The Legacy of Violence & The Post-Apartheid South Africa

Noorlinah Mohamed - Wednesday, July 09, 2014

By Jay Pather

The issue of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has generated much public debate and some apprehension… what this issue raises is how we deal with a past that contained gross violations of human rights – a past which threatens to live with us like a festering sore.
Nelson Mandela, as part of his 100 Day Speech to Parliament in 1994

Nelson Mandela’s legacy in the context of a colonial legacy of abject violence and economic deprivation is a double-edged sword, one that epitomises the bristling dynamic in South Africa that continues to make it a land of so much contestation. Even in talking through issues of reconciliation and forgiveness, Mandela nevertheless never stopped reminding us of ‘a past that threatens to live with us like a festering sore'. Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela, would later go on to talk of the legacy and continued existence of ‘two countries’, one for the historically advantaged and another for the historically marginalised and disenfranchised.

Memory and legacies of violence play an important role, then, in the shaping of the new country. Whether it is acknowledging that Independence after Apartheid was not a clean cut from the past, nor was it a revolution that ensured the redistribution of land and wealth, the weight of a negotiated settlement has brought with it economic asymmetries and societal stresses that continue to plague thesociety.

Annie Coombes prefaces much of her authoritative work Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003) with references to such contestation. Interestingly, she begins with recalling Neville Alexander:

The strategic-political and ultimately moral-historical question is how to move towards understanding without ever forgetting, but to remember without constantly rekindling the divisive passions of the past” (Coombes 2003: 1)

Coombes agrees with Alexander, suggesting that the state of cool reason and acceptance is the higher plane that we should all aspire to. However, in South Africa, the unchecked continuities in economic distress and dire material circumstances ensure that the remembrances of such acts of colonial violation and economic deprivation have clear reference to the immediate present. In an article titled South Africa's Unfinished Revolution, Anne Applebaum, editor of the Economist and The Washington Post, writes:
While South Africans dealt brilliantly with the racial and historical legacy of the apartheid state, they have dealt less well with its corrupt economic legacy and the legacy of the security institutions created to repress the majority of citizens. (Applebaum, 2013: n.p)

Following these comments, then, as well as current statistics of unemployment [1] and poverty, a lack of change in material circumstances makes it crucial to witness, reimagine and resurrect the past time and time again, even though many who benefited under apartheid would wish it to simply go away. Recourse to ‘what happened’ becomes less about nostalgia, confession, confrontation and closure (suggested by even such institutions as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and more a harrowing journey to explain and affirm one’s current economic distress and wretchedness, and to simply understand the discrepancy between one’s labour and one’s absurdly dire material circumstances. An invocation of memory in relation to apartheid then becomes an active dialectic, a reflexive meditation, what is constantly alluded to by critical theorists Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricouer and Michel Foucault: that the act of remembering is a preoccupation with the present.

In their seminal article, Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies, Brandon Hamber and Richard Wilson comment:

The South African TRC has, in the interests of national reconciliation, muted feelings of vengeance and replaced them with what it calls a more restorative model (2002) 

and conclude that:

The nation-building discourse of truth commissions homogenise disparate individual memories to create an official version, and in so doing, they repress other forms of psychological closure motivated by less ennobled (although no less real) emotions of anger and vengeance. Claims to heal the collective unconscious of the nation therefore mask how truth commissions both lift an authoritarian regime of denial and public silence, as well as create a new regime of forgetting which represses other memories and forms of psychological closure (2002 n.p.).

The need for material witness, for the actual accounts by individuals as opposed to a generalised and expedient national project, signals something far more important than the already huge task of achieving material equity, housing and land restitution. The need to materialise this intangible abnegation and disempowerment is erupting through the cracks in a variety of ways, many of which are violent. The lack of vehicle or form or even place for this perpetual, satisfying witness that is able to connect past and present is plain to see and mired in a range of absences and subjectivities. Disenchantment, graphic re-enactment and spontaneous threats of violence from parts of the nation, along with denial, amnesia and erasure from others, and the arguable failure of politically expedient projects such as reconciliation, national unity and social cohesion mark a difficult and complex terrain.

These areas of Memory and Legacy form key themes in the talk as well as that of the Body as Waste and the Human, Race, and Elusive Futures to sketch out a country that continues to exemplify its resilience in the face of its desires for erasure and its debilitating legacies. Ultimately, with audiovisual aids, the talk illustrates how this landscape provides a context for the work of artists such as, amongst others, Mamela Nyamza, Boyzie Cekwana and Zanele Muholi.

Other relevant texts:

• Adebajo (A.), Adedeji (A.) & Landsberg (C.) eds., SOUTH AFRICA IN AFRICA, The Post-Apartheid Era

• Alexander (A.) ed., ARTICULATIONS, a Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture collection Durban, 2006
A collection of sixteen of the lectures presented in the Harold Wolpe Memorial Public Lecture Series. Also includes reviews of the lectures by activists and academics.

