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We are burying a great man: Hundreds bid farewell to arts guru Mhlanga

Internationally acclaimed and celebrated playwright, ContinueLoving ‘Cont’ Mdladla Mhlanga was, Saturday, laid to rest at his rural homestead in Lupane. 

Mhlanga (64) died on August 1, 2022 at the United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH).

Described as an icon, a leader in Zimbabwe’s creative and cultural industry, Mhlanga was celebrated for nurturing various talents across the country including transforming the arts sector into a recognised industry locally and internationally. 

Family spokesperson, Stix Mhlanga, said from a young age, Cont was ingrained with leadership skills.

“Cont was given two names by our father and grandfather who was of Swati origin and named him Mdladla. Mdladla was the first born in a family with 14 to 15 boys and four girls. Leadership was nurtured in him to lead the family and his siblings, as such we have lost our leader,” said the deceased’s young brother

Stix said his brother was a gifted storyteller, who could make people visualise his stories whether written or told orally. 

“Mdladla loved telling stories about boarding school when he came back home. One of his stories was how he and a friend stole naartjies and one German priest who they called Mandevu went to them, touched their heads saying the Lord hates those who steal fruits. Ever since then Mdladla never took anything because he thought God had spoken to the priest directly about their actions,” he said.

Stix narrated how Cont adopted several lifestyles throughout his life.

“At first he wanted to become an agronomist but our parents worried how he would achieve that with his slim frame. He then worked at Monarch which manufactures bags. In the mid 1970s, Mdladla became a hippie- grew his Afro hair, wore belly bottoms and high heels. He listened to Jim Reeves, Jimmy Hendrix,” he said.

“He loved football and every weekend went to Barbourfields Stadium. Mdladla had a quality for looking for new challenges and creativity, which saw him support a team called the Eagles until it was relegated, contrary to the popular team we supported. He was a revolutionary rebel.”

Stix said Cont then became spiritual until his death. 

“He did yoga, meditated and dressed like monks. He would wear a tracksuit and flats all the time. He loved going to MacDonald and Stanley Halls to watch movies that he would relay to us. From his childhood Khakis, to a hippie to dressing like a monk, when there was independence, he mastered karate influenced from watching Chinese films and people will call him teacher, which I found fascinating how he was called that yet never went to a teaching school.

“He then grew vegetables, went to keep goats and chickens. All this he did within two years. His mind was always thinking of doing new things. Then accidentally he discovered theatre and drama or it found him.” 

Stix said it was then Mhlanga was called ‘Malume’ and had a gift of visualising his vision and influencing others to see and implement it.

“That’s why he built so many things. This is when he established his identity and trademark of wearing a cap and a waistcoat. From 2000, Mdladla groomed young people. He could smell talent then he had a new name ‘Khulu’.”

His young brother said Cont loved mangoes, fried nuts and roasted maize.

“His death brings darkness as we don’t know who will complete the journey he started,” Stix said. 

Lupane District Development Coordinator (DDC), Ennety Sithole, concurred that the community and education sector had benefited from him. 

“He understood the assignment of nurturing and producing talent as he worked very closely with school pupils, youth, making sure they realise their arts potential and that they harvest on their God given creative talents. Today many schools especially in Lupane bask in the glory of a strong foundation of the arts and creative sector, traditional dance, contemporary dance, acting, drama and poem,” she said.

Sithole added that Cont loved history, which saw him become the brainchild of the Pupu Shangaan Carnival, commemorated annually in June.

“His dream was to raise the shrine and all its surroundings culturally so they become attractive tourist attraction sites, which would lure many of Lupane, local and foreign tourists to raise revenue for the local authority,” she said. 

“The Lupane community will forever miss and remember him striving to move forward after having benefited a lot. These lessons learnt from Mhlanga will forever be cherished and will be passed on from generation to generation.”

The DDC noted that Zimbabwe needs dedicated and committed cadres like Mhlanga, who surrendered all to assist many and served the country wholeheartedly. 

“If we have such people, it will not be difficult at all for the country to become middle-income by 2030,” Sithole said. 

Chairperson of the Kusile District Council, Fibion Ngwenya, said true to his leadership qualities, Mhlanga contested for a council seat in 2008 and he won. 

“Cont was in the Finance Committee where he interrogated council staff over operations and if the staffer failed to answer questions, Mhlanga would bluntly say ‘lapha asila muntu (we don’t have a qualified worker here),” he said. 

Professor Jacob Mupare from Chinhoyi State University said although he worked with Mhlanga, he knew about him when he was still a student in 1987. 

“We watched a play of his work that was banned for international export but good for local consumption,” he said. 

“I worked well with Cont at a time when there was talk that when you see a Ndebele you run away, but I soon learnt that when you see a Ndebele you work and walk together,” he  said. 

Prof Mapara revealed that a colleague and him were supposed to translate Cont’s ‘Nansi le Ndoda’ to Shona but were involved in an accident on their way to do so, halting the translation. 

“We hope we will do the translation now,” he said. 

The academic said Mhlanga was interested in preserving Zimbabwe’s memory. 

“Particularly the Shangani memory of the first people who resisted colonial rule, not the memory of Alan Wilson. That’s why he was identifying sites of memory across the country,” he said.

“We are burying a fine Zimbabwean, Cont didn’t look at tribe. Some people are Zimbabweans because of birth certificates, IDs and passports but Cont was a Zimbabwean in life. He was different from others.”

National Arts Council of Zimbabwe Director, Nicholas Moyo said Mhlanga was a product of a strong organisation of arts and artists established 40 years ago and was still standing. 

“Cont was a product of one of the first organisations to promote local languages and Ndebele – the Mthwakazi Actors and Writers Association. That’s where he started from and left to start his own organisation,” he said. 

“A legacy is important and we heard the family say they will form a foundation under his name.” 

But the biggest question after Mhlanga’s death said Moyo was what next for Amakhosi.

“That’s the biggest question which we must challenge ourselves to answer,” he said.  

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Youth, Sport, Arts and Culture, Dr Thokozile Chitepo said Mhlanga was instrumental in creating Zimbabwe’s Culture and Creative Industry Strategy. 

“He was making the biggest noise about it and we sent a team to engage him. When they met him, he didn’t let them and the government off freely, he said it has taken a long time as we have lost mileage, asking how we would preserve our culture. He made sure the government knew he was unhappy but we put him in charge of that because he knew the landscape and players,” she said. 

Dr Chitepo added Mhlanga was also a key person who was working towards the country’s film strategy. 

“Cont Mdladla lived a full life, he was a visionary and a creative guru, whose memory will remain etched in generations.”

Chief mourner on behalf of the government, Matabeleland North Provincial and Devolution Minister, Richard Moyo, said the province had lost a determined man who wanted to bring change and assist the youth. 

“Mhlanga was a liberated man, a cultural arts enthusiast who empowered us as black people. He left a big gap and his works such as ‘Isakhamuzi loForoman’ taught us a lesson that we can live with each other despite our station and regardless of where you come from,” he said.”

Moyo said Mhlanga’s Friday Live shows at Amakhosi made youth reach their dreams. 

“We will always remember him for developing Matabeleland North” 

People from various walks of life attended the funeral, including notable names in the arts sector.

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