ZIMBABWE @ 34 – ARTS REFLECTIONS by Pathisa Nyathi

The following feature was originally published by Nhimbe Trust here.

The period prior to independence was characterized, in more respects than one, by limited access to the arts by the majority black population. The arts institutions in existence such as the National Arts Foundation (NAF) and the National Arts Council of Rhodesia (NACR) were created to service the white community in so far as the arts were concerned. Existing arts councils were based in cities where there were large concentrations of whites. Financial and other resources and infrastructural development were directed at the promotion of western art forms to the exclusion of African arts.

The black arts and arts organizations in the western suburbs were pushed to the fringe where they existed and no efforts were directed at initiating and nurturing African arts. Racial segregation was not restricted to the political arena. It embraced all the other aspects of life, the arts included. The status quo was to remain in place till the advent of independence.

Advent of Independence

The birth of Zimbabwe on the 18th of April 1980, presented the new government with several challenges. The inherited undemocratic dispensation in the arts and other spheres of life had to be confronted head on. Restrictive arts organization that hitherto served white interests had to the repealed and new ones created that would be aligned to the ideological underpinnings, vision, mission and objectives of the new political dispensation. Inevitably, the racially composed National Arts Foundation had to be disbanded, something that could only be done after repealing the Act that created it. The National Arts Council of Rhodesia too had to be reorganized and reoriented and a new one put in place to serve a new socio-political order. Accordingly, a new National Arts Council Act came into being on 4 December 1985, the composition of whose management and board reflected the racial composition of the new nation. The new Act had envisaged the creation of district and political arts councils in order to allow for popular participation in line with the majoritarian thrust of the new political order.  An arts policy had to be crafted to inform and direct the strategies that would be adopted in order to implement policies. Policy is itself informed by the vision and mission and indeed, the objectives of the state. The crusade to realign policies and the implementation of requisite strategies rested on the shoulders of John Mapondera who was the Deputy Chief Cultural Officer in the then Ministry of Education and Culture.

Moves to Change the Situation

It is generally recognized that the arts go a long way in bequeathing a people with their identity, which is a way in which the community perceives itself and others who are different from themselves. This acquired identity becomes a source of pride, positive image of self and a motivator. Cultural diversity is expressed through the arts, which are cultural expressions. Equally important is the fact that the arts contribute to the creative economy of a state. The arts provide livelihoods to a large number of artists. The arts sector is a key employer. Arts communicate effortlessly and have been used to convey messages that seek behavioural change. It is imperative therefore, that the arts be grown and developed for the good of the nation. Several measures were thus taken after independence to allow the arts to take their rightful place among the majority of citizens. The creation of new arts bodies was one such step. The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe has already been referred to above. The Council was meant to be the new democratized vehicle for driving, regulating and promoting the arts. In some instances both provincial and district councils were created, thus allowing for popular participation.

The direction that the new government sought was to be reflected in a new policy. Though the policy took a long time to craft, it nevertheless was completed and took effect in 1994. It has since then been the policy that gives guidance to the conduct, growth and development of the arts. Quite clearly the new arts policy was politically motivated by seeking to end the racial monopoly and funding within the arts and simultaneously creating conditions for popular participation. The Ministry of Education embraced Culture in its nomenclature, which in principle was an indicator that government was committed to the arts and culture. The term arts were not, at that stage, part of the Ministry’s nomenclature. It was understood culture embraced the arts.

Post-Independence Arts Scenarios

The main thrust of this paper is to highlight the fate of the arts since attainment of independence. We have indicated above the policy and organizational changes that were wrought within the arts sector. The remaining part of this paper seeks to unravel what has been happening within the arts sector since independence. Our approach is not to do a sector by sector treatment of the arts within the period in question, but to indicate, in general terms, new developments, thrusts and directions. To illustrate some points we may draw examples from specific sectors.

Popular Participation

More artists were able to participate in the arts. With the democratization of the arts more artists were reached and new ones merged who participated in the arts sector. A good example comes from the literary arts where several writers associations were established, a move that allowed for more writers and potential writers to participate. In addition to the Zimbabwe Writers Union (ZIWU), formed in 1984, there were other associations that followed suit: the Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW), Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe (BWAZ), Zimbabwe Academic and Non-fiction Authors Association (ZANA) and the Zimbabwe African Languages Writers Association (ZALWA). The formation of the various writers’ bodies went a long way in developing the writing skills of its members. That was done through participation in workshops, exchange programmes and interaction with accomplished writers. Within the context of workshops organized alongside book fairs, more writers participated in this particular arts genre. Related to this was the growth of publishing houses that serviced the writers’ fraternity. Many writers’ bodies undertook publication of books by their members. ZWW, for example, published no less than 13 titles by its own members.

Development of Theatre Associations

Development of associations was not restricted to the writing fraternity only. Theatre was also on the move. More organizations became involved in theatre work. Amakhosi, Children’s Performing Arts Workshop (CHIPAWO), Mthwakazi Arts and Writer’s Association were among several associations that came into existence and led to the development of theatrical skills and popularization of theatre for both entertainment and education. This was heightened by the availability of media such as television. Stage performances were also held. School leavers, school pupils and college and university students participated in the theatre arts. Many theatre groups were showcased on television and audiences looked forward to the scheduled drama programmes.

Music Association

The same was happening on the music front. Musicians came together as an association that sought to maximize the interests of the members. They wanted to ensure they benefitted from airplay of their music on radio. Violations of intellectual property were given attention when the musicians, in conjunction with other artists, pushed for the repeal of the old Copyright Act and replaced it with a more up to date Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act.

