Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Madiba jiving ... and better ways of spreading joy

First appeared
Friday, 24 July 2015


After reading this column, you may well think: “Okay, wise guy. What did you do for Mandela Day?” This would be a perfectly fair objection. So let me admit at the outset that I did nothing of any tangible value to anybody else last Saturday.

To be honest, I had almost forgotten that it was July 18th until I stumbled across a sign declaring a rather scrubby patch of grass “Nelson Mandela Park”. Initially I was pleasantly surprised by the coincidence; on reflection, it seemed rather banal. All around the world there are tracts of land, in various states of repair or disrepair, named after Nelson Mandela – why shouldn’t this unremarkable site, a few hundred metres from Bremen main station in the north-western reaches of Germany, be one?

Mandela is ubiquitous. His global presence, if measured by memorials and streets that bear his name, has probably even increased since his death. In South Africa, however, Mandela’s legacy is increasingly contested. “I was not liberated by Mandela”, ran the headline of a recent article by Malaika wa Azania, in which the author pointed out that the “Mandelafication” of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle narrative – the deification of Mandela – is simplistic and ahistorical.

Yet it is precisely because Mandela is such an overdetermined symbol that he is now blamed for the failure of the ANC to deliver on its promises of “a better life for all”. This failure is aggravating frustration and anger on the part of many black South Africans about the ongoing cultural, institutional and economic dominance of “whiteness”, which leads to accusations that Mandela sold out – or was, as best, too soft during the negotiation process, too willing to compromise.

This is also a somewhat simplistic view. But it does indicate that the Mandela “brand” is in need of resuscitation. And aspects of Mandela Day are making things worse.

I concede that positive action is good, no matter what the motivation or the ideological shortcomings of the actor may be. Paint that orphanage, pick up that litter. Try to do it for more than 67 minutes a year if you can. Try not to do it only so that you can post a photo of yourself doing it to impress your friends and work colleagues.

Whatever you do in 2016, please don’t think that filming yourself doing the “Madiba Jive” is going to help. When I discovered the online project Dance for Madiba: 67 Hours of Celebration (the title is pretty self-explanatory) my instinctive reaction was to declare: THIS. IS. SO. WHITE. And I was right, although there are a few black faces to be seen in the short montage on their website.

Dance for Madiba is brought to you by – that is, it raises funds for – an organisation called the No Danger Diaries, which proclaims: “We’re not scared to have fun and make a difference.” I won’t dispute that they have embarked on a few worthy causes. But there is something troubling about rich kids posting YouTube videos of how they took some homeless guys to dinner (the exceedingly poor-taste soundtrack: “Homeless” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo). Actually, it is dangerous to assume that self-indulgence and humanitarianism can be merged under the hashtag #sharethejoy.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for spreading joy. But there are ways of doing it that aren’t condescending to those you aim to help, that don’t reinscribe the familiar tropes of self-congratulatory charity or poverty porn, and that don’t need to be sold to would-be do-gooders as “adventures”. What about identifying the presence of love, joy, passion and pleasure in circumstances that might mistakenly be associated only with privation or oppression?

Portia Zvavahera’s new exhibition I Can Feel It in My Eyes offers an excellent example. There is nothing in Zimbabwe but misery and tyranny, right? Wrong. Zvavahera’s paintings depict carefree couples mutually enmeshed in hedonistic kisses amidst the colourful, comforting flora of a Harare Park. There’s plenty of joy to share there.

Alternatively, one could dismiss the childlike insistence of the No Danger crew that everyone should just be happy (if only for a while). Perhaps it would be better to cultivate empathy, such that we are able to mourn with those who mourn, to suffer with those who suffer. Here Penny Siopis’ Still and Moving, which shares the space with Zvavahera at Stevenson Cape Town (until 29th August), also has something to teach us.

Siopis focuses on individual and collective processes of grieving, taking visual – and sometimes textual – form in works that show how grief can “connect us to others in the world”. That is a phenomenon that Mandela would be far more likely to endorse. 



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