Cont Mhlanga: An ancestor walked among us

07 Aug, 2022 - 00:08 0 Views
Cont Mhlanga:  An ancestor walked among us Cont Mhlanga

The Sunday News

Cetshwayo Mabhena
Cont Mhlanga was always going to do this to us.

He was always going to just die one day and leave us in tears. If we paid enough attention to understand the type of people, a rare type of people, to whom Cont belonged we were going to prepare ourselves for the day that has befallen us.

Some of these people come to the world as great inventors, others as artists, some as philosophers, politicians and others as religious leaders.

Through their rare gifts and iconic work most of these people become cultic figures that arrest the hearts and minds of populations.

Their habit is to do a lot of great work fast, stamp a bold signature on the earth, and quickly depart before their vocation expires.

We were blessed, I must say, that Cont hung around with us for that long, 64 years of age.

His type rarely crosses the early 30s, that is if they make it to the 30s.

Our tragedy might exactly be that we did not see the blessing and know the gift while it was circulating among us.

We concentrated on following a celebrity and saluting a legend, and laughing at the drama, and forgot to see the monument that was before us.

I am not expecting to win any prize for making the simple observation that Cont’s role as an iconic monument has only begun, and his true popularity and fame are yet to be realised.

The late Cont Mhlanga

The work that Cont did among us, the knowledge he produced, the ideas he circulated and values he represented were his preparation for his work beyond the grave.

Cont’s truth is yet to be actualised.

The family, friends and fans of Cont, myself included, should celebrate that we have gained a formidable ancestor, and one that we know and that knows us by our many names.

The ancestors do that, now and again, they get born among us, pretend to be one of us, and do their wonders.

Before we discover that they are not our siblings, friends or whatever peers, they evaporate back to the firmament leaving us in tears like we are now.

For the ancestors there is no resting in peace because their ideas, spirit and meaning continue working in perpetuity.

Cont was our living ancestor, idlozi eliphilayo!

Never an artist

Somehow, I can understand and even forgive many among us that speak and write of Cont the artist.

This might just be the scarcity of the diction and even the shortage of vocabulary to name what we saw in Cont.

Cont was never an artist, although he did a lot of art, but he was art itself.

Cont’s sheer appearance, physical build, dressing, and mannerisms were a performance.

And one that was inimitable.

Cont Mhlanga

When Cont spoke he did so as if words were pieces of meat that he was chewing with some invisible soup.

Words obeyed Cont the way soldiers follow instructions from their generals and commanders.

If it was a fight, Cont fought a lot, words fired out of his mouth like true bullets.

If it was a friendly or philosophical conversation, Cont was a philosopher, the words rolled out of his mouth like beauties in a pageant strutting their stuff on stage.

Cont could drop flowers and pearls of words from his mouth. Just to look at, and listen to Cont, was a divine experience, a true ancestral encounter.

And when he listened to you, he did so with eyes fully open and cheek in hand, like some deity listening to a prayer that he plans to answer or not.

Then there was the Cont laugh. Cont laughed at me, on several occasions, and I am yet to fully recover from the force of his laughter that was loud and free, generous, and which he performed like a sacred ritual.

His laughter had the energy and force of a pentecostal prayer and incantation.

I feel the loss of those among us that did not have the opportunity, one day, to be laughed at by Cont.

The members of the extended Amakhosi family, so extended and big that it can be called a nation, and some of us that hung around Cont, will agree with me that Cont was infectious.

He was infectious in the powerful artistic sense that one could not work with Cont, talk with him, engage with him, without carrying with one some of his personal attributes and bodily performances.

Some members of the Cont nation permanently carry the dressing, others the walk, some the laugh, and others the language of Cont Mhlanga.

About the Cont dress, I will one day soon dedicate a full essay because when it came to that things were complicated.

Things were complicated in terms of the combination of many colours, shapes and sizes on one body at the same time in one day.

If Cont’s dressing was a performance in the movies, it would mandatorily be affixed with the sign “don’t try this at home unless you are Cont.”

Yet if one moves around Bulawayo and some parts of Pretoria and Johannesburg one, on a good day, is sure to meet a member of the Cont nation dressed like and walking like Cont.

Cont’s dressing was a language that had its full dictionary and vocabulary and the full meaning of it we are yet to understand.

What we were taught in the arts and humanities classes that art is an imitation of life cannot be true when it comes to Cont.

