I am the people from whom the loss of the earth is the loss of everything
As people, we have suffered great loss; loss of language and culture and land. Loss of loved ones and things and memory. To borrow from 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist (SBYA) honouree, Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, we have been “disintegrating for over five hundred years”. Perhaps, we could say that by the time 2020 happened, we had peaked. Our inequality levels were at the highest they had ever been, civil unrest was a raging fire waiting in the wings — and mental illness and substance abuse had become a normalised part of our everyday existence. We were sick.
When South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that we were in a State of Disaster and did not have the resources or infrastructure as a country to absorb the potential devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, something magical happened. For a brief moment, we saw how we could be as people. Schools opened their boarding facilities to house homeless people, banks instigated payment breaks; those with resources found ways to share with those without. We understood that we were all in this pandemic together — differently, however, together. The only way to survive was/is if we were all able to comply with the national strategy to keep us safe.
Fast-forward a year plus, and we have fought to go back to the loss. The inequality, the selfishness, the luxury of COVID fatigue. The moment that asked us to stop, listen and change, has passed and we have made it very clear that we are committed to the inequality and unsustainable capitalist patriarchal society that allows us to put our blinkers on and care only about those who affect us directly.
In an interview about his production, Ankobia, Motshabi says he is interested in “who we are potentially” as people who are dislocated and disconnected. In acknowledging our disintegration, he asks: “what is our strongest point historically and what can we lay claim to?… How are we harnessing all that understanding into becoming bigger and higher than we’ve been?”
Lulu Mlangeni (left) and Khaya Ndlovu (right) in Kganya by Shudufhadzo Lubengo
The first time she attends the festival, it takes her cautious mother two and a half hours to make the drive from East London to the small settler town that is also a university. They do not see any of the ticketed shows, but the girl and her younger brother convince umama to buy them popcorn and share a sausage roll before visiting an exhibition. On the drive back, her brother is still excited about the storytelling and the games and the craft market. He passes out with a smile on his face before they arrive. The girl and her mother share bread and chicken while listening to Sibongile Khumalo’s Ancient Evenings.
In years to come, she is at the National School’s Festival. Idi Amin is Big Dada. As she walks out of the theatre, Afriend from a previous school bursts out of the theatre, relieved she can finally go to supper. The girl cannot understand how Afriend felt nothing. Not anger, not admiration, not sadness. Not anything. The girl has never seen so many different stories of people like her and Afriend before. She is glad she left that school.
Kitty Phetla and pianist Nduduzo Makhathini in Going Back To The Truth Of Space by Mark Wessels
An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.
For every season, artists have had something to say. As commentary, as hope, as reflection — and festivals have always been a melting pot of conversations. Since its inception, the National Arts Festival has offered cross-sectional reflections of society, at times, tight roping the fine line between funding, boycotts and ethical representation. There has always been a direct correlation between the socio-political landscape of the country — and the Eastern Cape — with the festival’s content, and with the demographics of its main programme. As the country opened up, so did the National Arts Festival.
In the late 1980s — in the throes of civil unrest — particularly in semi-urban (township) areas, artists such as Mbongeni Ngema, Gibson Kente, Gcina Mhlope and Zakes Mda, were invited to the main stage, while a growing number of local black-managed companies enjoyed marginal success on The Fringe programmes. There was a deliberate (and pressured) movement towards curating a more representative programme that spoke to, and from, a wider audience. In the nineties (against the backdrop of CODESA negotiations, the blinding hope of our African Dream and the new emerging black middle class) we saw artistic commentary from the likes of controversial visual artist Trevor Makhoba, opera singer-activist Sibongile Ngema and Not with My Gun co-author and director, Aubrey Sekhabi. Of course, who could forget 2001’s hard-hitting, hugely evocative, kwaito-bopping Stadium by Sibikwa Arts co-founders Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, starring Boom Shaka Sensation, Lebo Mathosa? Young femmes shamefully taunting each other in bathrooms and corridors: “Are you a schwarma or a stale pie?”
As expected from a festival with such longevity, the NAF has held many moments in conversation. When the country was plagued by what has been called the age of HIV/AIDS denialism, Kemiyondo Coutinho staged Kawana You’re It! When mineworkers were gunned down in Marikana, Tebogo Munyai brought us Doors of Gold and The State Theatre took Marikana – The Musical to Makhanda. When the Rhodes Must Fall, #FeesMustFall and Phansi nge Racist Capitalist Patriarchal System Phansi! movements began, NAF audiences turned to Mamela Nyamza and Neliswa Xaba’s The Last Attitude; Woman in Waiting – the life story of Thembi Mtshali-Jones (directed by Yael Farber); and Andiyondoda – Not man Enough by Simphiwe Vikilahle. For LGBTQI+ conversations – Umtshotsho ka Nicholas Hlobo and Afriqueer, produced in collaboration with the Drama for Life Africa Project.
