Representations of Blacks and The City in the Zimbabwean Post-Independence Television Drama

Representations of Blacks and The City in the Zimbabwean Post-Independence Television Drama

(Paper presented at the Sixth Annual African Studies Consortium Workshop, October 02, 1998)


Pedzisai Mashiri

University of Zimbabwe

[Copyright 1998, Pedzisai Mashiri, All Rights Reserved. This work may be cited, for non-profit educational use only, by crediting the author and the exact URL of this document.]

1. Introduction

Drama found a natural place on Zimbabwean television at independence. By 1964, Safiriyo Madzikatire and Susan Chenjerai had started a dramatic tradition, which reached its apotheosis in the very popular nation-wide series, "Mhuri yavaMukadota" (The family of Mr. Mukadota) broadcast on the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation's African Services (RBC) from 1970 to 1982 and screened on television from 1983 to 1986. The development of television drama at independence was informed by two major factors. On the one hand, independence necessitated the democratization of television programming and coverage in the country. On the other hand, a giant multi-national company, Lever Brothers Limited recognized that black Zimbabweans would constitute the largest market for its products. Lever Brothers, therefore, sponsored television drama as a marketing and advertising strategy and the content and images of the drama were determined by the advertising policy and needs.

In 1987 television drama entered a new phase. The self-styled musician-cum- comedian, Madzikatire's production declined, partly due to the withdrawal of Susan Chenjerai into full-time evangelical work and partly, due to the promotion of Madzikatire's producer/director, Job Jonhera at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). The new television drama producer/director, Agnes Gwatiringa came with a different style that discouraged and marginalised Madzikatire. Gwatiringa wrote her own scripts and or adapted some novels and plays for television. However, the shift in the administration and source of television drama did not affect the dominant thematic orientation and representations significantly.

This paper focuses on the nature of images that are used to communicate the African personality and the city in post independent Zimbabwe through television drama in Shona. The dominant images are those of; the fragile middle class African family threatened by social change, the 'rebellious' middle class woman and the ideal traditional woman, the patriarchal man defending his position and the traditional cultural ethos, the 'prodigal son' and the hostile urban environment.

The post independence setting is important because it is a renaissance period. It is a time of reasserting cultural identity and decolonizing colonial myths, in literature, the media and in social life. The government introduced deliberate policies and legislation to correct racial and gender imbalances in the sociocultural, economic and political spheres. In reality, these changes facilitated black empowerment. The problem is that in spite of the changes in the social reality, the popular media continues to produce negative images of blacks and the city. The images of blacks as victims rather that agents of change dominant in colonial cinema and literature, are recycled in television drama.

The drama seems to be overcast by the moralist shadow of colonial literature. Most of the plays dwell on politically neutral themes pertaining to individual morality, family strife, male-female relationships and cultural alienation. Issues of national significance such as corruption, poverty, regionalism, poor governance, political opportunism and party politics are never or rarely addressed in these plays. It is not clear whether it is the ZBC Director/Producer, who in most cases is the script- writer, or the writers themselves who are responsible for this censorship. But what is certain is that the colonial novels and plays that are adapted into television drama after independence are obviously apolitical. The drama subverts the viewers' knowledge and understanding of the nature of the Zimbabwean society. "This subversion is inimical to the development of the people's capacity to transform their political, social and economic reality." (Kamanga, 1998: 2). It appears that the spirit of cultural nationalism and the colonial patriarchal strategy of female marginalization and subordination inspire these images, among other things.

A brief explanation of the conditions that motivated the emergence of the cultural nationalist spirit in politics, literature and in popular culture is an important way of contextualizing this analysis. The themes and images of television drama like those of most novels and plays written in indigenous languages, were a form of counter reaction to colonial imperialism and paternalism. The imposition of political control by the British in Zimbabwe also involved conscious and unconscious undermining of the indigenous culture. Loss of political freedom was also inevitably accompanied by loss of cultural confidence by Africans, induced by the dynamics of domination. Furthermore, African primitivism, essentially a by-product of political domination, received in the nineteenth century an almost authoritative stamp from evolutionary anthropology which on the evolutionary scheme of cultural hierarchy placed the African culture at the bottom and Western culture at the top. (Obiechina, 1968:24). The level of Western civilization determined the standards of cultural assessment. The amount of literacy and industrialization measured civilization. Because Africa did not have both (according to European standards), it was regarded as primitive. In the nineteenth century then, observes Obiechina:

The popular image of Africa in the European mind was of a primitive place with primitive institutions, inhabited by primitive irrational people on whom should be imposed the civilizing will of Europe. Christian missionary pressures and the opinion of philanthropists began to influence the general attitudes towards the colonies. Colonization was no longer regarded as barefaced political domination and economic exploitation but as a humane and philanthropic mission for civilizing and Christianizing the 'primitive' and 'benighted' natives. (P.25) The myth of African barbarism resulted from the desire to legitimize colonization. The le mission Civilisatrice is not altogether fraud but its basic assumption of the superiority of European culture over African culture is. Western Christianity and education socialized Africans to believe this assumption and feel inferior, thus uncritically imitating western cultural behavior. The nationalist movements in Zimbabwe, like those elsewhere in Africa, determined to end colonial domination also aimed to rehabilitate the indigenous culture and restoring the pride, dignity and identity of the people.

