By Munyaradzi Hwengwere
I met and began to know Cont Mhlanga in 2002 when I was CEO of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. Before then I had heard and read a lot about him.
To be frank, my opinions of him were negative. I had concluded that he was nothing more than a tribalist with a voice and receptive ears. So I must confess my enthusiasm for engaging with Cont was very low.
Unfortunately what I thought of him at the time could not take away the need to ensure that our Ndebele-speaking audiences were given space on ZBC platforms. My board had directed that I make this part of my agenda. Being one who had spent my life in the southern regions of Zimbabwe including Bulawayo, my heart also told me I had to be more enthusiastic about this idea. To crown it all, during a strike by workers at ZBC, only those from Gweru and Montrose studios had chosen to take sides with me. I surely owed my Bulawayo team something even if that meant meeting Cont Mhlanga.
So as I drove to meet this Amakhosi man I felt like a man going to face his worst fears, knowing on the one side it must be done but afraid of the outcome. Surprisingly we hit it off like brother separated by cruel fate. I told him about my upbringing in Manama and the fact of Ndebele having been my first language before Shona. He took me around Amakhosi and he shared his dream of turning it into a multimedia complex. Of course, he downloaded his many frustrations with ZBC which funny enough were my own too.
Instead of an unreasonable tribalist, I had heard of and sometimes believed I knew from his many writings I discovered an intellectual, an artist, a creative genius, a hard bargaining genius and a man with a vision for the transformation of the arts industry in Zimbabwe.
In later days my teams at ZBC believed I gave him too much of an ear. Each time he would run into challenges especially related to payments he would pass by my office. In turn, I would call for a meeting to which I would ask my team to give him his dues.
Together we decided to launch Friday Live at Amakhosi. That was the first time I watched Tongai Moyo perform the hit song Samanyemba. It was a pleasure to see a musician so polished.
I shared on many days we engaged with Cont the idea to turn the lives of artisanal miners into a soapie as big as Studio 263. That discussion was the basis for his drama series, Amakorokoza which in its earliest days he had the honour to credit me for creating on every episode.
But mine was not a long stay at ZBC. I left of my own volition at the time of a restructuring which up to this day I believe was an ill-conceived idea that has contributed to the many challenges the broadcaster continues to grapple with.
Had our relationship been a transactional one, I am certain it would have ended with my departure from ZBC. But alas. We continued to engage and interact including sharing ideas to establish radio stations. I chose Zvishavane to establish YAFM to continue with the unfinished account of mining communities. Cont settled for his beloved homes of Matabeleland North with Breeze FM in Victoria Falls and Skyz Metro in Bulawayo. I was certain that his idea to build a vibrant multimedia centre would come to fruition, only to hear he had retreated to settle in rural Lupane. I am not competent to understand why he chose to do so or whether it was a wise decision. It is sad to hear that this man is no more.
What I know though is that the arts and business community of Zimbabwe owes this man a big apology. He had big dreams for the country. He knew how to put pen to paper. He fought not to be federalized but be seen as a full citizen of Zimbabwe with his rights and privileges.
Importantly he could have been an important messenger connecting the emotions of people to tangible goods and services. He did not see the arts industry as separate from engineering, ICT, architecture, movies and books. He understood that the arts and media are the glue that ensures that human finite intellectual and creative genius is brought to life. Cont was Zimbabwe’s Michelangelo and many of those artists we admire. Yet for all his abilities and contributions he had to fight and shout to be truly recognized not as a person from Matabeleland but as a gift from and to Zimbabwe.
Is it possible that we can use his untimely passing on to rekindle the way our country treats its many creative geniuses? Can ZBC as the national broadcaster and many other private players including my own YAFM wake up to our responsibilities to understand that our role is not just to reflect on culture but importantly stir useful debates?
How do we get the corporates to embrace the arts and understand that in many countries artists are not paupers but people who operate on the same table with the rich and famous? How can we use Cont’s passing on to get our nationals across all domains of society including politics to understand that the arts go beyond a few iconic musicians, which by the way also owe their success to the 75 percent local content policy thrust?
Our future comes from the dreams that we implement. The same dreams can turn into nightmares unless we learn to cherish those that ensure we dream and act. The creative industry is the soul of Zimbabwe. Cont was a leading voice of that industry. He has passed on at a time when that burning desire seems far away from being fulfilled. At the very least let us make sure that as he now watches from above he realizes his efforts were not in vain.
—Munyaradzi Hwengwere is former CEO of ZBC