
Rooftop Promotions and Amakhosi Arts Community Centre have however managed to show one or two co-productions with the state broadcaster which are watered down. According to the two companies, those who need to have access to their protest works have only one choice – visit the theatres. Mhlanga says: “Every other avenue is closed.”

The production by government of the aforementioned music albums and campaign jingles have been used to the advantage of the ruling Zanu PF party as it is a form of advertising for its policies. This has left out (censored out) opposition political parties who can not do the same considering that the state controls the electronic media. In fact, a closer analysis of the productions show that they portray opposition party politics in the negative.

The participation of the Police and Air Force musical bands in some of these productions sends the wrong signal to the army and police, both public organs which have to be neutral and serve all Zimbabweans regardless of political affiliation. The two state-funded musical bands whose responsibility is to entertain Zimbabweans at state and public functions are now in the habit of playing these Zanu PF compositions, thereby taking sides by selling the ruling party’s policies.

On the other hand the use of prominent musicians to record the ruling Zanu PF propaganda has had negative consequences to involved musicians. The musicians’ continued flight on television has made them easy targets in the urban towns where the majority of people supporting the opposition political parties reside. Most of these musicians have been physically attacked by angry Zimbabweans for siding and promoting corrupt policies. Some have been chased from their homes while others have been ridiculed at various venues while performing. During political tensions, a number of these musicians have resorted to hiring bodyguards so as to safeguard themselves. Several popular performing venues in the city of Harare have barred some of these musicians from making bookings. This has left them with no choice but to play at relegated venues.

The result of government’s frustrating tactics has led to a number of talented Zimbabwean radio presenters fleeing overseas where they are now working on pirate radios, notably SW Radio Africa and Voice of the People which broadcast on short wave from London and the Netherlands respectively. The two radio stations play most of the songs black listed by government. The presenters have been banned from ever coming back to Zimbabwe.
Musician Raymond Majongwe, in an interview with The Standard newspaper this year alleged that he was receiving hoax calls from suspected State security agents telling him to strike his music off SW Radio Africa. “I haven’t had an official visit from the police but suspect all these threatening calls have something to do with my music. I have also noticed that I am being stalked by shadowy characters since I released my album which was reviewed by the Daily News,” Majongwe said.

The Daily News was the only independent newspapers in Zimbabwe and devoted five or more pages every day to the arts, music being the main subject. A number of the so called controversial songs were reviewed in detail in the newspaper. The newspaper also gave space to several musicians who were critical to government policies.
But the government closed that medium by shutting down the Daily News and two other independent newspapers.

In replacing the “banned” songs with its own commissioned music, government had wanted to kill two birds with one stone. First, it was to kill protest music altogether as radio and television were the most influential in terms of marketing music products. The government however misled itself in thinking that the commissioned music albums would sell thousands of copies which would bank roll more productions. The albums have failed to sell.
Second, the government thought the banning would affect these rebellious musicians’ live shows and record sales, hence destroy their income base. This, it thought would force the rebellious musicians to come to its fold.

And while government makes all the effort to keep the doors of freedom firmly shut, the banned music continue to reverberate in the commuter omnibuses, in private cars and in the high-density areas as ordinary people identify with the sidelined but hard hitting songs. The banned music is sold on the streets and open markets. As the propaganda takes centre stage and occupy prime time on state radio and television the ordinary people in urban areas have shunned national radio and television. With their attention swayed away from radio and television they have resorted to attending music and theatre live shows performances. They have also resorted to home video tapes to quench their artistic thirst.

In rural Zimbabwe, where 70 percent of the people live and most depend on radio for news and entertainment, the propaganda music has become doctrine, affecting people’s lives and way of thinking. And this has been fuelled by government’s declaration that all programming be dominated by local productions.
The result has been that Zimbabwe has been shut out from the international community, responding only to the deep resonance of its own sounds, indeed a world recluse as a frightened government seeks to shelter the country in its own cocoon, seeing plots and conspiracies all around it; indeed warped visions of enemies sharpening their swords in the horizon in an unparalleled optical illusion. Hence the need for “feel good art” in which state radio and television are replete with propaganda jingles that laud government projects and programmes.

  Thomas Mapfumo - click to read more
Thomas Mapfumo – click to read more

Cover art from Chimurenga Explosion
Cover art from Chimurenga Explosion. Click to enlarge.
Home / News / Zimbabwe: Complete control – Music and propaganda in Zimbabwe