Mike van Graan
Mike van Graan

They say critics of the ANC are racists, unpatriotic traitors

It’s ironic (but understandable, given his position as a senior government official in the department of arts and culture) that Sandile Memela’s article “They say government-sponsored artists are traitors” focuses primarily on the contribution of Wally Serote (former head of the ANC’s department of arts and culture and former chairperson of the parliamentary committee on arts and culture) to the Big Debate programme on the theme “Have artists sold out?”. A recurring theme in Memela’s article, based on an intervention by Serote, is that “the African voice is muted”, which is exactly what Memela does: he gives voice to Serote, an artist embedded in the ruling party, and mutes the numerous (black) African voices in the audience that were highly critical of the ANC government’s lack of support for, and handling of, freedom of creative expression in contemporary South Africa.

In tax-subsidised, praise-singer style, Memela writes that “the audience was filled with artists, musicians, dancers, thinkers, bureaucrats and intellectuals from different spheres … but for me, it was Bra Wally … who not only asserted respect of artistic freedom for artists in our democracy but highlighted how this is muted by white Western domination, culture and lifestyle”.

Clearly, Memela did not hear the artists, musicians, thinkers and intellectuals who contradicted Bra Wally, telling their stories of how their songs — deemed politically offensive by the authorities — had been banned from the airwaves, removed from official state-sponsored programmes because they were considered too critical of government and denied public funding because they were too independently-minded. Memela prefers to highlight Serote’s assertion that artistic freedom is “muted by white Western domination, culture and lifestyle” and completely ignores the recurring theme from the audience of the political intimidation by the ANC as its primary censorial weapon. Instead he applauds Serote’s assertion that “not a single artist has been detained, imprisoned, exiled or killed for expressing him or herself” as if this is an achievement in a society with a Constitution that guarantees freedom of creative expression.

Given this rather skewed perspective on the Big Debate, (the audience will be able to make up their own minds when — or if — it is screened) this is to provide an alternative view.

First, it is necessary to clarify the context for the debate about artists being “sell-outs” or not. During the apartheid era, there was an abundance of artists and creative works that addressed the socio-economic-political context and/or its impact on the lives of ordinary, mostly disenfranchised South Africans.

If 1994 had achieved political, economic and social nirvana for all our citizens, there would be little need for artists to continue to “speak truth to power”, “provide a voice for the voiceless” or “hold up a mirror to society in order to change it”.

But the diagnostic study of the government-appointed national planning commission reflects just how far we are, and in fact, how increasingly far we have moved away, from being a more equitable society. According to the study, the wealthiest 20% of our population earn 70% of the national income with the poorest 40% earning 6% to 7% of our national income. Nearly half our people still live below the poverty line of $2 a day or R524 a month. More than a quarter of our economically active population is unemployed. Of those who have jobs, 50% earn R2 500 or less a month.

The report states further that the spatial patterns of apartheid remain so that the poor are still excluded from the largely urbanised benefits of development, corruption is widespread and endemic, public services are uneven and of poor quality, healthcare has deteriorated and South Africa remains a society heavily divided along racial lines.

Put simply, the report confirms that we have one of the most unequal societies in the world, and, just as with apartheid, we appear to have a government that serves the interests of a minority, the difference being that the current government is elected by the majority who legitimately expected a better life for all, and not only for the politically-connected few, or a new economic elite.

It is little wonder then that we have come to be known as the protest capital of the world with a dramatic rise in protests each year for the last few years, up from 6 000 protests a year (an average of 15 a day) in 2004. The “African voice” of ordinary South Africans, of the poor, of those on the underside of contemporary history, has not been mute, they have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with low wages, unemployment, overcrowded schools, lack of housing, corruption, electricity disconnections and high electricity prices, among other things.

This African voice has been clubbed and shot to death in the protests of Andries Tatane, it has been massacred in the killing fields of Marikana, it has been tear-gassed, shot at and arrested during service-delivery protests in Phaphamani, Harrismith and Umlazi to name but a few.

The voices of hundreds of thousands of Africans lie silenced in premature graves, the direct result of Thabo Mbeki’s — and by extension, the ANC government’s — refusal to provide them with life-enhancing drugs. Numbering nearly half of those slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide in the same year as “the rainbow nation” was born, these muted African voices testify to the decline in average life expectancy from 62 in the dying days of apartheid to just over 50 as we approach 20 years of democracy!