Lulu Mlangeni (left) and Khaya Ndlovu (right) in Kganya by Shudufhadzo Lubengo
Then there was (is) the colossus that was (is) the Me Too Movement and the Total Shutdown. From the early works, I have a Life – Alison’s Journey, adapted and directed by Maralin Vanrenen, to the restaging of Tshepang (directed by Lara Foot) wham-bam in the middle of the 2016 #RUReferenceList; to The Mothertongue Project’s Walk; to 2019 SBYA Gabrielle Goliath’s This song for… South African artists, artists in general, have always risen to difficult conversations. Be it in anger, lament or slivers of hope.
Beyond that though, through the sweeping movements, we have seen a shift. Over the past decade, we have seen artists tap into previously (and systematically) dismissed cultural resources — the spiritual power that Motshabi speaks of. People — artists included — have been leaning into the forgotten, and not always as part of the decolonial project (though that is very important work), rather, as a return to self, in search of our highest biggest self. As if they could smell a storm brewing, artists have been asking what knowledge systems (forgotten, lost or demonised) can we turn to as a compass, particularly in times of turmoil?
In his 2013 production, Indumba, SBYA Fana Tshabalala used dance to investigate ancient cleansing rituals, used post-war, in mourning — and for people living in severe socio, economic and political depression. What systems are available for those let down by new administrations and empty reconciliation committees? And in this year’s programme, SBYA 2020, Lulu Mlangeni’s Kganya also taps into what we have always known about freeing and healing ourselves to build a conversation around hope. And staying alive. And surviving.
Performer from Kganya by Shudufhadzo Lubengo
Sukumani! /(Nankamanz’ engenendlini) / (Sukumani, vukani maAfrika?) Sukumani! / Awu nankum’ uhlola ungen’ekhaya / Sukumani, vukani aniboni na? Hhawu sukumani! / Nankamanz’ engenendlini / (Sukumani vukani ma Afrika) Hhawu sukumani! / (Awu nankum’ uhlola ungen’ekhaya) / Ungen’ekhaya! / Athul’ athini amathong’ esizwe / Siyashwelez’ isizwe / Athul’ athini amathong’ esizwe / Siyashwelez’ isizwe
In 2020, when the NAF went virtual, Louise Coetzee and Inka Kendzia created a multi-genre digital experience, META|morph, in which they “ideate digital disruption of the human experience” in the present-day and in the future. Viewers were able to make their own choices and thus choose their own journey. They could curate how they interacted with their multiple selves in the experience, and control how their story ends. In Ukuhlolwa Kwephupha (same year), a young woman vacillates between multiple dreamlike states while in isolation. Her dreams are not always clear in meaning and there are no words to guide the viewer along. It is what it is. As it is lived.
This pandemic has rendered many artists devastated — some were left homeless, while others succumbed to the overwhelming morass that can be isolation. However, for some, it has also opened up a whole new way of imagining. Of combining digital platforms with ancient technologies, not only as a way of understanding what is going on but also — perhaps along with Motshabi — as a way of hoping us into something else.
Portrait of Gabrielle Goliath by Mark Wessels
Anotherfriend’s mother passes away on Monday morning. On Tuesday, Anotherfriend’s mother’s sister also passes away. Anotherfriend follows her mother and aunt on that same Saturday. Her brother, who did not live with them — who buried them alone — is the only surviving member of his family.
Acousin attends another cousin’s funeral and gets sick. Anothercousin’s mother, sister, brother and uncle all pass on within two weeks of the funeral. When they are buried, the neighbours send groceries neemikhndo. They do not attend.
Aman the girl knows from high school passes away. At his funeral, they announce the passing of his father. His mother and brother are both in ICU.
It has been longer than a year now. There are no wreaths. No bees. No rain. No cows for slaughter. No touching. No witnesses. No tea and scones. No vigils. Cwaka. Ingathi asingcwabi bantu apha.
Photograph by Mark Wessels
Over the past eighteen months, entire families have been wiped out. Businesses have shut down, protests have been staged… so much has died. Perhaps, this moment is asking something of us? Reminding us that time is a mirage. We have known loss before, intimately, but never like this. Not this loss upon loss upon loss. We have to ask when all is said and done, what will it all have been for? 2015 SBYA Nduduzo Makhathini speaks of consciousness as an orchestra, wherein we all have a part to play. For him, through the piano, it is healing. Gabrielle Goliath says that for her, by depicting the moments between or outside of the bruised eyes and cut lips, she carves out a space to celebrate and honour our survival. Space for hope.
Perhaps the greatest gift given to us by the artists who continue to soldier on — is the space they hold for our breath. Artists make room for grief and for our hope. They remind us that we have many choices, and much like in Coetzee and Kendzia’s META|morph, every choice leads to a different outcome. We can choose to go back to what makes us sick. We could choose to find our place in The Great Orchestra. We can choose to imagine ourselves differently. We can choose to re-member how to heal.
When the girl is older, umakhulu wraps a string of white beads around her head. The girl first sees the beads before she is born. And then again in a poem. The girl is told that if she does not remember, she will be sick. When she remembers, the girl is told that if she does not speak, she will be sick. When she speaks, the girl is told that with her tongue, she may be water or she may be wind. She is told that no one can escape the burn of a fire.
Portrait of the author, vangile gantsho, by Vusumzi Ngxande