A shattered mirror. Post-apartheid South Africa’s past and present are scattered like the pieces of a puzzle that cannot be put together again. The reality of what apartheid was is not immediately perceptible to the visiting foreigner. Above all, the country appears to have a great love of the new. Seen from the business districts, it gives the impression of being on the move, with its young, dynamic, multiracial managers, its modern architecture, and its state-of-the-art cars. Seen from the black neighbourhoods, it also seems keen to forget, or even to deny and repress the past. The townships, which Johannesburg still keeps at a respectful distance of 25 km to 30 km, were designed not to be seen from the roads. Soweto, the country’s black capital, may well be as big a reality as Paris, but it doesn’t spoil the view.
With the exception of Robben Island off Cape Town, which has been turned into an island-museum with guided tours by the ex-convicts themselves, there are no memorial sites. No statues have been taken down. The major towns’ roads have kept their names. Ten years after the release of Nelson Mandela, the Louis Bothas, Hendrick Verwoerds, and Hans Strijdoms apartheid’s grand architects still criss-cross the country’s main towns. Only Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts airport has been soberly re-named « International airport ». And it was only last year that the industrial town of Port Elizabeth dared a new name, Nelson Mandela City
Today’s South Africa is without the slightest doubt as complex as yesterday’s. You have to delve very deep to understand the different dynamics at play, the changes and resistance to change. You need to ask a great deal of questions, at the risk of getting just a hint of an answer, answers which are often contradictory and based on visceral reactions. Take, for example, this diamond merchant’s wife who, not batting an eyelid, claimed during a meal, indifferent to the black couple at her table, « it was the Whites who made this country« , that without them, « there would be nothing, no roads, no hospitals, no industry, nothing. » Black people prefer to laugh about this. There is a joke about a Boer who claims he can build a road all on his own. « What do you mean, all on your own? » ask his friends. « Easy, says the Boer, give me twelve Blacks and I’ll build your road all on my own! »
The cultural milieus are not spared. Bad faith and the always-facile racial argument poison the debates. Rather than questioning themselves, black artists prefer to accuse white audiences of not understanding. Rather than recognising a white colleague’s talent, they try to minimise it by claiming that the colleague is successful because privileged, because he or she has easy access to everything. Conversely, despite its openly embraced « politically correct » profile, the FNB Vita Dance Umbrella festival did not refrain from boasting the variety of South Africa’s traditions in its brochure, using the adjective « basic » to describe traditional dance and « sophisticated » to describe classical ballet
Even though apartheid still exists in people’s minds, the official death of apartheid has nonetheless had profound and positive repercussions. Since 1990, the country has opened up to the world. « Before« , explains the young photographer Andrew Tshabangu, « Ernest Cole was my idol« . This little-known hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, the precursor of politically committed black photography, died penniless in New York in 1990. Since he has been able to travel, Andrew Tshabangu has discovered other masters, such as Sebastian Saldago, Roy de Cavara, and Henri Cartier-Bresson
With the advent of democracy in 1994 has come the possibility of fully enjoying individual freedoms. For Paul Hanmer, the forty-year-old mixed-race pianist, « it is one of the most emancipating and terrifying things that be: the freedom to waste oneself or to do something great » The generation that grew up under apartheid is at times lost before this freedom, which also rhymes with consumerism and liberalism. Like others, the mixed-race photographer Peter McKenzie (see portrait) feels a certain nostalgia for the spirit that animated the so-called « community-based » arts, which had their roots in the townships and the anti-apartheid struggle, as opposed to the « official arts », or the strictly white works for white people that were promoted by the old regime.
The third ground swell is that many South Africans feel that no other country in the world examines racial questions as clearly or as frontally as them. South Africa does not have a monopoly on the question, people often point out. There are the same burning questions in the United States, Great Britain or France. It was not by chance that photographer Santu Mofokeng tried to return the stereotyped image of Africa as the site of chaos, atrocities and famine to the sender – namely the West. His 2000 exhibition Nightfall of the Spirit assembled photos of graves and railways taken in Germany, Poland, Vietnam, France, Namibia, and South Africa. In it he highlighted the oblivion the sites of the last century’s major tragedies have fallen into: the holocaust, the Vietnam war, apartheid, as well as the forgotten genocide the German coloniser committed against the Herero people in Namibia.
As long as the problems not just of memory, but also of impunity and guilt remain unresolved, apartheid is likely to remain central. There has been no real reconciliation. The guilty have not been punished, not even symbolically, and the Whites – the former dominant community now reduced to a simple minority (12% of the population) – have only half-heartedly apologised, protected by the amnesties of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). When Thabo Mbeki came to power in 1999, the Nelson Mandela era, marked by his constant attempts at reconciliation and the sway of the « politically correct », was succeeded by a new phase of reinvention of American Afro-centrism.
Beautiful books on South African ethnic groups’ the traditional art pile up in the bookshops. But in town, the black middle classes do not buy local. Although basically xenophobic, they seek what they see as a lost African identity, and prefer to buy West African masks on the streets and records by Youssou Ndour and Papa Wemba. In the homes of the black golden boys, who have bought villas in the chic neighbourhoods, interiors blend classicism with an occasional African touch. According to Djibril, who sells West African crafts in the Rosebank market, the South African clientele is not really interested in the meaning or usage of the objects it buys. « They often hang masks in gold frames, behind glass, to make them look nicer« , he explains.
At both black and white parties, the « African renaissance » is met with laughter and sarcasm. And yet the new official ideal is progressing, ardently defended by President Thabo Mbeki. To a degree, it is imposed from on high. Women ministers willingly sport West African clothing, whilst male ministers profusely cite Nigerian novelist Ben Okri. There are also increasingly specific instructions concerning the renaissance. In Cape Town, the Parliament turned down a Willie Bester bronze statue this year on the grounds that it was not « African enough« . In Johannesburg, the annual Arts Alive festival, which is partly financed by the local communities, is about to make sacrifices to this new trend. Many fear that the best contemporary productions will disappear from the programme to make way for « ethnic » ensembles, the troupes of Zulu dancers in traditional costumes.
This could be considered a big step backwards if the phenomenon did not come from the grassroots too. In the townships, young people criticise one another for, once again, not being « African enough« . This new mindset translates first and foremost into a new look, a new fashion that imposes locks for the young men, and head ties and other « ethnic » accessories for the young women. Authenticity is worn on the outside, and does not necessitate any specific readings, political idols, or emblematic artists.
For the moment, South Africans’ works focus primarily on the image they have of themselves. Altercations between artists are fierce. However, to a large degree these concern appearances (radical, social), rather than the heart of the matter, pitting different generations and schools of thought against one another. The established artists aren’t really established – not at home anyway – no doubt too greatly challenged by the up-and-coming generations knocking at the door. Robyn Orlin, the well-know white choreographer, who has always worked with black people, feels today that « black artists’ anger is so great that it hinders all entente in the artistic field« . She now lives in Berlin, whereas the dancer Vincent Mantsoe lives in Paris, and the photographer Zwelethu Mthethewa and the artist Moshekwa Langa in Amsterdam. Charles Clifford, an artist of Indian origin who lives happily in Yeoville (see article), one of Johannesburg’s rough neighbourhoods, affirms for his part that you cannot reproach black artists for the sequels of apartheid’s traumatisms. And that you cannot – as some white people would like – hurry a process of reconciliation which will take a long, long time.
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