The voice of the (Zimbabwean) African is silenced when thrown off a moving train, when the (Somali) African is shot in his spaza shop, when the (Mozambican) African is burnt to death in racist, xenophobic attacks that are dismissed as mere criminality.

It is true that western cultural hegemony is reflected all around us (including in the Italian suits, the German sedans, the Scottish whisky, the American golf clubs and the Japanese sushi of our new elites) and needs to be challenged as necessary, but it is too glib to blame “white western domination” for the suppression of the “African voice” or for the lack of freedom of expression.

While the working class African voice is expressed on the streets, more elite (black) African voices of Njabulo Ndebele, Andile Mngxitama, Mondli Makhanya, Justice Malala, Mamphela Ramphele, Xolela Mangcu, Redi Tlhabi, Simphiwe Dana and a host of others are out there in the mainstream media, but they are not the praise-singers that those in authority may prefer to hear.

The response of the ruling party to these and other critical (white, black, individual, NGO, corporate etc) African voices may not be as brutal as they have been to working-class African voices, but they have nevertheless had a similar intention: to mute, to silence such voices through intimidation.

There are at least five forms or levels of intimidation that we have seen from the ANC government, its supporters and the ruling elite:

a. Negative labelling eg “racist” if you’re white, “traitor” if you’re black, “treasonous” if you’re a bank airing critical video footage.

b. Economic threats: withdrawing advertising revenue from critical newspapers, reminding banks of the size of their government accounts, declaring NGOs non-compliant and therefore unable to receive funding.

c. Legal action: civil suits for punitive damages eg against cartoonists and newspapers, using state institutions like the Film and Publications Board to censor work, threatening laws to prevent criticism of the president and devising the Protection of Information Bill to limit exposure of corruption.

d. Protests, marches and economic disruption eg the march on the Goodman Gallery and the call to boycott City Press unless images of Brett Murray’s The Spear were removed.

e. Physical violence: real or threatened, or creating an environment for physical violence intimidation eg death threats against critics.

When Memela wonders “whatever that means” for artists to be courageous, artists witness these intimidatory tactics — and their consequences — on a daily basis, and they would need to be courageous to speak their truths anyway. Just ask Brett Murray who was vilified as a racist, had a senior cabinet minister call for his work to be destroyed, was threatened with stoning, had his work vandalised, had his assistant threatened with violence and he and his family had to move out of their home because of the threats received.

What was his “crime”? As part of his ”Hail to the Thief II” exhibition that satirised the new elite and the selling out of the liberation ideals of the ANC, he painted an image of President Jacob Zuma with exposed genitals, male genitals long being an artistic expression of brutality, of metaphorical and literal rape, of power and the abuse thereof. There followed the most hysterical outcry as this was deemed to be an assault on the president’s dignity. And yet, just a few months after the furore about the painting, the brutality of the state in defence of the new elite was made manifest in Marikana. And the obscene, rapacious assault on the public purse in the building of the president’s Nkandla compound was exposed. Hail to the thief indeed!

If the dignity of the president is considered more worthy than freedom of creative expression to critique the excesses of the new elite, if it’s worth more than the fundamental right to the life of striking miners, if it’s more valuable than the dignity of millions of South Africans who continue to live in squalor, that is not for a political party or for the president’s praise singers and defenders to decide. For that, we have a Constitutional Court.

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  • The weakness of the ANC
  • Part 6 of 6: Speeches
  • Part 5 of 6: Plenary
  • Part 4 of 6: Caucus
    • The Creator

      “Negative labelling” is unimportant. After all, the propaganda blasts of the white elite, including Mr. Van Graan’s propaganda, did not influence the ANC in the past, so why should anti-ANC people be so thin-skinned now?

      “Economic threats” are only serious if they have the state behind them. In fact, very little has happened to back this up, but if it does, the companies concerned could almost certainly sue. (Of course the ANC is entitled to boycott whoever it pleases, however much Mr. Van Graan might not like this.)

      “Legal action” — oddly enough Mr. Van Graan never objects when the white elite take the ANC to court, but wishes the ANC to be deprived of its constitutional right in this respect. Actually, in most of the cases when the ANC has taken someone to court, they have lost, because their cases have been frivolous. But it’s dumb to take the stance that they don’t have the right to do so.