2. The Family and the City

Setting provides a useful starting point for an analysis of the representations of blacks and the city in television drama. The basis of television drama is family life with emphasis on emotional and domestic themes because; "the family is the microcosm of a Shona society." (Chiwome, 1996: 136) The plays show that both the working class and the middle class families are collapsing and relations are deteriorating in the city. This conception is a truism but the suggested reasons that instigate the crisis are simplistic. Emphasis is placed on individual vice rather than on the global harsh social, economic and political realities. Blaming the individual results in decontextualized and escapist drama.

Plays such as Tsodzo's Babamunini Francis (1977), Mungoshi's Inongova Njakenjake (1980), Gwatiringa's Nhambetambe and Zevezeve (1994) and Moyo's Ziva Kwawakabva (1977) portray the city as unAfrican and as the deathbed of the Shona culture and family. The city culture or 'chiHarare' promotes free female sexuality, individuality and anomie, all of which threaten traditional patriarchy, cultural identity and cohesion.

In the Babamunini Francis, for example, family disintegration is blamed on female infidelity. The story revolves around Hilda, an urban housewife who cheats on her husband. Fambai, Hilda's husband is a driver and he is always away on business trips. The plot:

Involves nothing more than the reported sexual encounters of Hilda and Francis, the narrow escape they go through, the pleasure they get from the ingenuity of the intricate plans they use to fool Hilda's husband, until the day they are caught and punished. (Zinyemba, 1986: 77)

When Hilda and Francis are caught, the immoral wife commits suicide but nothing significant happens to Francis. Sexist and moralist images of this kind are more felt when screened on television than when depicted in literature. The images reinforce patriarchal control of female sexuality and stifle women's self-pride. The tendency to associate female sexual morality with family instability arises from the colonial regime and the African men's attempt to resist female urban migration during the colonial period. The colonials' view of African women was that they were dependents of men. Thus in the towns, farms and mines, there were very few socially approved roles for women. For the African men, keeping women away from the urban areas was a way of retaining their control of female sexuality and sustaining the subordination of women. African men also needed their wives to remain at home to safeguard their land rights because As the British South Africa Company (BSACo) seizure of land increased? land pressure became a problem. Land was allocated to those who used it. If a man's wife deserted his fields while he was away, and his children were too young to work, there were others ready and willing to take over his abandoned land. (Jeater, 204) In the village many women remained faithful to their husbands. It was hard to do otherwise when surrounded by the husband's family. In town women were better placed than they had ever been when it came to escaping marital control. Adultery was therefore on the increase. The prevailing colonial patriarchal view that the city was not a place for women and that keeping them in the rural areas assured family stability motivated the creation and recreation of negative images of urban women in literature and the media.

The African man is portrayed as a 'prodigal son' alienated from his culture. In Ziva Kwawakabva, peasant parents struggle to educate their only son hoping that he would lift them from destitution and poverty. The son turns away from the parents and lives in the city with his westernized wife. The parents invoke their religion to retrieve the lost son. But, invoking religion to establish the status quo is "a gesture that superficially revitalize the denigrated African religion without tracing the problem to its root cause. (Chiwome and Gambahaya, 1997: 11).

3. Male- Female Relationships

As in the fiction of the colonial era, the dominant forms of personal interaction through which television drama addresses issues of individual morality, domestic strife and cultural alienation are male- female relationships. The frequent causes of conflict in these relationships are infidelity, gender equality and money. Infidelity is the most common theme. Characteristically, female characters are the culprits. Cultural distinctiveness has become more closely identified with the arena of gender relations and the appropriate conduct of women. Women's conduct is crucial to the constitution of identity because women are "considered the guardians and symbols of cultural particularism." (Our Creative Diversity, 1995: 114). Women are, therefore caught between two opposing forces: between a practical pressure to change, and a moral pressure not to do so.

The images in most television plays constitute a negative response to social change. Ideological and legal changes that challenge the status quo and facilitate the empowerment of women and gender equality are depicted as Eurocentric and destructive. The tendency to view behavior and aesthetic as either Eurocentred of Afrocentred is part of the post independence discourse of cultural distinctiveness. The triumph of one is always the disaster of the other. "If white is beautiful, black is ugly. If black is beautiful, white is ugly. We cannot imagine both black and white being beautiful at the same time, or, for that matter, both being ugly. (Sachs, 1991: 10-11). The demand for identity becomes a weapon against other cultures, individuals or groups of people. The safeguarding of cultural identity appears to be an obvious task. But as Tham (1991: 6) observes ... The goal should be the dream of the strength of cultural exchange, of cross-fertilization ... The great task of our times lies in the challenge of transforming cultural collisions into cultural encounters ... to be interested in the unfamiliar, seeing it not as a threat but rather as an opportunity.

