Zambezi News and the art of Satire in Zimbabwe

By Neo Maditla and Kristen van Schie

In an episode of Zimbabwean satire show Zambezi News, a harrassed editor walks up to the three assembled news anchors and lays down the law.
“Listen!” shouts actress, Chipo Chikara.

“This news organisation is descending into reckless, foreign-sponsored gobbledy-gook. People don’t need facts – they need our stories. Last week you even covered a member of the other party, even though he was dead. Doesn’t matter that it was his funeral – you know we don’t cover them.
“We have a directive right from the top,” she says, pointing to a poster stuck on a blackboard next to them.

“Patriotism is the news,” it reads. “The news is patriotism.”
The anchors next appear behind a news desk bedecked in Zimbabwean flags, wearing Zimbabwean flag bowties and drinking out of Zimbabwean flag mugs.
“And now onto our segment, Patriotism 101”, says Samm Munro.
“To be patriotic, don’t read between the lines,” chimes in actor, Tongai Makawa, “Just read the lines.”
“And in other news,” says actor, Michael Kudakwashe, “climate change scientists in Pennsylvania USA have unearthed undisputable facts that Zimbabwe is a great country.”

The jokes are not far off the mark.

Last week, a local newspaper reported that presenters of the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Company had been instructed to wear t-shirts in the colours of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
This as the party holds a key congress this week to elect its leadership.
The t-shirts reportedly carry the faces of long-running president Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace, who is expected to cinch the position as head of the ZANU-PF’s powerful women’s league at this week’s congress.
The presenters were instructed to wear the shirts until after the congress, New Zimbabwe reported, quoting an unnamed station source.
It wouldn’t be the first time, either.

Last year, ZBC journalists were ordered to wear party t-shirts and baseball caps to all ZANU-PF campaign rallies ahead of the country’s national elections.
ZANU-PF won the elections with 61 percent, gaining the party more than two-thirds majority in parliament.

“Media in Zimbabwe is still not free,” says Samm Munro, executive producer of Zambezi News.

The show, which is produced and acted out by Munro, Kudakwashe, Makawa and Chikara, is a cheeky take on Zimbabwean politics.

Munro continues: “ZANU-PF controls all TV and radio broadcasters, either through state control or through having its cronies running the radio stations. Any content critical of the regime does not make it onto radio or TV.”

In that environment, Munro believes comedy and satire can be powerful weapons in the struggle for freedom: “You’re able to make people laugh while dealing with really complex political and social issues.”

It’s a new concept in Zimbabwe.

Into its second season, the show has built up a small following across the country, garnering hundreds of views on each YouTube episode.

Unlike satirical shows like Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola (LNN) in neighbouring South Africa, Zambezi News does not have the advantage of a news channel like eNCA from which to broadcast the show.

This has meant that Munro and his team have had to find other distribution channels that fall outside state broadcasting.

“For our first season in 2011 we had requests for Zambezi News DVDs from across the country from over 120 towns and villages many of which we had never heard of!

“We have had the show broadcast by pirate TV stations… Of course, We also use social media (websites) such as YouTube and Facebook but Whatsapp is the social media platform that has really seen the series going viral and generating thousands of views and shares.”

Munro says the creators draw their inspiration from similar shows across the continent – from LNN to Egypt’s revolutionary The Programme hosted by Bassem Youssef.

Youssef, a medical doctor turned comedian, launched the show in the wake of the Arab Spring and became popularly known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart.

But in June this year, Youssef announced that the show was ending as he felt the political climate was too dangerous for him to continue with the show.

“I think satire is an amazing, powerful, emerging new art form on the continent,” says Munro.

“It’s a rising movement of clever comics and cultural activists challenging the status quo. It’s mad how many of us are thinking the same thing at the same time.”

Though not without consequences.

“Of course there is blow back from government,” says Munro.

“We have had our actors threatened by suspected state security agents. They have threatened to ‘deal’ with us for being ‘anti-government’. But hey, I guess that means they’re watching the show too – bonus.”

But as ZanuPF holds their conference this week, Munro and his team are in the US trying to find other avenues for distributing the show internationally.

Munro says they had sets their sights on Hollywood where they planned to meet with television and film companies who broadcast in Africa.

“We will be doing some Zambezi News showcases and also will be meeting with some of the top comedy venues in the US to build synergies for future Zambezi News tours.”

Whether we will soon be seeing Zimbabwean satire shows on national television remains to be seen but with people like Munro using Youtube, Whatsapp and DVDs to reach their audience, perhaps that is not a bad thing.

“Satire and comedy have become such an inspiring, universal phenomenon that we need to start thinking globally and doing massive co-productions with the US, South Africa, Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent.”

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