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How to decolonise theatre and dance in South Africa

Maverick Life


How to decolonise theatre and dance in South Africa

The Cecil John Rhodes statue is removed at the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Roger Sedres)

In a country that is haunted by the remnants of a violent colonial history, decolonisation of the arts is a part of a larger, and critical process.

At the recent Take-a-STAND dialogues that took place in Stellenbosch from 19-21 February, conversations about decolonisation took centre stage. 

For some, it began with the #RhodesMustFall movement in 2016, the climax of student frustration with blatant colonial relics and racial prejudices in the education system. For others, it was the dawn of democratic South Africa, the nation newly freed from the grips of the apartheid regime. Regardless, #RhodesMustFall certainly incited many ongoing and now ubiquitous conversations about what it means to decolonise the institutions of today.

And this is not singular to South Africa; the importance and urgency of this process have become global points of discussion: Movements in the UK have instigated the removal of statues memorialising important imperial figures, while groups in the US focussed on the removal of confederate statues. All over the world statues of colonial “heroes” (by contrast, those who were in charge of or enabled the raping, pillaging and destruction of nations and cultures) are falling from their pedestals.

But what does this mean in relation to the state of South African performance arts, and why should decolonising the arts, in a time of such despair and economic, social, and political crisis, be a conversation we are having at all?

What does decolonisation mean?

As Achille Mbembe pointed out in an interview with New Frame, “behind the mask of radicalism, there is something fundamentally ambivalent in the discourse about decolonisation.” For a long time, it appears to be an issue that languishes within the walls of academic ivory towers — powerful in theory but practically murky or overly ambitious to rectify.

It follows that in order to understand the process and importance of decolonising theatre and art, one must start from the beginning: we need to understand what is meant by the term decolonisation in general.

Mbembe, a scholar himself, provides his own idea of what decolonisation means in a South African context: “To dismantle ‘whiteness’ implies the awakening of self-knowledge and reshaping institutions inherited from a brutal past. In this sense, the decolonisation project is both a critique of institutions and a critique of knowledge.”

In other words, it means the transformation of knowledge production and transference in South Africa – and the knowledge that we recognise, and how they are institutionally shared, must be taken into serious consideration. Decolonising art, performance art specifically, is a part of this larger cause.  

Siseko Kumalo, a scholar of postcolonial theory and editor of soon to be published book Decolonisation as Democratisation (the launch of which was also held at the Take-a-STAND dialogues), echoed this thought, affirming that decolonisation means undoing colonial ways of thinking. It means for South Africans to celebrate traditions and knowledge systems that lie outside of Western hegemonic ideals. He calls for a “substantive engagement with local knowledge systems and their inter-epistemic dialogue. So, an exchange, but an exchange predicated on respect.”

The key word here is “respect”, a notion that was completely missing in colonial rhetoric. Instead, the ideals and cultures of what is now referred to as the Global North were promoted as being superior to those of countless nations and societies — a means of creating and sustaining an oppressive hierarchy.

Samuel Ravengai, associate professor and head of department at Wits School of Arts Theatre and Performance, made reference to Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, saying that we must “move the centre.” Or move away from thinking Eurocentrically. The hierarchy on which cultural production is currently situated, where Western thought is valued above and to the detriment of that of African, Asian and Native American peoples, can no longer stand.

“My work is not received or understood in the context in which I write about it, it’s received in the context of colonial positioning,” agreed Musa Hlatshwayo, artistic director of Mhayise Productions — a contemporary dance and theatre production company based in Durban.

“My focus is on being part of the creators, the educators, that are going to say to young people, it’s ok, it’s ok to be different, it’s ok for us to acknowledge where we come from, it’s ok for us to create what has not been there, and it’s ok for us to speak about the work that has not yet been received.”

In this process, the colonial categorisation and stereotyping of “African Art” must be undermined. In a panel discussing the question “what makes a dance or theatre aesthetic ‘African’? And does it matter?” panellists were unanimous in their answer that there shouldn’t be an “African aesthetic.” This very notion, to them, was unbelievably limiting and colonial. It is those stereotypes and Eurocentric standards that need to be questioned and undone if we are to decolonise South African performance arts.

What does this look like, practically?

