BY SHARON SIBINDI Creatives in the arts sector say the late arts doyen Cont Mdladla Mhlanga had an eye for talent, and was humble but hard and called a spade a spade when he wanted things done.
Mhlanga (64) died on Monday morning at the United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH) after being admitted for 10 days. He succumbed to pneumonia.
A memorial service was held at Amakhosi Cultural Centre on Friday. Known as “Malume”and “Khulu” to others, Mhlanga was buried at his rural homestead in Lupane yesterday.
Umkhathi Theatre Works founder Matesu Dube told Standard Style that the late Mhlanga was one of the pioneers of theatre arts in Zimbabwe post independence.
“Cont was a doyen in the arts; he had an eye for talent. He is one of the pioneers of theatre arts in Zimbabwe, post independence. I had interactions with Cont when he fell in love with Umkhathi’s dance shows at one time he invited us to perform at his rural home at a family gathering on a Christmas Day,” he said.
“I also worked with him at the Inxusa festival when we presented a show. I also worked with him when we did a new version of his play, Stitsha at the invitation of Sihlangu Dlodlo. He had a gift that he was born with. He would give advice to us as young artist. He was a man who would interact with young people easily.”
Dube said he learnt respect and humility from Mhlanga.
“I also learnt that as artists, we should preserve our culture and traditions. He taught us that arts is a professional job like any other job,” he added.
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A graduate of Amakhosi Performing Arts, actor and director Zenzo Nyathi said the late Mhlanga will always be his father in the arts industry.
“My relationship working with him has always been that of son and father to me, though to him I was a ‘Mzukulu’ in my first year or two, a ‘Mfo’ brother most of the time and eventually “Nyathi”,” he said.
“We were never equals neither will we ever be but he treated me as such. He was humble, but hard when he wanted things done and he will get it out of you. He was blunt, called a spade a spade, if you don’t have it he will say it and that would be it.”
Nyathi said working with his father was painfully fun as he wanted the best out him and everyone.
“When working with your father it’s always painfully fun. For he wants the best from you hence at times it seemed too hard. I enjoyed it all the time for I quickly learnt why. You have it, but want to hold it back or are not sure to give it,” he said.
“He would push you to the maximum and he is one person that cemented the adage…”Faith is taking the first step even if you don’t see the whole staircase”. “Just believe you are going somewhere or up Nyathi and someday you will find yourself there…” He was and will always be the greatest of our time.”
Nyathi received endless lessons from the late Mhlanga and not only in the creative sector, but life lessons too.
“Lessons are endless for he was a well of wisdom, not only in the creative arts but in life. “Kufuna amaxhegu Nyathi” he will always say. I didn’t understand it then but now I do. Hence besithi ‘Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili’. I learnt to stand on my own for I was standing on the shoulders of a giant,” he said.
“He will say “don’t be afraid to take a plunge Nyathi, you will rather fail trying than just stand and do nothing. When you try someone will come help or you will learn from your mistakes. Be bold and never be apologetic”. I can go on and on but yoh for now it’s still a bit heavy, why because like I said he was a father I knew him when I was a primary school kid till his last day. Lala ngokuthula xhegu! Eqinisweni kufuna amaxhegu … Pho ke ah!”
Veteran theatre director and actor, Memory Kumbota said the late Mhlanga always had ideas and contributed to your own with brilliant insight.
“I first met Cont at home because I had in class in our theater course, his young brother Styx. We were in a two year full time theatre training project run by Bulawayo City Council and Canadian University Services Overseas. That was in 1986. Myself and Styx were the only guys from Mzilikazi and we would visit each other at home.
“By that time Cont had already started making great work so I was awed to meet him and have good chats with him about the arts right there at his home. When you spoke with Cont you immediately were impressed by his visionary mind, his probing questions and intelligence. He always had ideas and contributed to your own with brilliant insight,” he said.
He said when he started working with him, he saw a wonderful mentor.
“He knew people’s strengths and weaknesses. He would advise you on what roles to take and direction your career should be. I was a formerly trained theatre artist with no film training and he informally introduced me into film, starting me with acting roles in short film projects later suggesting I try assistant directing that led to my roles as assistant director in great projects like Sinjalo and Amakorokoza where he used me in many roles from acting, assistant director and later line producer.
