COLUMN | Ben Zulu – tribute to a life of civic duty

By Chris Kabwato

One of the most informative books I have ever read is Banal Nationalism by Michael Billig. The book outlines the everyday, taken-for-granted rituals and experiences that connect people who have never met but feel they belong to the same nation.

Take, for example, the borderless and bordered nation of Zimbabwe and the daily interactions on social media over politics (Chamisa-this, Chamisa-that), the economy (dollarisation), music (Winky D versus Jah Prayzah) and social norms (Shadayah). We are an ‘imagined community’, to borrow a famous phrase from Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson, because of our daily interactions on X, Facebook and WhatsApp.

However, between the Zimbabwe of our daily imagination and the real one, we face the challenge of managing intergenerational succession. By this I mean the way information, knowledge, skills and institutional memory are passed from one generation to the next. In stable societies, this may not be much of an issue. But in the case of Zimbabwe, our younger people have had to negotiate life without mentors and guardians. This is largely due to the massive social upheaval that has taken place since 2000 resulting in the dislocation of families and communities. The internet cannot effectively bridge the lack of daily proximity with each other and the casual or intentional passing on of vital knowledge, skills and experience.

Reinventing the wheel

One of the consequences of dislocation and lack of succession is that we shall continue to reinvent the wheel. Lacking institutional memory, enthusiastic folks are likely to come up with what they think are novel ideas and repeat the mistakes of an earlier generation.

Sharing stories of pioneers

To avoid the perpetual Jeremiac wailing, I thought I should share the story of a great person who gave so much of his vision, knowledge, skills, wisdom and passion to radio drama, film and ethnomusicology for about 20 years from 1984 onwards. We can draw some lessons that could assist us as we fumble our way.

Ben Zulu: a man of many talents

Until his passing away in 2011 at the age of 61, Bernard Andrew Zulu (“Mr Zulu” or BZ, as we called him) played so many impactful roles besides his day job. He was chairman of the Zimbabwe College of Music, co-founder of the Ethnomusicology Programme, chairperson of the Advertising Association of Zimbabwe, chairman of the Southampton Foundation, chairman of the Zimbabwe Film Producers Association and chairperson of the Harare International School. He also served as a board member of the National Arts Council at one point.

BZ was brand manager for Colgate Palmolive from 1982 to 1984 and then business development manager from 1984-1987. From 1990-1997, he was executive director of Media for Development Trust and from 1997-1999 he was managing director of Michael Hogg, Young and Rubicam Advertising Agency. In 1999 he became executive director of the African Script Development Fund. This was a trust he had founded in 1997 to train screenplay writers. He also taught marketing in the MBA programme of the University of Zimbabwe.

Irish poet W B Yeats may well have been speaking of someone like Ben Zulu when he wrote the poem In Memory of Major Robert Gregory:

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.

Bringing South African cinema out isolation

I had the privilege of occupying a front seat and watching BZ in action from the mid-90s.

In 1994 and 1995, BZ organised two editions of what he termed the Southern Africa Film & TV Workshop. These two events brought South African filmmakers out of the cocoon of isolation that apartheid had created. For BZ, this was about recognising the potential that South Africa’s entertainment infrastructure could bring to the region if there was a common vision. BZ’s tireless efforts would see the birth of Sithengi (the Southern Africa Film & TV Market based in Cape Town) and the African Script Development Fund (Harare) as the first two pillars. He wanted to see the whole value chain of a self-sustaining market comprising scriptwriting, film and television production, post-production, and distribution.

BZ was a master of report writing; I still have a copy of the report of the 1995 Film and Television Conference, well-written, designed and printed. In the report, he laid out the prescient vision for film and television industry that a politically and economically volatile Southern Africa has consistently failed to execute.

Playing the long game: lessons in advocacy

An eternal optimist, BZ would have chided me for my damning remarks on Southern Africa’s capacity to talk and not deliver. He was a diplomat par excellence and a very capable negotiator who played the long game.

Dealing with a creature called government can be a nightmare no matter which country you live in. The nature of bureaucracy means that processes move at a snail-slow pace. In his capacity as the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Film and Video Producers Association, BZ was never fazed that one year we would be engaging with a Permanent Secretary around film and television policy and then just as we thought we had made some progress, the official would be moved as part of a reshuffle of ministers. With some of us muttering about dysfunctionality, BZ would persist – wide smile, big hugs and full display of his diplomatic tact.

There were some small breakthroughs, such as the establishment of the UNESCO Film and Video Project at what was then called the Production Services on Mazowe Street. The coming in of Mozambican film producer, Pedro Pimenta, as director of the Project brought with it amazing creativity, imagination, and energy.

Teaching and nurturing

It could have been his American training or just his personality, but BZ was never insecure. For those of us who were privileged to be his proteges, we knew we were in a safe space with him. In assisting him in the planning of the 2nd Southern Africa Film & TV Workshop in 1995, BZ gave me and a colleague, Obert Mukahlera, latitude in terms of planning the event.

We excelled under his guidance, and he brought us into meetings to network with the invited film and television executives from Burkina Faso, Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, and South Africa.

Lifelong learning

A man of many interests – radio, television, music, theatre, advertising – and all delivered with exacting standards, he was executive producer of the Zimbabwean feature films More Time (1993) and Everyone-s Child (1996) and he directed a number of documentaries including the ZIPAM-commissioned Fraud and Corruption and short films such as Mwanasikana – Girl Child. From 2006 to 2011 he worked with Kenyan and Nigerian filmmakers and one of the short films he produced, Babu’s Babes, had a mention in the Cannes Film Festival Cinéma du Sud in 2006.

In all the creative areas he ventured into he would read extensively and engage with the experts – debating a point and jotting down notes. In the process he came to understand how stories worked across different genres.

He was proud of his early radio social dramas like Akarumwa Nechokuchera, a 39-part series focusing on men’s role in family planning methods that won an international award.

Lessons in candour

Armed with his formidable intellect and a love for discourse, BZ had a way of asking uncomfortable questions directly but in very polite language and engaging tone.

On one occasion, BZ and I were in Rosebank, Johannesburg, when we bumped into a Western diplomat who had recently left Zimbabwe for a posting elsewhere. Politely, BZ pushed the conversation to the land question and asked: “With hindsight, what things could you have done differently?”

BZ’s demise was a devastating loss for Africa’s arts and culture sector. Still, I hope there could be something we can salvage from this excellent example of a life of civic duty.