PRESS RELEASE: Immediate Release
BOOK CAFE, MANNENBERG CLOSURE IS A BLOW TO THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES IN ZIMBABWE
Arterial Network Zimbabwe learnt with profound sadness the imminent closure in its
current location of the Book Cafe and Mannenberg, one of the most vibrant arts
centres in Zimbabwe.
Book Cafe and Mannenberg will close its doors at Fife Avenue Mall in Harare after 15
years. The building owners, retail giant OK Zimbabwe and its agent, Old Mutual, one
of Africa’s largest property, finance and insurance conglomerates whose parent
company is in South Africa, advised that the owners will occupy the premises from
2012. “Owner occupation” is often the only means by which a lease can be
technically cancelled in this way under Zimbabwe law.
The Book Cafe and Mannenberg have epitomised good practice in arts
entrepreneurship within a development framework, demonstrated by their
impressive milestones: in 15 years the venues achieved: 7,500 concerts and events
(mainly music and poetry), 650 public discussions, 90 book launches, 35 theatre
productions and staging of 250 international touring acts. 600,000 audience entered
the twin venues since opening, as Book Cafe in 1997 (with Luck Street Blues), and
Mannenberg in 2000 (with historic performances by jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim).
About 350 artists earned a livelihood at the venues in 2011 alone. 1200 artists
participated annually in development programmes. 950 events were staged annually
since 2008, and prior to 2008 about 600 events.
The majority of the younger of musicians and poets to emerge in the last 15 years
started their careers at Book Cafe and number in hundreds, including some worldfamous
names. The venues gave rise to the urban mbira phenomena in Harare’s
nightlife, pioneered stand-up comedy, championed freedom of expression, laid the
foundation for slam poetry, nurtured jazz development and a reggae renaissance,
and created major youth and female arts development programmes.
Book Cafe has been Harare’s artists’ hub and meeting place; and every day would
see groups of film makers, poets, musicians, writers, journalists and arts
practitioners meeting informally and formally. Many ask: why have Book Cafe and
Mannenberg been forced to close against this background?
A public outcry has ensued over the closure with artists, audiences, civil society,
National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, the Mayor of Harare and the Minister of
Education, Sports, Arts and Culture expressing their disappointment. Even the state
media, normally at loggerheads with Book Cafe’s role in human rights and freedom
of expression, has been nominally sympathetic. Artists have set up an impromptu
‘Save the Book Cafe’ campaign, calling for an “artists’ boycott” of the OK Zimbabwe
chain of 52 large supermarkets and approaching Old Mutual head office in South
What lies behind these extraordinary events is, sadly, a saga of corporate
indifference towards the creative sector. Simply, it doesn’t matter that 350 artists
lose livelihood (in a country with 85% unemployment), or that 1200 artists lose their
support system, their route to careers in the arts. It doesn’t matter that this is
ruinous for Zimbabwe’s “intangible” cultural assets: nurturing art forms and
emerging artists, a culture of freedom of expression and the building of arts
What matters is that companies with assets measured in hundreds of millions if not
billions of US dollars, squeeze ever higher profits from investments; and this in a
country in ‘recovery’ from economic catastrophe, where the currency collapsed
amidst world record hyper-inflation. Book Cafe reported that its rents had increased
500-700% (in US dollars) since the 2008 economic collapse.
In many parts of the world, including South Africa and Kenya there is some measure
of business support for the arts, expressed as corporate social responsibility,
branding, visibility, or investment. In Zimbabwe, much of the corporate world seems
not to comprehend the global phenomenon of ‘creative economy’ and the immense
economic benefits and ‘intangible’ cultural assets that accrue.
It is a painful reality that creative sector growth in Africa is being undermined by
pitifully low investment in new cultural infrastructure by the state (arts centres such
as Book Cafe, libraries, festival facilities, theatres, galleries, training centres,
production facilities, incentives towards cultural production and trade). Africa lacks
sufficient cultural infrastructure to take advantage of its immense cultural wealth and
world-class innovation in the arts. With rare exceptions of visionary philanthropy,
African big business turns a blind eye or simply extracts profits from the arts.
This leaves small scale enterprises, artists and NGOs – themselves hard pressed and
often working in conditions of poverty - to take up the challenge and responsibility of
building national cultural infrastructure. In Zimbabwe, this is accompanied by an
insidious threat to freedom of expression.
In many instances, development funding – seeking “results” – will not invest in infrastructure
(or sometimes even the institutional costs) that actually sustains cultural
production and development, preferring to look solely at one-off and ad hoc
programming, staging and project output.
Where then is substantive creative sector infra-structure development that can be
sustained going to arise? The importance of Book Cafe model was that it could not
only sustain itself economically, and create 350 jobs, but (as a strategic decision of
its trustees) multiply the effects of development funding about threefold. At Book
Cafe the hybrid model functioned such that institutional costs were carried by venue
operations so that grant funding could be applied fully to artist development.
Globally, since 1986, there has been a transformation in the perception of the role of
culture in the economic and social realm. The link between culture and economic
development is receiving recognition. Culture is seen increasingly as both a means to
create and sustain economic progress, as well as contribute to social life and value
systems. It can also generate added revenues through cross-cutting sectors like
tourism, festivals, multi-media and crafts and contribute to sustainable development.
The impact of culture on the economic development might be summarized as:
Community cultural assets are ideally suited to support sustainable local
development, creating jobs and opportunities with little capital investment, as
well as revitalization of depressed areas
Culture offers enhanced opportunities for women and youth (both marginalised)
to participate in productive activities contributing to gender equality, self esteem
and social awareness
Culturally sensitive policies preserve fragile traditional practices in a globalised
entertainment frenzy and address the needs of socially disadvantaged groups
and indigenous peoples
Cultural industries are typically made up of small or family businesses that are
well-suited for locally based development and maximum job creation
It is painful to see a successful arts model in Africa being forced to close by big
business interests. It is our expectation that stakeholders, artists, partners and
audiences of Book Cafe will find common cause in difficult circumstances, so that
Book Cafe will quickly re-emerge with the least disruption and costs. We at Arterial
Network stand in solidarity and will lend as much support as is possible in our
mission and resources and continue to fight for the advancement of the creative
sector in Africa.