I’m not sure where to start. I’ll go with the 1984 Dinner as that was my main reason for visiting South Africa. As with Singapore and Melbourne, I feel I have just scratched the surface of what there is to know about art and politics here. Repeating the format of the dinner has also been about rehearsing the method and learning new things about the process of convening, co-hosting and facilitating, and my role in this.
The dinner took place on Thursday 20 March at the Bag Factory. There were twelve guests: Monique Vajifdar, Pat Motlau, Santu Mofokeng, Brett Pyper, Firdoze Bulbulia, Faith Isiakpere , Anton Harber, Joachim Schonfeldt, Malcolm Purky, Molefe Pheto, Aura G Msimang and David Koloane. I also had one to one conversations with people who couldn’t make the dinner: Ali Khangela Hlongwane, Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn, Kevin Harris and Neil Dundas. There are still so many people I want to speak to.
The dinner and pre/proceeding conversations threw up lots of fascinating information and stories about South Africa in 1984. I feel like I have experienced a steep learning curve, with plenty still left to comprehend. I’m going to be doing some careful listening to all of the audio material gathered during the dinners over the next month, so here I just want to jot down some key terms and places that have been mentioned to me over the last couple of weeks. It might be that many of these are obvious and well-trodden ground, but it is the detail of the conversations that I want to eventually dive into – the tones, language, the nuances and divergences between opinions, the ways that people narrate their past selves.
1984 was still a very oppressive period in South Africa, eight years on from the Soweto uprising and a State of Emergency declared the following year. While it was obvious who the enemy was, there were also ideological differences between the Black Consciousness movement (aligned with the PAC) and the ANC, which also played out in the cultural movements at the time. Visiting the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum and Rise and Fall of Apartheid photography exhibition at Museum Africa were emotional, immersive exhibitions that documented the atrocities and struggles.
Phrases that came up over the last couple of weeks included: uprising, revolution, liberation. Cultural action was central to the struggle, satire and humour was important as was the power of images, interpreting and capturing the everyday reality of apartheid beyond the superficial tropes. The use of the body and symbolism in theatre to avoid the censors, the role of trade unions, using art (images, theatre) as political intervention, the role of education and workshops in townships, the need to keep a record and the role of people’s media (posters, pamphlets) as a form of dissemination.
Many of the people active then are now dead. A 1984 dinner of ghosts.
Significant organisations people mentioned to me included:
FUBA (Federation Union of Black Artists)
Funda Art Centre (in Soweto)
Medu Arts Ensemble (Botswana)
Soyikwa African Theatre
Johannesburg Art Foundation (set up by Bill Ainsly)
Market Theatre Precinct
South African Council of Churches (funded a lot of the anti-apartheid work being done)
Afrapix documentary photographers collective
Congress of South African Writers
Creative Youth Association
I’d love to do a walking tour to these (mainly long gone) places, led by people who were active in them.
I found a copy of the 1984 Staffrider issue in a library at Wits University and read Njabulo Ndebele’s article ‘Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction’. He wrote that there was an issue with art that was about ‘informing rather than transforming’:
“All the writer needs to understand is that he can only be genuinely committed to politics through a commitment to the demands of his art”.
He was critical of ‘sloganeering’ : “The slogan is the substitution of the gut response for clarity of analysis based on systematically acquired information”. Ali Khangela Hlongwane when I met him talked about how the theatre group he was involved with at the time (Soyikwa African Theatre) was a theatre of resistance rather than protest theatre. This distinction was important, rather than being reactionary and dogmatic, the theatre he was involved in was about the people themselves being the vehicle for change. And Wally Serote who was in the military wing of the ANC, stressed (at a talk of his I went to at Museum Africa) how their training then was about being informed about what was happening – this was crucial before beginning to learn how to rebel.
The issue of how to record, understand and comprehend recent histories seems to be an ongoing question, it has to be.
I visited Johannesburg Art Gallery and saw the ‘architectural responses’ by Stephen Hobbs in the basement which exposed the fact that the place is in need of major renovation. Rather than block off the mouldy, falling down bits of the museum, you can walk under the scaffolding and view the flaking walls for yourself. Tidy piles of wood lie about, waiting to be put to use. I spoke to one of the members of staff who explained the ‘organagram’ the artist had painted on the wall – the frozen posts are non-existent. This national museum is operating on a shoe string.
In contrast to JAG,vidmate on another day I found my way to the top of the gallery Circa to a plush lounge, splendid views and cabinets of curiosity while the sounds of a steel workers union protest faded into the distance.
At Goodman Gallery down the road, Hank Wills Thomas had made sculptures based on extracts of well-known photos (the burning of pass books and lining up of naked miners) and massive replica badges of political movements complete with pins on the back.
Singer, activist, Aura G Msimang showed me around her neighbourhood, Yeoville. She bought me a mango which I donated to Monique (sorry Monique, I forgot you’re not eating sugar)! Aura showed me where she used to organise open mic sessions every other Sunday in a park, the amazing undercover market and the Rasta house where I chatted to a young, newly trained traditional healer who’d had a calling.
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Another sketch from my window.
My time in Joburg would probably have been quite different if it wasn’t for these lovely people: Gabi Ngcobo and Rangoato Hlasane for talking through the project with me and suggesting guests (and Gabi for making me feel so at home!), Razia Saleh for explaining some of the SA background, Masimba Sasa for helping me shop for the dinner, Ashley Whitfield and Sarah Jury for your company, Molemo Moiloa for having a chat about the dinner, David for letting me share ‘his’ pool, Sara Hallet for being excited about the project and helping me contact people, James French for setting up and washing up and Monique Vajifdar for giving me her time, sharing her extensive knowledge and being so generous with her address book!
May the conversations continue.