Art: Not a saviour, a mirror for SA

Evita

Life stranger than art? Satirical artists such as Pieter Dirk Uys run riot with theatrical characters to lampoon South African racial politics. The racial absurdities in the country provide countless artists with fertile ground

IN this country’s nightmare under President Jacob Zuma and his mafia-like network who run the place, the political power play is mainly in black arenas with the entire gamut of good, bad, pure and corrupt. Whites – some 9 per cent of the 56-million population – try to understand it mostly from the sidelines.

Making sense of such things often falls to artists, as in twentieth century Germany between the world wars, when exceptional, radical art was produced capturing the spirit of the times. South African art holds a troubled mirror to society today, epitomised by two recent theatre productions.

The first is by veteran 71-year old satirist Pieter Dirk Uys, called Evita Bezuidenhout and the Kaktus of Separate Development at Pieter Toerien Theatre in northern Johannesburg. During apartheid the character he created, the Afrikaans woman Evita Bezuidenhout, lampooned racist white South Africans and their leaders such as President PW Botha. She became so famous that she boasts she is mentioned in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. Now, in the post-apartheid confusion, she says she belongs to the ANC. Her commentary remains piercing.

Her audience at this venue is largely white and middle aged. The content focusses on ‘white’ perspectives about black politics. Jacob Zuma and former presidents Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Mothlanthe feature in it, along with other politicians.

Describing herself as a ‘non-black’ South African – an inversion of the pervasive phrase ‘non-white’ which defined blacks when whites held power – she articulates how Afrikaners’ political relevance has waned, amidst the barrage of fake news and the residue of the fake history Afrikaners were taught at school many years ago to bolster ethnic fervour.

One theme is white fear in today’s hyper-PC atmosphere of expressing critical political views lest one be accused of racism, now that power lies in black hands. Evita also mentions in a telling aside the Weimar republic in Germany which had a role in producing Hitler, as a reference to EFF leader Julius Malema’s possible rise to be SA president one day, with his populist anti-white diatribes.

The second production, Hallelujah! at Wits University’s theatre, portrays the abominable practice of ‘corrective rape’ still exercised in some corners of black society on lesbians. It was written by coloured playwright Xoli Norman. The cast contains talented, young and mostly black drama students from Wits, who portray their characters brilliantly under the direction of a drama lecturer at the university who is also a leading light of South African theatre – and who happens to be white.

But here’s the rub: At the post-performance Q&A she was challenged by an aggressive black student who questioned her entitlement as a white person to direct a play dealing with pain in black culture.

The answer, of course, is that pain is universal, as are the tools of art such as a theatre director’s finely-honed skills. But despite attempts to articulate this, the accusative question remained hanging in the air, with the whites present feeling defensive and frustrated.

Evita Bezuidenhout’s portrayal of the ‘irrelevance’ of white South Africans, and the black student’s rejection of whites’ entitlement to employ their skills in areas black radicals consider to be their preserve, are elements of a crucially needed debate for SA society. The feeling whites have that they are silenced and disenfranchised by radical blacks is not surprising, as the latter assert their identities after centuries of colonialism and apartheid.

Where to from here? For years to come, this society will be healing its wounds. The common decency of most South Africans, and the generally warm relations between blacks and whites on the ground, means there is a chance it will succeed, if only expedient politicians – including President Zuma – will stop stoking the racial embers.

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

Arms deals, peace deals: Trump treads holy ground

Trump at kotel 3

Can deal-maker Trump clinch Mideast peace? In his foray to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he brought massive arms deals in one hand and slogans about peace in the other. In the picture he listens to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) while visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017

PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.

The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.

His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.

Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.

The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.

The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.

Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.

It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.

Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.

Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.

Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.

These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.

Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?

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

Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

Mogoeng and Zuma 3

Building legal walls: In some places the outer image of politics is physical walls, in others it is the law. South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is increasingly called upon to rein in errant politicians such as President Zuma (above), while US President Donald Trump poses similar challenges to the law in his country

TWO presidents who excel in shamelessness loom over South Africans’ minds today: the United States’ Donald Trump and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Both are unpredictable, of questionable ethics, arrogant and cannot admit they are wrong; neither are very intelligent and both are damaging their countries.

When Trump arrives in Israel on Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia and before going to the Vatican – his trip encompasses key centres of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – he enters a minefield that has stymied the dreams of previous US presidents who wanted to go down historically as having ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump touts himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Does he have a policy or is he winging it? Does he favour a two state solution, or will he give West Bank settlers the carte blanche he implied during his campaign which led far-right Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who opposes a Palestinian state – to proclaim “The Palestinian flag has been lowered from the flagpole” and Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare jubilantly, “Obama is history, now we have Trump!”

