Wacky Steven Cohen nudges South Africans out of their comfort zones

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Challenging tired old comfort zones: Performance artist Steven Cohen poses new ways of looking at art, identity and politics in the confusing context of South Africa today

WHEN 54-year old, controversial performance artist Steven Cohen astonished a sober gathering of arts lovers two weeks ago at the Wits Art Museum by bursting into the centre of them and doing his bizarre dance routine, anybody who happened to be thinking about something else was instantly riveted. He was dressed – actually only partially dressed, since much of his body was naked – in an outrageous get-up consisting of lily-white skin, high-heeled pointed shoes, naked backside behind half a black dress, and other tricks.

His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone. But it left intriguing questions about what is art and identity, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?

The gathering marked the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past fifty years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing. The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, celebrated artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.

Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions about identity, something he has done for the past twenty years, is a metaphor for the unpredictable events unfolding in this country today. Such as the thrashing which the ANC’s tired old men – epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts – received in the recent elections at the hands of the young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition parties, which are bursting with fresh energy. The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their political careers. Anything is possible.

In similar fashion, this country and its component minorities, including Greeks, Jews, Afrikaners and others, are in need of new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.

What will this country look like in twenty years time? No-one can say for sure if South Africa’s non-racial project will succeed. And what will minority groups look like, such as the Greeks and Afrikaners, when most of the older generation has passed on?

Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the minority groups continue? If the size of the Jewish community today is already down to a mere 70 000 in a national population of 55 million, only half of its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in twenty years time? And if it is so much smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms? Greeks and Afrikaners are asking similar questions.

Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans who grew up after apartheid – the “born-frees” – do not want to be forced to follow the old Struggle catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. Those are now in the realm of folk history for most people, and things are different. Looking forward is the only meaningful path.

Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up and give a glimpse into a different way of looking at things. And it also needs the courage he has shown in charting his own path, despite the dangers it has sometimes posed. For example, on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998 during a match, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic, half-naked style, and confronted hundreds of conservative, macho, white – mainly Afrikaans – sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.

We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Silent cheers as four young women upstage a powerful president

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Does Jacob Zuma care about rape?  Anti-rape protestors rose suddenly from the audience to stand with placards in front of SA’s president as he addressed the nation about election results. Zuma was accused of rape before becoming president.

TWO radically different responses have been witnessed recently in South Africa from citizens determined to denounce corrupt politicians abusing their power or filling their pockets with taxpayers’ money: Violence on the one hand, non-violent and silent protest on the other. On Monday we saw an unforgettable example of the latter, when four brave young women rose to stand silently with handwritten posters decrying rape in front of President Jacob Zuma as he addressed a gathering of dignitaries in Pretoria at the announcement of last week’s local election results. The nation owes these women a resounding “thank you”.

Their action took place just two days prior to the country’s official Women’s Day, which commemorates the 20 000 women who marched peacefully to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 9, 1956, objecting to the pass-laws for blacks which required them to always carry a pass-book when in white areas, showing that they were legally entitled to be there. It was part of the apartheid regime’s grand plan to separate the races.

The two events are in the same spirit. Monday’s four women protestors were highlighting South Africa’s rape culture – a pandemic ranked as one of the highest in the world. One of the placards suggested that one in three women will be victims of sexual violence. Their action took the gathering so totally by surprise that no-one stopped them – even Zuma’s bodyguards – until his speech was over. The senior official of the electoral commission who apologised to the audience after Zuma had finished talking and security personnel had hustled the women away sounded extremely embarrassed.

But their protest had already had its effect, and it was profound. In a different political reality some people from the audience might have actually stood up and applauded them for truth-telling. But Zuma’s tentacles of power run too deep in South African politics for that to happen spontaneously.

Their action took place ten years after Zuma’s own rape trial, in which he was ultimately found not guilty, but which left very negative feelings about his approach to women’s rights and his problematic sexual attitudes. The protestors were not only drawing attention to his own case, but the prevalence of gender-based violence in this country.

Their action was similar in impact to the white women of the non-violent Black Sash organisation, who for many years during apartheid stood silently with placards at the sides of the roads and in other public places, protesting apartheid laws and embarrassing the government at every opportunity. The striking black sashes they wore were a mark of mourning and signalled their protest against unjust racist legislation the government continued to enact.

They broke no laws by their demonstration, and their “privileged” status as whites protected them. The government fumed but could do little to stop them. White women from a diverse range of ethnic and faith groups participated.

Internationally, one of the most famous historical examples of such “passive” action in the face of immoral laws is Rosa Parks, the black woman in the United States who in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, defied a bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the coloured section to a white passenger, after the white section of the bus was filled. Her non-violent resistance and the bus boycott which followed became symbols of the Civil Rights Movement.

We have seen many abhorrent examples recently of South Africans resorting to violence to make their voices heard about government corruption and ineptitude – burning buildings, buses and schools, and killing people who objected or happened to be in the way.

The action of the four women who stood silently in front of Zuma with their placards fits into the grand tradition worldwide of non-violent civil action. This president’s legacy will forever be symbolised by Monday’s dramatic visual image of a disgraced male politician mouthing tiresome platitudes, framed by four bright young women standing still and silent with their placards, giving a very different message. He was oblivious to the potent words on their posters.

The Black Sash’s role as a resistance movement ended in 1994 at the end of apartheid and the dawn of democracy. It was reformed in 1995 as a non-racial humanitarian organisation. Perhaps the Black Sash needs to be revived now in a new, post-apartheid form: A non-racial, non-violent people’s movement which will say “no” to the shenanigans of this country’s current leaders.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)