Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Zimbabwean Theatre and Censorship: Views from Walter Muparutsa

By Samuel Ravengai
Walter Muparutsa was a fierce defender of freedom of expression. He did not only talk about it, but demonstrated it in action by directing plays which tackled tabooed subjects. He engaged with authorities and state security agents to convince them that they were not following the law by denying citizens the right to express themselves. I interviewed Walter Muparutsa on the 10th of April 2008 about the subject of censorship and freedom of expression and this is what he said:
Walter Muparutsa (WP):        It came to a point where a lot of the artists were not allowed to voice their concerns. But the audience who went to see their performances was empowered. So Jonathan Moyo and all the people in government know how to exploit the arts for it to be consumed by the electorate. The electorate (rural) is less informed because there is no information in the country. The government holds back information from the electorate. So Jonathan Moyo being minister of information takes advantage of that situation by exploiting the arts using galas and performances to promote the land reform programme and the establishment.

Samuel Ravengai (SR) :           Now, you were talking about the issue of organizations that inject money into theatre groups in order to further their agendas. Did you say it was a problem?

WM:    It’s just like the government. The government is an organization. It brings money to the artists but with a hidden agenda and they abuse the artists. If an NGO or any other organization has got agendas they will bring an idea like HIV/AIDS. Those are given terms of reference. They have been commissioned. You are given guidelines. This is how you perform the thing.  Of course, you use a bit of creativity; in fact with the right person, the writer and then the person who is got to direct and the artists who are going to act the play you can come up with a good product. However, because that organization is not a straight forward thing, they want an instructional thing which causes people to take a certain line of thinking. In most cases this causes problems. For example the donor may come up with the idea that HIV/AIDS on its own does not kill.

SR:       But in a democracy isn’t it allowed to do that?

WM:    What I’m saying is this, the artist is to blame. Generally the artists using their creativity should not do that, if they don’t want to be compromised in their creativity. If you say it’s democratic, okay it’s democratic but the thing is this, in order to make an informed decision, you ought to be really grounded in whatever things you’re doing.  A lot of the artists have been used at galas for propaganda by Jonathan Moyo. Those guys were out there just to get bread and butter. It was to go and get money. They didn’t think about the effects of their messages to the population. For them it was simply doing things blindly and so forth. But then the thing is, at the same time, the artists can turn around and say it’s my democratic right, I can do what I like. This is why you find a person like Andy Brown; he’s one of the most prolific musicians in this country. His whole career collapsed. If he was forced, then it’s something else, but if he did it through his own free will, I don’t know; we have somebody whom I think is an intelligent person.

SR:       Let’s come back to the issue of What They Said What They Got. I believe you took part in it together with Raisedon Baya. But when you put that kind of creativity you find yourself having problems with the authorities.

WM:    This is a case like the HIV/AIDS commissioned play. You’re trying to tell the nation that there is a thing called freedom to access information. The people of Zimbabwe have a government which controls information. They are draconian laws to control the flow of information. We are saying how can people be informed? How can they best make informed decisions and choices in a situation where there is only one paper you can read. Other papers are banned. That play highlights the way police actually administer AIPPA and POSA. You can actually see that it was wrong.

SR:       Why do you say that?

WM:    It’s wrong in the sense that they are denying people the right to information. Your constitution clearly says that but look, this is where the problem is. This country got into problems because there was no opposition in parliament. To oppose was considered unpatriotic. The fact of the matter is Zimbabwe became a de facto one party state. Now we are saying that because it’s a one party state, you’re forcing people to agree to things that they don’t want.  If you want to be honest, would you say in parliament the bills introduced were exhaustively debated before they became law? No! Ravengai!  If you went there one day to listen to the debate to any piece of legislation you’ll feel very angry. Because, in fact, the whole thing is a comedy. It’s a farce. They were not serious. And for over all these years, they were never able to be serious because they always destroyed the opposition.  If you say anything contrary to ZANU PF you’re an enemy of the state, you’re a reactionary. You cannot even get to discuss or debate anything here? Now the thing is this; how can you even, in terms of the laws they enact get to say the laws are fair.

SR:       Now, let’s talk about What they Said What They Got.  Now, in Harare were you given space to do this play?

