ZAFTAs 2023: Playwright Cont Mhlanga honored with Legacy Award for his immense contribution to Zimbabwean arts


HARARE – The first ever Zimbabwe Annual Film and Television Awards (ZAFTAs) roared into life this past Saturday at 55 Kwame Nkrumah Avenue, and truly, the Cinema Society of Zimbabwe initiative lived up to its billing. 

The award show was attended by notable names in Zimbabwean arts, including Deputy Minister of Sports, Arts, Recreation, and Culture; Emily Jesaya. 

While it was a night to celebrate outstanding players in Zimbabwean film and television, it would have been remiss for the ZAFTAs to forget those who have paved the way for the current generation of Zimbabwean talent. 

Thus, they introduced a special category award called the ZAFTAs Legacy Award—a prestigious honor bestowed upon individuals who have made a profound and lasting impact on the Zimbabwean film and television industry.

And who else has a more enduring legacy than the legendary Cont Mhlanga.

Cont Mhlanga
The late Cont Mhlanga

The deserving Cont Mhlanga was posthumously awarded the ZAFTAs Legacy Award; a celebration of his enduring influence, and a way to immortalise the arts doyen for his exceptional contribution to Zimbabwean film, theatre and television.

The renowned playwright succumbed to pneumonia on 1 August 2022, at the age of 64. 

Throughout his illustrious career, spanning over 40 years, Cont Mhlanga played a pivotal role in nurturing local and international talent. 

Through his storytelling prowess, Cont captured the hearts and minds of audiences, captivating them with his narratives that touched on social issues and celebrated Zimbabwean culture.

He served as a mentor, guiding and inspiring countless aspiring filmmakers and actors to develop their craft. 

He helped discover and mentor some of the country's talented artists including Ba Shupi, Sandra Ndebele, Sarah Mpofu, Raisedon Baya, William Nyandoro, Edith weUtonga, AK, Sandra Ndebele, Beater Mangethe, and Iyasa—arguably Bulawayo's foremost performing arts school. 

Born Continueloving Mdladla Mhlanga on March 16 in 1958 at Fatima Mission in Lupane, the arts doyen went on to create one of the most remarkable and enduring arts institutions in post-independence Zimbabwe. 

Born to Dickson Mbikwa and Sarah Danile, Cont was the first born in a large family of 14 boys and four girls. He went to Shabula Primary School and Fatima Primary School. For his secondary education, he learnt at Fatima High School from Form one to two, then did Form three and four, at Sobukazi High School in Bulawayo.

His career in the cultural and creative industries began in 1981 when he formed Amakhosi Theatre Arts Productions. It had started in 1979, as a youth karate club called Dragons Karate Club in Makokoba. 

The transition from karate to theatre was by pure coincidence. In 1980, the National Theatre Organisation was hosting a workshop at Stanley Hall, which is where the karate club conducted its sessions. Mhlanga decided to attend out of curiosity, not knowing that chance occurrence would change his life forever.

His initial play in 1980, Sibongile faltered and was poorly attended. In 1982 he made his breakthrough with his production Book of Lies which was staged at Stanley Hall.

The legend wrote more than 20 plays among them The Good President, The End, Sinjalo, Children on Fire, Games and Bombs, Members Only, Workshop Negative, Vikela, Citizen Mind, Pregnant with Emotion, Tomorrow's People, Nansi Lendoda, Ngizozula Lawe, Double Up (a play touching on the plight of youths running away to South Africa to earn a living), Bantwana Bantwana, Diamond Warriors, Stitsha, Dabulap, Cry Isililo, and Somkhence—Zimbabwe’s first ethnic opera. 

Sinjalo explored everyday challenges in the life of two friends, Sakhamuzi (Ndebele) and Foromani (Shona), a narrative that sought to teach the world that both Ndebele and Shona people of Zimbabwe could live together as friends with no enmity and prejudice. The play went on to be adapted for Television, as a sitcom screened on ZBC in the late 1990's. 

Mhlanga starred as Mtutureli Niekwu in an anti-apartheid movie A World Apart which was released in 1988. It was in 1988 that Amakhosi became a professional theatre. 

In 1991, his play Workshop Negative featured in the Edinburgh Festival, in Scotland.

During the same year, his other play Stitsha toured Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Sweden, before proceeding to the United States of America and Denmark. 

In 1995 Amakhosi established the country's first privately owned cultural centre located within the boundaries of the townships, now popularly known as the Township Square Cultural Center.

Cont has three books to his name including the play Nansi leNdoda—a former Advanced level set book; and Ngakade Ngisazi, a collection of short stories.

In the early 90's, Mhlanga exploded from the stage on to the small screen. He adapted his already acclaimed plays for television, most notably Stitsha, which featured the late Beatar Mangethe. He also produced plenty Ndebele shows among them Bamqgibela Ephila, Omunye Umngcwabo, The Run-Away Nun, and Usathani Endlini. 

His crowning achievement in television is Amakorokoza, a drama series which explored the realities of illegal small scale miners. The drama spanned an impressive 600 episodes on ZBC.  

Mhlanga's inimitable ability to take the lived realities of our people as inspiration and tell compelling stories is what made him Zimbabwe's most enduring producer. 

“We wanted what we did to be of significance to a local audience, and they should be able to recognise themselves in what we were doing,” Mhlanga told Southern Eye on the occasion of Bulawayo’s centenary celebrations in 2014.

Amakhosi’s motto—‘Umkhulu lo Msebenzi’ (the work is great) isn't just a vapid mantra, it was Cont Mhlanga's way of life. 

“I’m not the kind of person who likes his life splashed around in the papers. I want to be known for my work and nothing else,” the late soft-spoken arts guru told local weekly publication Sunday News in March 2021.

Mhlanga's ability to provide sociopolitical commentary through art attracted it's fair share of controversy. Workshop Negative was banned in 1986. 

The Good President was banned indefinitely. Although presented as a fictional account, its depiction of an African dictator who ruled his country since 1980 drew comparisons with late President Robert Mugabe. Mhlanga was briefly arrested in May 2006 for "conducting political meetings under the guise of plays and workshops."

As a Bulawayo figure, Mhlanga was an institution synonymous with the city like Highlanders FC, Lovemore Majaivana or Pathisa Nyathi.

In 2002, Mhlanga became the 67th recipient of the City of Bulawayo Civic Honors Award, in recognition of his role in the development of Bulawayo theatre and arts. 

Mhlanga’s politically-charged play The Good President won him an Art Venture Freedom to Create award in 2008. He won the award out of nearly 1 000 entrants from 86 countries.

Mhlanga and the Amakhosi Cultural Center were awarded the Prince Klaus Award in 2015, an accolade given in honour of Prince Klaus of Netherlands to honour outstanding achievements in culture and development. 

Mhlanga was the founding vice chairperson of Fairtalk Communications, the parent company of Bulawayo's first regional commercial radio station, SkyzMetro FM and its sister station, Breeze FM in Victoria Falls. He was also involved in the setting up of the newly licenced television station, Keyona TV.

At the time of his death, he had been appointed as a member of the national team for the creation of a strategy for the Zimbabwe Film Sector. It is the film industry's utmost hope that Cont Mhlanga's legacy is cemented by the establishment of a coordinated national strategy on Film and Television. 

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