Old Mutual Shuts Down Top Independent Arts Hangout Book Cafe/Mannenberg in Zimbabwe

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

One of Zimbabwe’s legendary arts and culture hangout, the Book Cafe and Mannenberg, located at the Five Avenues Mall in Harare’s Avenues suburb is scheduled to close its doors to the public at the end of the year due to lack of lease renewal by Old Mutual Property, owners of the property.

The two venues which are managed by the Pamberi Trust, have played a central role in the cultural life of the capital city. In fact, they have been the soul of the creative industry hosting artists of all guise from around Zimbabwe and the globe.

The Book Cafe was recently awarded the 2011 Prince Claus Awards worth €25 000 for its role in “culture and development”, built and focussed on a platform of freedom of expression across music, poetry and theatre with public discussion, film and multi-disciplinary arts.

According to a statement from Pamberi Trust Trust, OK Zimbabwe Pension Fund and its agents Old Mutual Property who own the Five Avenue Shopping Mall served notice to all tenants in the building that they intend to occupy the premise in 2012. Representations to the owners and the agents have proved to no availa, read the statement.

“After 7500 concerts and functions, 650 public discussions, over 70 book launches, 35 theatre productions, staging of 150 international touring acts and countless new local acts and collaborations that emerged within, Harare’s iconic music and performing arts centre, Book Cafe and Mannenberg, will close its doors to the public in Fife Avenue Shopping Mall,” said By Paul Brickhill, Pamberi Trust’s Creative Director .

“About 600,000 have entered the twin venues since opening, as Book Cafe in 1997 with Luck Street Blues, and Mannenberg in 2000 with historic performances by Africa’s great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. The two venues gave rise to the urban mbira phenomena, a Friday night institution in Harare’s nightlife, pioneered stand-up comedy, championed freedom of expression, laid the foundation for slam poetry, and created major youth and female arts development programmes. The venues were closely associated with many great jazz and blues acts in the early years, and latterly with the reggae renaissance sweeping Zimbabwe.”

Brickhill beamoned the little regard that is paid to civic cultural and intellectual life in Zimbabwe.

“One has to wonder what kind of Zimbabwean spirit and legacy we will create for future generations when the needs of civic cultural and intellectual life are so easily supplanted by those of commerce and profit, even while they can co-exist happily. Book Cafe, for those who truly know its heart, has been a place of beauty, joy and togetherness; and so it never failed to uplift the spirit. 350 artists earn a dignified livelihood at the venues, as well as 45 staff. Never in its history did it offend. All have been welcome, and so all came to visit at one time or other. As Edgar Langeveld once said, if you care to sit at Book Cafe long enough, a week or so, every kind of Zimbabwe will wander through,” said Brickhill.

“The pantheon of music, poetry, comedy, theatre and other artists that emerged through the Book Cafe and Mannenberg is simply the stuff of legend, their number runs not in dozens but hundreds. They know who they are, and in most cases so do the audiences. Some are here, some scattered, some have passed away and some retired. We pay tribute to them all”.

“There are not too many in political, social and media spheres that did not at some time engage in public debate in Book Cafe, and that includes many leaders of yesterday and today. We have been a place of free expression, a platform for exchange of public dialogue”.

“What will happen now is that we will bid farewell to Fife Avenue. The artists, audiences and friends who came to know and appreciate this space may also say their goodbyes, since each had their own way of being part of us and each other at Book Cafe and Mannenberg. This festive season is our last in this venue, and this New Year’s Eve is the last we shall enjoy together at this place, with a hug and a wish for the coming year at midnight”.

“Does the show go on? We will make our announcements in due course. For now, what I can say is that as one door closes in life, so another opens. After 30 years, we have not given up, despite some desperate hardships along the way. We have history. Honestly, it is for us just another bend in the path. To quote my old friend David Ndoro, with whom we invented much of the early years, ‘It is a journey, not a destination’. And so, yes, it will continue”.

“I would like, on behalf of some 1200 artists and our team here, to sincerely and humbly say thank you to every person who has supported, attended or performed at shows and events, who enjoyed themselves, engaged with others in the world of ideas and laughed together. To our many partners in the arts and civil society, as we always said, ‘we are building the kind of Zimbabwe we want to live in’. And so we did. And so we will continue”.