In South Africa, race divisions continue to influence the arts

A painter and a writer have both recently depicted race, which remains an uncomfortable issue in South Africa more than a decade after the end of apartheid, in their work.

Race is undoubtedly an uncomfortable topic, and one that begs the question: Can a past of racialism ever be overcome? Is it possible to move on? And by move on, I mean have one’s race become nearly as invisible as eye colour or the shape of one’s nail, whether square or oval. And if it is possible, how long does it take to for this to happen? In South Africa’s case, it has become clear that it definitely takes longer than 16 years.

Tonight I was at the Michael Stevenson gallery in Woodstock, Cape Town, and am going to have to expose myself as uninformed when it comes to art because I’d never before heard Anton Kannemeyer, whose work, Alphabet of Democracy, was included in the gallery’s 2010-11 summer exhibition. What struck me immediately about Mr. Kannemeyer’s work was his head-on take on topical political and social issues in South Africa. In one drawing, he depicts Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of President Jacob Zuma, sitting on a couch with the words “F is for Fat Cat” above him and “BEE rules” next to him. Khulubuse Zuma and his business partner Zondwa Mandela, grandson of former President Nelson Mandela, have been making news lately as their mining company, Aurora Empowerment, has failed to pay workers who in turn embarked on strike action in protest. The two are alleged to have used their family connections to secure the lucrative black economic empowerment (BEE) deal that set up Aurora, and have now left workers on the lurch with just over R16 million in unpaid wages. The intrigue doesn’t stop there, of course, as charges of murder were filed last week against the mine’s security guards for shooting dead four alleged illegal miners earlier this year, and a white knight in the form of South African-Chinese consortium Virgile Asia Mining may yet save the day by squaring up a deal with the mine’s creditors and restarting operations, which had been at a standstill since workers’ strike.

And in another drawing, Mr Kannemeyer depicts a broken building wall with the words “S is for School” written above and “built by Jackey Maarohanye and funded by Bill Clinton and Oprah” below – this in reference to a school run by Jackie Maarohanye that turned out to be using its students as cash-cows. Its funders and supporters included some very high profile names.

Kannemeyer, in his work, does draw strong parallels between the (white) figures of apartheid and the (black) figures of post-apartheid South Africa – between the good old days and the bad new days. His work immediately forced me into discomfort, especially his “N is for Nightmare” pieces where he made extensive use of “blackface." These pieces depict black people as gun, ax and spear wielding savages drooling over platters of severed heads of white people with suburban homes as the backdrop. (What else is N for? Link it to use of blackface and ask yourself if the artist was completely unaware of the suggestiveness, or am I connecting dots that never existed?)

I was reticent to voice my discomfort until one of my friends asked, “What makes this different from what Annelie Botes said?”

For the uninitiated (where have you been?), author Annelie Botes made local and international news this week and inspired much debate, and even remarkable rationality in the face of her seemingly ignorant irrationality, when she said that she hates black people because, essentially, she associates blackness with criminality and violence. Some hailed her frankness as brave for saying what many were secretly thinking, while others pilloried her ignorance and blatant racism.

Ms. Botes, when defending her earlier statement, said that as a writer, it is not for her to be politically correct, but to present things how she sees them. She said she cannot bring herself to understand the mind of a black man. Her every experience of crime was at the hands of black men and for her, it is pretty clear that it is black men who make her afraid and as a result, hates them. She was, coincidentally, one of the writers awarded the 2010-11 K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for her novel Thula-Thula, which means “hush, hush” in Zulu. This award, which she accepted, is named in honour of K Sello Duiker, a black male writer who was, before his passing, considered one of the greatest of his generation.

The difference, in response to my friends question, I believe is that one of the two knows what he was doing – acting as an agent provocateur – and the other is merely voicing her prejudice. One is showing us how some people think and the other is how some people think. Kannemeyer, as I’ve subsequently read up, frequently speaks of liberal hypocrisy and how in public, some whites seem to embrace the blackness they are now confronted with daily, while in private, they live in fear of the swart gevaar. The “N is for Nightmare” series specifically explores this, and I guess, gives a visual depiction of Botes’s prejudice.

So then what of moving on from this? How much longer already? Because there are many South Africans ready to move on while others, like Ms Botes, are ready to emigrate (and others yet, ready to forcefully help the likes of her emigrate).

I believe there to be an inherent time to things like resolving racial conflict, and no amount of sighing and urging will move us forward (if it does, it will be purely artificial). That inherent time can be shortened of course, but only by a willingness to diffuse the conflict by actively having honest, enlightened and frank conversations about what we are really thinking. Kannemeyer, I believe has done his part in this regard, but Botes may have temporarily hijacked (and thus stalled) the process by inciting irrationality, hatred and fear.

– Osiame Molefe blogs at Boos From the Pews.

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