      “Protest marches” — of course, Mr. Van Graan is delighted by protests when they are against the ANC, but blow me down, he simply hates them when the ANC organises them. Presumably freedom of assembly, like freedom of expression, can only be enjoyed by people with reliably right-wing credentials. But that’s not what the Constitution says. (Again, sometimes these protest marches are indeed stoopid, but stupidity does not deprive you of your civil rights.)

    • Lennon


    • The Creator

      “Physical violence” — ah, there we have something definite that we can agree on. The ANC does indeed have no right to threaten its enemies with physical violence and Mr. Van Graan is indeed entitled to condemn it. Of course, there is a lot of physical violence going on in politics (the AMCU killings of NUM members in Marikana, the killing of NFP members in KwaZulu-Natal and the various killings of ANC officials in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and the North-West). What doesn’t seem to be happening is physical violence against artists, however.

      Now, the ANC is extremely odious, and I agree with Mr. Van Graan that whipping up violent emotions and bullying people is bad news, even if it is done within the law. (Similarly, the DA’s anti-trade-union campaign, and AfriForum’s racist propaganda, deserves to be criticised, although Mr. Van Graan, like most of his white colleagues, seems relatively unconcerned by these things.) Indeed, much of Mr. Van Graan’s work over the last decade or so has been devoted to screaming hate-filled nonsense at the ANC, which has earned him a pretty penny from his fellow white conservatives (I am aware that he was once allegedly an anti-apartheid activist) and lost him nothing whatsoever.

      Exaggerating the issue because of your political prejudices (which date back long before the problems became serious) and launching rather petty personal attacks on people like Mr. Memela (who has actually been quite critical of the ANC) seems unhelpful.

    • GrahamJ

      It’s high time that these facts were made better known. The mindless drivel of the sycophants has become a depressing drone to anyone with an intellect.

      I am proud of being intelligent. I know that I am superior at some things. Why does someone always have to feel intimidated when I make such statements of fact? Why does everyone have to be dragged down to the level of the government? Why must I tolerate corruption, fraud and incompetence because the ‘liberators’ expect it?

      Why must I swerve for a blue light or wait hours for our president to say something that anyone else could say in half the time?

      When can we have some intellectual leadership that actually gets things done?

    • Vial_Praktiss

      Mike: You of all people should know better than to engage with anything Memela says.

      He was a semi-professional troll before the internet was invented and there’s no earthly point in giving him the respect that any response implies, even if it is to disagree with him.

      Which brings one to this: We’ve reached an impasse in SA. No one is changing their mind about anything, and all attempts to discuss and engage are aimed at justifying people’s own views and denigrating others. No one tries to persuade and no one wants to be persuaded.

      Instead, we yell all kinds of venom in comments sections on News24 or YouTube (even), or wherever. Or, apparently more considered forums such as this or dailymaverick largely play host to columnists whose contributions are merely elaborate forms of personal brand building as they fluff out what passes for intellectual plumage.

      Typically, what some of our more erudite commentators would call “discourse” requires first an opening strutting of credentials (racial, struggle, academic, snark, university of life, and so on). This is compulsorily followed by statements of the obvious decorated with personal anecdotes or recollections serving as definitive proof of my view and the utter vileness of your position.

      After that, a typical South African online serves only to confirm the eternal truth of Godwin’s Law, or at least our peculiar versions of it.

    • suthafrikin

      oh THANK you. i love it when eloquence speaks the words my tired heart can’t voice.

      i was one of the gullible doodads who thought that the new south africa would be un-coloured, un-sexed, un-gendered and un-hierarchical.

      and so i stand waiting with my friends from all over, all genders, all orientations and then some, from all walks of life.

    • http://www.mikevangraan.co.za Mike van Graan

      For “The Creator”

      I am not a patriot
      for pointing out naked emperors
      for not joining the chorus of praise singers
      for allegiance to country, not party

      I am a traitor
      for practising constitutional freedoms
      for choosing the margins not mainstream
      for saying what others but think

      I am anti-transformation
      for still sprouting non-racist mantra
      for being happy with grey amidst black and white
      for not being a brother to opportunism

      I am an apartheid spy
      for not turning a blind eye to corruption
      for loyalty to principle not expedience
      for daring to uphold the law

      I am an ultra-leftist
      for supporting human rights in Zimbabwe
      for believing HIV causes AIDS
      for not being a millionaire socialist

