THE O.P.E.N. BLOG

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.

Footnote:
[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.    

Stepping In, Splashing Around, Sinking Deep

Benedict Leong - Saturday, April 12, 2014
The O.P.E.N is about the audience,
For any to pass through.
Neither a symposium nor a conference,
The O.P.E.N is about you.

The O.P.E.N provides the insights,
To issues, ideas and themes.
Open in our dialogues,
To journey ‘behind-the-scenes’.

The O.P.E.N seeks to engage you,
Both to play and participate.
Peppered with excitement and fun,
To enrich and educate.

The O.P.E.N is a platform,
To negotiate points of views –
That informs, transforms, reforms or conforms,
When you let your voice come through.

So step into the O.P.E.N
And join us on this journey.
Beyond the mise en scène,

Into the emerald sea.

 

 

 

- Tabitha Loh, an O.P.E.N. Fellow


Knock, knock; the door is O.P.E.N.

Benedict Leong - Saturday, April 12, 2014
To me, The O.P.E.N. is a platform for people to connect with performing artistes, not to find out what they do, but what drives them to do what they do. The issues, ideas and themes that will be discussed through this platform are linked at various levels to the performances showcased during Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The O.P.E.N. provides people a context, while SIFA offer people stories. When one attends both events, their mind forms the bridge between the content of a story and the ability of the performing arts to convey them.

We are all familiar of the definitions of 'open', 'participate', 'enrich' and 'negotiate'; with The O.P.E.N. and SIFA as my context, I decided to break them down according to what happens after these definitions have been applied.



O P E N
[ Trying in spite of fear, preconceived ideas, uncertainty, etc. ]

Being 'open' suggests that prior to being so, one was 'closed'. I look at being 'closed' similar to standing behind a wall; this wall is our pre-conceived ideas, our fears, our suspicions, uncertainty, doubts, etc.

 

 

 

One can want to accept or engage in new ideas, suggestions and people, but that 'want' has to evolve into a 'try'. Once one is 'trying', I consider one being 'open' to the variety of influences around them. A person who attempts to scale the wall will have decidedly more experiences than someone who, convinced of its difficulty or pointlessness, does not.

P A R T I C I P A T E
[ Exchange of ideas, thoughts, opinions, etc. ]

If we say participating is a form of communication, whether vocal or physical, the crux is on the sharing and exchange of personal and/or factual information. A conversation that is one-sided does not suggest healthy communication.

 

 

E N R I C H
[ Adding layers to a personal impression ]

What makes an experience enriching? Anything, really. I believe an enriching experience is memorable, and memorability for a fact or situation is like the design for a school bag: you need it to carry your books, but having Batman on the flaps is going to make carrying it to school a lot more enjoyable.

 

 

 

N E G O T I A T E
[ Agreeing to disagree, a (positive) form of compromise ]

I think negotiating is a process, but also that it need not come to a dramatic conclusion of only one right answer. Agreeing to disagree with each other is a wonderful way of cultivating an environment that is encouraging and stimulating for people in general. You may have personal judgements but unless it's been called for, there seems to be no harm in letting an opposing opinion simply exist beside your own. It might even be a refreshing, not having to limit one's point of view to one single opinion.

 

 

 

Of course, that may not always be the outcome. Between two differing perceptions, sometimes a compromise must be met for amicability.

Think about the word of 'compromise'; people have regarded it as a result in which people have made 'concessions', giving up something for an amicable end. Why doesn't anyone consider the benefits of a compromise instead? Rather than focusing what both parties lost, how about what they've gained? A new insight is as meaningful a gift as any! This brings in the previously mentioned concepts of being open, communicative and participating; perhaps being amicable comes naturally from the enlightening rewards each party has received. That would be an enriching experience, don't you think?


Words are important to me, and I have been writing long enough to know that one of the best ways I can express them is in poetry. So here is one of several poems dedicated to the festival and it's many events; may it be successful in cultivating an open-mindedness amongst Singaporeans, be they performing artistes or not.



