In Writing Revolt, British historian Terence Ranger’s memoirs of his time in Rhodesia, he states that “Salisbury [now Harare] was the most segregated city in southern Africa”. This sounds rather melodramatic considering that the scholar, en route to taking a teaching appointment at the University College of Rhodesia − as the University of Zimbabwe used to be known − in 1957 stopped over to stay with friends in Johannesburg, then in its first decade of official apartheid.

More than half a century later, a satirical entry by a Harare blogger, Cynic Harare, makes you wonder what has changed.

Writing last year, the blogger opined: “There is panic and pandemonium in Harare after various horror-stricken witnesses reported seeing white people in the CBD. One terrified witness, speaking from the safety of his fourth-floor office and looking down into the chaotic streets below, said he didn’t know what was happening down there: ‘I don’t know what’s happening down there.’” This was the satirist’s preview piece on the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa), the only time sizeable numbers of the white population stream back into the city.

Hifa, now in its 15th year, is staged and hosted mainly in the Harare Gardens and its environs. The canopied precinct, measuring hundreds of square meters, is  bounded by the United States embassy to its north and the CBD to its south; in the east a thoroughfare named after former Namibian president Sam Nujoma not only clefts the city in two but also links it up with the luxuriant and luxurious suburbs in the north.

Harare Gardens is a dense tropical forest in which lovers hide, kiss and hug in the woodlands’ nooks, sometimes returning for wedding photos in the park if all goes well; it is where the city’s lumpen armies illegally redistribute wealth when the sun has gone down, and where its fatigued flâneurs, pens held between sticky fingers and smudged notebooks on their laps, contemplate the crazed city.

Even though other art forms like dance, theatre, poetry and visual art feature at Hifa, they are peripheral, as the festival is really about music. This year the main act is South African Afro-fusion group Freshlyground, and scores of acts complement the band, including pop diva Toya Delazy, Zimbabwe’s Afro-pop act Jah Prayzah, Dutch hip-hop ensemble Chef’s Special, Ivorian musician Dobet Gnahoré, comedian David Kibuuka, director Roel Twijnstra’s adaptation of Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior, and Zimbabwean poet Biko Mutsaurwa and his South African counterpart Kgafela oa Magogodi.

While the acts that the festival showcases are largely black and African, the audience remains mainly white. Could it be because the ticket prices (R250 will get you in to watch Freshlyground) are out of reach for Zimbabwe’s working class, most of whom are black?

Or perhaps that most of the venues are in the city and in the northern suburbs, sometimes three taxi rides’ away from the townships where the majority of Harare’s million-plus population lives?

What’s not clear is why tickets to most events range from R60 to as much as R260, yet most acts are sponsored by corporates, European states or their cultural organisations. Mobile telephone company Telecel, beer brand Golden Pilsener, banks Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe, ZB and National Merchant Bank of Zimbabwe, Emirates, Nederburg and Old Mutual are some of the 43 companies listed as Hifa’s investors. Partners include the South African government and the Norwegian embassy, among many others.

But back to the observation I noted at the beginning of this piece: how did Harare come to be so segregated?

The Native Urban Areas Act of 1947 – the kindred spirit of apartheid’s Group Areas Act – began the process that the advent of Zimbabwe’s democracy in 1980 couldn’t undo. The city’s councilors had worked hard, in the words of Ranger, to “ensure that all Africans lived in townships and not in the city; that African domestic servants should not be allowed to keep their families with them in the suburbs; that facilities be strictly segregated”. Mugabe’s revolution added a bit of colour to the formerly white northern suburbs, and even darker shades of black to the CBD as whites retreated to the periphery of the city. That is until Hifa comes along each year.

In ways reminiscent to what happened to Johannesburg in the 1990s, Harare’s whites and the new black middle classes retreated to the north of the city in the early 1980s and into the 1990s. In these enclaves walled mansions went up, malls were erected and memberships of exclusive clubs were consolidated.  It is impossible to completely avoid the city – after all, the airport is across town, the government bureaucrats are still situated in town and Harare’s Gardens has its charm and its Hifa.

So for one week a year Harare’s own credible replica of an equatorial forest becomes variegated in a way it has long ceased to be. In 2009, writer and journalist Ish Mafundikwa interviewed an actor who told him, “There are people who will feel Hifa is exclusive because of where it is and the sort of people who have access to that area are of a certain group. And I look at the pricing and it is $5 for a show.” That was then. This year to watch The Madonna of Excelsior will set you back about R150; I seem to remember an adaption of the same play going for around R50 at last year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Talking to a Zimbabwean friend who is now based Johannesburg, I  mentioned that the prices in Zimbabwe don’t show appreciation of the true value of the dollar or, indeed, any other currency. For instance, a quarter-chicken meal at Nando’s that’s around R50 in South Africa is about R70 in Harare. It’s possible that there is nothing sinister or exclusionary about Hifa’s pricing other than Zimbabwe’s schizophrenic relationship with money, but prohibitive pricing won’t exactly pull huge crowds.


For booking details and the programme, go to

Main Pic: Jah Prayzah performing at the 2013 Harare International Festival of the Arts


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