WM:    Right. What happened is this, with What they Say What They Got Global Arts was given six provinces to operate in. Rooftop promotions were in Harare Province, Mash East, West and Central. Global Arts had Manicaland, Masvingo, Midlands, Matabeleland North, Mat South and Bulawayo metropolitan province. So here in Harare when What they Said What They Got was being done at Theatre in the Park, it was very dangerous because every night state security agents came to watch it. Their presence destroyed debate to a point where you always felt that it inhibited free discussion. Now this is the problem throughout Zimbabwe. You cannot fully freely express yourself, your own opinion, because if you said something that’s contrary to the ruling party or the government you are an enemy of the state. At certain times I have been told mudhara (old man) what you are saying will get you hurt. You ask them ‘who doesn’t allow it? Who has got the right to tell me that it’s not allowed?’ Then somebody says ‘we know you think that you are safe, but one day things will be difficult for you’. Now, how can you, a citizen of this country live in fear? So What They Said What they Got, to be very honest with you, was something that was sort of an affront to the establishment. We have got a situation where we are saying free the airwaves so that people can have the freedom to receive information from all sides. You have even a situation of the Censorship Board which is restrictive.

SR:       Did this play go to the Censorship Board?

WM:    To be very honest with you, I’m not quite sure. When Rooftop Promotion first did the play, I don’t know whether it sent the copy there. Because for me the version that I did was the revised version which we even had to discuss with the actors at the workshop. The first one which Rooftop did, which I managed to tour with got myself into all sorts of problems. I don’t think it went to the Censorship Board. 

SR:       Normally the government gives theatre some kind of space at Theatre in the Park, but once you take the production outside Harare you create problems. How was it like in Bulawayo?

WM:    In Bulawayo Metropolitan province it was fine, no problem as long as it doesn’t go to Amakhosi. Anything that is associated with Amakhosi you got a problem, because Amakhosi has been stigmatised as anti-government. What actually happened was this, when I first went to stage this play at Amakhosi. The police came and I was in the same place. They came and they didn’t consult me. After the staging of the play the discussions didn’t quite happen as normal.

SR:       Did you perform the play in the townships of Bulawayo?

WP:      I had problems when I went into the townships. There had been an incident in town. The people in Bulawayo don’t like ZINWA. The Bulawayo municipality is predominantly controlled by the opposition. Now, ZINWA came there to try to force this down their throats and there were running battles in town. In the meantime I wanted to stage a play at Stanley Hall. Then that’s when I had problems because the details came there, they stopped the play. The audience was already in. 

SR:       Really? Tell me exactly what happened at Stanley Hall.

WM:    Stanley Hall. Posters were put there. They came in, and once they were inside, just about two to three minutes before the play started, because at the same time as the people were getting in, we also had to give them literature on the state of information gathering and dissemination in the country, a published thing which has not been banned. So these people came, the police details and this person (police officer) is very very well known in Bulawayo. And they say he actually shoots people. Zenzo and Mark knew him for that. He came in. He says to me, ‘what is this that you are trying to do?’ Then I said ‘this is my work. I’m not trying to do anything. I’m staging a play’. So he says ‘have you got clearance to stage a play because under POSA you must have one from National Arts Council’. Of course National Arts Council knew that there‘s a play from the Censorship Board. You get clearance from the Censorship Board. However, even if the Censorship Board gives you a performing certificate, the police can still come and stop the play because they say the regulatory authority at that particular area can stop the play. So they said that, ‘under POSA you can’t do this’. But I know that plays are not mentioned under POSA so I went there. They said, ‘no, no, get these people out of this place’. I refused and I said ‘I’m not getting them out. I’ll leave them here’. They said ‘come to the police station’ and I said ‘let’s go’.  The police said ‘move’ and I said ‘no no I’m driving, get in the car’. So I drove them to the police station. We got there and they went in to tell their seniors. They left me outside and they later called me inside.