In Cont, in theory and practice, life itself imitated art.

When the Ugandan philosopher and poet, Okot P’Bitek, wrote a classic book about the Artist as the ruler he might have had Cont in mind.

Cont was not an artist, never, he was the art itself and the royalty part of it.

I know I am not the only member of the Amakhosi Nation who desires that one day a statue of Cont should be erected somewhere on Lobengula Street, in Bulawayo.

My philosophical observation is that our challenge would be how to make a monument, a statue, of an ancestor and an icon that was, in life, a statue already.

Cont the art, the performance, the historian, the storyteller, the cultural custodian, and a living ancestor, was royal and divine.

To compress the man to an artist, a singular vocation, is to make small what is titanic, to make single what was multiple.

One day, soon I hope, I will write about Cont the media institution.

What the media promise and never do, which is to educate, inform and entertain, Cont did with perfection.

To the trinity of media promises, education, information and entertainment, Cont added inspiration. He educated, informed, entertained and inspired the world.

How Cont destroyed my acting career

After the passing away of Cont most of my friends in the arts and culture industry are coming forward to give testimonies on how the legend built their careers from nothing to great. My testimony is that Cont destroyed my acting career.

Only Cont, after all, could destroy what did not exist in the first place. I had no acting potential or career to talk about.

Cyrene Mission school

My friends know how I was unceremoniously booted out of the Drama Club at Cyrene Mission school for the dark sin of getting excited on stage and adding my own words to the lines and acting out what was not directed, confusing other actors and killing the drama itself.

I was no actor even though I was dramatic and sometimes funny.

I also had the silly habit of literally soliciting for applause from the audience instead of doing what I was supposed to do on stage, performing.

Well before the Ordinary Level examinations that I was supposed to sit in 1993, Cyrene Mission got fed up with my drama off-stage and expelled me together with 12 of my friends.

I could only come back to the school at the end of the year and on the days I was writing exams, under tight observation.

My expulsion meant that I had to prepare from exams at home, in Entumbane township. I resolved to abandon school altogether.

Amakhosi Cultural Centre

From Entumbane, one dusty day, I walked through the bush to Amakhosi Cultural Centre to tell Cont that I was ready to be trained in Karate, and to act. I was done with school.

Cont’s dramatic reaction was that he had always known that one day I will make a great actor and a karateka.

I was delighted, but he was not done with me, even as I was ready to jump onto the stage that very day.

“My advice, Mzukulu, is that you prepare for your exams and go and take them, I know you will pass.”

Cont the philosopher delved into a deep narrative about how I should not start a great project without completing another one.

He told me how the incompleteness of my previous project would follow me into the next project and become the definition of my life.

When I returned months later after my exams Cont philosophised that I will start acting after the results had come. My results came, a string of A grades, and Cont said I should come after my A’ Levels.

After I passed my A Levels, Cont pointed me to university.

For years, during my vacations from university, I kept visiting Amakhosi to show my availability for the great career of acting. Cont made me wait from the sidelines of the stage for years but I did not tire. I kept turning up.

One of the days I found Cont visibly angry with me.

I thought my waiting by the stage sidelines had finally gotten into his nerves.

When he saw me, he jumped from the chair where he was conducting some auditions from and came straight to me, leaving the crowd around shocked.

He pointed me to his office where he did not even offer me a chair.

He went straight to his leather bag where the evidence of my offence was, damning evidence.

He pulled up a copy of Moto magazine that at the time was edited by Percy Makombe, who was a media scholar and an actor that I admired as my senior at the university of Zimbabwe.

I had a column in Moto.

On that specific issue I had written a piece on African literature and how artists were assets and not suspects in African society.

The piece was a review of the work of Ngugi wa Thiongo, Chinweizu, and Chinua Achebe.

Pointing at my column, Cont said, “this Mzukulu is what you will do for us, lapha ungasuki, ama actor agcwele phandle lapha, wena hlala lana!”

He dashed out leaving me in his office to process his judgement.

That is how Cont stopped my acting career that did not exist.

Ah, Malume! I might have diverted here and there, but I am sitting where you instructed me to sit.

You have gone back to take your place where you have always belonged in the realm of the ancestors. Watch over us, dlozi lesizwe!

Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Gezina, Pretoria, in South Africa. Contacts: [email protected]

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