      I am a racist
      for breaking the silence with a whisper
      for preferring thought to propaganda
      for standing up amidst the prostrate
      for repeated conspiracy with the questions what, how, why

      I am a danger to society
      for not martyring my mind
      for not terminating my tongue
      for not sacrificing my soul

      I have been here before
      but then as a

      and I am here again
      as some other β€œist”
      this time as artist

      labels they come and labels they go
      hard on the footsteps of those
      who defend new privilege with old morality
      who appropriate history for contemporary pillaging
      who now crucify the people on their electoral crosses

      I have been here before
      and I shall be here…

    • The Creator

      Well, yes. Of course we need better debate. But Memela is making the point that it’s much more difficult to get pro-ANC cultural works accepted than anti-ANC cultural works accepted, because there is systematic promotion from the cultural establishment of an anti-ANC line, and systematic censorship of pro-ANC tendencies.

      He’s quite right, and although one might say that people like Zuma and Mantashe and Ramaphosa are odious people, they are also the leaders of a party which was voted for by two-thirds of the electorate. So the calls for censorship from people like Van Graan are essentially attacks on democracy and freedom of expression.

      Of course the ANC shouldn’t demonise its opponents; nor should the opponents of the ANC demonise it. But also, it is possible to create politically-conscious art which doesn’t rely on racist stereotypes (like Murray’s Spear) or conservative received wisdom (like most of Van Graan’s work that I’ve seen in the last decade or so). It’s worth noting that art which is explicitly intended to plug a narrow political viewpoint is usually pretty bad art because the artist is more concerned with pleasing the customar than with the quality of the expression.

    • Sloan

      Sandile Memela is a sycophant of this regime. A mere puppet, as his many columns reflect (and no dout his monthly pay cheque from the government).

      Wally Serote, unfortunatley, seems to be slowly undoing his remarkeable credibility as a poet and freedom fighter, with his insistant blindness in attacking not the current source of corruption and greed, the ruling party, but anyone else: corporates, the West, white people — anyone that interrupts his nostalgia of what the ANC once was.

      What happened to our freedom fighters? When did they loose their nerve and their dignity?

    • bernpm

      @Vial: “Mike: You of all people should know better than to engage with anything Memela says.”

      well said!

    • Fongkong Tiger

      @ Vial_Praktiss. You say: “Mike: You of all people should know better than to engage with anything Memela says.” Huh? No, it is precisely that people like MvG (as artist and cultural commentator, for want of a better phrase) should engage with statements from people like SM (as “cultural commentator” and govt official) in order to expose the real contradictions of their statements – see the 2nd half of MvG’s first paragraph re what is being muted. Were it not for this kind of discursive check and balance, the SMs of the world might be taken seriously. Don’t you see a danger in that?

    • Tofolux

      @Mike, instead of jumping on your high-horse and resorting to the really poor defence mechanism of dismissal maybe you should listen to what is being said. I suggest to you and others that you have missed the depth of what Wally Serote intended. If you can imagine the disruption oppression exacted on our cultural lives then I wonder if you would consider that this systematic domination sought to obliterate our culture. Our area of culture was marked off by fences and signposts hence we can refer to underground poetry, art etc as fact. Also, every effort was made for us not only too reject our culture but force us into believing that ours was inferior and backward. Sure we had some intellectuals who in a frenzy took every opportunity to renounce their own culture by not only critiscing it but also questioning it and we know only too well why they did it. The point that you need to acknowledge that our culture was contested and this because someone else oppressed us and sought to destroy everything about us, through violent means. Now this is the point of departure and Wally Serote’s views therefore becomes substantive because he alludes that in moving away from our cries of protest we must begin too reflect a society that is representative of the majority that lives in it. If we are unable to reflect our society at large then how do artists etc begin to address and talk of them in what language or images? Sometimes its useful to listen to our elders and stop bein combative

    • Sloan

      Bless you Mike Van Graan, for always being brave (and sometimes a little belligerent). We need you, your ideas and the likes of artists now more than ever!

    • Mr. Direct


      Best comment I have seen in a while…

    • ConCision

      @ Mike van Graan.
      Memorable article. Memorable poem.
      Thank you.

