E-thinking Zimbabwe’s creative industries

ignatius mabasa

Ignatius Mabasa

Stanley Mushava Literature Today
Zimbabwe’S creative industries are in steep decline.
Creativity without visibility is the tragedy of our culture circuit.Few local books, films, music and other media still get to shine their light internationally. At home, there is no reception to match production, at least commercially.

Some of the products are wholesome enough to merit a sustained shelf life.

Tragically, our artistes are forced to wait exclusively on the international audience for the meaningful reception and commercial success of their work.

But so far as that is concerned, it has been a while since we were written off the producers’ deck, with few exceptions, and sent to the listening post.

No reason to expect otherwise for products ignored on their own home turf.

The cultural ecosystem at home is cruel on creativity. Where art is concerned, the public is either stoical or criminal.

Criminal precisely because the majority of consumers keep ganging up with pirates to strangle the last signs of life out of the artistes only to blame it on liquidity challenges across the economy.

Remember Enock Chihombori, the producer of “Gringo the Troublemaker”, all tears at the 2014 NAMA ceremony as he narrated how he invested his family savings into his award-winning movie only to lose everything to piracy?

Where the nation conspires against creativity and our more prolific artists are pushed to hang their tools prematurely, few worry that local creative industries are in jeopardy.

Why bother when a foreign equivalent is easily accessible for everything produced locally?

So widely subscribed foreign creative industries are enjoying our financial support and polishing their acts to the next level.

Meanwhile, our ignored creative industries are terminally challenged, forcing the best artistes into early retirement with nothing to show for their pains.

I took notice when leading Shona novelist Ignatius Mabasa, in the tenor of frustration, declared: “Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to book writing.”

“I love and enjoy writing but I have sacrificed a lot of my precious time and resources only for a name,” Mabasa complained in one of his “Shelling the Nuts” instalments.

“I think I have contributed enough to Zimbabwe’s cultural capital through books. Perhaps when my two pipeline novels are out I should say goodbye to book writing,” he threatened.

His frustration is justified. Given that one of his novels has been a Zimsec Shona A-Level set book (one of the few ways local novelists are supposed to earn bread from their deserted trade) in 2011 and 2012, Mabasa had good reason to look forward to a fat envelope from his publishers.

Two years elapsed – no envelope, not even an email.

In September last year, Mabasa was told that his royalties had amounted to $82,88 in three years but even that he was not going to receive, alas!

He was told he actually owed his publisher $216 in backdated ZIMRA taxes and they were going to deduct that from copies yet to sell in addition to the 45 copies sold while his book was still being studied nationally.

Around this time last year, I spoke to one of Zimbabwe’s highly regarded authors who gave a starkly contrasted account of business back then and now.

He revealed that his 14 books had earned him less than $400 between 2000 and 2014.

This he set against the performance on the market of his 1991 play which he said earned him $20 000 (local currency) in its heyday.

To indicate the current trajectory of his fortunes, he produced a slip from his publishers showing that one of his more popular plays had earned below the retrievable minimum in the year ended April 2014.

For those who were there during the greener yesteryear, something must have gone terribly wrong.

And the argument that books have generally lost appeal is simply not true.

In other countries, writers are still golden geese.

America’s young dystopian novelist, Veronica Roth, was worth $50 million, according to a Forbes estimate sometime last year.

A relative latecomer, she made as much having only five items on her vendor dashboard, three novels, a short story collection and one screen adaptation.

The recent addition of “Insurgent” movie to her inventory must have significantly swelled her net worth.

What then could be the cause for the failure of local industries?

Relative mediocrity has been sometimes offered as the blanket explanation for their obscurity.

That may be a likely reading in a sector where far too many players do not demonstrate commitment to quality.

But poetasters are not a Zimbabwean preserve.

Elsewhere, dregs have barely extinguished the sparkle of actual gems. A fistful of notables consistently stand out of the mediocre mass to excite imagination.

Why then are we perpetually a cultural vassal?

The answer our artistes and producers need to hear is that they are doing the right thing in the wrong era.

It is one thing to master the workflow but when products are neither accessible nor affordable, the producers have something to think about.

The problem is not so much inability to match global standards but a static understanding of business in a dynamic global village.

Our industries are wired in a way that disincentivises interest.

Piracy has a positive side. It shows that people still care about creative products. In fact, they care enough to sustain a whole illicit industry.

Legit creators must learn from pirates and claim back their audience.

Inefficient and unaffordable terms of transaction are largely the reason for the failure of our industries.

Authentic cultural products are priced out of the means of everyday Zimbabweans. This ostensibly for producers look to recoup high production and distribution costs.

Piracy makes a killing out of the situation and various measures against it over the past decade have been altogether futile.

I have consistently advised through this column that whatever legal or multi-sectoral measures being invoked against piracy are bound to fail unless there is a more inclusive pricing model.

If producers cannot draw the people to their elite business pitch, they may as well vacate their sand palaces and follow the people.

Now, the best way for publishers to mark down their products for more popular appeal is to utilise e-publishing and e-commerce possibilities.

Do I hear you say, “That thing doesn’t work for Zimbabwe”?

But if it does not work, nothing will. Policymakers will hold non-piracy indabas in posh hotels, clichéd statements will be issued, familiar articles will be written, and piecemeal measures will be implemented for a few days.

Meanwhile, it will be business as usual for pirates. And vanity for the culture industries.

There is nothing wrong with anti-piracy campaigns. They embolden the red line which must always be in place against crime, at least theoretically.

But so far as business is concerned, it is high time we caught up with the rest of the world.

We need to e-think our culture industries.

Subtract prohibiting costs and have something for everyone on the table. And we will speak from there.

These things have to be customised for the local market.

Amazon, IBookstore, Barnes and Noble and other distributors which have refreshed the mojo in book sectors have not recorded significant headway locally because they are not customised for Zimbabwe.

With poor penetration of credit cards and debit cards as people want as little as possible to do with banks in the aftermath of the debilitating hyperinflationary era, mobile banking has become a popular alternative.

Local producers and distributors can take advantage of that and reach people where they are.

Self-published authors and independent publishers can give a new lease of life to their industry by taking to the Internet in earnest to compete for international attention. It is working elsewhere.

It is a myth to say there is no reading culture in Zimbabwe. People are reading more than ever before – only they are reading mostly trivial content on social media.

Why not follow them there to sell your books, music or films at cheaper prices in readily accessible formats and retain the traditional type for the few who can afford it?

Stanely Mushava blogs at upstreamafrica.blogspot.com