“All along he would be watching closely guiding you, advising in his own inimitable way. Cont has directed me as an actor in many projects both film and theater and every journey was a learning curve. I bothered him a lot about wanting to act with the great actor Tickay Mackay who also became a good friend and brother and Cont would say no Memo awuboni ukuthi liyafana lokuhambelana so I can’t cast you with him.”
Kumbota said he did get the chance in one of his major acting moments when he was cast with Mhlanga and Christopher Hurst in the classic Workshop Negative shows they did in LA, USA.
“I had travelled to LA alone to meet with the cast there. I had read the published play script only to realise at rehearsal that the actors were using the original script and there were differences, in his directing Cont helped me catch up to these great actors in a very tough rehearsal for me,” he said.
“He gave me the courage and guidance. He was very good at individual directing because he knew people’s strengths and weaknesses and he would show you your strengths and help you build on them. Throughout my work even outside of Amakhosi I always went back to him for advice.
“On the multi-award winning Intwasa play UMbiko kaMadlenya where I got a Nama for best actor I went to him for character research and he gave me some important pointers. There is so much I can say about him and how he impacted on my journey as a theater and film actor director and trainer. What stands out now is my last conversation with him.”
He said Keyona had been given a TV licence and he bumped into Mhlanga doing his initial interviews and auditions and asked him to see him after doing the business he had come for at Amakhosi.
“When we spoke he said Memo can you imagine that today it is abantu bama drama esesilama TV station? He was very emotional as we spoke about the long journey from where we come. That conversation affirms for me today that God afforded Cont his dream and Cont has run his race in God’s appointed time leaving behind a lasting legacy,” he said.
“One thing people may not know about Cont is that he was an excellent actor. Few people have seen him in that role. He would make examples and you’d be awed by his acting. I remember one film project where he replaced one actor I was paired with to give an example. The scene the two of us did was so good and I whispered to him Malume take over this role sizenzele and he only laughed.”
One of the band members and bass guitarist for the late Beater Mangethe, Edson December said he met the late Mhlanga in 2005 where he offered them to do rehearsals at Amakhosi and live Shows.
“We have lost a man who loved art. Cont was a good man. I remember he used to let us rehearse for free with the late songstress Beater Mangethe.
“He would allocate different slots for all artist at Amakhosi we started around 2005 meeting him,” he said.
Drums of Peace (DoP) founder, Lewis Ndlovu said: “In our times as kids at Amakhosi under the Children’s Programme, we where nine in class. Six boys and three girls, we used to call him Titsha (Teacher) that was in 1986. This is the time I first arrived at Amakhosi Theatre productions. He was a karate teacher, a dance teacher, a drama teacher, a teacher in everything. All I can openly say is, he was an amazing person,, a mentor, a brother and a friend.”
Regarded as the pioneer of arts in Zimbabwe, Mhlanga has been in the arts industry for four decades and wrote more than 20 plays such as The Good President, The End, Sinjalo, Children on Fire and Vikela and has three books to his name.
In 1979, he established a Youth karate club— Dragons and later turned into Amakhosi Theatre in 1981 where he identified, nurtured and mentored talent with most who were trained by him having success stories.
Mhlanga also produced Amakorokoza and Sinjalo for ZBC.
Bulawayo City Council spokesperson Nesisa Mpofu said BCC awarded Mhlanga a Civic Honours Recipient.
“Cont Mhlanga was awarded a civic honours on October 18, 2002 following a Council resolution of July 3, 2002 in recognition of his role in the introduction and subsequent development of theatrical art in Bulawayo particularly the setting up of Amakhosi Theatre Production,” she said.
“This was in recognition of the fact that community theatre became world renowned and was a great tool in the marketing of the culture and inspirations of the people of Bulawayo,”
Mpofu said civic honours were awarded to citizens who have rendered long and meritorious public work in the City or had brought distinction to it.
“The resolution to award civic honours was made on July 3, 1963 and Cont Mhlanga became the 67th recipient joining other citizens who had brought distinction to the City of Bulawayo,” she said.