Let The Door Fly Open

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Opportunity.
Opportunity who?
Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.

And what is with the “who”?
Why does it matter who
stands at the door, would you
slam it shut if the “who”
didn't think like you?
Don't shoot
the messenger just because his shoes
don't touch the floor, his eyes are two
different shades,
his clothes smell of the mountain plains
and sunsets on another country's lake.
People who breathe with open ribs have a tendency to fly
everywhere,
the wind catching on their lungs and their wide open minds.

Let your doors break loose
from everything you never knew;
let the unknown and the unheard come crashing through.
I know there is a chain
with questions and doubts and notions, hanging like charms
on a bracelet. It loops around your ankle
like a grenade pin ready to be pulled,
so let us be the crash and the airbag when the bomb is thrown,
throw out your fears so you'll see your soul:
there is strength and courage just waiting to be worn
like a warm scarf and a thick coat.

No one said you're going to meet a rainbow,
and you might just catch a storm.
Maybe fear and uncertainty trails behind you;
maybe the loop around your ankle will slip off.
But you'll meet ugliness and beauty
and cry for both; you'll
find companions in both friends and enemies,
and shake all their hands.
You'll know how to point out your views,
and make yourself stand
for anything you believe in; you will give a damn.
And you'll live in the clouds
above houses and buildings,
above locked doors and closed windows;
you'll see the best and the worst of the sky
all because you opened a door, and
you tried to fly.

 

 

 

 - Amber Lin, an O.P.E.N. Fellow


Ong Keng Sen, Festival Director of SIFA, in a quiet moment with
The O.P.E.N.

Kheng Hua Tan - Saturday, April 05, 2014

We grabbed SIFA Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen, straight off a plane, into the joyful madness that was The O.P.E.N. Call on February 15 at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, and then to this quiet moment where he shared some of his more personal thoughts about The O.P.E.N.


1. What was the genesis of The O.P.E.N.?

OKS: Very often, when we go into the theatre, we go in without any context as to what we are going to see. And so I sometimes feel as if the experience is very reduced. It’s like chess. If you don’t know the rules of chess, you can’t enjoy the game. So I think if you don’t know the context of the performance you are going to see, you are only enjoying the theatre experience up to maybe 50%. 

The O.P.E.N. is formulated to try to make up the other 50% by helping to create a context for you to experience and enjoy the festival at a deeper level.


2. How is The O.P.E.N.  doing this?

OKS: This year, The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014 is programmed according to the theme of Legacy and The Expanded Classics. In The O.P.E.N., we are connecting the audience to the legacies of the 20th Century through a series of talks, exhibitions, film screenings, performances, demonstrations and discussions in an informal and casual way. 

I feel very strongly that how we live today is very much affected by how we lived in the 20th Century. The use of energy which has resulted in so many nuclear reactors. The climate change that has occurred. The racism that was institutionalised by apartheid. And this of course, came from World War II and what the Nazis were doing to the Jews and how the whole discrimination against minorities was very strongly institutionalised.

Connecting the audiences with these legacies of the 20th Century was the reason why The O.P.E.N. was created. And I believe you can only have open spaces in our lives if we open our minds and our hearts. And that’s how the name The O.P.E.N. came about. It is really, the process that we hope the audience will go through when they come join us. 





3. How did you feel today, when you encountered all who came for 
The O.P.E.N. Call?

OKS: I am amazed. Singapore has changed. I think Singaporeans are really searching to be more involved. They want to participate. They want to place themselves in the centre of the world. They want to understand the world by being there, by being in the centre. And in that way, they can localise what the world means to them. 

Today, in The O.P.E.N.’s first engagement exercise with the public, we were asking the public to come up and take their place in our space. And we hoped once they take the space, the world becomes clearer because it is contextualised to their position. We want them to know they can look north, south, east and west, because of where they are standing. I believe The O.P.E.N. can only begin when the audience says they want to stand here, in the middle of the 20th Century, and to see how it has affected them. And the fact that today, more than 270 people came, it really shows me that there has been a change in Singapore. That there are Singaporeans who really want to be engaged. 


