Status: In Exile
Silvanos Mudzvova is a Zimbabwean actor, human rights activist, and playwright, who has gained global recognition for producing numerous plays that address corruption and human rights, such as The Final Push (2007) and Missing Diamonds (2016). Mudzvova was a recipient of the Human Rights Watch award for his play Protest Revolutionaries, which has been translated into Arabic, Dutch, and Chinese. He was also awarded the 2017 Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent by Human Rights Foundation and was a nominee for the Index Awards 2018.
As a child, Mudzvova always wanted to be involved in community theater and would find himself helping others with writing, editing, and directing. He went on to work with the University of Zimbabwe, and began to act in their theater program. Later on in his career, Mudzvova was invited to tour in Europe for a year, making him the second person in his family to ever leave Zimbabwe, his grandfather being the first.
“The most important messages are the ones that I write.”
In 2002, Mudzvova and four of his friends established the Vhitori Entertainment Trust, an organization focused on planning and organizing shows in local theaters that addressed corruption and human rights. Mudzvova found that his talent could create a large impact when civic and international organizations began to show interest in the group’s work. One of his major works, The Final Push, is a satirical play criticizing the Mugabe regime and opposition leaders. Mudzvova and his theater group were arrested in the middle of a performance of The Final Push, and subsequently accused of subversion and attempting to remove a democratically elected president. They faced up to twenty years in prison. Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights took their case. During questioning, Mudzvova and his fellow actors had to perform the play eleven times in front of the police and a judge, who didn’t understand why they had been stopped for the performance.
Those who participated in the performance were summoned ten months later on censorship charges and fined. Since then, state media has barred them from TV and newspapers. Another play of Mudzvova’s, Missing Diamonds, I Need My Share, is a one-man act inspired by President Mugabe, that addresses the country’s loss of $15 billion from diamond revenue. Since 2008, Mudzvova has been arrested numerous times during his performances. The majority of these arrests concerned Mudzvova’s work lacking proper certification and failing to comply with oppressive censorship laws. As a result, Mudzvova had to register with the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, leading to a lot of legal frustration.
When he attempted to register, his interviews with the council were being forwarded to police. The Vhitori Entertainment Trust then decided to do a short piece in front of the Ministry that would take fifteen minutes, which was enough time to get the message across before authorities came to arrest them. This is where Mudzvova came up with the idea of hit-and-run-theater, where he would arrive in theaters unannounced, tell the media what he intends to do, and perform his work quickly, before authorities showed up.
They carried out this short performance around the time MPs passed through, and some even stopped to watch. During this performance, Mudzvova was arrested. This time, he was questioned for an unusually long time, and after being released he noticed he was being followed. Around this time, friends and neighbors noticed a suspicious car that always sat outside of Mudzvova’s house. One morning, friends of his surrounded the car and took some photos to draw attention to its presence, and the car never returned.
On September 13, 2016, Mudzvova was abducted by the state-sponsored militia from his residence in Crowborough. In full view of his family, guns were pointed at Mudzvova, and he was blindfolded and apprehended to an unknown location. Mudzvova was interrogated and assaulted. The assailants injected him with some unknown substance, and he was left with severe bruises and injuries. As a result of these injuries, Mudzvova was left semi-paralyzed on the left side of his body. Because of the attack, Mudzvova was hospitalized for three months. His family was concerned and thought that he should stop advocating once he recovered, but he thought “If I stop now, they win.” He then did a solo performance regarding issues of sexual abuse. Three days later, several protesters were released.
“If I stop now, they win.”
Mudzvova later did another performance that focused on an embezzlement scandal involving the Minister of Education. Throughout this performance, the audience huddled around him to ensure that he wouldn’t get arrested. The impact of his performances was immediate, and prompted other advocates to speak out. “One of the things that I say if I dare to say something on that day, I say that it was successful,” Mudzvova says about the event.
“If you have an idea that could help in a practical way, you have to believe in it and deal with it. If you can, it’s always good to read and learn about human rights defender safety. A lot of times journalist know a lot more than artists. Anyone who wants to support peace in Zimbabwe, need to look to artists. Art can reach everyone, because artists are the only ones that can bring the message everywhere.”
He was later awarded an Institute of International Education Artist Protection Fund Fellowship and was in residence at University of Manchester from January 2017 to January 2018. Mudzvova also received support from Aid-A. During his fellowship, Mudzvova produced the play, King of Mutapa. This residency allowed Mudzvova to refocus on the work he was doing, without fear of further persecution. Thankfully, he has now has received refugee status, with help from the university and its base in Manchester. Despite the distance, Mudzvova has managed to remain connected with his audience in Zimbabwe through Facebook, where he posts short performances, usually lasting no longer than two minutes.
By Khali Raymond, May 2019. Khali is an English major at Kean University with an Associate’s Degree in Business Administration from Berkeley College - Newark. He is an experienced writer, poet, and artist who is interested in using art to bridge racial, societal, and economic gaps worldwide.