The arts has the power to build a politics of care and social solidarity beyond human rights


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is Professor and Research Chair in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She is the winner of the 2020 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

South Africa has a long history of using the arts to protest and put a spotlight on apartheid-era crimes. How might the arts today help to create a culture in which encounters between subjects are inspired by a politics of care, and inspire citizens to care for others enough to act ethically and responsibly towards them?

Recently, I attended a virtual conversation hosted by Sinazo Chiya, one of the directors at the Stevenson Gallery, between South African artist and University of Cape Town professor Penny Siopis and Griselda Pollock, art historian at the University of Leeds. The discussion was about Siopis’ paintings on shame and her latest video artwork titled Shadow Shame Again.

The video is Siopis’ response to the problem of gender-based violence — “the other pandemic” — and it references the killing of Tshegofatso Pule, whose body was found hanging from a tree in the veld in Roodepoort. Her boyfriend, Ntuthuko Ntokozo Shoba, is accused of having planned the murder and paid the killer.

In our work at Stellenbosch University, we have been interested in the question of how the arts (in all their diversity) draw attention to gross violations of human rights and what the arts can do to promote a human rights culture in which the dignity of all human beings is respected.

As we face an ever-rising tide of gender-based violence in many communities and homes across the country, how might the arts “speak to” this problem and join a broader national conversation concerned with addressing the problem of violence against women? How might the arts help to create a culture in which encounters between subjects are inspired by a politics of care, and inspire citizens to care for others enough to act ethically and responsibly toward them?

South Africa has a long history of using the arts to protest and spotlight apartheid-era crimes. Plays such as those created by John Kani, Athol Fugard and others brought people together and inspired conversations that moved some people to action. This transformative goal was behind the creation in November 2020, during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, of the song Ungandibulali by the Afro-soul singer Berita in collaboration with the Ndlovu Youth Choir. The song is a plea to men to become protectors of women, to stop the rape and murder.

In the song, Berita calls out in her richly euphonious voice: “Bekumele ndivikelwa nguwe/… Kobubi, bekumele ndilwelwa nguwe, (You should be protecting me/… In this dangerous environment, you should be fighting for me).” 

There is a delicate sadness in the music, with the singers directly addressing men to call them out on their violence, but also pleading with them to stop the abuse. With the spectacular sounds of the Ndlovu Youth Choir in the background, Berita cries out the mournful “Enough!” — “Bo Bhuti/Kwanele bo!”

Ungandibulali topped the charts and remained at the top throughout the summer season. I saw the impact of the song’s popularity during a brief stop when I was driving to my family home in the Eastern Cape. A group of young people were dancing and moving their bodies seductively with the music blaring from a car on the side of the road, and I heard it again played loudly from cars in my hometown.

This made me wonder how a song with such powerfully evocative lyrics might be used effectively for transformative social impact. The webinar on Penny Siopis’ work evoked similar questions for me concerning art’s potential to invite conversations about the problem of gender-based violence in a way that can inspire the transformation of aesthetic emotions to action and change.

I was reminded of another song from a different era, a different set of circumstances, which in the wake of a series of incidents of police violence against African-Americans has captured the imagination and returned to its iconic status in these troubled times: the song Strange Fruit.

Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish-American schoolteacher. He wrote it as a mournful lament for two victims of a 1930s lynching that he saw on a postcard. This type of postcard — showing white American families, often with their children, all dressed up and in celebratory mood watching the burning of black bodies hanging on trees in the United States South and smiling at the camera — was popular at the time.

Meeropol first wrote the song as a poem titled Bitter Fruit. After he set the poem to music, the song was recorded and made famous by the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday — “Lady Day” — in 1939. The song would form part of Lady Day’s repertoire in all her performances for 20 years, since its recording until her final performance before she bowed out of this world in 1959 at the age of 44.

Listening to her various recordings of Strange Fruit, her rendition is peerless, harrowing and full of anguish. One senses in her rendering of the song that she bears in her own body the violence that the song portrays.

How could she not? A woman who in her own life experienced multiple forms of violence. She was pursued by the FBI for insisting on performing this song that was dubbed “the greatest protest song” of the American civil rights movement. She suffered rape as a child, was abused at the hands of men who should have protected her, and abused by the racist and patriarchal cultural aesthetic of her profession. In a way, she was the embodiment of the grief that the song represented.

Two women who gave it their own stirring interpretation and performed it as if enacting a dramatic defiance against continuing injustice and violence against women, embodied a similar history of violence: Nina Simone and Dee Dee Bridgewater, both abused in different ways in their personal lives and by the institution of their profession.

“Southern trees,” the song begins, “Bear strange fruit.” It continues, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” The song’s resonance transcends time and space and goes to the heart of the current stories of violence we are witnessing: “The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/… And the sudden smell of burning flesh!”

The reality of Tshegofatso Pule’s body with the bulging growth of her unborn child at eight months found hanging from a tree in the Roodepoort veld with multiple stab wounds is a violence that is repeated in South Africa to the point of being normalised. The obvious racial markings may not be evident in the excruciatingly violent stories that have become the “everyday” of life on our shores. Yet the resonances with the system of domination, the misuse of power that violated the dignity of people considered inferior — and black women being at the lowest rung of this hierarchical ladder — were there in the policies and practice of apartheid.

Post-apartheid, the power and violence are reenacted on the bodies of women. Not only that, the cruelty and violence are visible in plain sight, normalised and perpetuated on the body politic by the corruption that surpasses human understanding, with utter disregard for the rule of law that we have witnessed in the behaviour of the former president and his comrades-in-corruption. These repeated acts of gender-based violence take place against this backdrop of abuse of power and normalisation of violence at the highest level of political supremacy.

It happens, too, as part of a long history of violence, most of which has not been acknowledged, and therefore the ghostly presence of this past is still with us precisely because it has not been properly mourned — despite (or perhaps because of) the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: the rupture of the peace in many communities around the country by state violence, violent removal of people from their homes, “necklace” murders, massacres and other abusive actions by conscripted young soldiers of apartheid’s army, torture and “disappearances”.

In the shadow of the pandemic, when individual and collective mourning fails, the remains of “the unfinished business” of unacknowledged and still-denied past violations of human rights have been brought into sharper focus.

The arts have never been more important than they are today, to offer language for the indescribable repeated acts of violence on women’s bodies, and to help us translate this language into action. The question is not whether public conversations about the arts are important, but rather how we can forge private-public partnerships and use artists’ works as building blocks for a politics of care that may open the possibility of social solidarity. DM


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