4. What do you hope for when The O.P.E.N. is in session?

OKS: I would like to see the hunger of the Singaporeans who come to The O.P.E.N. satiated. There is a lot of hunger out there, a desire to know more and sometimes, I feel in Singapore, you can’t experience the answers for yourself. You are always learning from a textbook, or told the answers by someone else. What The O.P.E.N. does is to put you in the centre of it, so you are asked to make certain decisions about the issues and topics being discussed. What do you think about biomedical ethics? What do you feel about taxpayers’ contribution to Singapore’s biotechnology? What does this mean to me? Do I want to make a decision about gene profiteering, cloning? I recently watched a documentary about breast cancer, how a woman wanted to test whether she could get breast cancer from her mother and how her genes were being patented by pharmaceutical companies who are making money off her.  It was absolutely shocking.  These are all big issues. What is my position about the legacies of fear and violence in the 20th Century? Will I defend someone who has been victimised? When we attend The O.P.E.N., we will feel these questions coming at us strongly.  And for the people I saw today who are hungry to make a stand, to know more, to learn, I hope they will be satiated. 


What does ‘public engagement’ mean?

Noorlinah Mohamed - Wednesday, February 12, 2014
At a lunch meeting with several arts administrators in January 2014, someone at the table highlighted the recent arts policy shift in Singapore towards ‘engagement’, as opposed to ‘outreach’. Curiously I asked if there were any difference between the two. There must be a difference, insisted the next. Otherwise the change would only be cosmetic. But the catch is, ‘engagement’ is an oft-used word, easy to discuss but hard to implement. A few weeks later, while on a work trip in Washington D.C. visiting schools and arts centres, the word ‘engagement’ surfaced again. Keen to know what others think of public engagement, I made my rounds, speaking to organisers of engagement programmes. I wanted to know what and how engagement is perceived and organised. Here is a compilation of some key phrases that surfaced in the discussions:

Engagement . . .
  • is about communicating with other people;
  • getting people outside our normal circle excited and interested about the things we are passionate about; 
  • making something engaging and accessible;
  • a two-way dialogue, a possible exchange;
  • making connections between people, between ideas, between different ways of doing something;
  • bringing the topic, subject matter, out of its conventional domain and into the public realm;
  • negotiations between what you think you know and what you hope and yet to know;
  • advancing the knowledge and generating awareness, like advocacy. 

What is clear from this list is that ‘public engagement’ involves effective communication and negotiation. And it is both a tool and a process of extending knowledge from one field of expertise by bringing others beyond the field into it. If ‘outreach’ signals a one-way direction initiated by an expert-centred approach, ‘engagement’ suggests a communication process that hinges on dialogue, a conversation and possibly an exchange of ideas between one or more groups.

Discussing and listing what others say about ‘engagement’ makes it an easy enough concept to understand. But the challenge is really its implementation. At a glance, an engagement programme looks no different from an educational or outreach event. It offers the same format: talks; workshops; free or low-priced performances; and bringing productions out of their walled arts preserve into public spaces. Generally speaking, it has all the similar aims, that is, generating awareness, advancing the knowledge of a particular topic or subject. But it is in the detail that the real shift is felt.

While in Washington D.C., I attended the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) community engagement programme. The NSO, realising that it is increasingly hard to get people into the concert halls, decided to bring music to them. Called the NSO in Your Neighbourhood, the community engagement programme includes performances and educational activities staged in a selected community or district within the D.C. area. The orchestra performs in parks, schools, coffee shops, by the sidewalk, in markets, homeless shelters and even train stations. The aim: “to reach a wide audience” and “hope people of all ages will embrace classical music with the same excitement as we do at the NSO”.

