3 satirists shining a light on Zimbabwe’s political problems
Parody is bringing political awareness to post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Derick Matsengarwodzi reports from Harare, meeting the next generation of unafraid comedians who are changing the narrative while looking for something to laugh about
During Robert Mugabe’s era, joking about him was taboo.
For decades, until his ouster, citing the late henchman’s name for amusement or as a mockery was a one-way ticket to jail. Few, if any, comedy actors dared to drop Mugabe’s name in their comedy scripts.
After Mugabe’s departure, via a November 2017 coup, the comedy and theatre circuit went into a tailspin as creatives feasted on his humiliation. Alone, powerless and far away from the levers of power, comedians cashed on Mugabe’s vulnerability. Now, the sacred authoritarian has become comedy fodder.
From 2017 onwards, the dramatic shift from the hardline Mugabe era activated more jokes on the current state of affairs. Comedians are now using protest art to probe pertinent issues affecting citizens, from human rights abuse, lack of access to healthcare, social services and general economic decline in amusing ways.
Dissecting trending issues
After Mugabe’s demise, there was a flood of jesters focusing on political figures using social media platforms to amplify citizen rights. Trending comedians magnifying the voices of Zimbabweans include Tafadzwa Ngubozabo aka Taffy Theman, who defines his art as “essentially edutainment”.
Taffy’s comedy output is empowering the youths, who are the future when it comes to confronting the abuse of power by the political elite. “I use music parodies and comedy to dissect trending social, political and religious issues in Zimbabwe,” he says.
“Sixty-two percent of the population of Zimbabwe is below the age of 25. The future is indeed young, so we need now more than ever to conscientise our youth on the importance of speaking truth to power and holding our leaders accountable for their actions,” said the satirist. “My three main objectives are to educate the youths, entertain the people and speak truth to power.”
For now, there is relative freedom, but it doesn’t mean comedians have free reign. The post Mugabe era has not been smooth sailing. Taffy’s constant probing of Zimbabwe’s turbulent political situation, from his Australian base, has visibly irked a section of the political leadership.
“A year ago, my Facebook page zimba.com was hacked, it had over 100,000 followers. I had to start afresh, I almost gave up, but now a year later my new page is almost getting to 100,000 followers,” he said. But to neutralise regular social media attacks, Taffy prefers a private life.
“I am not always a target for online attacks because I have maintained an enigmatic image on social media. No one knows what I do, where I live, what kind of car I drive, I have deliberately kept my personal life off social media in order to avoid giving my enemies material to bring me down.”
Some of his popular acts speak on human rights, including the disappearance of Itai Dzamara, a missing pro-democracy activist. According to Human Rights Watch, Zimbabwe’s human rights situation continued to decline in 2020.
Women at the centre
Simuka Comedy is a comedy company that is transforming the industry, also mentoring aspiring students like Ashley Chivovoro, 24.
“When I first saw comedians performing in 2014, I knew this is what I want to do. From that first encounter, I was attached to comedy, and whenever I wanted to refresh during my free time, I attended a comedy show. I love to be in front of people, even though I am a reserved person,” said the rising comedian.
Ashley’s creative process focuses on trending topics, she says. “Whenever we are creating a concept we brainstorm and we dig deep, analysing trending stories in order to tell the whole story. Then we come up with funny moments – to convert serious issues to lighter moments.”
The comedian is convinced that comedy has a future in Zimbabwe’s unpredictable entertainment industry. “People really want comedy, because they are full of stress because of the economic and political meltdown in the country.”
Due to her chosen career path, Ashley faces regular criticism, including denigrating comments, even from family members.
“People generally associate women in the creative industry with loose morals, thinking that we have to sleep around to become successful,” she says with a dismissive wink. “Some of us do it for fun, and I have come to accept it because hate or love will come and I take both as a compliment. Some of my family members think comedy is for people who have failed in life.”
The intolerance towards women creatives has yielded scars for Samantha Kureya known as Gonyeti. In 2019, the comedienne was allegedly abducted by unknown assailants, stripped naked and forced to drink raw sewage.
Challenging traditional norms
Doc Vikela, born Victor Mpofu, the creative director at Simuka Comedy started from the bottom, He got started in comedy a decade ago.
“We inherited a broken comedy industry in terms of viewership and numbers. At first, we struggled but my comedy is satire, so I started to make fun of the system – back then in 2011 – imitating the late president Mugabe,” said the affable Doc Vikela. “Even though it was intimidating, I would do it. I have never been scared of anything.”
To his credit, he has carried on imitating political figures.
“When I started imitating the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, titled Vakuru (the big man), people were a bit skeptical. But then we transitioned into comedy skits. We said TV is the gateway to popularity, and when you are popular you are bankable, when you are bankable you can get gigs, so it’s you get good, get seen and get paid.”
So far, their political satire has not been censored, yet.
“Comedy is the home of satire, and it does not only mean politics, it means social, economic and political norms. We are challenging norms that are affecting us on a large scale. Our content speaks to institutions that we feel should be more accountable. We look at leadership and say we need real leadership. We also do mockumentaries, which are rhetoric, and focus on environmental issues. We train, incubate and promote comedy talent.”
The Simuka Sketch Show, a Simuka Comedy news spoof, is gaining popularity. “We dissect, unpack news that has been censored. Until we get more TV channels, we are going to be doing protest art by ‘resemblance’, because it’s out of the norm,” Vikela adds. “At Simuka Comedy, we provide healing. When people see a skit they laugh. Next, we are looking to other alternative media channels to broadcast our messages.”
What’s so good about this?
Political parody uplifts listeners, equally, it keeps those with political power on their feet, to deliver on their electoral mandate. Zimbabwean comedy has evolved, becoming a mouthpiece and a pain reliever to the powerless.