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Art in a sling: Breaking walls and building a nation in paint and print

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

Cutting through decades-long and inconclusive intellectualising on what art is and what role it fulfils in society, the South Africa government says art is nothing but a tool for nation building and cohesion. OSIAME MOLEFE argues that the government should be the last to be allowed to wield art in this manner. 

Caught between pragmatic concerns for people’s sensitivities and the malevolence of political expediency, artistic expression and freedom in South Africa has in the past few years been sorely tested. In truth, this space has been closing for a while, and not just for artists. Sports people, musicians, dancers, photographers, writers, designers and just about anyone involved in any aspect of creative human endeavour are, under the stewardship of the South African government, being kraaled toward building what the state calls, benignly, a new value system.

And why not? The need for such is seemingly obvious. 

In South Africa, man-built walls of racial and economic exclusion have created micro-communities so disparate and apart that it is a marvel they exist in the same country. Each has developed its own social cues, modes of communication and ways of being to the extent that, when they do brush up against one another, internecine flare-ups erupt and drive them even further apart.

To the leaders of such a country, these communities would, without intervention, become like the neighbours in American poet Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, who, every spring and without question, meet to mend the new gaps in that which keeps them apart. To the leaders of this country, the “something there is that doesn’t love a wall” that Frost wrote of is the shared humanity that, with equal accord, painted ancient cave walls and pushed forward the diminutive Josia Thugwane to a time of two hours 12 minutes to claim Olympic gold. The awe and celebration that these feats elicit has untold power in that it passes through walls. 

So the post-1994 administration set out to load slings with artists and sportsmen alike, and took aim at the walls that separate South Africans. Currently, every government department, from arts to police, has social cohesion expressed, explicitly or tacitly, as a mandate.

Many thinkers have weighed in on the role of creatives in society. Art, according to German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it. Nigerian poet Tanure Ojaide took this further by suggesting that in Africa, specifically, this should be the purpose of creative endeavour. 

In a 1994 essay in World Literature Today, he wrote, “Literature might be devoted to leisure in other cultures, but for us, Africans, who are experiencing the second half of the twentieth century, literature must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass, and fight corruption and authoritarianism. We do not have the luxury of some Western writers, who are apolitical and can afford to write art for art’s sake and be confessional.”

With this reasoning, a case can be made that, in addition to fighting corruption and authoritarianism, art, in South Africa, should also serve to unite the divided populace. 

But this has, in recent times, exposed contradictions, with the artist caught in the middle. 

For example, conspiracy theories abound that the break-in that saw five years worth of photographer Zanele Muholi’s work (and nothing else) stolen was not purely an act of robbery. In 2010, an outraged Lulu Xingwana, the then arts and culture minister, stormed out of an exhibit on Constitution Hill, where Muholi’s work was featured. Xingwana called Muholi’s photography “pornographic”.

“Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation-building. I left the exhibition because it expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building,” Xingwana was quoted as saying.

But the exhibition, Innovative Women, was curated pointedly by another artist, Bongi Bengu, to deal with women’s rights issues, and Muholi’s contribution showed a different, more human, aspect of black lesbians, who only enter the public consciousness when they are victims of so-called corrective rape. Muholi’s contribution had, plum in its crosshairs, the wall that keeps black lesbian life ought of sight,  the wall that, arguably, contributes to some men believing that rape will “correct” the mien of lesbians.    

And, most recently, painter Brett Murray was forced into hiding after his on-the-nose meditation on corruption and cronyism resulted in an authoritarian backlash, with government ministers and representatives leading the charge. 

This shows that even if you were to accept that in Africa art should be purposeful, the government in South Africa has not fully accepted the tenets that direct the forms art at times takes. Nonetheless, the government has put itself in charge of art’s usefulness in building South African society.

“A Nation in the Making”, government’s diagnostic report on social trends in South Africa, says: “The state, supported by the system of political organisation, is the pre-eminent authority charged with leading this process (creating a shared value system), and civil society should add to both the formal and informal mechanisms of social regulation and morality.”

Expressly stated in the diagnostic is government’s intention to use the creative industries in this process.

Next month, at the Walter Sisulu Memorial Square of Dedication in Soweto, President Jacob Zuma will be the keynote speaker at a two-day national summit on social cohesion, where, due to events of late, the role of art and artists in society will undoubtedly feature. The discussion, according to the current arts and culture minister, Paul Mashatile, will spawn a slew of government and societal programmes geared toward “creating a caring and proud society”. 

However, for the Muholis, Murrays and other creatives who might buy into this future, yet seek to chart an independent path there, this might spell a further closing, if not end, of creativity and expression, if government remains at the helm. DM


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