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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

A dream deferred? Art and the quest for freedom: lessons for and from a democratic South Africa

Mike van Graan - 2010-08-31

A few years ago I wrote a play, called Green Man Flashing, about a senior cabinet minister in the ANC government who, six weeks before the 1999 elections, is alleged by his personal assistant to have raped her. If the charges reach the public domain there will be huge consequences for the party in the forthcoming elections and for the government’s efforts to attract FDI, in which the minister played a key role. So the party sends a delegation to the woman to persuade her not to go through with the charges. The play juxtaposed the greater political good as defined by those in power and individual human rights, political violence versus the pandemic of violence against women.

I had Comments Books in the foyers of the theatres where the production played and a recurring theme in the comments – this, 10 years after we stood in queues to vote for the government of our choice for the first time – was, “What a brave play”; “A courageous writer”.

I was really disturbed. In the apartheid era there were real consequences for writers, theatre-makers, artists. You could have your works banned; you could be detained; you could be jailed or banned, or go into exile. Now we were in a country with a democratically elected government, with a Constitution that guaranteed freedom of expression, where the censorship boards of the past had been abolished – and yet many artists and members of the public considered it brave to write a play that explored political cover-ups, corruption and the supremacy of party politics over human rights. What does it say – did it say – about our society? About the more informal, more insidious forms of censorship that prevail? Is this evidence of a dream, the dream of democracy, deferred?

The White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage that I helped draft has as one of its underlying values: Access to, participation in and enjoyment of the arts are basic human rights, not luxuries or privileges as we had generally been led to believe. The White Paper affirms the Bill of Rights that states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of artistic creativity”, and that the role of government is to facilitate the optimum conditions in which these rights may be enjoyed and practised. It declares that “all persons are free to pursue their vision of artistic creativity without interference, victimisation and censorship”.

Yet the current minister of arts and culture refused to open an exhibition by gay women photographers, declaring that it was immoral, against nation-building and social cohesion.

Is this evidence of a dream deferred, the dream of democracy, of inclusion of all persons being free to pursue their vision of artistic creativity?

Another principle of the White Paper was autonomy, defined as the full independence of publicly funded arts institutions, organisations and practitioners from party political and state interference. This is allied to another principle, the arm’s length principle, where a system of peer review evaluates and decides on funding of arts and culture rather than politicians and government bureaucrats, again, to ensure the freedom of artists from political manipulation or genuflection.

And yet, just a few years after the White Paper was adopted, the minister changed the law so that whereas before, boards of publicly funded institutions would be elected by and be accountable to the boards of these institutions, the minister would now appoint the chairpersons of all publicly funded institutions, creating a direct line of political control of such institutions. One only has to watch what is happening with the board and chairperson of the public broadcaster to become aware of the dangers of such a situation. It is ironic that the chairperson of the SABC Board is, in fact, the former minister of arts and culture who presided over those changes.

More evidence of the democratic dream deferred?

What, then, are the lessons from South Africa, particularly for other African countries struggling for democracy, which look to our country for inspiration?

There are 4 key lessons:

  1. Democracy is not won at the ballot box every five years; the struggle for democracy is never really won. All that changes is the conditions in which the struggle for democracy needs to be waged against new tyrants who would create democracy in their self-serving image.
  1. Freedom of expression is meaningless as a constitutionally guaranteed principle unless it is accompanied by the means to exercise that right freely. Our cultural policy has shifted by stealth, without consultation, from a human rights-based policy declaring access to all, to one that in reality is “the doors of culture shall be open … to those who can afford it, who live in urban centres, who are politically connected”.
  1. Nation-building, social cohesion, poverty alleviation – these are all noble ends, except when the arts are conscripted to achieve only these ends and when this language comes to determine the value and validity of the arts and the right to freedom of expression.
  1. Finally, if the dream of democracy is deferred, then it is because we as artists, as citizens, have been complicit in our silence, in our conformity to the status quo for fear of being called racists or agents or counter-revolutionaries or ultra-leftists, in our desire to access limited public funding to create our art, and so we are careful not to alienate those in power, thereby censoring ourselves.

Why does it surprise us that politicians and government officials who pledge to serve the poor of our country, yet loot public coffers, thereby stealing from the poor, why does it surprise us that government would want to corrupt democratic state institutions and steal democracy from us – as they now seek to do with the ANC’s proposed Media Tribunal and Protection of Information Act – selling it off to an elite? This latest act is another milestone in the democratic road less travelled since 1994, with other previous, perhaps less formal forms of attempted censorship, but nevertheless despicable attempts to silence criticism and freedom of expression.

If we want democracy, if we want freedom of expression, then we simply need to get out there and practise it. Daily.

Mike van Graan


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