Art, censorship and the Gukurahundi

Published on Pambazuka, by Sokwanele, Sept. 23, 2010.

Following the Zimbabwean government’s banning of an exhibition focusing on Gukurahundi (a military operation to suppress opposition in the 1980s) by artist Owen Maseko, Sokwanele discusses the future implications of the case not just for political freedom of expression but also for art, in the face of Zanu PF’s efforts to control narratives about the past … //


Banning Maseko’s work has very troubling implications for national healing, reconciliation, and integration in Zimbabwe. One of the initial charges against Maseko (now dropped) was that his art caused ‘offence to persons of a particular race, religion, etc.’ The only ethnicity explicitly identified in Maseko’s work is that of the Ndebele victims of the Gukurahundi, and it is highly unlikely that they would be offended by his efforts to expose the truth. 

Maseko’s work also clearly identifies those who are accountable for the crimes committed during this time: They are Mugabe, members of the political elite, and the Fifth Brigade. And while these individuals may be ‘offended’ by this accusation, they, as a group of predominantly Shona people, do not constitute or represent all Shona people.

It’s worth remembering that Zanu PF’s targeting of the Ndebele people in the 1980s had very negative consequences for ‘integration’: the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace report on the atrocities noted that “the Fifth Brigade “war” hardened ethnic differences’ and ‘struck at the root of people’s most cherished social and political identity’.

It follows then that the casual blurring of the distinctions between the elite and all Shona people – inferred from the initial charges against Maseko and the description of the art as a ‘tribal-based event’ – is tantamount to inflaming tensions between different groups in Zimbabwe. How does this aid healing or integration in our country today?

On the same day the government attempted to charge Maseko with ‘Publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State.’ Patrick Chinamasa announced that he would be tabling a bill in parliament that would enable the Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights abuses. But Chinamasa’s bill will have a ‘get out of jail’ clause designed to protect the Zanu PF party:

‘This commission will not investigate the alleged violations which occurred before the enactment of the amendment number 19 unless the violations have continued after the enactment but anything that happened before they will not have power to investigate.’

This means that all human rights abuses committed before December 2008 will not be investigated – it affects not only the Gukurahundi, but Murambatsvina, violence carried out in the farming communities over the last decade; the political violence that has accompanied every election, and the horrific glut of torture and violence that was at its worse in 2008.

Will there be a time when art that attempts to focus on these events will, like Maseko’s art, also be subject to censorship by the state? How can art in Zimbabwe thrive if a swath of topics that make the government uncomfortable are declared no-go areas? And how can art in Zimbabwe be taken seriously if the first question asked of a challenging exhibition is ‘Does this art conform to Patriotic History?’ instead of ‘Is this art good?’

It is a shame that almost all of the discussion pertaining to Maseko’s exhibition has been corralled by political imperatives. Zimbabwean artists work at a challenging interface between the social/cultural and the political; but as artists, they are also positioned within the broader discipline of ‘art’, a field unconstrained by national boundaries and rigid definitions of ‘sovereignty’. The controversy surrounding Maseko’s exhibition has effectively cast him as a political activist and fails to give due recognition to the fact that he is also, quite simply, an Artist.

Baranczak, writing about the impacts of communist control on artists, argues that an ‘artist’s self-restraint’ is one step further on from state censorship. He calls this ’progressive censorship’; it occurs when an artist’s ‘creative compromise’ and ‘self-correction’ renders the state’s open interference needless.

If artists and cultural innovators voluntarily restrain their creative impulses to avoid political acrimony, then there will be no need for Zanu PF to ban and censor works. When this happens, Zanu PF will have deemed the cultural objectives of their Patriotic History project to be ‘successful’: rather than having ‘freedom of expression’, artistic expression will be carefully controlled leading to a further narrowing of the cultural field in Zimbabwe, with absolutely devastating consequences for the future of ‘Art in Zimbabwe’.

On 4 August 2010, The Herald wrote about an Artists’ Charter for Zimbabwe, a document drafted by a group of artists for inclusion in the constitutional outreach discussions. The charter asks that ‘the rights and interests of the artists of Zimbabwe and their language communities be recognized and protected in the new constitution’ and it lists 11 points they want guaranteed. Significantly, the word ‘freedom’ is glaringly absent from the charter – i.e. there are no demands for ‘creative freedoms’ to be protected. The closest the charter comes to referring to ‘freedom of expression’ is when it recognises ‘the right of every citizen […] to enjoy the arts in their diverse expressions’. And despite the fact that censorship is a massive threat to artistic creativity and expression, the word censorship is not even remotely referred to in the charter.

It isn’t possible to know exactly what informed the drafting of this charter, but the fact that the state-controlled media was happy to champion it is a sign that the guarantees it seeks do not threaten the Zanu PF patriotic project. Do the limitations of the Artists’ Charter for Zimbabwe indicate that Zimbabwean artists are already sensitive to, and aware of, the need to conform to political imperatives that define artistic boundaries within Zimbabwe?

Maseko’s experience suggests that this is possibly true. Interviewed by SW Radio Africa on 14 September 2010, he commented on the artistic community’s reaction to his experience at the hands of the state:

‘I was surprised that the artists are the only community that has not really truly supported me. I don’t know, maybe it is something to do with fear. Maybe they are scared or worried that if they associate with me they might also get arrested. Artists are aware of how, whatever the outcome that can happen to me, can greatly affect them, but taking a stance of running away is not really a helpful one because whichever way they look at it they will still be greatly affected.’

Maseko is right. If the state is allowed to ban critical works that investigate and challenge the state’s role in history, and if they are allowed to intimidate and harass artists who dare to think beyond state-controlled boundaries, then all artists will find themselves unable to truly be ‘artists’ in the fullest sense of the word.

It is not only artists who will be affected. All of us are affected by this attitude to criticism. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to live in a country without truth. Do we really want to be a people whose identities and experiences are defined by the state? Finally, we need to ask ourselves this important question: if artists are not allowed to express themselves freely, what makes us think that we will ever be allowed to express ourselves freely either?


  • The Board of Censors operates from within the Ministry of Home Affairs. Please e-mail The Honourable Theresa Makoni, MDC-T, Co-Minister of Home Affairs, and ask her to immediately reverse the ban against Maseko’s art exhibition.
  • Please also e-mail Senator David Coltart, Minister of Education, Sport and Culture, and ask him to do all he can to protect freedom of expression as it relates to art and culture.
  • Ask them both to prevent further persecution of the artist Maseko, for daring to question and tell the truth.

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