Crafting a new Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act

Cross-sector collaborations took place. One good example was the collaboration of artists when they pushed for the repeal of the old Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act. Justice Smith was engaged and led the process. KOPINOR, a reprographic rights organization (RRO) in Norway, assisted with funding and technical expertise. It was out of these moves that Zimbabwe’s own reprographic rights organization, ZIMCOPY, was born. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) was also involved in issues relating to copyright, which at the time seized the minds of artists across their sectors.

Funding of Arts Associations by the National Arts Council

Funding is an important consideration when it comes to the operations of artists and their associations and organisations. The National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, the new arts organization, provided funding to arts organizations. The funds went a long way in developing the associations in supporting their activities. Those organizations that had counterparts in overseas countries received the much needed financial support from donors in those quarters. ZIWU was funded by its counterpart, a Norwegian writers’ body. Similar funding was extended to ZWW. Ezomdabu, a Bulawayo-based writers’ organization, which was involved in children’s literature received support from their Norwegian counterparts. Theatre was not to be left out. For example, Amakhosi received support from Norway for the infrastructural development of their centre and their programmes.

Exchange Programmes

Exchange programmes were increased. Various individual artists and groups undertook exchange programmes to several countries. Amakhosi visited countries such as Norway. Tumbuka and CHIPAWO also undertook visits to overseas destinations. All these were activities that happened after independence when Zimbabwe, which had hitherto been a pariah state, was readmitted into the community of free nations. Exchange programmes were not one directional. Overseas artists, once Zimbabwe was re-admitted to the world community, visited Zimbabwe. Some of these artists participated in skills development. Their visits also helped push local standards to a higher level.

Visual Arts

On the visual arts side, there was also a marked improvement. Shona sculpture was raised to a higher level and the local products were in demand in overseas markets. The likes of Takawira, Mukomberannwa and Dominic Benhura, inter alia, made their mark on the world stage. New visual art forms were embraced. Artists such as Adam Madebe pioneered weld art and created the controversial piece titled ‘Looking to the Future’. Many have followed in his footsteps including Israel Israel.

Arts in Tertiary Institutions

In more recent times universities have taken on board some arts courses, notably at Great Zimbabwe University (GZU), Midlands State University (MSU) and the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). The last named university has had a Theatre Department for a long time. The Chinhoyi University of the Arts (CUT) has introduced numerous courses, all to do with the arts, such as graphic design, photography, the culinary arts and several other related disciplines.

Emergence of Arts Organizations

Arts organisations emerged that focused on funding and technical advice. One case in point is the Culture Fund of Zimbabwe Trust,  which is funded by SIDA. Of late it has broadened its donor base. The Fund has gone a long way in providing financial support to numerous organizations and individuals throughout all the provinces of Zimbabwe. It has supported several cultural festivals such as Intwasa, Chimanimani and Shangano, among others. The festivals, from the biggest of them all, Hifa, to the smallest ones such as Shangano, have provided for popular participation of more communities at the level of arts creation, but also at the level of consumption. In some instances the communities are heavily involved in the running of the festivals, thus giving them a sense of ownership, which ensures sustainability of the festivals.

Arts advocacy organisations

There are some arts organizations that push an advocacy agenda which ensures the relevant authorities give due attention to the arts and provide the necessary research in the arts so that national arts do not lag behind but keep pace with world trends. They also ensure the adherence to democratic principles in the arts. One such organization is Nhimbe Trust based in Bulawayo. Presently Nhimbe Trust, with funding from IFCD, has embarked on a sensitization crusade for all local authorities in Zimbabwe to craft their own arts policies to dovetail with the national policy. Local authorities operate at the grassroots level and touch lives of artists more than central or national government.

UN Arts and Culture-related Institutions

Zimbabwe is part of the world community. In particular, it participates in the activities of the premier cultural and arts organization, UNESCO. Within the country there is a UNESCO cluster office and the National Commission. These organizations, which were not operating within the country prior to independence, provide up-to-date information on relevant conventions and provide both technical and financial support to various institutions.

AU Recommendations

At independence, Zimbabwe was admitted into the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). The African body has, over the years, given guidance in respect of the arts, e.g. the Nairobi Plan of Action and the Cultural Renaissance. Zimbabwe, being a signatory to most of the AU declarations and conventions, has ratified some.

Ministry Dedicated to the Arts and Culture

The Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture was created with effect from 2013. Previously, there was a Department of Sport, Arts and Culture within the Ministry of Education. This is a development for which artists had been advocating. The new Ministry is presently engaged with efforts to finalise a new National Arts, Culture and Heritage Policy. The process is at the stage of stakeholder consultations and hopefully, will be out before year end.

Importation of Music Instruments Duty Free

When Professor Jonathan Moyo was Minister of Information and Publicity he pushed for a dispensation where musical instruments being imported into the country were exempted from payment of duty. The policy measure went a long way in uplifting the status of the music industry. The free importation regime saw the emergence of urban grooves, a music genre that was also boosted by the establishment of more recording studios.


While we may bemoan the lack of substantial development in the arts, we ought to acknowledge that there are commendable strides that have been made. Certainly, the arts have been extended to a large number of the population. This has been a necessary process that sought to realign the arts with the new socio-cultural and political order. Many institutions involved in the arts have emerged which not only provide financial support, but technical advice too. Some artists such as Yvonne Vera, Oliver Mutukudzi, Thomas Mapfumo, Busi Ncube, Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Dominic Benhura and several others, have made it both on the national and world arts stages. The nation need not sit on its laurels. More effort, commitment, a supportive environment, introduction of arts education in schools, unrelenting onslaught on piracy, research and documentation, monitoring and evaluation, frequent updating of policy, strategy and infrastructural development, and many other requirements need greater attention. At least the first step, however feeble, has been taken and all this happened within the context of the post-independence thrust in the arts.