By Bruce Ndlovu
It took the sight of an illegal miner, claiming to have in his pocket one of the world’s most precious minerals, to convince Cont Mhlanga that he needed to bring the country’s growing number of gold panners on to the small screen.
At the turn of the millennium, illegal miners had not yet grabbed the attention of Zimbabweans as they have since that fateful day.
The makorokoza phenomenon was still in its infancy but through that young man, Mhlanga could see the challenge that lay ahead.
That young man’s body, caked with mud as if he had journeyed into the bowels of the earth, swallowed by some dark soil which put a rare gem in his hand before spitting him out onto the street, was an indication of things to come.
Immediately the sight of this young panner sparked an idea into his mind.
“So, the idea of Amakorokoza came about when I driving to Harare one day and I just saw this young man on the side of the road who said he wanted to talk to me. It was a place just around Mahatshula and he claimed that he had gold.
“I was perplexed because I didn’t expect anyone to have gold on the roadside and so I asked him to show me where they were getting it. We went deep into the area and found a river and we got to where they were panning,” Mhlanga told Sunday Life.
From that first encounter, Mhlanga got initiated into the rough and tumble world of panners, a violent world whose ways have since been perfected by the new breed of machete wielders that are hacking and killing their way into infamy.
“I found two boys fighting each other. One of the guys was hitting the other with one of the digging instruments that they were using and when I saw him that’s when the idea of the character of Snake came into my mind.
“After spending some time with them I asked them what they were doing and they said siyakorokoza igolide. That is where the idea of the soapie’s name came from. When we started, I knew that eventually we would have a situation like we have now with these machete guys.
“It was clear for me from even back then that when people started operating as gangs instead of individuals, this would get worse not better,” he said.
For Mhlanga, however, the problem was not the young illegal miners he saw on the banks of that river. As they moved about with violent intent, with cartoonish dollar signs in their eyes.
“The problems were the gems that the earth kept hidden, gems that had brought war and conflict to Zimbabwe from the moment that they were discovered.
“The concept of the series came from the premise that gold prospecting is the source of all violence and conflict. You’ll remember that in this country before the white gold prospectors came there was peace.
“The white people that came to prospect were not the first people of that colour to come to Zimbabwe but before that there had been no war.
“We had traders coming from all over the world including from the Far East and most of the business was conflict free. That changed with the coming of the gold prospectors.
“Of course, now the gold prospectors will have you believe that they were the ones that bought modern infrastructure. We had modern buildings and I believe we would have had a vibrant economy even if they had not come in.
“However, gold attracted them here and they went on to even corrupt the educators and religious people that had come in before them with good intentions,” he said.
Amakorokoza was billed as a soapie but when it debuted it was unlike any other. For Zimbabweans, who had been raised on a staple of soapies like Santa Barbara and the popular Studio 263, Amakorokoza was a shock.
Instead of bordering on the themes of love and family conflict like other soapies, it instead possessed the grit, violence and localised conflict that is now common in South African drama series like Isibaya.
“I am also taking this opportunity as an opportunity to challenge the misconceptions about soaps. Who said soaps were slow and bordered on love?” Cont told the media before the production made its debut in 2004.
Part of the cast members were just as unusual as Mhlanga’s take on the TV soap opera. Sarah Mpofu had brought models in her truck for auditioning but found herself accidentally on the hot seat and was cast as Tarshy, a role and name that stuck with her even off screen.
Soon, football administrator Ndumiso Gumede would also find himself playing one of the central characters in the production.
“I already knew what kind of people that I wanted to cast. That’s how I direct. I always have an idea of the person that I’m casting in my head. So, there were a lot of tears during the casting because we had over 5 000 people coming in for auditions but I would turn some of them away at first sight.
If your look or even your walk did not go along with this character that I had in my head, I would dismiss you straight away.
If you look at the character of Teresia and look at the character of the girl I found bullying actual gold panners in Umguza, you would think that I had cast the actual person who the character was based on,” he said.
Amakorokoza’s path to the small screen was not clear cut. Past disputes between the national broadcaster and Amakhosi might then have some resistance to its airing while a production of that magnitude also meant a lot of research and investment had to go into it.
“There was a lot of resistance to the idea. At some point there were no Amakhosi productions on TV and we specialised in short 30-minute dramas. We kept on production because we knew that at some point we would have to come back on TV.
“So, when it was time for me to do my research for Amakorokoza I went headlong into it. The process of research always takes me longer than the process of writing. I can research for a year and take a few weeks to write. So, this took me two and a half years to research.
“The organisation that I researched the series through was fighting the issue of the use of mercury in illegal mining and how it affected even children and their growth. So that’s when I learnt fully about illegal mining.
“I travelled to North Africa, India and South America and other places that had adopted a mining structure close to what Zimbabwe had with its small-scale miners. That was to form the basis for the soapie,” he said.
Over a decade and a half later, the soapie is long gone but the threat of amakoroza and the new headline grabbers, MaShurugwi, is still here. For Mhlanga, the series was a taste of what the love of mineral wealth could do to a community and, with time, to a country. He fears the worst is still yet to come.
“I really think that we should be careful about the issue of small-scale miners or artisanal miners. Zimbabwe is a rich country. There’s not a square metre without gold in this country.
“If we’re not careful we will dig into the very ground that we walk upon. We will dig up every river as well because there’s gold there too,” he said. Sunday News