Can a leopard change its spots?

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THE last three editions of the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) have lacked the ‘glitz’ and ‘glamour’ which characterised the festival at the peak of the Western-backed regime change agenda.
The most glaring feature of the controversial Manuel Bagorro-led festival in recent times has been the absence of sponsors.
HIFA has been, or was, one of the tools which the West used in its futile regime change agenda.
But after failing to foist their creation, the MDC then led by the late Morgan Tsvangirai, which lost election after election to the revolutionary ZANU PF Party, on Zimbabwe, the West abandoned some of its tools which included HIFA.
After the massacre of the opposition at the polls in July 31 2013, former funders of the regime change agenda locked tight their purses.
From then on, HIFA was never the same. For instance, in 2016, the festival programme which used to be packaged in glossy thick volumes came in the form of a postcard and a flier.
This year, the six-day annual event slated for May 1-6, celebrates its 18th edition.
And it has been an interesting as well as a disturbing 18 years.
Since its inception in 1999, HIFA has had its fair share of controversy.
Many things are happening in the new dispensation; while some are celebrating with us, others see it as an opportune time to show their true colours.
Thus, as HIFA celebrates its 18 years, it will not be remiss to go down memory lane.
Last year, while other sponsors pulled out of the festival, the US Embassy announced it would continue partnering HIFA. The assistance came in the form of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR).
Not that it was a bad move by the US to offer a ‘helping’ hand, but it highlighted the hypocrisy of the US towards its ‘mandate’ in assisting developing countries.
The US Government, at that time, had cut HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis grants in many developing countries, including Zimbabwe.
“We are excited to be part of this year’s edition of HIFA,” said David McGuire, public affairs officer at the US Embassy then. “We see the Festival as an opportunity to learn more about Zimbabwean art and culture as well as sharing American art forms and our commitment to a healthy Zimbabwe.”
The US has a strong relationship with festivals and practices that promote ways that we, as Africans, have refused to condone such as homosexuality.
But according to the US, the practice of homosexuality is a ‘major’ human right that must be ‘respected.’
Thus it was no surprise the US Embassy expressed support for HIFA while the country is at the forefront of maintaining sanctions imposed under Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA).
The year 2016 saw the festival taking a break due to economic hardships that saw most of its sponsors pulling out.
In the same year, organisations such as HIVOS announced their exit despite having sponsored the arts sector for over 10 years.
Since its inception in 1999, the festival has attracted controversy and has been closely linked to the regime change agenda.
In 2011, this publication broke the news that organisers of the festival took some youths to Serbia where they were trained to use social media to effect regime change.
Apart from being a playground for homosexuals, in 2014, HIFA spiritedly attempted to bring Freshly Ground, a South African musical group that was expected to fuel the fire for the call to remove the then President Robert Mugabe from power.
While some have touted HIFA as one of the best platforms for the country to market itself, some of us have worried and questioned the morals of some of the visitors to this bonanza who seem to bring the worst in some of our people.
While for others HIFA is a ‘beautiful’ programme, we have said it is the ‘little’ things almost invisible to the eye that have taken away the glitter of the event.
We have, for instance, asked why organisers would promote plays that we as a people, as Zimbabweans, find offensive?
Freedom of expression has its limits.
The BBC or arts festivals in London would never promote acts that demean and ridicule the Queen and similarly no play in the United States would be found entertaining if it made fun of the founding fathers.
We have argued that no amount of democracy will see Americans take lightly the misrepresentation and belittling of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin for instance.
But the 2014 edition HIFA showed the play, ‘Lovers in Time’, a play that caricatured Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi.
The play co-produced by one Dr Agnieszka Petrowska of the United Kingdom was plain offensive.
Founder Bagorro, who stayed in Zimbabwe, knew exactly who Nehanda and Kaguvi were; their historic, cultural and social significance and importance to us all.
In that 2014 edition, we found the failure to sing the national anthem on the opening night, which others treated as an oversight, an insult to the Zimbabwe nation.
For a while, until local artistes complained, HIFA was more like a white supremacy promotion arena — it was a platform that did not celebrate local talent at all. But later things somewhat improved and we now have more local acts at the festival.
So this year, HIFA will be bringing back ‘controversial’ South African music group Freshly Ground for the festival.
The Afro-Pop fusion band failed to perform at HIFA in 2014 after being deported by the immigration department.
Freshly Ground became ‘unpopular’ in 2010 when they released a song, ‘Chicken to Change’ that questioned the legitimacy of former President Robert Mugabe despite his party having won a free and fair election that gave him the mandate to rule.
HIFA’s associate executive director Tafadzwa Simba is an excited fellow riding on the mantra that ‘Zimbabwe is open for business.’
“This is a new dispensation and everything is new, so we are hoping for the best,” he said.
Performances at HIFA this year are likely to attract many revellers; people are happy and celebrating the progress in the country. But will HIFA change its agenda which has been visible since 1999 because of the new dispensation?
Popular local and international musicians who have graced HIFA in previous editions include energetic Ivorian Dobet Gnahore, Mali’s Salif Keita, Senegal’s Baaba Maal, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi and Mokoomba, among others.
This year it runs under the theme ‘HIFA 2018 — We Count’.
But exactly who counts?

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