South Africa in Edinburgh: The role of post-apartheid art

South African art grapples with post-apartheid realities.

Many gospel choirs like the Soweto Spiritual emerged from South Africa's townships [Getty Images]

“Are you a racist?” is one of two questions I was asked growing up as a white South African during the mid-nineties in New Zealand. The other was, “Do you speak African?”

Racism was, and still is, the legacy of South Africa to my contemporaries: a nation of binaries; of white against black. A world of unfathomable violence and gated communities, where shootings, stabbings, inequality, AIDS, rape and hijackings are life.

Twenty years on from apartheid, that legacy is still lived on a day-to-day basis.

“The ‘rainbow nation’ has long since lost it’s sparkle,” wrote Alec Russell in his post-apartheid report, After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa.

Where protest theatre in the seventies forged the way towards a different imagining of South Africa, the gap it left after reunification was staggering.

Now, the next generation is grappling with an identity unhinged from apartheid, an achingly slow recovery, and a government that distributes arts funding erratically and prioritises economic growth as a vehicle for social cohesion.

South Africa on show: The start of the SA-UK Seasons

But in what seems a new boost for the South African arts community, this month marked the beginning of the 2014-2015 South African and United Kingdom Seasons at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games – part of an ambitious venture to link South African and UK artists through a series of cross-country showcases and artist collaborations. A significant part of this season has been taking place throughout August as part of the Edinburgh festivals.

The move suits both nations: offering the UK a chance to “rekindle” an “age-old relationship”, and giving artists from both countries the financial backing to attain significant opportunities on a global stage. Of course, the season also operates as a crucial marketing tool to encourage economy-boosting tourism.

“Not only does the arts help to unite people but it helps us to brand our country around the world,” said commission-general of the SA-UK Seasons, Bongani Tembe. The SA-UK Seasons come after a similar exchange last year between South Africa and France, and will be followed by seasons in China and Angola.

Fighting to get to the UK

With the onset of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August came stories of the struggle faced by those artists not covered under the South African Season. While one choir from Durban crowdfunded for shoes, youth choir Soweto Melodic Voices scraped funds from family members to pay the difference when two big sponsors pull out days before leaving for Scotland’s capital.

Artscape – The New African Photography: Neo Ntsoma

While demand and exposure for the arts is high, government funding in South Africa is low. Even the National Arts Council of South Africa repeatedly warns artists seeking project funding on their website that “the NAC is unlikely to fund the entire budget”. The South African Department of Arts and Culture seems to realise the potential of the arts in “promoting social cohesion, nation building and national healing”, but the reality falls behind the press releases.

South Africa Pushed to the Limit author Hein Marais has already noted how the ANC tends to back policies that “put the market ahead of society, and that push the pursuit of social justice deeper into the shadows”. He warns how “there is a serious risk that exclusionary interpretations of belonging, citizenship and rights will prove politically rewarding”.

Meanwhile, artists have criticised the government’s tendency to “[perceive] art to be only those traditional heritage creations“, and have complained about the erratic nature of NAC funding, which led in 2010 to a sudden cancelling of proposals to divert funding into the Fifa World Cup opening and closing ceremonies.

Arts organisations are instead highly reliant on international and corporate sponsors, as well as the community. Crowdfunding is beginning to be embraced by artists as a viable way to gather support while successfully developing creative projects. This community involvement is especially important in a society that Marais has criticised as having “[a] flinty aversion to alleged ‘handouts'”.

But reducing funding to popular opinion is risky. In theatre especially, there is the risk of leaving important works hanging in the wake of more commercially viable and popular options. The Southern Africa Report was already aware of this risk in 1999, with Lena Slachmuijlder stressing the importance of theatre in the task of nation-building.

“Certainly there is enough dramatic, musical and dance talent to sustain a purely commercial theatre industry. But such theatre would end up tragically neglecting the difficult yet critical emerging agenda that the new-found liberation presents to all South African artists.”

Reimagining ‘home’ at the Fringe

While South African music pervades the Edinburgh festivals with jubilant gospel choirs and musical ensembles – with many emerging from South Africa’s townships, including 2010 Fifa World Cup performers the Soweto Spiritual Singers, and a cappella group Simply Soweto Encha – it’s theatre that’s highlighting an inner struggle for identity that’s overwhelming this fraught country during its crucial years of nation-building.

Artscape – The New African Photography: Barbara Minishi

No one can avoid the stigma of the apartheid era, but people are confronting the past and finding ways of defining themselves,” said Assembly Festival’s artistic director and South African expatriate William Burdett-Coutts, who is hosting the third South African season at Assembly as part of the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Following on from the enormous success of last year’s Mies Julie, a play so overwhelming it was subsequently booked solid for two years around the globe, the Assembly shows are lapping up positive reviews. Notably, the four featured Assembly plays – Aubrey Sekhabi’s heist drama Silent Voice, David Mamet’s Race, Hayani, the comedy Sunday Morning and The Zulu, which heralds the return of Tony Award winner Mbongeni Ngema to the stage after a twenty-seven year absence – are all post-apartheid works.

While Silent Voice comments on the huge inequalities in wealth, and subsequent violence, that governs South Africa; Hayani, which means “home” in tshiVenda, considers what “home” actually means for a generation growing up in the wake of apartheid. The award-winning work of University of Witwatersrand drama graduates Nat Ramabulana and Atandwa Kani (protest theatre hero John Kani’s son), Hayani plunges its audience into the many-coloured characters, convictions, inequalities and medley of languages that make up modern South Africa.

More importantly, Hayani explores the navigation of a new generation between the struggles of their parents and the need to find a voice in a country that’s as rich in thought, cultural diversity and natural beauty as it is streaked with violence and huge distortions in wealth.

It’s not surprising, then, that the play has incited a powerful response from audiences in South Africa. Ramabulana has noted in interviews the excitement and overwhelming sense of relief the play inspires in South African audiences, who have been searching for something new to call their own.

Plays like Hayani – which feature the voice of a powerfully optimistic generation, intent on reclaiming their country – are not only crucial for social cohesion, but assist in informing the world what South Africa is really made of.

With the world watching, it seems South Africa could learn a lot from its artists – if it would only listen.

Megan Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and online editor for Australian literary journal, Going Down Swinging.
Follow her on Twitter: @wordsbymegan_