Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!

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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

Minorities in South Africa: Where has all the passion gone?

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SA Jews have engaged widely in broader society, but as a tiny minority fear the future under Jacob Zuma’s government. Many are withdrawing or leaving. In the picture, pioneering choreographer Sylvia Glasser meets in 2003 with black dancers she trained though her company Moving Into Dance     (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

WITH the rising political chaos in South Africa as the populace reels under the corrupt, inept rule of President Jacob Zuma’s government, it is impossible to know what the country will look like ten years from now. A realignment of its politics is underway, as the once-great liberation movement the African National Congress appears to be close to breaking apart under the pressure of its warring internal factions.

All South Africans are feeling the anxiety, including minority groups such as the Afrikaners and Jews, who feel particularly threatened since they are largely excluded from the inner circles of power. The sense of powerlessness of minority groups is profound as they watch people well-connected to Zuma’s government sell this country down the river with incompetence and corruption.

When criticism of the government and Zuma is voiced too loudly by white people, accusations of racism tend to be hurled back at them, silencing many well-meaning citizens who don’t have the stomach for the fight. It is a form of “disenfranchisement” of minorities by what has become a majoritarian government rather than a democratic one. For many minorities, the response is to withdraw into separate laagers, to look after their own interests as best they can.

Looking at it through a Jewish prism, a high profile Jewish conference which took place last weekend, drawing some 5000 participants – the annual Sinai Indaba held at the prestigious Sandton Convention Centre in northern Johannesburg – illustrated the degree to which mainstream South African Jewry is withdrawing from engagement with the country.

The conference which featured international speakers on numerous topics, was lauded as a great success by many, and anybody who attended would have been struck by the speakers’ high quality and thought-provoking presentations about Judaism and Jewish-related topics. But the speakers and programme contained almost no reference to what it means to be Jewish in the specifically local South African context, the here-and-now of a country drowning in poverty, inequality and corrupt politics.

But South Africa is where most Sinai Indaba participants actually live. They face complex challenges about what it means to live in a rapidly changing, troubled society with an uncertain future. Jews constitute only 0.13 per cent of the population of 55 million. It is common knowledge that many have given up on this country over the years and have left, or are in the process of doing so. The Jewish population has shrunk from about 125 000 in the 1970s to some 70 000 today.

But for the ones who are staying, a meaningful understanding of their place here as part of a tiny minority which is growing ever smaller, is crucial to how they operate as citizens. Local rabbis, lay leaders and individuals grapple with it constantly.

South African Jews have in the past played a significant role in the social and political affairs of the country. Iconic names in politics, law, welfare and the arts spring to mind, such as parliamentarian Helen Suzman, jurists Arthur Chaskalson and Issie Maisels, underground activists Joe Slovo and Dennis Goldberg, Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer, choreographer Sylvia Glasser and many others. Jewish organisations and individuals have engaged intensely in the society over the years, often at personal risk during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women, the United Sisterhood and others. But now their older members complain that they are being replaced by fewer younger people, whose interests lie elsewhere.

The latest government debacle last week, with potentially disastrous consequences, is about Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s failure to put in place proper mechanisms for paying social grants on April 1 to some 17 million of the poorest, most vulnerable South Africans who depend on these meagre amounts to keep going. The disgrace of it should stir all people, including Jews, Afrikaners and others into urgent action to demand that those who created the crisis be brought to book. But the chances are that Dlamini, who is in Zuma’s close circle, will somehow be let off the hook, and the protestors will be sidelined to once again question where the country is headed.

Minority groups are asking what their future is here. For example, how many Jews will be left in South Africa in ten years’ time and what kind of community will it be? If current trends continue, it will be smaller than today. Will it be engaged meaningfully in the broader society, or live in a tiny bubble of its own, insular and inward-looking?

There are no easy answers, except to say visionary leadership is needed. There are no obvious candidates in place, but nature hates a vacuum.

