Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

We have no cultural icons

Am I the only guy who is fed up with the crisis of creative leadership and lack of innovation in the artistic sector?

Where the hell is our outrage at the lack of significant national talent that begins to help us redefine the soul of this nation? We should be throwing stones at the glass empires of those who dare call themselves artists. Almost 20 years into democracy and freedom, we have been cheated!

We have got far too many oldies who are failing to pass on the baton or inspire a new generation of youngsters to take over from what happened in the 1950s and 1960s.

We have got far too many over-rated celebrities who were born in the aftermath of 1970s upheaval. They think the arts are a get rich and famous quick scheme. And we have too many teenagers who were born in the 1990s who have turned out to be ”Americans” than Africans.

This is a serious indictment on the cultural struggle for self-determination, definition and identity. But instead of getting mad, everyone is folding their arms while their hands reach for the next complimentary ticket. The preoccupation is gaining access to free-loading events, especially government-sponsored ones.

Well, those who think they know have told me that we are undergoing a transition. Just give us time, they plead. It is almost two decades since our former cultural icons returned from exile or prison. How much more time do we need? Our artists are losing the nation-building plot and sinking our national identity in the process.

I will tell you what the problem is: crisis of creative leadership and lack of innovation.

You might think I am too old to know what I am talking about. Well, I have spoken to many insightful individuals on this issue and they think I am crazy. Yet I am not. Who are the leading national cultural icons in the country today?

Of course I am aware of South African talent that has, in the past, exploded on the global scene. Yes, I can tell you about Philip ”Malombo” Tabane, Mazisi Kunene, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya, Busi Mhlongo, Can Themba, Dumile Feni, Selby Mvusi, Ernest Cole, Eskia Mphahlele, Thami Mnyele, Lewis Nkosi, Keorapetse Kgositsile and others from their generation.

It is an endless list of courageous and talented individuals who not only defied but transcended apartheid-created boundaries to assert their role in the global cultural scene.

Of course, we cannot overlook those who held the fort in the 70s and 80s while they were away. These are people like Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Khabi Mngoma, Ray Phiri and Stimela, Harare, Sipho Mabuse, Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka, Sibongile Khumalo, Gibson Kente, Matsemela Manaka, Fikile Magadlela, Chicco Twala, Mbongeni Ngema, Zakes Mda, Peter Tladi, Johnny Mekoa, Sam Mhangwani, Barney Rachabane, Njabulo Ndebele, Barney Simon, Malcolm Purkey. And, again, the list is endless. Although some are very much alive and cre-active, they cannot be considered the innovators or national voices of the new age.

If we insist on counting them in, we are fiddling while the creative fire is dying out. The soul-fire is fading and nobody seems to know who or what is the best thing to have happened in the last 10 years. If you ask Bongani Madondo, Lerato Tshabalala, Zingi Mkefa, Matthew Krouse, Gugu Sibiya, Percy Zvomuya, Barry Ronge, Adrienne Sichel, Victor Dlamini or Karabo Kgoleng they may wave the flag instead of well thought out answers. It’s time for hard questions. That was the promise of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. I am travelling around the country and looking for fresh, new and explosive talent. I am frustrated. I have had enough of the same old, tired people, if you like.

I will take this matter to its highest level. There can be no nation without talented national artists. It is the artists who not only define the soul of the nation but play a prophetic role in terms of who we are and where we are going. I am ready and willing to say that there are no new national prophets among us.

The few friends and colleagues who understand me say I should not tread on these waters. They warn me that I will be trampling on big egos. They say “you do not even get invited to the Metro Awards and have been dropped as a Sama judge, your time is up”.

No one can deny Gloria Bosman, Brett Bailey, Vuyani Maqoma, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, Yael Farber, Dumisani Phakathi, Mncedisi Shabangu, Tutu Puoane, Peter Sabbagha, Paul Grootboom, Andile Yenana, Hlengiwe Lushaba, Concord Nkabinde, Churchill Madikida, Akin Omotoso, Shannon Mowday, Dada Masilo, Mark Fransman, Nontsikelelo Veleko, Ntsieng Mokgoro and Kesivan Naidoo, among others.

But we are still in a mess in that none of them is a national icon or figure. They all have a small particular crowd that recognises and celebrates them. We need a national icon, someone who epitomises the soul of the nation and mirrors its identity.

Now, don’t tell me that it will be too much power in the hands of one man or woman.

If you want to discover the soul of America, you talk about Langston Hughes or Michael Jackson, for instance.

I agree that we cannot leave out people like Lebo Mathosa, Zola Maseko, Terry Matera, Kopano Matlwa, Sello Duiker, James Ngcobo, Mpho Molepo, Zim Ngqawana, Lira, Feya Faku, Andile Mngxitama, Simphiwe Dana, Thandiswa Mazwai, Sipho Sithole, Zanele Muholi or Mary Sibanda among some of the latest explosive talent.

But we are demanding names and faces that are answers to the pressing problem that faces the nation.

Some of us are getting sick and tired of the usual suspects. There are far too many predictable and monotonous names that crop up when discussing living national treasures.

Where I want us to be is to agree on one single name who is a national institution like Mama Afrika was.

