Mike van Graan is a cultural activist, playwright, poet and writer. This is the text of his address in St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, at the World Press Freedom Day gathering on Friday 3 May 2019.
Just over three decades ago, during a state of emergency in this city, “Arts Festival 86: Towards a People’s Culture”, was organised. Four days before its opening, it was banned, deemed to be a national security threat.
In Claremont, a theatre group was arrested and charged with constituting an illegal gathering for staging street theatre that protested the migrant labour system.
Piekniek by Dingaan, a cabaret performed by the mainly white Afrikaner Capab Drama Company, mocked the restrictions placed on the media by the National Party regime. The cabaret was banned from being performed at the Nico Malan – the former Artscape – not by the Censorship Board, but by the chairperson of the Capab board, a government appointee.
We assert democracy by practicing it. By exercising freedom of expression then, creatives struggled for freedom of expression, with the right to freedom of artistic creativity now enshrined in our Constitution.
And yet, post-94, a former culture minister who had sworn to uphold this Constitution, refused to open an exhibition featuring photographs of gay women embracing each other, as in her view, it was “immoral, offensive and against nation-building”.
Two South African films – Of Good Report and The Wound – were banned by the Film and Publications Board, only to have the bannings overturned by courts of law.
Then there were those within the ruling party who lambasted the disruption of the launch of Gangster State, but who just a few years earlier, had themselves called for the destruction of Brett Murray’s art work, The Spear. The painting was part of Murray’s Hail to the Thief exhibition which already in 2012 spoke to the themes of state capture, the ransacking of the public purse by politically-connected elites and the complicity of the ruling party.
But what is the disruption of a book launch, or the destruction of a painting compared to the deliberate, methodical sabotaging of the National Prosecution Authority, the decimation of the SA Revenue Service, the looting of state-owned enterprises, the destruction of the Scorpions, the laying waste of the SA Police Service, the relentless assaults on the former Public Protector, on journalists and whistle-blowers by thieves, thugs and traitors who now seek our votes, begging for another chance?
Remember those who now beat their breasts
And wail about their leaders gone astray
Who bleat about the selling of ideals
And the robber capture of once good comrades
Remember how once they mocked and spat their vitriol
Drowning you in epithets
Banning you to the margins
When first you pointed to the error of their ways
And begged them return to what once you all believed in
These are not men of principle
Nor women of moral courage
They are weeds that blow in the factional winds of opportunity
Smile with them if you need to
March with them if you have to
Raise your collective fists again
But know this
That when the current tide has turned
And they and their faction are
Once more delivered to the troughs that your vote bestows
Should you dare be a democrat
Defending the constitution
Holding power to account
They will not hesitate to unleash their tongues
To cut you down
Unsheath their knives and plunge these in
And margin you as traitor once again
Having completely compromised the security services and those mandated to enforce the law, the thieves, the thugs and the traitors now claim the law to reject criticism of them as unfair… “innocent until proven guilty”, they angelically protest.
As with the right to education, the right to security, the right to health, so those of us who are better resourced are more able independently to practice the right to freedom of artistic expression. Most practitioners in our country though are dependent on public resources to create and distribute their work. Which is why we fought hard for the arm’s-length principle in the initial White Paper on Arts and Culture, to ensure that what happened at Capab would not happen in our democracy, that politicians and their appointees would not compromise freedom of expression by controlling public resources for the arts or publicly-funded spaces.
And yet, just a few years after adopting this principle, the law was changed so that all boards of publicly-funded cultural institutions have their chairpersons directly appointed by the minister. Independent organisations created by the arts and culture sector are ignored in favour of a sweetheart organisation created and funded by the Department. Public funding is used to limit freedom of artistic expression; as a consequence, self-censorship is rife. Hardly surprising when a minister in charge of the police who massacred 34 miners exercising their right to freedom of association and freedom to protest, is now the minister in charge of an industry premised on freedom of creative expression.
And the ruling party tells us that we must thank them for the freedoms they brought us, as if we should be thankful for these freedoms by not exercising them, at least not against them.
“Let us remind you”
These new tyrants
Grown deaf with their own propaganda
Drunk on the spoils of incumbency
And their patrons’ gifts
Blinded by the arrogance
“It is us who brought you freedom
If it were not for us
You would not have the right to write
What you like
To say as you please
To insult us with your poems
Your naked paint
Your twisted tunes and
Show some respect”
These bloated 1994 pigs
Ten years late to the Orwellian trough
Fast having made up for time lost
Caricatures of that which once they said they loathed
Would have us silent
In the face of betrayal
Would have us genuflect
To them as lords
When first they promised they would serve
You thieves of dreams
You robbers of hope
Who seek to balaclava your looting
With radical rhetoric
That springs hollow from
Your empty hearts
Your false smiles
Your crooked tongues
Ours are freedoms we carry in our hearts
They were not yours to give
They are not yours to take
The freedoms written in our hearts
Will find expression
On the streets
In our workplace
On our stages
In the voting booths
So make your hay
While your sun goes down
For soon our onward march
Will footnote you to history
We see how those who would suppress freedom of expression work. First, they ignore their critics, hoping they would go away, and if not, they take away their funding, remove their platforms for criticism. Then they label them – racists, Stratcom agents and unleash the trolls – shooting the messenger to try to discredit the message. Then they leak fake and even real stories to embarrass the critic so that they back off. After which they threaten legal action, suing the critic for millions in order to silence them. Then there’s the physical intimidation, of the critics’ loved ones, and the death threats to the critic. Then there’s the abuse of state institutions to conduct raids, issue summons, make trumped-up arrests.
And finally, there are the assassinations, the ultimate form of censorship.
When truthtellers are declared enemies of the people, when news reporters become news items for the threats against them, when truth defenders need bodyguards, then we should know that democracy has not been won; all that has changed are the conditions in which it needs to be advanced and defended against those who would create democracy in their selfish, self-serving image.
I’d like to end with a poem – The Patriot – to honour real patriots but labelled traitors, by those who have power, but are the real traitors for having committed treason against our Constitution, our country and our people.
I am not a patriot
For pointing out naked emperors
For not joining the chorus of praise singers
For allegiance to country, not party
I am a traitor
For practicing constitutional freedoms
For choosing the margins not mainstream
For saying what others but think
I am a sellout
For donating my poetry to resistance
For refusing to live in denial
For declining thirty pieces of silver
I am a racist
For breaking the silence with a whisper
For preferring thought to propaganda
For standing up amidst the prostrate
For repeated conspiracy with the questions what, how, why
I am a counter-revolutionary
An enemy of the people
An agent of imperialism
A front for white monopoly capital
For not martyring my mind
For not holding my tongue
For not sacrificing my soul
I have been here before
But then as
And here I am again
As some other “ist”
This time as artist
Labels they come and labels they go
Hard on the footsteps of those
Who defend new privilege with old morality
Who appropriate history for contemporary pillaging
Who now crucify the people on their electoral crosses
I have been here before and I shall be here again
For as long as the poor – like Truth – are with us. DM
"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule; not to bewail; not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." ~ Baruch Spinoza