WM:    Ya!  So he says ‘what are you trying to do?’  I said, ‘I’m not trying to do. That’s my work. I’m staging a play’. They said you don’t have clearance under POSA to do a play. I told them that it was not a requirement under POSA just like churches and so on. Here it is in the law. I actually read that. Now the particular officer didn’t know anything about Censorship Board. He didn’t ask about Censorship Board. It was just POSA. He told me that I could not do that play and asked me ‘why are you giving out the books to people to read?’ I said, ‘is there a law prohibiting people from reading material? Look, anything that’s published, that if you go to a library you can read it, can be circulated in the country. If this was something that was anti-establishment they would have stopped it. So you don’t ask me’. They said ‘where do you come from?’ and I said ‘friend I think what you are doing now is harassment. I am doing my work and why are you stopping me from doing my work. Under the constitution I’ve got a right to do my work’. He said, ‘let me tell you this, you cannot stage this play without clearance from the regulatory authorities. So you get it. You stop what you are doing. You go chase those people away from the hall’. I said, ‘I’m not going to chase them because in the first place I am the one who invited them there. I can’t go there and chase them.  You can go and chase them’. They retorted, ‘if you are going to do this play, we are certainly going to arrest you. It was at that point when I told him that ‘what you are doing is exactly what Smith was doing’.

SR:       Just like that?

WM:    Yah.  I asked him if he knew where the name Luveve came from and he said he didn’t know. Now it’s called Luveve Secondary School. It was a technical college. We stopped it during the 60s. We did several riots because there was a bad system governing the country and that thing is now a secondary school. If what he had done was done during the ZAPU organised riots there could have been an ugly incident. You don’t provoke people. I want to tell you something. I’m a nationalist, for your own information. What you are doing is very wrong, this is wrong. This is not what the people went to fight for. You’ve gone back to the Smith days. This is wrong. They said, ‘anyway, I have heard what you are saying. Go and stop the thing’. I said ‘then tell your boys to go stop the thing because I’m not going to stop it. So the officers were called inside and were told ‘this man is called Walter Muparutsa’. I told them that I had another show which I was supposed to do before returning to Harare. They said ‘all the shows which you are going to do here in Bulawayo, as long as they are not cleared by the regulatory authorities (officer commanding Bulawayo Province) you are not going to do any show’. So all the subsequent shows were stopped. Then I thought to myself, if they allowed me to do a show at Amakhosi, I should go back and do another show at Amakhosi. But there was real trouble there. MMPZ then said ‘no Muparutsa you can’t do it because these people are really out to get you. There’s trouble there. Riot police will come’.

SR:       Did you stop when the Media Monitoring Project asked you to?

WM:    I couldn’t. Because even the officers from MMPZ, Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, they were in Bulawayo at that time. And when I was actually at the police station, they phoned me asking if I needed legal assistance. I said no, I didn’t commit a crime I don’t need legal assistance. I’m talking to these people who don’t understand my work. And I was saying this openly while they were within hearing range.

SR:       Now let’s go back to you as theatre consultant for HIFA. Did you any problems with plays that you had earmarked for HIFA from the authorities?

WM:    Look I worked for the Rhodesia Literature Bureau. First of all, I worked for Smith’s government in the information department. Within the information department we worked as reader translators, when you more or less translated the policy statements. And then from there I was moved to the Ministry of Education. Then at that time the Southern Rhodesia Africa Youth Tribunal was formed. We were the first people to work there because these people wanted to separate black development, in those times. They said you Africans should write in your own languages and develop them. We were not encouraged to write in English. So the Literature Bureau was actually there to encourage African authorship. So for most of the playwrights one would write those things translating chapter by chapter which we sent to the white officer who read these things. If a foreman beat up a white person the policy stipulated that a white person could not be beaten by a black person and we were asked to change it. We laughed about it.  People don’t know that I’m coming from a long history of struggle between governments and the arts. So with all this experience with governments right from Smith to Mugabe there are ways of avoiding these people sometimes. You take a script to the authorities and they tell you to remove this chapter and that or the whole four pages of a script. To beat the system you take out the controversial parts and send it to the authorities. Those people are very old so they read the doctored version. Some of them are very good friends of mine.

SR:       Is that what you did with Heaven’s Diary?

WM:    Yes! I removed certain pages and then sent it. I went back to the actors and told them, act the play as it is. Then it went.

SR:       Was it HIFA 2005?

WM:    2005 I think 2005 yah!

SR:       Tell me more about Vagina Monologues.

WM:    Vagina Monologues had lots of problems. They said it would not be done. It was the title that shocked a very conservative establishment. But biologically, every man who is on earth came through that opening but people are ashamed of talking about it, or even mention it. It becomes a problem to those people. But it’s really … look when God created human beings, there was nothing to be ashamed of.

SR:       Did it go to the Board of Censors?

