Sandile Memela
Sandile Memela

They say government-sponsored artists are traitors

I believe celebrated struggle poet and ANC veteran Mongane Wally Serote will be in a lot of trouble for saying “the white Western voice dominates discourse in this country while the African voice is muted”.

He was a panellist on a Big Debate discussion about artists and whether they have sold out or have we sold out the artists. Essentially this was a discussion about artistic freedom and whether it’s right for artists to get too close to government.

Other panellists included outspoken singer Simphiwe Dana, renowned playwright Mbongeni Ngema, writer and cultural activist Mike van Graan and Business and Arts South Africa chief executive Michelle Constant. The audience was filled with artists, musicians, dancers, thinkers, bureaucrats and intellectuals from different spheres.

But, for me, it was Bra Wally — as he is fondly called — 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.

He even went to the extent of questioning the integrity of renowned Market Theatre artistic director and academic Malcolm Purkey when the latter stood up to problematise the issue of Africanity. Purkey wanted to know what Bra Wally meant when he talked about the “African voice being muted”. Is it the African gay, the white African, the feminist African or what? Good, pertinent and nit-picking questions about African essentialism methinks!

If I am correct, Bra Wally is not going to receive a bouquet of flowers for saying that a dedicated artist and celebrated academic like Purkey does not appreciate what being an African means. Instead, his tone dismissed Purkey as glib and shallow by not appreciating the fact that when Africans speak in their mother tongue nobody listens to them or takes them seriously. They must always speak English even though the show was recorded in Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, Soweto. As a result of this, their voices are not part of the national discourse.

Also Bra Wally said white people do as they please about matters of African culture, including issues of polygamy and circumcision, for instance, but as a black person he would “get into serious trouble if I were to say anything about Jews”. He will not be publicly applauded for that.

As I understand it Bra Wally will not be applauded for making the assertion that it is the “white Western voice that dominates discourse in this country” because it has got the material resources. He will be accused of pleading powerlessness and victimisation when black people (sic) have political power and control.

Nobody is going to praise Bra Wally for pointing out that the African majority has very little say — except for voting once every five years — in the direction of the country. Instead, their struggles — in health, education and active political citizenry, for instance — have allegedly been appropriated by white liberals who distract them from focusing on the genuine causes of their suffering: racism and economic inequality.

I do not imagine a lot of people will praise Bra Wally for refusing to answer host Siki Mgabadeli’s question on whether artists are free in this country. Instead he insisted on focusing on what he called “the cultural context”, which he claimed is not only white but promotes a Western bias. The whites own the corporates that donate funds and are calling the shots.

Also I do not think Bra Wally will be praised for refusing to agree, when he was pressed by Mgabadeli, to write poetry that criticises and condemns the government. He answered that if he has to, he will do it in his own time.

Finally I do not think Bra Wally will be a popular cultural figure for asserting that artistic freedom lives and thrives in this ANC-run country as not a single artist has been detained, imprisoned, exiled or killed for expressing him or herself. For instance when pressed about the Brett Murray debacle, he simply defined freedom of expression as respect for everyone’s dignity and right to privacy. He said: “Your right to self-expression must not violate my rights. We must be careful about what we do and say in this volatile country.”

I do not think Bra Wally or the producer of the show, Anna Maria Lombard, or its host, Mgabadeli, will applaud me for taking this matter to the public and raising issues about its inherent bias and self-censorship. I thought the agenda was not only to put someone like Ngema on the hot seat for having accepted R14-million from government for Sarafina 2 but to use articulate singer Dana as a stick to beat down artists who work with the government. Of course poet and activist Van Graan is pivotal in efforts to get artists to not only be independent and courageous — whatever that means — but to sever ties with the government. He espouses a critical distance between artists and government.

The Big Debate episode on artistic freedom will be flighted towards the end of February and marks an important initiative to encourage national discourse and debate on burning issues. But I’m not going to applaud the sponsor, the Foundation for Human Rights, and producers for this because there seems to be an anti-government tone to their agenda. Maybe I’m wrong.

I guess it is people’s right not to like the government but when artists say what they don’t like they must always make sure the story is balanced, fair, accurate and truthful. What I know is that artistic freedom of expression is a constitutional right. If South Africans, including some people in government know that or not, is another matter. Nobody gets a bouquet of flowers for speaking truth to power. It’s a lonely and agonising path.

Freedom of expression is relative. There are people who have it and there will always be some who feel they don’t have it. This is understandable because even with our spouses, friends or family, we have to not only count our words but watch our mouths. My understanding is that freedom of expression is not absolute, we have to ensure that we do not use that right to incite violence, hatred, war and undermine the integrity, dignity and rights of others. To paraphrase Bra Wally, every artist can say what he or she likes but this must not violate the rights of others to happiness, self-love, dignity and privacy.

In conclusion, artistic freedom of expression will only exist when we defend the rights of those we don’t agree with to say what we don’t like to hear. This will entrench democracy, encourage tolerance and affirm diversity of opinion.

I wish Bra Wally will be applauded for having said what he said. I love men of his calibre, unafraid to say what he knows. This will not be taken well by some segments of society.

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