November 27, 2008 / 2:54 PM / 10 years ago

Zimbabwe playwright and Mugabe critic wins award

LONDON (Reuters) - Zimbabwean playwright Cont Mhlanga, who has challenged President Robert Mugabe’s rule throughout his career, has been awarded a new prize celebrating the role the arts can play in promoting human rights.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe attends the funeral service of the late Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa in Lusaka, September 3, 2008. REUTERS/Mackson Wasamunu

Mhlanga has seen his last two plays, both political satires, banned by the authorities, and welcomed the award as a morale booster and security blanket in a country where he says he is not safe.

“It’s not that safe,” said the playwright, who would not give his age but described himself as “just an old man.”

“I always live by being very careful,” he told Reuters by telephone from Zimbabwe. He did not to fly to London to receive the prize this week, partly because there was not enough time.

“What saved me is that I’ve always focused on hard-hitting issues without touching the political side. I hope this award gives me global exposure, as that in itself gives me safety.”

The play which won the inaugural ArtVenture Freedom to Create Prize, worth $50,000, was “The Good President,” which was staged in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo last year before being banned for its perceived parallels with Mugabe.

Prize organizers described The Good President as a political satire that depicts an African dictator who has ruled Zimbabwe for 27 years since the country gained independence in 1980.

The play, presented as a fictional account, opens with scenes depicting police chasing street protesters and showing how the country’s laws prohibit a gathering of more than five people without police clearance.

The play also depicts an elected opposition leader being taken to a police station and brutally beaten.

Zimbabwe opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who defeated Mugabe in a March presidential poll but withdrew from a run-off vote due to violence, was detained and badly beaten in police custody in March, 2007.


Mhlanga, who has written 21 plays, said the timing of The Good President meant it was widely discussed and debated.

“I think it worked because the play came at the right time.

“The government here works on a long term plan, so in March (last year), when they started the violence against the opposition, they were preparing for the 2008 election.

“I was aware that was what they were doing. I was quick to say, ‘let’s discuss this’.”

He has since written another play “Overthrown,” but it was closed down before it even began its run.

Mhlanga said “the world out there cannot imagine how it is now” in Zimbabwe, where many could not afford basic food, and schools and hospitals were closing due to the economic crisis.

Also awarded was the ArtVenture Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist prize, worth $25,000, which went to popular comedian and activist Zarganar, sentenced this month in military-ruled Myanmar to 45 years in prison.

Zarganar was detained in June after publicly criticizing the ruling generals for their sluggish response to Cyclone Nargis, which left 134,000 people dead or missing.

His sentence was the latest in a series of lengthy jail terms handed down to more than 100 dissidents, relatives said.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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