Zimbabwe’s most enduring arts center is holding a party and cultural festival as it closes its doors in Harare for the last time in the early hours of January 1. Twin venues, The Book Café and Mannenberg Performing Arts Center have hosted tens of thousands of people and shows with many local and international artists but the landlords gave notice that they want the building in central Harare back to expand retail trade.
Founder of the arts center Paul Brickhill said he was shocked when the landlord, Old Mutual Zimbabwe, told him that he could not renew the lease for The Book Café and Mannenberg Performing Arts Center. He and colleagues who fought to end white rule in Rhodesia began to promote free expression by opening a book shop shortly after 1980 independence.
“I and a number of other people had just come from the liberation struggle. Just before independence, discussions took place around how to address the problem of censorship and propaganda that the Rhodesians had implemented," said Brickhill. "And the answer was to open a progressive bookshop and I was deployed fairly early on, our principal from the very beginning to secure freedom of expression in the new Zimbabwe.”
He and the bookshop, funded by his comrades from the liberation war, were immediately in trouble when it launched a biography of the first post independence opposition leader Joshua Nkomo. Brickhill and his staff were arrested.
Tensions escalated for Brickhill and the bookshop as then prime minister Robert Mugabe sent in North Korean-trained troops who killed thousands of Mr. Nkomo’s supporters in the Matabeleland provinces shortly after independence.
Brickhill said the bookshop had a huge collection of anti-apartheid books which were banned in neighboring South Africa and many made their way across the border.
In 1987 a South African hit squad bombed several targets in Harare. On their list, as court records revealed, was Brickhill’s bookshop. Several people were killed and Brickhill’s brother was seriously injured.
Three years before the present ongoing political crisis began in 2000, Brickhill and colleagues expanded the bookshop into a café and performing art center called Mannenberg, named after the composition by legendary South African jazz pianist, Dollar Brand, who is now known as Abdullah Ibrahim.
He played Mannenberg at its opening in Harare and said he had loaned the music to Zimbabweans.
A poster announcing events at the Mannenberg Performing Arts Center in Harare, Zimbabwe before news that the center will be closing
Among the Zimbabwe artists who play at Mannenberg is Zimbabwe musician Chiwoniso Maraire, who sings and plays the traditional instrument the mbira. She says Zimbabwe’s artists have a responsibility to society, even when those artists are threatened and arrested.
“We have a responsibility, we are not bankers, we are not doctors, we have another part that we play in society," said Chiwoniso. "Regardless whether the system says we are going to arrest you, it doesn’t matter, we have a responsibility.”
Brickhill, who runs the twin venues with a staff of 45 says he had no idea at the time independence was gained that one of the goals of the liberation war - free expression - would be so difficult to achieve after the end of minority white rule.
“It has been an incredibly long journey and a tough one, and a long, long struggle," said Brickhill. "I must say never in my wildest dreams as a young romantic in newly independent Zimbabwe could I have imagined such a journey and such battles and struggles for such a simple goal of freedom of expression in our country.”
He said that most artists at the venues did not support particular political parties. Book Café’s last guest was Morgan Tsvangirai, Movement for Democratic Change leader and Zimbabwe’s prime minister in the current difficult, inclusive government with Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and the smaller MDC.
Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (L) attends a session at Parliament in Harare (File)
Mr. Tsvangirai launched his controversial book "At the deep end" before Christmas.
“I am telling this story in my own eyes, and especially given the larger power struggles we took part in now and for more than a century - our desire simply to be human against all odds,” said Tsvangirai.
Brickhill says the end of the present crisis is drawing closer and the number of artists grew as it intensified. He says Zimbabwe’s artists find that, despite all the threats, they do have power.
“And yes I do think we are closer now," Brickhill said. "I never imagined the battle would be so hard. But yes we are close. We have power actually. We are not powerless.”
Many Zimbabweans and beyond have appealed to Zimbabwe traders OK Bazaars and landlord Old Mutual to extend the leases for Book Café and Manneberg.
Brickhill says he and colleagues will start the new year trying to find an alternative building.