The one NSO community engagement event I attended took place in an events hall of a covered marketplace. The audience of 200 was varied: some as young as 3 years old and there were tourists, passers-by and parents of NSO youth members. Several things stood out for me while I watched the NSO perform. Firstly, the set-up was minimal, the NSO made do with chairs provided by the marketplace. There was no microphone to amplify the conductor’s voice when she introduced the music. Secondly, the programme consisted not only of the usual performance of pre-selected and thematically structured compositions, but was accompanied by a mini demonstration and introduction of each instrument. The demonstration highlighted the origin, the history as well as quirky trivia only those intimate with their instruments would know. Thirdly, the orchestra comprised both senior professional musicians as well as youth members (the latter were students or past students of the NSO young talent division). Finally, not only do they play the music, they also offered anecdotes such as history of the piece of music, including adaptations and variations of the work, if any, across different musical types (pop, jazz and classical) and periods. All packed in a 45-min repertoire. It was quite a ‘dense’ and complex programme. Yet it was both informational and entertaining. It displayed expert knowledge yet presented in an accessible manner. 

One of the musicians commented later that the community engagement programme was not just about playing good music, but “making the connection that music relates to everyday life”. And the key to good programming is understanding how, in this case orchestral music, can be made relatable without reducing the fundamental quality and essence of the music itself. Hence showing that quality music can be played in unsuspecting venues like a train station or a marketplace is an important aspect of the NSO’s engagement endeavour.

The NSO believes that such engagement programmes not only foster public appreciation of orchestral music, but also enhance their musicians’ experience of communicating their love for music to the public. Indeed, the process of programming would lead the musicians to unconventional areas, connecting their musical knowledge with other fields. For the marketplace performance, the programmer not only researched music history but also the history of the community to connect the selection of music with the locale. And in another NSO event to young people, a musician spent 6 months programming an engagement event that made innovative connections between music and science, geography, nature, as well as technology.

But there is one thing I think is missing in the 8 bullet points I highlighted earlier. And that is openness. The NSO team, musicians and conductors, at least those I met, seem ‘open’ to making, or should I say creating time to build strong engagement programmes. But their openness is met with an equally curious and open minds and hearts of the audience, the very people these programmes are tailored for. The 'openness' on both sides requires time to nurture and sustain. Not only time, but also constant negotiation. Negotiating what is created and how they are created, negotiating comfort zones and learnt habits, negotiating perceptions and beliefs. It is not enough to make the public know what we want them to know – though of course it starts out with the one who knows more leading the way – but the goal is to go beyond telling, to dialogue, to enable experience, to inform thoughts and ideas of everyone involved in the engagement. What I am alluding to is that in an engagement programme there needs to be time and space for both the people involved in the engagement programmes and the audience to be partners of the ‘engagement equation’; connecting in a continuous flow of offerings, receptions and responses.

This brings me to Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen’s ideas for The O.P.E.N. He framed The O.P.E.N. as connecting arts making and thinking to the way we live. This is done by focusing on thoughts, ideas and concerns as central to the engagement process. All of us coming to The O.P.E.N. may not come from an arts background. But we all hold thoughts and ideas on issues that circulate globally. At The O.P.E.N. some of these issues are talked about, discussed and space is made for the public to converse and communicate their responses to the topic and to enrich the programme with their experiences. I am not sure if the tone and balance is set just right for this first installment of The O.P.E.N. But I am certain it can be developed. We can slowly invest in building a repertoire and vocabulary of continued public engagement, especially in the arts.

Let’s begin the engagement now: What is public engagement to you? And what would you want from a public engagement programme?

Notes: 
(a) The work trip in Washington was organised by the National Arts Council. I was part of a delegation of arts education specialists visiting schools and arts centres studying arts education initiatives.

(b) Public engagement in public policy and governance is not new. I will not elaborate on it here, but a useful article to turn to about public engagement in governance is Kenneth Paul Tan’s Public Engagement: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Practice (Ethos – Issue 11, August 2012).



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