They may be disappointed. Last week a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Trump’s visit outraged Israelis by saying Jerusalem’s western wall – the kotel – is “not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.” Although the White House said it was unauthorised, tempers ran high. Trump after all believes in walls: he wants to build them around America to keep Mexicans and other “undesirables” – such as Muslims – out.

His arrival coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War victory over invading Arab armies and dismantling of the wall which split Jerusalem for 19 years. The war’s consequences have divided Jews worldwide ever since. Many on the right believe the victory was God-inspired; others on the left, while celebrating Israel’s survival, see it as the beginning of the bitter Palestinian occupation, which has even resulted in Israel building a long wall separating it from the West Bank to prevent terrorism. Israel won the war but has yet to win the peace, in contrast to the Berlin wall’s falling in 1989 which re-united Germany.

Trump seems an unlikely person to bring resolution. But with such a maverick, no-one knows what may emerge.

At home, South Africans are trying to build a different kind of wall – a legal one – to hold off Zuma’s bizarre behaviour and prevent the country’s decline into another African kleptocracy like Zimbabwe. Clearly the president has gone rogue and no longer cares what citizens or ANC members think of him. Meanwhile, a South African equivalent of the Arab Spring threatens to erupt as extreme poverty and inequality become too much for the masses to bear while political leaders luxuriate in expensive mansions at state expense.

There are spots of hope. Such as Monday’s fascinating constitutional court debate over whether the coming no-confidence motion against Zuma in Parliament should be conducted by secret ballot, as opposition parties are demanding. This would allow ANC members who oppose him to vote freely without fear of recrimination.

The concourt remains a fiercely independent bastion of democracy – a legal wall against Zuma’s abuse of his position. Will it hold? Last year the court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a report of the public protector that he should pay back public money spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. When Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the judgement, loud cheers permeated the nation which is sick and tired of the president’s thievery.

Zuma was eventually forced to repay some of the money. Yet shamelessly, he did not resign, nor did his party, the ANC, force him to do so. He continued on his path, thinking the fallout from the affair would blow over. Since then the courts have been increasingly inundated with petitions from political parties and NGOs such as the Helen Suzman Foundation aimed at curbing the corruption and maladministration of Zuma’s regime.

Both Trump and Zuma see their countries’ constitutions as an inconvenience rather than a jewel to be cherished. Both recently fired – literally overnight – very senior public figures for what seems like selfish reasons. Trump fired FBI head James Comey apparently for pursuing an investigation of Trump’s links to the Russians; Zuma fired respected South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was holding the fort against the economy’s collapse but was blocking Zuma’s personal ambitions. Opposition to both men is rising and may eventually bring them down.

What comes after them, of course, is anyone’s guess.

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

Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!

gregory-maqoma-01

From Soweto hostel to international dancer: Gregory Maqoma was knighted this month by France, together with Georgina Thomson, director of the Dance Umbrella festival. Political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory on Sunday makes it more likely French backing for international arts will continue

AMONG the people who are relieved at political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election on Sunday, are arguably South African artists who have benefited over the years from French support. Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent, which is nevertheless a significant percentage and also revealed the uglier, chauvinistic side of French society.

Their contrasting world views is not just political, but about values – Macron’s belief in creative, positive engagement with the world, versus Le Pen’s emphasis on a French machismo and rejection of ‘the other’ – such as immigrants and refugees – entwined with grandiose patriotic posturing. Her supporters have compared her immoderately to French historical heroine Joan of Arc.

Last week a moving ceremony at the French Embassy in Pretoria showcased French openness when South African dance guru Georgina Thomson, long-time artistic director of Johannesburg’s annual Dance Umbrella, was knighted by the French ambassador, along with Soweto-born dancer Gregory Maqoma, artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre. The latter is a protégé of contemporary dance pioneer Sylvia Glasser, who started the mixed-race company Moving into Dance Mophatong in the garage of her Johannesburg home in 1978, seeking out talented young black and white dancers and turning them into skilled professionals – a brave act at a time when the apartheid regime frowned on such inter-racial activities.

Other protégés of Glasser have thrived in France, including Vincent Mantsoe whose company Association Noa is based in Saint Pont. Glasser was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 for her achievements.

Backing for South African arts has brought French artists to South Africa and promoted local artists internationally. In 1991 the iconic ‘white Zulu’ singer Johnny Clegg was knighted by France for his courageous voice against apartheid in its darkest years, and legendary South African choreographer Robyn Orlin received the French Order of Merit in 2009 for her “spirited and dedicated work in the sphere of arts and culture.” A similar honour was given in 2013 to Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge.

