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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