Includes "Fanon, Marx, and the New Reality of the Nation: black political empowerment and the challenge of a new humanism in South Africa" by Nigel Gibson,
"Keeping it in Their Pants: politicians, men, and sexual assault in South Africa" by Charlene Smith,
"Democracy and the Importance of Criticism, Dissent, and Public Dialogue" by William Mervin Gumede,
"An Incomplete Freedom: the state of the media ten years into democracy" by Ferial Haffajee,
"Slow Delivery in South Africa's Land Reform Programme: the property clause revisited" by Lungisile Ntsebeza, and
"Ten Years of Democracy: a review" by Patrick Bond.

• Zulu (P.), A NATION IN CRISIS, an appeal for morality; Cape Town, 2013.
Paulus Zulu examines the tension between justice and democracy and analyses what he sees
as a lack of public morality in South Africa nineteen years after liberation.

[1] According to Statistics South Africa (May 2013), the unemployment rate in South Africa increased to 25.20 percent in the first quarter of 2013, from 24.90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.    

A Window into South African Dance History

Noorlinah Mohamed - Tuesday, July 08, 2014
By Adrienne Sichel

South African contemporary dance has a remarkably rich and complex history.

Several teachers, dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, administrators and activists have driven this movement for the past 40 years. The resulting, now internationally-recognised choreography draws on cultural traditions, rituals, various techniques (imported or developed), forms, styles, rural and urban influences, as well as current realities and issues.

Who these pioneers were (and are) is part and parcel of democratic South Africa’s socio-political history. South African contemporary theatre dance has been, to a large extent, evolved out of acts of political defiance and activism in reaction to the race laws of apartheid South Africa instituted after the Nationalist government came to power in 1948.

These draconian laws which underpinned the separate development policy (we could all practice our cultures – separately) were the Immorality Act and Separate Amenities Act. Black South Africans, including people classified as Coloureds (mixed race) and Indians, were prohibited from performing on certain stages, in whites-only theatres and in certain venues.

The segregated theatre law was lifted in 1978. Till then, dancers of colour who were trained (technically against the law) at the University of Cape Town Ballet School (one of the origins of contemporary dance training founded by Dulcie Howes in 1934) had to leave the country to dance professionally. This included Vincent Hantam (who had a long career with the Scottish Ballet) and also affected Christopher Kindo, who returned to his homeland after 1978 and made history as a virtuoso dancer, inventive choreographer and teacher.

It is important to note that South African theatre and theatrical dance was historically split, not only stylistically and in terms of audiences, but by funding. The Nationalist government’s arts policy was for white South Africans only. The prioritised European art forms were opera, ballet, contemporary dance from 1988, orchestral music and drama. Since the mid 1960s, permanent full-time drama, opera, ballet, dance companies and orchestras were attached to some of the opera houses built in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town in the 1970s and 1980s. The companies and institutions were part of the Performing Arts Councils, which were finally disbanded according to the terms of democratic South African policy post-1994.

Activist initiatives like Dance Alliance became part of the pre-1994 Arts and Culture Task Group, which helped lobby for a new cultural policy to benefit all South Africans and arts forms. The formation of the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council (NAC), serving the now nine provinces, developed out of this process. Through legislation, certain theatres and opera houses are funded as national institutions. They have transformed from production houses to presenting houses without resident companies and production budgets.

Another important part of this history is the international cultural boycott. This action formed part of the anti-apartheid movement which targeted sports relations between South Africa and the world. In 1963, writers became involved and later, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers as well. The boycott was lifted in 1994 after the first democratic elections.
In terms of the development of South African contemporary dance, the negative aspect of the boycott was that we were denied access to what was happening elsewhere. Through cultural diplomacy, certain handpicked dancers and teachers from townships and cities were sent to festivals like the American Dance Festival.

The positive part of the cultural boycott was that, in isolation, South African dance-makers were forced to create their own forms of expression, methodologies, and aesthetics and develop hybrid fusion forms such as Sylvia Glasser’s Afro-fusion. Enterprising dancers, teachers and choreographers (such as Cape Town’s Jazzart collaborative of Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Dawn Langdown and John Linden) also looked beyond the prescribed legal racial barriers to collaborate.
Black children were officially denied arts education but cultural groups, youth clubs and numerous community-based training initiatives, such as Arlene Westergaard’s Zama Dance School in Gugulethu (where 8-year-old Mamela Nyamza started ballet), proved the power of the arts to empower and educate. 

A major turning point was the introduction of the Dance Umbrella, at The Wits Theatre, in Johannesburg, in 1989, as a free, democratic, national platform for all forms of new South African choreography. This ranged from traditional Zulu dance to classical ballet. This festival, now directed by Georgina Thomson, has developed an international and African profile. It has also nurtured generations of dancers, choreographers and audiences as well as producing a unique repertory.
Post-democracy, the formal political activism and community spirit of volunteerism has largely died, as companies and independent artists compete for shrinking funding and resources. Critically-minded innovators depend on foreign commissioning and funding as well as local opportunities from Dance Umbrella (which is at risk of closure) and other festivals to continue making art. The NAC’s dance company funding has been reversed and companies have ether collapsed in the past two years or are about to die.

Yet, this hasn’t deterred visionary dancer-choreographers, teachers and administrators from persevering to continue an extraordinary legacy.

Copyright 2014. Arts House Limited.
Unless otherwise stated, other images by Jeannie Ho