The media can be an agent of change or a device to maintain the status quo. As agents of change, the media aid social mobilization, without moralizing, and raising social ideas through images of the self and the other.

There are two dominant images of women in the post independence television drama: the educated modern working woman and the uneducated traditional woman. These images are used as icons of morality. The educated modern woman is portrayed as either promiscuous or rebellious, signifying cultural decay and the uneducated traditional woman is the barometer of morality. She is the idealized mother- wife symbol that signifies cultural authenticity. These images emerge against the background of, and partly in response to, the legislation of the Legal Age of Majority Act (December 1982) and the general debate on gender equality that arose after independence from the socialist ideology adopted by the nationalist parties during the struggle for national independence. Examples of images from plays by both male and female writers are given to illustrate this point. Gwatiringa's Nhambetambe Neupenyu is a story of two working women (Mary and Susan) who are unfaithful and lustful. They neglect their families and cheat on their husbands. When they are discovered they are send away by their husbands lose their jobs and are jilted by the boyfriends.

The audiences meet the women as loose right from the start but the motivation for their infidelity is not clear. Their behavior is depicted as sheer quest for freedom and pleasure. Assuming that viewers use television models to evaluate the behaviors of others as appropriate or in appropriate, the negative images of working women encourage society to resist changes in the status of women and their movement out of the home into the public space. This is not to imply that the audience is completely vulnerable to the images provided, because, as Tulloch (1990) asserts, television plays are open and loose and they do not push their politics down one's throat.

Moyo's Ndabva Zera and Ziva Kwawakabva were both first published as novels and then adapted to television plays. Ndabva Zera has two main ideological functions: to foreground acculturation and women's liberation as issues that destabilize the family institution and to show the supereminence of the traditional orthodoxies of male dominance.In the play, Dorcas, a middle-aged career woman, married with three children fights for equal rights with her husband, Frank. Frank is portrayed as conservative and chauvinistic. Dorcas holds a senior post at work and would like to enjoy a similar status at home. The woman's quest for equality in the domestic space and the man's resistance or protection of his patriarchal position is the source of the conflict in the play. When Frank fails to convince Dorcas to be contend with her traditional subordinate status, he deserts her for an uneducated submissive woman. The desertion leads to family break down with their only daughter dating a man of her father's age and one of the sons impregnating a house- maid. Dorcas is traumatized by these events and she becomes alcoholic while Frank is happy with the new girlfriend. The juxtaposition of the image of the educated 'rebellious' woman and the uneducated submissive one reinforces the ideology of female domesticity and perpetuates gender inequality in the guise of cultural preservation.

4. Marginalization of the Socio-economic Reality

The marginalization of the socio-economic reality obtaining in Zimbabwe stems from the production of television drama on ethnic lines, the standardization of the Shona language and (self) censorship. At independence Shona and Ndebele were recognized as national languages and their increased use in broadcasting was, among other things, a way of raising their status and democratizing the media. Of the languages used on Zimbabwean television, Shona and Ndebele together, are used for about 12 out of 136 hours per week. (Gambahaya and Gwete, 1996: 6). When the local drama program in Shona was introduced in 1983, a similar one was started in Ndebele. The scripts show evidence of codeswitching from Shona to English and from Ndebele to English but none between the indigenous languages themselves. While the influence of English on both Shona and Ndebele is unquestionable, pretending that there is completely no mixing of, or switching between the two indigenous languages is unrealistic. The plays also show no interaction between Ndebele and Shona speakers as if to suggest the existence of two separate and distinct tribal communities. The conception of separate existence of the two ethnic groups, their social and cultural incompatibility and the unintelligibility of the languages were created by and natured through colonial myths.

The colonial myths about Shona and Ndebele hostilities and distinctions are well documented by Ranger (1985), Beach (1986), Vail (1989) and Bhebe (1979). Popular myths and stereotypes are those that depict the Ndebele as violent and predatory and the Shona as peaceful and vulnerable. As Vail (1989: 3) observes, "Ethnic consciousness is very much a new phenomenon, an ideological construct, usually of the twentieth century...." The creation of myths and stereotypes of ethnic polarities was a justification of colonization and a British strategy of the divide- and -rule policy. The myths became part of the Shona and Ndebele oral and literary traditions.