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

An explosion of Bach in Soweto

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Members of Soweto’s Buskaid music school hone their performance of a Bach concerto, guided by mentor Rosemary Nalden, preparing for Johannesburg’s International Mozart Festival in February

IT’S a half-hour drive on a Saturday morning from St Mary’s school in the mainly white, upper class neighbourhood of Waverley in northern Johannesburg, to the tiny Presbyterian Church on the corner of Tebogo and Mphatlalatsane Streets in Diepkloof, Soweto, where Buskaid’s music school is based, in a black neighbourhood consisting of masses of very modest houses crammed tightly together. St Mary’s is an old, expensive private school with a British colonial feel to it. It has a beautiful auditorium, which is where the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, consisting of musicians from a far less privileged community, will be performing as part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival in February.

On the hot summer’s day of this visit to interview Buskaid’s director, Rosemary Nalden, two tall, elegant women dressed in bright African fabrics, carrying umbrellas against the sun, were standing talking together at the church entrance. The receptionist at the door of the small building across the driveway from the church itself, sat at a desk by a wall on which posters advertising Buskaid concerts were mounted with tape. She said with a friendly smile: “Rosemary is in that room there. Open the door and go in.”

The first thing that happened when the door opened was that the melodic, lilting sounds of one of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos burst through into the foyer. Inside the room itself – a humble, rather dilapidated space with windows looking onto the street – ten black youngsters with violins, violas, cellos and double basses encircled a grey-haired white woman sitting bolt-upright on a high stool, conducting and issuing stern instructions as they played. The youngsters were dressed casually in T-shirts and sneakers, contrasted by the sense of preciousness of the instruments they played.

The woman was Nalden who, since 1997, has painstakingly built Buskaid into an internationally known music school which has performed for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Its idealistic ethos is the polar opposite of the racial antagonism and negativity dominating the headlines in South Africa these days.

The school has 115 black youngsters ranging in age from five to thirty-three. It teaches them Bach, Bruch, Rameau and other European classical music, as well as fostering local South African genres such as kwela. Some of its graduates have gone on to study at international music schools in the UK and elsewhere. The ensemble has toured internationally in the UK, USA, France and other places. Last year it accompanied world renowned pianist Melvyn Tan in a special concert at the Mozart Festival.

Nalden is the driving force. Born in England, she studied at the Royal College of Music in London, then freelanced for 30 years, and has played the viola under renowned conductors such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Simon Rattle.

There have been several similar institutions in the arts in South Africa which were built by charismatic white visionaries for underprivileged black youngsters, which achieved the highest levels of artistic proficiency. At the Johannesburg Art Foundation, for example, created in 1971 by artist and teacher Bill Ainslie, many of the country’s best black and white artists got their first training under his mentorship. But after he was killed in a car accident in 1989, the institution declined and eventually died, despite efforts by disciples and colleagues to keep it going. Without the master, the inner fire was lacking.

Arts people in Johannesburg ask today whether this will also happen to the Market Theatre in Newtown, created in 1976 by the late theatre guru Barney Simon as a venue for anti-apartheid protest theatre, and where the finest actors were tutored by him. Today the atmosphere at the theatre suggests that its heyday has passed. Will it die, now that the master is gone? If it does, will it be with a whimper, rather than the bang it had in its heyday?

An inspiring event involving another institution took place late last year, when renowned choreographer Sylvia Glasser was ‘danced’ across President Street in Johannesburg’s CBD on a Sunday afternoon by a festive band of twenty young black protégés, after a farewell tribute to her at the Dance Factory in Newtown. They sang joyously and called her gogo – a South African term of endearment meaning grandmother.

Glasser is a dancer who in 1978 – in the heyday of apartheid – started a mixed-race dance company called ‘Moving into Dance Mophatong’ in her garage in the white neighbourhood of Victory Park. It was illegal at the time for blacks and whites to even share a performance stage, but she ignored this and led MDM to become the premier contemporary dance company in South Africa.

She retired last year after nearly four decades of her career, during which she nurtured several generations of the country’s best dancers, who have won almost every major award in the country. At the tribute at the Dance Factory, she recalled scary incidents from the past where black dancers who lived in Soweto had to sleep overnight in her garage after practice sessions because they didn’t want to risk travelling home at night in case the police stopped them for being unlawfully in a white area.