And don’t tell me that it is not a problem that you and I cannot agree on, at least, one name. The fault lies in too much diversity without someone that ties us together.

No single part or group is bigger than the whole. We are one nation in one country, now. We share not only a common constitution, principles and ideals.

We share one soul, history and heritage. And thus we deserve, at least, one artist who captures and reflects this soul, someone who epitomises the rise and fall of this nation.

It is time to take a long hard look at ourselves. What have we to offer the world?

Our strength lies in national arts that unite.

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    • Zuki

      Fully agreed – once again a great blog, and a good nation-building theme.

    • Stephen Browne

      Unfortunately the best we have to offer – many of the names you mentioned (where is/was Winston?) and others besides – are passed over by the majority in favour of flavourless, tepid acts from abroad.

    • Coral Bijoux

      Sandile, i agree in part mostly because i think there are, but we do not see unless someone else raises them up-I owuld like to be in touch with you. Working on a womens museum – the unsung(cultural and other) heroes!

    • ConCision

      What’s in a Name?
      Names for Africa.
      Lost in verbosity
      With a propensity
      For pomposity

    • Panga Management

      What Nonsense. Could it be that you have just not looked hard enough ?

    • Sipho

      All those “icons” of yours were never highly regarded by everyone. It depends entirely on one’s taste in arts consumption. I like maskandi (is it craft or art?) music, I can tell you there’s a new maskandi artist every month, and the genre has changed tremendously from what it was 2 years ago. I wonder why you didn’t mention uPhuzekhemisi, uShwi Nomuntu Ekhala among the musicians you mentioned ( I have my guesses).

    • Sipho

      How can Sandile forget to mention uTaiwa Molelekwa no Bheki Mseleki?

    • Sipho

      Me thinks there are artists in most localities in our country. The thing is our elites wait for artists to be invited overseas before they are considered to be part of our culture.

    • Lennon

      As a sci-fi junkie, I would submit Neill Blomkamp as a candidate for his work on ‘District 9′ and several other projects. ‘Elysium’, his latest project, might very well boost my support for him.

      Gavin Hood would also get a thumbs-up from me for ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ as would Alice Krige for ‘Star Trek: First Contact'; ‘Silent Hill’ and ‘Children of Dune’.

    • David Merrington

      Icons? Whatever does that mean? It sounds a bit like a Television game or similar. And this question leads to the whole ugly misconception of “art” and consciousness, and individuality, and creativity.

      There appear to be Two Nations in SA. One that is (or seems to be) wholly off the radar. I refer to the vast majority of South Africans. Not by race, but by their exclusion from the fashionable debates. The other “nation” appears to have fallen for the organisational / corporatist / publicity sentiment (i.e. Mass Control) which natters and gnashes about “culture” and “art” and stuff, with not the faintest clue about the reality.

      South Africa and its “Voices” would do best to leave our creative spirit alone. It is not an “issue” for public debate. It is a wholly private thing. A deep, conscious, imaginative existence. The Great South African Booby Delusion (the delusion of all the would-be “art lovers”, and “art critics” and “judging panels”, and makers or breakers.) This delusion is the base belief that “art” must be “relevant”, and must “represent” something (such as SA society for instance; or SA politics, or social consciousness” etc).

      Art – real art – the sort of eternal work that we had in the 20 and 30s, for instance – is so wholly internal, so utterly personal and so idiiosyncratic, that no public “Panels” or government departments, or corporate sponsored “events”, will ever produce anything other than what “they” expect.

    • Tim

      Funny how you miss the obvious –
      William Kentridge, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer

    • Littlebobpete

      Well written Sandile. As a white male, there are many of the names there which I don’t even recognise, and its not to say they are not iconic in their sphere’s.
      Africa has a problem though, the only icons we are allowed to remember at political “icons”. Everything is named after them.
      Where are the theatres named after cultural icons, where are the sports stadiums named after sporting icons.
      I am loathe to mention names lest that starts another debate, but one for me would be The Lucas Radebe stadium, or even just a stand named after him. He was universally respected as brilliant, took the unprecedented step of volunteering for a salary cut when his club got into trouble. He is an icon at Leeds, and yet is hardly given the time of day here……why…….because everything is named of a struggle hero, who I am sure most Africans have also never heard of……
      The Arts and Sport build nations, everyone says so, most politicians destroy nations….lets start by making sure we remember the Cultural and Sporting icons more regularly

    • Sandile memela

      @ panga those who hurl insults and make whimsical dismissals have lost the argument. I expect critical engagement.
      @ Sipho @ david @ Tim I fully understand your point and acknowledge the names you canvass for. No doubt these are all major artists with a limited regional or sectoral following and perhaps controversial
      But what I’m looking for is a national cultural icon. Nowhere is this More evident than in Mandela in politics. Who is such a figure in arts & culture?
      We do need a national artist of such stature and calibre that when they speak it is with total truth and profound insight. When such an artist performs the National Anthem, for instance, it must resonate in every citizens heart and soul.
      Without taking anything from anybody, it is safe to say we do not yet have such a national cultural icon.

    • Chairman of the Bored

      Tim is absolutely correct! Who cares what you want when you miss the obvious?
      Your ego is as bad as your writing.

    • Chairman of the Bored

      My comment obviously addressed to Memela