In reality, Shona and Ndebele are highly intelligible, most of the Ndebele speakers in urban areas, particularly the city, are fluent speakers of Shona and there is widespread interaction between members of the two ethnic groups through intermarriages, education and commerce and industry. Rather than promote and sustain tribal consciousness, television drama could be produced to focus on ethnic issues with the intention of destroying stereotypes and promoting a sense of unity in diversity and building bridges that enhance cultural and political unity. South African soaps have more realistic images of the new nation. The multilingualism and the cultural diversity of the new South Africa are candidly captured through the soaps.

The Shona plays themselves do not portray the free occurrence of dialect varieties in individual and community speech forms in Harare. They reflect linguistic homogeneity through the use of standard Shona. Chimhundu (1992: 77) argues:

What is presumed to be standard Shona is in fact only predominantly written variety that is emerging from a painfully slow process of largely unplanned harmonization of regional varieties that have been tribalized and given partially invented regional labels as part of the colonial experience.

It is true that Zezuru; the dialect of the capital has established a dominance in the written medium. But, in the spoken varieties the vocabulary of Shona is expanding and adjusting in directions that correspond with the experiences of a changing society. The language situation in the Shona speaking community is so complex that no author will write in a single variety that is clearly distinct in dialectal or regional terms.

By belaboring domestic themes television drama excludes the social realities of post- independence society such as corruption, betrayal, land and housing problems, unemployment and retrenchments and the poverty of the common man and the degree to which he is exploited. Where poverty, for example, is mentioned, as in the case of Tafi in Mungoshi's Inongova Njakenjake, it is presented a cause of family strife or it is presented in total isolation from the dynamics of the capitalist system or any national situation. In fact Tafi's poverty is, like in most of the moral domestic and cultural problems, attributed to individual responsibility. There are also many positive developments going on in Zimbabwe which could be captured through the entertainment format. It is imperative for the progressive media to give Africans a picture of their deepest aspirations for peace, equality and a higher quality of life. Realist art should make the nature of the world clear, reach a deeper truth and expose reality.

5. Dependence on Foreign Soap Operas

The general underdevelopment of Zimbabwean television drama and the recurrence of stereotypical images of self and others led to its subordination to foreign soaps. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation imports mostly low-priced outdated American soaps such as Dallas, Dynasty and Santa Barbara. These soaps offer Zimbabwean viewers utopian images of America. The soaps deal only with the world of the rich where, Capitalism is presented essentially as benign, unproblematic way of operating, with the only argument being between the good capitalists (Bobby Ewing and Black Carrington) and the bad ones (JR, and Adam Carrington). (Geraghty, 1994: 155).

These images, together with those of conspicuous consumption, affluence, excessive competition and free sexuality offer a sense of freedom, cheap thrills and pleasure to viewers. These images are set against morality, discipline and social control portrayed in local drama.

In Santa Barbara (currently screened three times a week and the most popular program on television), relationships are temporal and the family unit is fragile. In Dynasty and Melrose Place there is intermingling of the personal and public space in the way women characters have affairs with either their business partners or business connections. In Dynasty, Alexis has sex with Dexter in his office, in Melrose Place, Amanda has sex with Jack in Amanda's office and Alison is infatuated with Steve, a business associate. This intertwining of business and pleasure offers Zimbabwean women viewers a false paradise and freedom which can promote sexual abuse, violence and corruption at work places. The competing and contrasting local and foreign images create ideological confusion and identity crisis among Zimbabwean viewers.

6. Conclusion

The images of blacks and the city in Zimbabwean television drama written in Shona, as in fiction, are largely stereotypical and demeaning. The writers' conception of the African personality and the urban environment in shaped by cultural nationalism. Like other forms of nationalisms, cultural nationalism, as a politics of identity, insists upon differentiation, uniqueness and gendered representations. Nationalist representation therefore tends to lapse into chauvinism and ethnocentrism.

The drama of home life is recurrent in and characteristic of Zimbabwean television drama. The dominant discourses are domesticity and sexuality. The emphasis is on the disruption of the family and the consequent struggle for domestic and sexual control.

The urban environment threatens the continuity and stability of the family unit. The city represents cultural alienation, freedom and anomie. Negative images of urban women are derived from the colonial patriarchal policy of relegating African women to the rural space and the Shona traditional conception of associating the ideal mother image with family stability and cultural authenticity. The city is perceived as Western and the rural areas as African. Placing absolute value on the difference between 'them' and 'us' or western and African cultures amounts to denigrating the humanistic achievements of underdeveloped communities. (Chiwome and Gambahaya, 1997: 19). It limits the reference of culture to the past, static tradition and language. However, culture is a dynamic adjunct of sustainable development. Perceiving culture as dynamic facilitates integration and unity in diversity. Value judgement creates stereotypes that perpetuate self-denigration and the exploitation of prejudiced social classes. Stereotypes persuade viewers to accept gender discrimination and the marginalization of blacks in general.


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Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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