Art Imitating Life

By Fazila Farouk · 10 Jul 2010

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Somewhat hidden from the spotlight this year, a time-honoured staple on the national calendar ran almost parallel to the world’s biggest soccer tournament. From the 20th of June to the 4th of July, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival (NAF) held its annual two-week programme of drama, music, dance and fine art, as it has done since 1974.

Artistic expression and its appreciation are vital to the spice of life and the NAF offered a well-timed sojourn from a nation engulfed by soccer mania. It also presented the opportunity to take South Africa’s true pulse, to scratch beneath the surface of a nation temporarily suspended in rapture.

The artist’s reflection of society is, after all, a critical indicator of the state of a country’s frame of mind. What did the NAF tell us about South Africa this year?

It’s a significant question to ponder. South Africa does, after all, feel like a country suffering from a split personality. April’s racially charged and intensely polarised national identity debate dissipated very abruptly to make way for June’s generous national unity, which, we are told, is giving way to July’s angry xenophobia. What on Earth will we be on about in September one wonders?

If the arts festival is anything to go by, September could easily find each of us back in our corners pondering our futures in a country still mercilessly divided by the most unequal and racially defined class disparity in the world.

The most visible thing about South Africa is that the elites and middle class live extremely well (notwithstanding the threat of crime). The poor, of course, live a hellish existence. This is no mind-blowing revelation, but it was as obvious to me scanning the scene in Grahamstown, as it has been to the hundreds of foreign journalists who descended on the country for the World Cup. And, its not gone unnoticed by them either. They’re on a flat out journalistic jaunt punctuating their sports coverage with elaborate reflections on South Africa’s harsh inequality. Indeed, the question put to me by a Swedish television crew was, tell us about “the human climate in a country with such huge economic rifts.”

In a similar vein, I surveyed Grahamstown, examining the festival programme, analysing the audiences and trying to make sense of the artistic interpretation of contemporary South Africa.

But, if I thought I was going to find the reflection of a country forging ahead with the business of achieving racial unity and economic parity, I was surely setting myself up for disappointment.

Just as the beggars at Johannesburg’s traffic intersections are a constant reminder of our cruel disparities, so, too, were the inadequately dressed township kids stationed outside theatre venues doing mime performances for stray pennies on wintry Grahamstown days.

But the crude reminders of our racial and economic inequity didn’t stop there.

The NAF underscored, in its totality, the fact that apartheid’s social, economic and cultural biases have taken a confident stride into post-apartheid South Africa. This was plainly reflected in the festival programme and by the people who frequented the event. Grahamstown played host to a largely upper-middle class white audience, while the programme line up turned out racially polarised audiences.

In both fringe and main events, white audiences flocked to traditional Western performances. Whether it was the tedious tap dancing grannies in Just Tap or the sloppy performance of Carmen by the Cape Town Ballet Company, these shows played to packed houses. It was abundantly clear that conventional expressions of art that support an imperialist culture will continue to thrive in South Africa because they attract a moneyed Western audience.

But black issues were not absent from the festival programme. Issues of black identity, the ongoing struggle for recognition, the clash between western and traditional African culture, the problem of blacks perpetually being trapped in survivalist mode, the extraordinary social challenges heightened by alienation and poverty -- these issues were all very common in the programme line up. And, they clearly reflected the marginalised existence of the black life.

But white audiences - in Grahamstown for the winter holidays - were in pursuit of amusement and distraction. They were uncommon if non-existent at emotive black performances. 

“I’m a person under this black skin,” screamed the performance by a black-led theatre group from Britain, the Talawa Theatre Company. Their production, Krunch, poignantly exposed the challenge of being young and black in contemporary Britain. I sat in a sold-out performance attended mostly by young black students. I could see why they liked the show. Their feelings of rejection and alienation were sympathetically reflected in the British experience. But Krunch’s message was not meant for my ears or those of the young black kids in the audience. They were reaching out to the other side that unfortunately wasn’t there to hear them.

The distinction was clear-cut. Black performances were poignant and always questioning of a system that has betrayed them. White performances, on the other hand, had room to show artistic flair in a variety of genres, reflecting various issues and moods. It was the performing arts purely for the purpose of entertainment. It could be happy, sad, frivolous, funny, ambiguous and even heart-rending. It strutted skill, method and knowledge. Freed from the shackles of the burden of survival, white performers and performances played with the entire panoply of life -- and this is exactly what artistic expression should be about.

The problem with it though is that when one holds up this white artistic freedom against the issues and performances that black artists are still trapped in, all it does is further expose the injustice of the inequality in our society.

