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 )

Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring

cohenmalematrump-2

Songwriters and demagogues: Leonard Cohen sang of what it is to be human. Populist politicians Julius Malema and Donald Trump speak in inflammatory rhetoric to seek power.

THE death of musician-poet Leonard Cohen and the ascent to power in the United States of billionaire-politician Donald Trump reflect the confusion of our era. Millions mourn Cohen, with his songs that touch the core of what it is to be human; it is hard imagining iconic pieces such as his “Hallelujah” ever being surpassed.

We don’t know what legacy President-elect Trump will leave. His attitudes echo rising right wing, fascist figures in other countries. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism and other social ills that were unacceptable in the last few decades, become respectable again.

Shocked Americans dismayed at his election win, look for a “silver lining”. Perhaps one aspect is that radical change is sometimes inherently good, as it moves people out of stale comfort zones and creates new energy. In the lyrics of his song “Anthem”, Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

It is hard imagining Trump as a bringer of light, but perhaps the crack in the political order was the left’s complacency and arrogance. In its enthusiasm for globalisation and multiculturalism, it neglected masses of ordinary local people worldwide who became poorer and jobless, while wealthy international elites were creaming it. Trump became the voice in America of those angry masses.

In times of social upheaval, minority ethnic groups always look around nervously for how they will be treated by the majority. Jews instinctively ask: “Is it good or bad for us?” Muslims in Western countries ask the same. Black people ask similar questions in white-dominated countries.

There is cause for concern: The rise of the new right brings racist stirrings, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism and hatred of other minorities. In countries where speaking publically against Jews has been taboo, open expressions of Jew-hatred have now become common. In France, Jews are emigrating in droves because of attacks on them.

Even in South Africa, which still clings to the memory of Mandela’s rainbow nation, the signs are worrying. Earlier this month, for example, graffiti at Wits university said “Kill a Jew!” and “Fuck the Jews!”; last month, a kippah-wearing student was called a “Motherfucking Jew!” by fellow students.

Despite such incidents, South Africa by and large has good inter-group relations. Anti-Semitism remains low compared to many other countries, and interactions between ordinary blacks and whites in the cities are generally friendly.

But racist talk from populist politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to speak for millions of angry, jobless blacks, could change things. His tactics are similar to Trump’s, but from a leftwing perspective.

Demagogues like Malema use any means to gain power. He has not publically expressed anti-Semitism, but his insistence that “white monopoly capital” is the root of the problem could easily be tweaked to “Jewish (or another group) monopoly capital”.

Trump may turn out to be less catastrophic than the doomsayers predict. In politics, yelling recklessly from the sidelines is easy, but once a person gets his hands on the steering wheel, things look different. And the many checks and balances in US politics make it hard for any leader to go completely off track.

But for Malema, the political safeguards in South Africa are less robust, giving him freer rein. Just look at how President Jacob Zuma has got away with his rampant corruption and other shenanigans.

There are no prophets to tell us the future. One thing for sure is that we’re in for an interesting few years ahead – like Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future”, which ends with the words: “Things are going to slide in all directions…”

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