    • Alois

      It is very interesting that these kinds of discussions still have currency in “rainbow” South Africa. And it is these types of discussions that are going to cripple this very nation in terms of growth and mutual respect among all ethnicities. You see, still water has, unfortunately, run too deep for change and these types of discussions will dominate SA fora in pretty much the same way as they do in the USA. Some quietly believe that multiculturalism in South Africa is but a far distant dream and all proposals on the matter are but whistles past the cemetery. On the European continent such multiculturism is fast losing currency. Too many realists believe that it is just not going to happen. Alas the establishment of a Truth & Reconciliation Council will never ameliorate beliefs in “race” differences so deeply held over time. I pity African children for that reason.

    • Comrade Koos

      Yes The Creator and Tofolux, we the people believe you πŸ˜‰

      PS. Thanks Mike van Graan for and excellent article and wonderful poem.

    • Shaman sans Frontieres

      Well said, Mike van Graan. You speak out of an ethos that worked hard for a democratic, open, accountable South Africa back in the awful 1980s. All of us from that progressive ethos, along with the rest of the nation, have been betrayed by this power-hungry and money-hungry regime that has willfully forgotten its own roots. It’s not really about Serote or any other artist in SA, of whatever culture, and the struggle to express themselves in their own cultural idiom. It’s about, as you rightly say, the smug, complacent, negligent, reckless hypocrisy of a regime that squanders the fiscus and suppresses dissidence, and abandons the majority of South Africans to lives of illiteracy, unemployment and abjection. On the one hand. And the right of conscientious South Africans on the other hand to speak up vocally and with courage and insistence.

    • ntozakhona

      The Creator I agree with most of what you have writtten and I think our country will go along way if we were to open spaces for everyone to express themselves without insult or humiliating another, if theatres and the means of cultural production were equitably shared.

      I will obviously disagree that the ANC is ”extremely odious”. If I remember well PW Botha said the same thing about it in his notorious do not push us too far Rubicon speech.

    • ntozakhona

      Ps van Graan do you mind explaining how Memela’s Thought Leader posts are taxpayer subsidised or is it as is the rest of your post one of those white lies?

    • Dirk de Vos

      ………”in tax-subsidised, praise-singer style”…. Brilliant,

    • Andre Roothman

      Your poem rings with the truth and clarity and of Bertold Brecht. It galvanizes our sense of justice with what might hastily be rejected as rhetoric, but which is comprehensively supported by your spot-on critique of the this, the current Great Debate around artistic responsibility. We ignore these words at our own peril.

    • Charlotte

      Good prose – defined as “words in their best order”.
      Good poetry – defined as “the best words in their best order.”

      Add to this … the truth, facts, well stated and to the point; and Mike has given us an outstanding piece of writing.

    • Stephen

      Jolly good article, sir. You poem cut straight to the bone, quite poignant.

      Tofolux has had another thrombi. Bless, the blind wordsmith.

    • http://roryshort.blogspot.com/ Rory Short

      @Mike you’ve said it like it is, sadly! All that has happened is that a political elite defined by a requisite white skin pigmentation has been replaced by a new political elite, defined de facto by a black skin pigmentation, not that that matters really because the value system that the new political elite espouses is much the same as the previous political elite namely, ‘What’s in it for me and to hell with everybody else’. Those who recognise this and publicise it are just as personna non grata as were the very same type of people under Apartheid.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Wow – I wish I could say it so eloquently Mike! and your poem is spot on. (I think you took the words away from the usually very incisive ConCision there Mike – a compliment in itself)
      Shaman sans Frontieres – thank you for expressing the frustration that so many are feeling. Of course this probably means nothing to Tofolux, who I like to believe is just very misguided by her blind loyalty to the memory of a political party that confuses it’s idealism and its past with its current reality.

      Rory – perhaps in the unfolding of time we may just thank the ANC for making us all persona non grata. We’re just about at the point where so many now have nothing left to lose (and the ANC elite everything to lose) that a civil war could spark.

      Alois – unfortunately I find myself agreeing with you

    • SomeMothersSons

      The “protest capital” of the world is China….an unreported 200 000 per year.

      Notwithstanding the premise that humans are fallible, that there is no perfect political system, what solutions does Van Graan propose, to “fix” the problem.

      How do we build equity for the South African masses and “rebalance” the current perversion, of political power?

    • Dylan Macdonald

      Classic article. The ANC racist regime has infiltrated the universities with its “politically correct” affirmative action “cadre deployment”. Now we are all expected to bleat out the same sheeple nonsense!
      Hopefully more people with backbones will stand up against this denigration of our society.