The Cultural Weapon 2 March 2011

The Cultural Weapon

Mike van Graan

The latest media release by Freemuse, an international organisation that monitors and advocates freedom of expression for musicians and composers, reminds us that Music Freedom Day takes place on Thursday 3 March.

The release tells of Win Maw who was imprisoned for more than six years for writing songs in support of opposition leader, and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Maw is currently being held for his role in the pro-democracy demonstrations of September 2007 that led to a major crackdown in Burma and the imprisonment of intellectuals, writers and monks. According to Freemuse, in one of his latest songs smuggled out of Burma, Maw calls for continued struggle and criticizes those who “just talk”.

In North Africa, Music Freedom Day in Egypt will commemorate the Egyptian musician Ahmed Basiony, who died tragically during the initial days of the uprising in Cairo.  Further south, Freemuse tells of Lapiro de Mbanga, a Cameroonian musician whose song “Constipated Constitution” made him unpopular with the Cameroonian regime, and, as a result, he has served almost three years in prison.  He will be in court on Music Freedom Day dealing with related charges.

Closer to home, Freemuse informs us of almost 2000 music composers in Zimbabwe who have resolved to protest against non-payment of royalties, by ordering the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC, to stop playing their music for six hours during Music Freedom Day.   In the evening Zimbabwean musicians will celebrate Music Freedom Day with a concert at the Book Café in Harare amidst reports of a crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

(For more information, see and

Meanwhile, in South Africa, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has just launched its election manifesto for the forthcoming local government elections with a gala dinner and a fundraising party at Sun City that included the launch of an ANC election music album.  President Zuma is reported to have said “When we in the ANC go to elections, it’s like going to war.  We go all out leaving no stone unturned.  We are ready to on the streets to tell our people through word, song and dance that the ANC is here and ready to work for them”.  Independent Newspapers reports that ANC Treasurer- General Mathews Phosa said that the focus on music which appeals to young people was part of the ANC’s renewal drive.

Clearly, music – and the arts generally – have political relevance not in the simplistic sense that they may articulate overt political messages, but also because of the interests they serve when aligned (formally or non-formally) with particular movements, causes, classes or political parties.  We have seen this in the post-apartheid era with, for example, the De la Rey song that became the anthem of many white Afrikaans-speakers seeking political leadership to rescue them from the travails of the New South Africa.  The ANC also signed up many musicians to advance their cause in the 2008 national elections.  And then there is the ongoing controversy regarding the singing of the “Kill the Boer” song, a reminder of the perceived, if not the real power of music in the South African context.

But if there is someone who could attest to the frustrations and contradictions of engaging in art linked to political patronage, it is the “Boer”, internationally acclaimed Durban sculptor, Andries Botha.  First, the statue of King Shaka that he created and which was positioned at the new King Shaka International Airport in Durban, was removed allegedly because King Goodwill Zwelithini and the Royal Household were not happy with the way in which Shaka was portrayed.  A task team was then appointed to work with the sculptor to “redesign” and “reposition” the statue to reflect, no doubt, the views of the King and Royal Household, rather than the interpretation of the artist.

Then Botha was commissioned by the Durban City Council to create public art works for a redeveloped part of the city, and, in keeping with the sets of elephants that he has made and that are stationed literally all over the world to bring attention to the need for conservation, Botha created three elephant sculptures.  But then, an ANC city councillor raised his concern that the artwork was too similar to the logo of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, leading eventually to the municipality resolving to destroy the elephant sculptures that cost ratepayers R1,5 million.  According to a newspaper report, Botha had been approached by Durban’s city manager, asking him to remove two of the three elephants and then to produce four other sculptures in their place, turning it into a “Big Five” sculpture instead.

South Africans often boast of having the best, the most progressive Constitution in the world, with the right to freedom of creative expression now embedded in its clauses.  In the real world though, the world of politics, patronage and power where the arts assert or counter the hegemony of those in power, freedom of expression faces constant threat. 

It is not uncommon for artists to associate themselves with a particular political party; that is their democratic right (and for some, in their best economic and career interests).  Personally, I think it’s a bad idea.  I subscribe to the notion of the artist as politically independent (from party politics) precisely to allow the artist to play a critical role and speak truth to power, a role artists are less able to play when they are compromised by party membership, especially when “their” party is in power.

As Botha says “If we start censoring works of art that we are not happy with, we are on a slippery slope.”  Appropriating art and “buying” artists to advance some political party’s cause may not be censorship, but more often than not, it will lead to self-censorship, which equally places us on the slippery slope.

Best we start celebrating Music Freedom Day!

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

For further information, see, and


About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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