According to Ravengai, the process of decolonising theatre and dance programmes at South African Universities actually began long before the #Rhodesmustfall movement, with the changing of the department’s name from “Drama” to “Theatre and Performance” in 2013.

Naming, as we know from the highly contentious subject of geographical renaming under the South African Geographical Names Act of 1998, is a powerful thing. In the case of geographical renaming, it serves as a symbolic form of reparation for human rights abuses suffered under the apartheid government.

For Ravengai, the renaming of his department meant a title that was far more inclusive of all types of performance arts. Instead of the narrow umbrella of “Drama,” the new title encompasses a much wider variety of expression. Students creating work that is not easily categorised can feel somewhat seen and understood.

“In the naming system, because words have got power, you try to accommodate all of the values that could be taught under that particular thing,” explained Ravengai.

Though this process of renaming can feel potentially inane, it holds vital function in a society recovering from the horrors of its past. It also centres the conversation on the importance of language in a broader sense.

The fact that South Africa has eleven national languages and only two of them, English and Afrikaans, are used chiefly in education and business is of utmost importance. What about the countless people whose mother tongues are one of the other nine languages? How can you learn if you do not understand what is being communicated to you? And how can you express yourself if you are not being understood?

Hlatshwayo puts this into context with his experience in the dance world, noting that formal contemporary dance is innately Western-leaning because the universal lingo of dance is for the most part communicated through Western languages. There is a “need to develop an ability to speak about our work in the media in many vernacular languages. What is a plié? What is an arabesque? We still do not have those terminologies in our own languages.”

The process of creating new ways of thinking and talking about our arts begins with revitalising education. Ravengai notes that a focus on curriculums, what they include and why, is an essential part of decolonising.

“The first question we need to ask ourselves is what do we want? Why do we offer this curriculum?”

A decolonised curriculum, then, would mean a curriculum that includes and celebrates work produced by non-Western scholars and artists that are creating for and about South African students. It would mean a curriculum that does not hold Western creation as the mecca of good taste or truth.

Mmatumisang Motsisi, PhD student, activist, and lecturer at Stellenbosch University spoke about this necessity for her students. “Because we are working with a backlog of not being published, of not being paid, my students don’t always know that there is a pocket for them. That there are people doing work that they find interesting and important,” she said.

But what of the Western canon? Surely ground-breaking work created in the West cannot simply be discarded as non-important.

A member of the audience put it this way: “does it make me any less African if I want to wear a ball gown and dance around to Bach?”

Mbembe would say not. Decolonising the archive is “expanding the archive, not excising it … the European archive alone can no longer account for the complexities, both of history, of the present, and of the future, of our human and other-than-human world.”

Kumalo echoed this sentiment, saying, “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Read Shakespeare. But let us ask, in the time that Shakespeare was asking certain questions, what questions were being considered in our own context, and how were those questions being considered?”

It’s not about cancelling Western knowledge production from our curriculums, but understanding where it comes from, and the history of its hegemony. It’s also about knowing that forms of knowledge produced in South Africa (and other spaces) exist too and are just as valuable. And this work can and must be done through a more inclusive curriculum.

Hlatshwayo points out that this applies outside of formal education too, noting that decolonisation starts with accommodating different types of non-formal knowledge production. “I’m interested in where my students come from, who they are, their relations with their communities, and their families. It’s about empowering people to understand that their knowledge, their skill, their education is not something that is measured by what degrees they have from what institution.”

“We have to tell diverse stories, and more of them,” Mdu Kweyama, actor, academic, director and choreographer, explained in the panel about what makes a theatre or dance aesthetic “African.” For Kweyama, in a decolonised world, there is no universal “African” aesthetic, but just stories and truths based on real people, with respect.

“I applaud artists who question their African-ness,” Hlatshwayo agreed. It is the limiting label and stereotype of the title “African” that allows for a cultural hierarchy to occur.

This brings up another important point: in a globalised world, the project of decolonisation is necessarily a planetary mission. If we truly want to decolonise South African art and education, we must work transnationally, with the rest of the postcolonial world.

Kumalo, in the introduction to the launch of Decolonisation as Democratisation, explained why authors from around the world had been included in the text.

