Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The charm of Vienna cannot obliterate the abjection of SA

The conference that my partner and I are attending was supposed to be a welcome opportunity to visit the city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss, to mention only some of the greatest composers in the western musical canon. And then I haven’t even scratched the surface of Viennese artists and architects of various stripes, the likes of whom include Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

And if you are as infatuated with the arts as I am, it is child’s play to walk six kilometres and back just to visit the Hundertwasser house and museum, with Hundertwasser Village close by. The creativity of this, one of the most ecologically oriented architects and painters/artists that I know of, is simply breathtaking, whether it is his architecture with its aversion to straight lines — even the tiled floors are not horizontal, but emulate natural surfaces as they rise and fall — or his multimedia artworks, Hundertwasser simply exuded creativity. And his colours! They are even more resplendent that the gloriously colourful paintings that Vincent van Gogh visited upon the dreary Victorian culture of his time.

In both his predilection for colour and his use of gold leaf, Hundertwasser was clearly influenced by that other iconoclast of Viennese painting, namely Gustav Klimt, whose most famous works hang in the Upper Belvedere (art museum). Particularly his The Kiss (commonly referred to in Vienna as “the most famous kiss in the world”) draws thousands of visitors every week, not to mention his Beethoven Frieze, which is to be found in the Secession building (so called because it was designed by Joseph Olbrich, one of the group of Secession artists who rebelled against the conservatism in Viennese art circles in the late 19th century). These are all artworks that readily lend themselves to philosophical-critical analysis and interpretation, which is one of the reasons why I came here to present a paper at a conference.

The Beethoven Frieze is supposed to be Klimt’s free interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with its lyrical exhortation, that all of humanity become “brothers” (and sisters, presumably), and one can discern which figures represent this laudable hope in Klimt’s frieze-panels. But at the same time there is plenty of figurative evidence in them of the destructive elements in human nature which will always impinge viciously on the more altruistic, constructive attempts of human beings to bring about peacefully co-existing communities and societies.

Uncannily, it was just about at the time when we visited the Belvedere and Secession building to see the Klimt paintings, among which the Beethoven panel impressed upon us the dark side of human nature, that news of the renewed outbreak and spreading of xenophobic, or Afrophobic attacks — it seems to me that “misanthropic” would be more apt to describe these outbursts of misdirected hatred — to other cities from Durban reached us when we looked at news sources on the internet in the evenings.

The effect it had on us is hard to explain. Here we were in one of the most beautiful and charming cities in the world, where, despite its chequered history (the Turks tried at least twice, unsuccessfully, to conquer it, and it survived the decimations of a plague, among many adversities), Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Franz Joseph (among other rulers) managed to build a city with a host of impressive, durable buildings, rich in statuary, which still thrill visitors today, in the 21st century. And then, in the middle of exploring these cultural treasures, we were confronted with abject images of South Africans murdering other Africans, like the Mozambican man who was killed in full visibility of a photographer and other people.

This is disturbing enough, but it did not end there. My partner’s daughter sent us email information about the shocking abduction and murder of a young (28-year-old) schoolteacher named Jayde Panayiotou, who was kidnapped in front of her Port Elizabeth home where she was waiting for a colleague to pick her up for work. Instead of merely robbing her of money (which is bad enough), the assailant(s) took her to a town about 40km from Port Elizabeth where she was forced to withdraw money from an ATM. Her body was eventually found by police (in a helicopter) outside of Uitenhage. By all accounts she was a very popular teacher at Riebeek College, a girls’ school in Uitenhage.

As if to drive home to us the violence that exists, and is seemingly deepening in South Africa, the profoundly disturbing reports on Jade’s murder were rapidly followed by other reports relating to the area where we live: an elderly farmer from the Addo district near Port Elizabeth was found murdered, and two hijack attempts in the city left people reeling. In Vienna, it is safe to walk around anywhere, at any time. Women lie on the lawns in parks, reading, and scores of people picnic along the banks of the river Danube and its canals.

I know how readers will respond: in South Africa the misery of poverty on the part of millions, contrasted with the wealth of a relatively small number of people, makes all the difference. In countries like Austria this does not exist. I agree that the huge wealth gap plays a role, but in itself poverty is not an adequate explanation. When one travels to other African countries like Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, where there are many poor people, you don’t encounter the violent outbursts of “xenophobia” or the high incidence of criminal attacks that are likely to rob you of your life, in addition to your purse. The violence in South Africa somehow has to do with thwarted expectations on the part of millions of economically disempowered people, who experience the “abstract violence of money” on a daily basis, and sometimes project their frustrations irrationally on to other South Africans, with horrific consequences.

In The Sense and Non-Sense of Revolt (Columbia University Press, 2000, p. 7) philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva says something that is pertinent for the South African situation, although she is here commenting on the riots in France some years ago:

“ … on the social level, the normalising order is far from perfect and fails to support the excluded: jobless youth, the poor in the projects, the homeless, the unemployed, and foreigners, among many others. When the excluded have no culture of revolt and must content themselves with ideologies, with shows and entertainments that far from satisfy the demand of pleasure, they become rioters.”

It is especially the last sentence that is relevant here. By “culture of revolt” she means a cultural tradition of questioning existing practices, which has existed in France for centuries, and by “the demand of pleasure” she means pleasure in the psychoanalytical sense of fulfilment, which one only experiences when you have questioned an unjust state of affairs, and it has led to justice and renewal.

South Africans, particularly those in authority, need to ask themselves who the “excluded” are in our country, and what needs to be done to include them at all the important levels which comprise the life of a country, including the social, cultural, political and economic. Although South Africa’s Constitution may give the impression that such inclusion already exists, this is far from being the case. As Kristeva’s words remind us, when people are excluded, they become “rioters”, or — as one has witnessed recently in South Africa — murderers. And regardless of the charm of a wonderful city like Vienna, it cannot assuage the impression of abjection and despair that current events in South Africa create, even at this distance.

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    • Elsie

      People in Vienna work hard and pay a lot of taxes, that makes all the difference. I know, I have roots there. Rich people in SA should become more humble and not show off so much, it makes poor people angry. If you drive through Vienna you do not see anything such as Steyn City displayed. It is just not done.