The Cultural Weapon
Art and democracy
Mike van Graan
The programme for the PEN World Voices Festival taking place in New York at this time states that a key mission of the Festival “is to encourage people to speak out against censorship and condemn the suppression of freedom of expression everywhere”. The three signatories to this introduction – Laszlo Jakab Orsos, the Director of the Festival; Salman Rushdie, the chairperson of the festival steering committee and K. Anthony Appiah, the President of the PEN American Centre that hosts the Festival – further state “we firmly believe in literature as a key weapon in fighting this battle.”
South Africa celebrates 17 years of democracy this week, 17 years of the abolition of censorship boards, 17 years of freedom of expression guaranteed in the country’s Constitution which states: “everyone has the right to freedom of expression which includes a. freedom of the press and other media b. freedom to receive and impact information or ideas c. freedom of artistic creativity and d. academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”
As part of the PEN Festival, an excerpt of my play Green Man Flashing was staged as a reading at the Martin E. Segal Theatre and was followed by a discussion.
The play is set six weeks before South Africa’s second elections in 1999. Gabby Anderson, a one-time political activist now working in government, alleges she has been raped by her boss, a high-profile government minister with an impeccable anti-apartheid struggle record and who plays a key role in quelling violence between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party in his native KwaZulu Natal. If the allegations go public, it could hurt the ruling party in the elections, lead to a high number of deaths in election-related violence and compromise international investment. The ANC sends a two-person delegation to Anderson to convince her not to go through with the charges.
Rather than the stark us-them, black-white, goodies and baddies binary oppositions of much of the theatre staged in the apartheid era, Green Man Flashing seeks to explore some of the moral contradictions, the racial ironies and the political complexities of a society in transition. It juxtaposes individual human rights against the greater good (albeit as defined by those in power) and the pandemic of gender violence against political violence, challenging the audience to think about their moral positions in a society struggling with political and moral ambivalences.
When the play was first produced in 2004 with subsequent seasons in 2005 (some time before Jacob Zuma was charged with rape), I placed books in the foyers of the theatres so that audience members could articulate their responses to the play. The most recurring – and for me, disturbing – comment was that this was a “brave play”, “a courageous work”, the implication being that dealing with such themes in post-apartheid South Africa was somehow considered to be daring, edgy and even dangerous.
Why would this be the case, I wondered, when we were ten years into our democracy; when, in the apartheid era, some of us were arrested for staging a piece of street theatre that constituted “an illegal gathering”, others had their works banned and still others had been detained without trial for challenging the apartheid state through their artistic creativity. Why should writers be considered “brave” in exercising freedom of creative expression under a democratically elected government that had sworn to uphold a Constitution guaranteeing human rights?
At that time of course, Thabo Mbeki was president of the country and it was a period when the ruling party was very sensitive to any kind of criticism, where those who dared to criticise – no matter how legitimate the criticism – were dismissed as racists (or ultra-leftists if they were not white), as people who simply could not accept a black government. It was a time when self-censorship was rife.
Often, international focus is on those countries where conditions are so repressive that we marvel at and celebrate those artists and writers who challenge the status quo at great financial, personal and even physical costs to themselves. This is as it should be. But sometimes, even within democratic countries, there is a need for writers, artists and musicians to speak truth to power, to challenge new political dogmas, to provide a voice for those on the underside of history.
Democracies are generally works-in-progress and there will always be attempts to restrict freedom of expression whether through overt political censorship, withdrawal of economic resources, intimidation or other means by political authorities or those who occupy positions of leadership in some institution, community or cause.
While the general view is that the arts require conditions for freedom of expression, literature, theatre, music, film, visual arts, etc are also means for creating and expanding such conditions where they do not exist or are under threat. The best way to ensure artistic freedom may simply be to practice it.
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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.