My anxiety was further aggravated by the stand-up comedy shows I attended. I was keen on the comedy. After all, I posited that the in-your-face medicine of the comedians would surely reveal a few truths about our national psyche.

Mark Sampson Feels Funny seemed the perfect choice. It was billed as “a comic exploration of life featuring a giant game of Snakes and Ladders and inflatable dice. A helter-skelter tumble through the kaleidoscopic twists of Mark’s mind, as he reflects on life…”

If you’re wondering about that inflatable dice, Sampson tossed it into the audience who in turn threw it back onto the stage. Depending on the number the dice landed on, Sampson performed silly/funny acts. He drew on the audience heavily for the material he covered in the show. It was quite funny in a slapstick kind of way -- but in the midst of all that silliness, there was a tragedy unfolding before my eyes.

Sampson spent the better part of the hour-long show allaying the fears of his white audience about the challenge of living in a country surrounded by poor black people infected with HIV. And that’s exactly how he expressed it too. “I know it’s difficult,” he’d say, as he repeatedly and casually rattled off the problems, “the aids, the poverty and so on.” Then, in case they were still mesmerised by thoughts of making the chicken run to Australia, he reminded the audience that the grass isn’t greener on the other side.

What a bitter realisation that he empathised not with the masses of poor South Africans still clinging to the elusive dream of a healthy and prosperous life, but with the myopic existence of a white middle class trying to carve out a charmed existence for themselves in the midst of a dark and diseased landscape.

The spirited comedian, Sivuyile Ngesi, pressed the issue further home in his self-deprecating show, Dekaf. It was billed as a comedy about “blacks who think like whites.” There was one black family in the audience that took their places close to the stage. Ngesi called them “coconuts” after one member of the family confidently returned his greeting. Apart from a handful of Indians, and one famous coloured person that we were told was in the house – Brian Habana – Ngesi played to a predominantly white audience. They laughed till they cried at the stupid things black people do to try and be white.

I was crushed. White audiences were happy to laugh at the idiosyncrasies of the black middle class trying to fit into their world, but showed no empathy with the plight of the struggling black masses that needed a leg up in life.

To be sure, Ngesi did take a stab at white prejudices. But he fiddled on the fringes without addressing the elephant in the room -- “white supremacy.” This is not something we talk about in South Africa because apartheid is over and we’re the rainbow nation.

Be that as it may, a clear picture of our divided nation kept bouncing back at me in just about every one of the 11 performances I attended at the Grahamtown NAF. It reminded me that South Africa’s racially polarised pre-World Cup identity debate is only temporarily muted. And, that it’s not going to go away until the facts on the ground change. 

In August 2009 at the 57th Session of the International Statistical Institute, researchers who had profiled middle class South African households over the ten-year period, 1996 to 2006, argued that 85.3% of all white South Africans were middle class while just 12.8% of Africans had joined this social rank. It’s interesting to note that the white middle class increased by 2% from 83.3% in 1998 to 85.3% in 2006. Surely this puts paid to the paranoid notion that white livelihoods are threatened in the new South Africa.

There was, of course, also an upward trend in the black middle class over this exact same period from 7.5% to 12.8%. But, the criteria used to define who the middle class actually are, artificially expanded the African middle class. Anyone living in a formal dwelling with a flush toilet, electricity and access to a phone was considered middle class by the researchers enumerating this statistic. Taken quite literally, the definition could mean that anyone living in a half decent RDP house now belongs to the middle class. Moreover, this definition of middle class did not take “income” into consideration, thus, presenting an overly optimistic and patently false picture of the growth of the African middle class.

This is the reality on the ground. Perhaps our jaded eyes don’t see things as clearly anymore. But, the fresh eyes of the international journalists visiting the World Cup clearly saw the disparities between rich and poor and black and white. It appalled them.

And what I learned in Grahamstown is that our problems go far beyond our enormous material differences. The NAF revealed a startling attitudinal challenge to me. The self-obsessed individualism driven by the middle class mindset is at odds with the needs of a country trying to bridge enormous social divides.

If we are going to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, then surely both sides will have to give something. For the moment we are still caught up with one side paying the price for the other’s privilege.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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9 Jul

A Superb Article Fazila

This is excellent stuff. Right on. You should write more.

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Ken Carstens
10 Jul


THANK you! - not least for providing the typically self-serving SA definition of 'middle' class. Reading your excellent article with Terry Bell's column (also 9/7/10) makes one wonder how much worse things can get. They can get a lot worse, of course, altho' they don't have to.

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