Malawi: Actor's Arrest Reminiscent of Past Dictatorship's Censorship Laws

Malawi police on Sunday afternoon December 18, 2011, stormed a stage on which a play was being performed, and led the play's main actor away into a waiting police van.

According to posts on Facebook, where the news first broke and reactions came in fast and furious, the play is titled “Semo” produced by Lions Theatre. The lead actor in the play is Thlupego Kaluli Mgawa Chisiza, son of Malawi's best known playwright and actor, the late Du Chisiza Jr. The play was being performed at Nanzikambe Amphitheatre in the commercial capital, Blantyre.

First to break the news was Brian Banda, Malawi's leading radio host who works at Capital FM Radio. He was in the audience when the arrest happened and he posted pictures on his Facebook page. Banda's status update, a little after 3.05 pm Malawi time, read [the content is currently only available to friends]:

Actor Thlupego Kaluli Mgawa Chisiza being led away for questioning. Photo courtesy of Brian Banda.

Actor Thlupego Kaluli Mgawa Chisiza being led away for questioning. Photo courtesy of Brian Banda.

Police have just stopped a play ‘Semo’ by Lions Theatre at Nanzikambe Amp Theatre.

Reactions flowed in immediately with people wanting to know the police's motive. Banda responded:

The play is reported to be too critical of Mutharika regime.

He later added:

We are all here. Nobody is moving.

For most people commenting on Facebook the scene was reminiscent of the one-party dictatorship when “president for life” Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda ruled Malawi for 30 years, from 1964 to 1994. The one-party era was characterized by heavy-handed censorship through a government agency known as the Censorship Board.

The end of one-party rule in 1994 brought democratic changes, and the Censorship Board no longer played its public censorship role. However despite Malawian activists questioning the presence of the board in post-1994 Malawi, censorship laws have remained, and the board continued existing, albeit in a low profile. It was renamed the Malawi Classification Board, but Chisiza's arrest and charging shows the law governing the board remains stuck in pre-1994 Malawi.

Commenting on Brian Banda's update, Joseph Nkhoma wrote:

Fast descending into a police state. Tiziopanso kutchula dzina la munthu. [Should we go back to being afraid to even mention somebody's name?] Wasn't 30years enough for this?

Another comment, on a separate thread, also alluded to the dictatorship era [the content is currently only available to friends]:

I heard of more or less similar stories from my late father, but i never thought I could live in similar times. Was his vote in 1993 and 1994 a waste? I am hurting bro.

Some went even further and alluded to the colonial era when Malawi was under British rule:

Bola welesnkey anali wobwera [At least Wellensky was a foreigner]

That reference was to Raphael Roy Wellensky, the last colonial Prime Minister for the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The federation was fiercely hated and opposed by Africans, who fought it and won independence as modern day countries of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Another netizen wondered why arrest an actor when a play is authored by a playwright, but online newspaper Nyasatimes reported that Chisiza co-authored the play together with Robert Chasowa, a University of Malawi Polytechnic student activist who was found murdered on campus on the morning of September 24, 2011.

Blogger Ananiya Alick Ponje commented, also on facebook [the content is currently only available to friends], about the paranoia that seemed to be gripping the Malawi government:

By now, we all know what an insecure and pessimistic regime is like: it has to arrest anyone who rebukes it

More reaction appeared on a Facebook group known as Malawi at 50: Towards a New Crop of Malawian Leaders [Malawi at 50 is a closed group]. On Malawi at 50 the first update on the arrest appeared at 7.40pm Malawi time, from Taweni Gondwe Xaba. She wrote:

Playwright and actor Thlupego Kaluli Mgawa Chisiza being led away by Malawi Police for questioning on the “subversive” substance of the creative material in his new play. I'd call it a great opening run;-) Free publicity provided by Malawi Police.

Later Xaba alluded to her fears about what happened to a young Malawian political activist when the police questioned him, a reference to University of Malawi Polytechnic student Robert Chasowa who was murdered after getting involved with police intelligence gathering. Xaba wrote:

I understand he was frogmarched off stage by police 11 minutes into the performance. I'll post the rest of the pics just now. He appears unperturbed by the whole thing but I am worried guys. The last time these people questioned some youth he ended up “committing suicide.” I also recall a recent Nation newspaper interview with him which mentioned that some of the content or lines in the play were contributed by Robert Chasowa who was also into drama and acting etc. I have no idea if these issues are linked.

A Malawian human rights lawyer, Habiba Osman, who created the group Malawi at 50 responded:

I am not surprised that they'd do such pisses me off that the Police are the ones perpetrating such acts when in fact they know that they will never win this battle..and that others who are limiting this constitutional right will leave office and this right will remain with us..

A subsequent post from Habiba Osman suggested action, making references to another court case on Monday for five human rights activists who were arrested on October 14 for staging a protest in the Malawi capital Lilongwe:

Taweni, I need more information..we need to mobilise fast..we are in court tomorrow. So hopefully, we can address others too.

While the reaction was quickest on Facebook, online newspaper Nyasatimes published the story on their website on Sunday evening. On Monday the print media also carried the story. As of Monday evening Brian Banda reported on his Facebook page about Chisiza's charge and release on bail:

Thlupego Chisiza fined K5000. He has paid and he is free now.

Facebook page Towards Malawi Elections 2014 also posted on Monday evening and stated what Police charged Chisiza with:

Chisiza convicted and asked 2 pay K5,000.00 or face 2months for staging a play without permit

Other comments on Facebook have pointed out how Chisiza's arrest is now backfiring and giving free publicity for the play “Semo,” its main actor Thlupego Chisiza and the drama group Lions Theatre (until this incident on Sunday afternoon, I had never heard of the play, the actor nor the group). On Monday night Dannie Grant Phiri posted on his facebook page:

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the police and the censorhip board because without their actions some of us would've been blissfully unaware that Thlupego Chisiza had produced a play that has powers that be very very uncomfortable.

Now we're seriously looking for the script.

His friends reacted to his observations. Peter Namphande said:

I used 2 pay less attention to plays, but now my interest has been rekindled. I have 2 watch this one!

Taweni Gondwe Xaba wrote:

one young man has shaken Bingu and his cronies in a way opposition has failed to do!

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword, noted Taweni Gondwe Xaba:

the pen is mightier than the sword… proven true yet again!! i love what is unfolding;-)

Thlupego Chisiza was on Monday found guilty of staging a play without a permit from Censorship Board and was fined K5,000 (approx. US$30) or in default six months imprisonment with hard labour. He paid the fine.

After his release, Chisiza asked his Facebook friends:

Now that am out WHAT NEXT?

According to Nyasa Times reporter, Semo is a Moses-like leader who saved a historic nation from oppression. The play is set in the increasingly undemocratic Republic of Kwacha which is plagued by learned advisors who praise an increasingly oppressive king to safeguard their positions.

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