After leaving the Presbyterian Church and Buskaid in Diepkloof on Saturday, the sounds and spirit of Bach and the incredible energy of the youngsters led by Nalden continued to resonate during the drive back to northern – mainly white – Johannesburg along the M1 highway.

What about Buskaid’s prospects for the future? All signs are that this inspiring institution has been put on such a firm footing by Nalden that it will endure and thrive long after she has left. May it be so. The country needs it.

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

Is painting a rose permissible in the midst of SA poverty?

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Students attack the defaced statue of British mining magnate and colonialist politician, Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town.

When a well known South African art critic last week bemoaned the decaying state of a once-venerable art museum in a major South African city, she was accused of seeing things through the myopic eye of her ‘privilege and its archaic association with art’, blind to the ‘social deprivation of our citizens.’ It was another indication of the battle going on in a country searching for its new identity after apartheid. When there is so much poverty and suffering, can we justify giving precious resources to things of beauty, like paintings?

The word ‘privilege’ has almost become synonymous in public discourse with the word ‘white’ and is used as a racial jibe. Populist politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema, call for lessening white influence in national life, and decry the influence of ‘white capitalists’. European values imported as part of the colonialist era are slated; 2015 was a year in which statues of arch-colonialists like Cecil John Rhodes were torn down – to the applause of some and dismay of others.

Amidst this difficult search for where this country is heading, it is easy to understand the anger of the people attacking colonialist vestiges, which to them represent white racism. Their rage is a legitimate part of the mixture of forces from which will emerge a new society. But South Africa has been a ship without a rudder for years, since Mandela’s potent push for a non-racial, liberal society. Self-serving incompetents now pretend to be leaders.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond, pioneering white artists and mentors like Bill Ainslie, Sylvia Glasser, Lionel Abrahams and Barney Simon – among many others in visual art, dance, literature, theatre and music – were passionate about finding and nurturing young black artists as part of their protest against apartheid, and their vision of the new South Africa they hoped would come afterwards. For them, the making and cherishing of art would be intrinsic.

They went into impoverished townships looking for talented youngsters and provided spaces and facilities for them. Some of these protégés are now pillars of the cultural scene, such as Vincent Mantsoe, Mncedisi Shabangu and Gregory Maqoma to name but a few.

But something has gone wobbly along the way. Huge questions are being raised about the things the country should be doing. So what kind of society are we building?

A hint at an answer was provided in 1986 by Mandla Nkosi, a black artist from Soweto then in his early twenties. He lived in a shack with his mother until he was discovered by white artists. They arranged for him to move into a back room in Ainslie’s art school in Saxonwold, a white suburb of Johannesburg. This was when apartheid was in its last violent throes. A state of emergency had been imposed by the government, and widespread violence raged between township blacks and security forces.

Nkosi’s paintings portrayed these confrontations. His huge black, white and red collages hung in the hall of the art school, depicting larger-than-life figures of police with dogs and guns fighting with outraged black people. The combatants’ faces were twisted and anguished.

He was asked what this meant as an artist. Was his art inevitably political, did he have to be part of the political struggle?

He answered yes, of course his art was partly political. His experiences made it unavoidable. But his goal was beyond, in the realm of beauty, where one does not have to choose sides between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people and be defined by the ‘struggle’.

“I paint about anger, injustice and conflict. But I also like to paint a rose!”

After living at the art school for two years, a wealthy white family offered Nkosi a room in their house. Sadly, he was killed a few years later.

Art, beauty and things of the spirit are not about Verwoerd, colonialism and the legacy of the apartheid killing machine. There are many cultural institutions like the art museum mentioned above which are in decay, and denigrated as bastions of white privilege and colonialist culture. They should be embraced and re-dedicated by new visionaries, and merged with the vibrant energy of contemporary South Africa.

If we lose the ability to celebrate the rose because there is poverty and suffering, and because there was apartheid and colonialism, we will have lost the battle for a good society.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)