WM:    Yes and they said remove this and that part and I complied. Then I took it the performing company and told them to act according to the original version.

SR:       Now I heard there was some kind of trouble with the church. What was the trouble about? Isn’t it true that the play was staged at the Dutch Reformed Church or Standard Theatre?

WM:    The Reformed Church is also one of those very conservative institutions. So I mean they were not quite happy about it but it was staged. And yet that was the only play that had three performances full houses because of the title. But not that the play was fantastic or anything. No it was just an ordinary play.

SR:       Now, let’s go back to the issue of National Arts Council which you said controls theatre.

WM:    Yah, we once did a play called Padare/Ekundleni when I was still working with Davis Guzha at Rooftop Promotions. It was quite a big play. We had 50 actors, five from each province. So with the ten provinces, it was 50. When we opened, we invited National Arts officials. They came. We even had the National Arts’ logo on our banners, poster, the lot, everything.

SR:       How long ago was that?

WM:    2002. I remember I left Rooftop 2002. So that’s the time Jonathan Moyo was on the scene. National Arts Council was invited. They were our partners in the play which was national. It was all about the essence and the importance of having debating platforms. Now the whole issue of debating platforms in a democratic state, even before the whites came was there. It was a wonderful platform where everybody was given a chance to voice their concerns at the tribal council. Now the thing is Padare/Ekundleni had problems. When Jonathan Moyo heard about it he wasn’t happy. This whole play was written by Cont Mhlanga. It was a commissioned play but the idea in essence came from Rooftop Promotions and Cont was commissioned to write the project. Later on the officials from National Arts Council came. They blessed the opening and so on. During part of the day, the NACZ officials received a letter from the information ministry telling them to completely disassociate themselves from that play. We don’t even want you to be part and parcel of that play. Chipangura ran away. We then had to engage Chipangura in a very serious discussion. And then of course being much older than Daves I could see that Chipangura was behaving like a civil servant. And the thing is that it became dangerous. It was very very dangerous, because 2002 was volatile politically. That was the time Padare had to give actors survival tactics where they would stage the play. But it was dangerous. One of my actors from Chinhoyi was severely assaulted in Chinhoyi.
SR:       What had happened?

WM:    Each province had five actors who went round the province.

SR:       Like What they Said What they Got?

WM: NO! What They Said What They Got was not as intensive as Padare. Padare was intensive. And we staged it at the most dangerous time which was actually a mistake. You shouldn’t do things like that, it’s better that you get time to go and … because some of these plays they are more of civic education plays than anything.
SR:       Now, apart from Chipangura disassociating himself from this play how did other stakeholders respond?
WM:    Ha! We were actually playing cat and mouse game with the police throughout the whole production. We had to go to Mutare. The group in Mutare was stopped and then they were told that they should produce their director and producer. So I went there with Daves Guzha to Mutare. It was very dramatic. We got there and then there was this PISI

SR: Ya I know these guys Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI)

WM:    We told the officer that we were from Rooftop Promotion. He asked us what our core business was and we told him that he had invited us. He said our play was not right and I asked him if he had seen the play. He said he hadn’t seen the play but a friend of his from Chinhoyi had phoned them to say there’s a play which encourages people not to send their grain to GMB. We told him to go and see the play first before wasting our time. He asked why we were doing plays that criticised the government and I asked him again if he had seen the play. I reminded him that I came from Mutare and that I was a very responsible person.  ‘I don’t go around causing problems like a thug. No! My job of doing plays is an honourable job as far as I’m concerned. Since you have got contrary views, I’m saying go and watch the play. Tonight it will be at Africa University. Then you can call us back’. He declined and told us that artists always want to cause problems. 

SR:       So how did it end?

WM:    We told him to go and watch the play.

SR:       Did he go and watch?

WM:    I don’t know if he went. But these people just carried on. Wherever they were refused permission to perform they would stop and go to the next place because we had a lot of venues dotted throughout the whole country. Well what they did was you know, you get to a centre, you drum and you sing as actors. People come.

SR:       Now, do you still have the statistics of how many performances were stopped?

WM:    Ha No! We we, we managed I’d say it was almost like a 98% performance. 2% stopped. But then you see it was all like guerrilla warfare.  How do you train actors to survive in a hostile environment?

SR:       On that note Walter, thanks. That was nice.