“This approach was motivated by two observations. The first was that the reality of colonialism and coloniality was similar across time and space. We are aware of the shared experiences of people at the margins, and thus, the reason behind the appeal to include voices that were not specifically South African. The second motivation was then predicated on the factuality of the global knowledge economy. The objective of thinking about and with the South African was to steer clear of creating an echo chamber that celebrates South African exceptionalism.”

In this way, the phenomenon of the Black Lives Matter movements that spread like wildfire across the world after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, could be seen as an emblem of hope. The decolonisation project must be a global one.

“Radical agency is not about the sharing of boundaries. It’s about ‘deborderisation’,” Mbembe wrote about mobilisation of the decolonial mission. As Motsisi put it, “I’m bothered by this panel and that we are all of colour, because it now becomes our responsibility to do decolonisation, right? It’s not. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Why it matters

If we’re all going to be involved in this process of decolonisation, then we need to know the answer to the most central question: why does all of this fairly theoretical talk of “moving the centre,” renaming, and expanding the canon matter? More pointedly, why does it matter to those most affected by colonialism, those who don’t have access to these kinds of talks, those who struggle daily to put bread on the table?

The answer is that decolonising the arts “means nothing and everything at the same time,” says Motsisi. Debating questions of decolonising theatre and dance will not put bread on the table when there is none. At least not immediately.

But as Kumalo puts it, the decolonisation of cultural production gives the postcolonial subject what he calls “ontological legitimacy” or the truth of existing. In short, it grants the necessity of being recognised as a human being with legitimate thoughts, feelings and experiences — a recognition that colonised groups were routinely and systematically denied by imperial powers.

The lack of this recognition in both colonial and post-colonial times has been explored by multiple theorists, such as William Edward Burghardt Du Bois in his writings about “double consciousness”, and Frantz Fanon in his Black Skin White Masks.

Fanon wrote, “man is human only to the extent to which he tries to impose himself on another man in order to be recognised by him. As long as he has not been effectively recognised by the other, it is this other who remains the focus of his actions. His human worth and reality depend on this other and on his recognition by the other.”

Recognition is everything. If one is not recognised as human, then one’s human rights and needs are not recognised either. Kumalo states, “if I cannot recognise you, I cannot see that you need bread, and so I will not give you bread.”

Decolonisation of cultural production in South Africa means a recognition of the humanness of all South Africans. It means pivoting things so that they are done for and with the people, whose needs and rights have been recognised.

Why isn’t this already happening?

Like all sweeping, utopian ideals, the decolonising project has some critical foils. The major obstacle being, as usual, monetary.

One of the questions asked at the panel that discussed what makes theatre and dance aesthetic “African,” was how, if there is no such thing as an “African” aesthetic, will we pitch and sell South African productions to foreign investors?

And therein lies the crux of the matter: a large amount of funding for South African arts comes from foreign investors. The Take-a-STAND dialogues themselves were partially funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

In considering the question about pitching “African” art to foreign investors, Hlatshwayo noted that the necessity of considering this question was a problem in itself.

“We stand to lose foreign investors, and that’s the real issue. That’s why African art needs to be validated from the outside. That’s why we have to present ourselves in an ‘acceptable’ way.”

It’s a complex issue that has many ins-and-outs and no clear answer. Saartjie Botha, director of Toyota SU Wordfees put it bluntly: “without artists we are nothing, but without sponsors, we can’t be anything.”

The final panel of the weekend included three cultural diplomats: Daniel Smit (Netherlands), Selen Daver (France), and Hedda Krausz Sjogren (Sweden,) and addressed the topic, “Why we support and engage with South African arts: the views of international agencies.”

It was clear that all three panellists were deeply engaged and invested in the well-being of the South African art world. They talked about making connections between artists across borders and bringing South African culture to Europe. They also spoke of various arts initiatives and funding opportunities.

How do we navigate “moving the centre,” how do we celebrate our own cultural production alongside that of the Global North, when we are still so dependent on their funding to carry on?

“Why isn’t there more local funding?” asked Hlatshwayo. “That’s the question we need answered.” DM/ ML


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  • This article speaks to the broader issue of SA being part of a globally connected world in all respects.
    A welcome, pragmatic rather than utopian, approach to raising awareness and opportunity for all South Africans without denigrating others. BEE proponents would do well to understand this.

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