Provocative performance artist Steven Cohen, who broke new ground for his genre locally, was headhunted by Paris-based Ballet Atlantique’s Régine Chopinot in 2002 and now lives in Lille, France. His seminal work Golgotha, which debuted at the prestigious Fest d’Automne at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, was billed by critics as the definitive 9/11 artwork in its engagement with loss. Cohen’s confrontational work later offended some Frenchmen in 2013 when he tied a rooster – the ‘Gallic rooster’ is a French symbol of nationhood – to his genitals at the Place de Trocadéro, known as the Human Rights Square near the Eiffel Tower, and subsequently was fined after a trial for indecent exposure.

As today’s politically tense South Africa attempts to clarify its own distinctiveness, and as militant ‘anti-colonialism’ among certain political activists wants to cut off European influence in all spheres, engagement with the French and other countries is doubly important. While nurturing indigenous, local arts is crucial to South Africa’s quest for a new identity, so is openness to the best of world culture, of which the French are a great example.

The rise of ultra-nationalists globally such as Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK, with their inward-looking ethos, will endure for the foreseeable future. A Le Pen win would have given another boost to this phenomenon and conceivably raised questions about continuing international support for the arts. For now, for Jews, growing anti-Semitism in France is causing extreme unease, which has led many Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Some 94 per cent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel, voted for Macron. Negative sentiment against other minority communities, particularly Muslims, is running high.

Macron’s win, however, seems to be an encouraging sign from the liberal centrists that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

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

  • Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here

The ultra-nationalists and John Lennon’s broken dreams

LE PEN AND LENNON

‘The other’ is not welcome here! Rabid nationalism epitomised by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (above) comes half a century after The Beatles celebrated individualism and sharing of the world

A PIECE of popular history which throws light on today’s confusing world is the release 50 years ago in 1967 in England of The Beatles’ album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – soon to be re-released. It was followed in 1971 by John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ with its key line “Imagine there’s no countries…”, positing a globalised world based on individualism, self-expression, feminism, gay liberation and similar values. Countries’ borders were less important.

Things have changed. Last year’s statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Conservative party conference epitomised the resurgence of identities defined by nationhood and rejection of ‘the other’: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Other countries such as France are following. Its national election next Sunday will determine if ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen will become president. Her National Front party is accused of Holocaust denial; last month she caused outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews – perceived as ‘the other’, despite being citizens – who were sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Will France embrace hard right populism with its anti-immigrant, super-nationalism?

Human identities are a balancing act between competing sentiments. For South African Jews, Israel is a key part of their identity, epitomised by moving ceremonies this week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzamut. The former mourns 23,544 men and women who died defending Israel and its pre-State Jewish population, and 3,117 terror victims. The latter celebrates Israel’s independence. This year also marks 50 years since the Six Day War in which Arab countries tried to obliterate the nation of Israel.

But there are other forces vying for SA Jewry’s attention in rivalry with Israel, such as dramatic local events crucial to South Africa’s future. These include what happened on Monday in Workers Day ceremonies around the country. Some descended into chaos. In Bloemfontein, President Jacob Zuma was booed out of a Cosatu trade union federation rally and departed in his twelve-car motorcade surrounded by bodyguards without delivering his keynote speech. People ask how long the ANC will survive before it implodes, and what happens afterwards? Will African nationalism and anti-colonialist rage dominate, and what will be the place of whites and Jews?

Zuma never cherished South Africa’s democracy and nationhood, and the country should celebrate the shaming of a man who has robbed it for personal enrichment. Hopefully, its citizens will regain their optimism individually and collectively.

Israel’s nationhood, in contrast, seems solid, despite vulgar arguments in its body-politic. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University shows both its Arab and Jewish populations are optimistic and have a sense of national identity. It found 71 per cent of Israelis (73 per cent of Jewish respondents and 61 per cent of Arabs) were either “very” or “quite” optimistic about the country’s future, and over 80 per cent said they were “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israelis. Not surprisingly, Jewish respondents took greater pride in Israeli identity (86 per cent), but even 51 per cent of Arab respondents described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli.

The clash between aggressive nationalism and those individuals attempting to cross boundaries is ugly, however. Ultra-right protesters heckled a 4000-strong alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday – held for the 12th consecutive year – featuring bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They called Israeli participants “traitors.”

Wherever it is in the world, the cosmopolitan counterculture of The Beatles and the ultra-nationalism epitomised by Theresa May and Marine Le Pen cannot ever happily exist together. South Africa’s and Israel’s place in this universal tussle will never be simple, but the ride is certainly interesting.

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