By Bruce Ndlovu
“We are deep and wide when it comes to good content,” Cont Mhlanga said. Flanking him to his left was Dr Qhubani Moyo, who led Team Fairtalk’s presentation as they tried to sell the idea of Ke Yona TV, one of 14 stations vying for six broadcasting licences that are up for grabs.
Right in front of their screens was Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) board chairperson Mr Charles Sibanda, listening intently as Cont Mhlanga and company tried to impress in 30 minutes.
“As you know, it begins and ends with good content. We are going to give you exciting content if you give us the opportunity,” Mhlanga said. Like the commissioner in front of him, Mhlanga was stern, totally engrossed in the presentation that he was making.
On Thursday, 15 October, Mhlanga was inching closer to the realisation of a lifelong dream. It is a dream that began all the way back in 1990, when Mhlanga had just returned from a trip from the prestigious Glasgow Festival in the United Kingdom with a troupe of performers from Amakhosi, the city’s famed nursery for talent in showbiz.
“This thing started when I came back from the Glasgow International Festival with Stitsha,” Mhlanga told Sunday Life. “When we returned, I think this was between 1990 or 91.
When we landed back here, I tried to go and give an interview at Montrose (ZBC studios) about our experiences of touring with Stitsha, our experience of being at this huge international festival, which was the first time that we had been on tour. I was ignored completely. It was like we had done nothing.”
That snub, Mhlanga said, had given birth to a desire to one day see the young people of Bulawayo flourish on screen.
“We had brought a lot of tapes from the shows we had done over there and we hoped that one of the producers would be excited to put together something to show the people what we had been doing, to show people in Zimbabwe what other countries were already doing in terms of packaging art and culture. But nothing came of it.
It affected me deeply and the impact of that never went away from me. In other words, the vision or the dream of having a television channel that focuses on promoting local creativity, really was planted by this producer at Montrose. Because of the fact that he ignored me, I had this drive,” he said.
Ironically, Mhlanga said he did not remember the producer who snubbed him, sparking a desire that is now finally within touching distance three decades later.
“Sitting before the commission was not by accident. It is a seed that planted by this producer who I don’t even remember now. Wherever he is, I also don’t think he even remembers that little young skinny boy who came to his office and said ‘I’m from Glasgow I have so much footage and tapes of what I saw there and we can make an amazing episode of our tour’.
Maybe he is alive, maybe he is dead, but that man planted the seed that will change the face of TV in Zimbabwe if we do get the licence.”
Mhlanga said the idea for the creation of a TV station had further taken root in his mind back in 1990 when, at the birth of Inxusa Arts Festival, he saw that a lot of talented people that were on exhibit had no outlet to show to the rest of the country what they have to offer.
“You will remember that in 1990 when we were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Amakhosi we launched a festival which was one of the first ever festivals in the country and this was Inxusa. It was in itself inspired by our return from Glasgow. It ran for one full month. It was a 30-day festival of performances every night and afternoon.
“Around 1995 it became apparent that there was so much talent in Bulawayo but there was no TV space for them. It was heartbreaking to see so much talent that you would not see on TV.
We were looked down upon because we came from the township. We were looked down upon because we didn’t arrive in Montrose in cars. It was humiliating to try and do business with guys there,” he said.
During his presentation to BAZ, Cont pointed out how, particularly in Bulawayo and neighbouring provinces, a satellite dish is now like a crown that sits on top of every house. Over the years, the Amakhosi founder said he had watched as entertainers from south of Limpopo invaded living rooms, stealing the hearts of audiences who he felt should rightfully be theirs.
With Amakhosi set to be the conveyor belt supplying content to Ke Yona, the realisation of Cont’s dream would put a stop to that.
“All that started building up in me and it has not stopped. Now it’s even worse because a lot of households in Zimbabwe access satellite content from South Africa. There you see your local TV space being invaded by foreigners in the living rooms of your own neighbourhood.
Yet they can’t see you there. That is really painful and it’s the motivating factor of why we sat before that commission and said please, you don’t know how painful it is to see artistes from other countries invade the living rooms of your own community and can’t compete with them.
“You’re not allowed to compete with them. If you don’t have a locally based TV station that is going to sit down with talent and create smashing shows that you can then export to other TV stations across then it means you can’t build your industry. You can’t build a cultural creative industry without a supportive TV channel,” he said.
For Mhlanga, the announcement that Zimbabwe was digitising was the news that he has been waiting for since that snub all the way back in 1990.
“You cannot imagine how happy I was when I heard that Zimbabwe was digitising and that the result of that digitisation would be to bring in 12 channels with six belonging to independent players. You cannot imagine how excited I was.
When the call came in that private players could come in and bid for the stations that were like wow, finally we get to open the airwaves. Finally, we get to give opportunities to local creators.
They will have options to go elsewhere if they’re mistreated or ignored by one channel. That is how it should be. I’m excited, this is a revolution, this is a shift,” he said.
Bulawayo has been often touted as the country’s cultural hub and rightfully so. The city has gifted the country with some of its greatest artistes and its greatest productions. However, if the city does not have an outlet to showcase the talent it possesses to the rest of the country, Mhlanga said, it will never realise its full potential.
“The President himself is on record saying Bulawayo must be the cultural creative capital of Zimbabwe and I agree with him 100 percent. But it is important to note that it’s not possible to make Bulawayo a cultural hub without TV stations that are headquartered in Bulawayo. It can’t happen,” he said. The Sunday News