I practically boycotted this year’s VryFees. No; not because of my affinity with Thando Mngqolozana’s many-times muted but seemingly unattainable art decolonisation movement. It also, I’m glad to report, had nothing to do with any misguided Herrenvolkism – apparently the VryFees is a white thing (it is) and we blacks should leave it alone (hell no!) as we have ‘our’ Macufe.
The real reason behind my no show is that I suffer from a terrible affliction called new love. I just can’t seem to tear myself away from my bae!
I had set up a schedule for myself to attend the majority of the few English shows, put together an IMF-approved budget and even took some leave from work – but as my spiritual leader Kem advises, “There’s nowhere to hide, when love calls.” I am Nina Simone’s baby who doesn’t care for shows or high-tone places. My god! My friend was right – I am colonised!
But a grown-ass man, intent on defrauding the world into taking him for an intellectual, can’t go around admitting to such. Surely there must be firmer grounds on which to base my shunning of the festival I’ve been (pedestrianly, I’ll admit) attending for five of my six years in this beautiful city?
Ngugi, in Wizard of the Crow, speaks of “The Lord [who] works in mysterious ways; His miracles to perform.” The God my father prays isn’t any short of miracles. I found my saving grace on the streets of baas Zuckerberg’s plantation. One of the slaves, a Poet and one of the few non-Afrikaans performers at the festival, responded to baas Zuckerberg’s pertinent perverted psychoanalytical poser (‘what’s on your mind?’) with Mngqolozaesque musings on the festival’s lack of cultural/lingual diversity.
Taking heed of Rhini Festival’s (the black undercurrent of the NAF) politically incorrect aphorism, “uThixo akaphi ngesandla, akoyoLesbian” (a slightly inappropriate comical twist to a universal idiom meaning one must always grab his chances), I immediately entered the fray. To stoke the fires I threw in the first provocation: black artists must expropriate space at the VryFees. By this I meant that if the VryFees continues to be a laager for Afrikaans arts instead of an art festival of the Free State and her diverse people as a whole, then it is up to the excluded non-Afrikaans artists to commandeer and occupy the platform that is supposed theirs.
In this virtual symposium sparked by the Poet, three other contributors were noteworthy: there was the Playwright who asked the all-important ‘what is to be done’ question; the Patron of the arts who turned the tables and called out the Poet and his cabal for their lack of language diversity in their productions; and finally the Puppeteer who held that we must leave white people and ‘their thing’ alone. So in this comedy of errors we have the Poet, Playwright, Patron, Puppeteer and yours truly as the resident Provocateur.
I avoid naming my interlocutors for two reasons: firstly, I wish to embellish their contributions for effect and secondly, I don’t think they’d appreciate their good names besmirched with such risqué musings.
To properly render our little fib, we need to complete the holy C triangle of a story: in the Poet, Playwright, Patron, Puppeteer and Provocateur we have our Characters, the Vryfees’ lack of diversity provides the Conflict, now we ought to invent the Context:
I first bumped into the Vrystaat Kunstefees (Free State Arts Festival) as a student at UFS in July of 2010 – I hadn’t gone home for the winter holidays for the sole reason that there was neither tranquillity, internet nor Phillip back in that blacks-only labour concentration camp. I saw a myriad of stalls and white people meandering about them. My basic survival instincts told me to stay clear, but my curiosity won the day. I hit a few stalls, I might have purchased a few trinkets and I definitely had some pancakes. I later learned that it is an annual art and culture festival, predominately (95%) Afrikaans. I enjoyed it immensely – I’m not opposed to a lil sokie-sokie and our Afrikaans brethren sure do make a mean poitjiekos.
But I was a philistine then, a malady which the Poet is free from. He took issue with the fact that black artists are still, 21 years after democracy, junior partners (tokens?) in this festival. To quote him verbatim: “I am concerned about the status of our demarcation in 2015 in the Free State!”
That this came from someone who already had the piece of the pie – he and his crew had two sold out shows at the festival – is awe-inspiring. My romantic side immediately drew parallels between him and Immortal Technique’s “I don’t want to escape the plantation; I want to come back, free all my people, hang the [very kind person] that kept me there and burn the house to the god damn ground.”
However I soon realised, as Tata would put it; ‘that is taking it too far.’ Not that I doubt the Poet’s revolutionary appetite; just that one ought to tread on the side of caution. It is on this side that I found parallels with Thando Mngqolozana’s famous Franschoek revolt. I will lazily christen this the house nigger moment.
I need to clarify, by ‘house nigger’ I simply refer to those blacks who’ve been allowed inside the massa’s house – I mean no condemnation of their politics, ala Malcom X. Our Poet here is one such house nigger, he’s been allowed entry in to the VryFees laager. Thando as well, one of the few blacks with a temporary dompaas into the white literary system.
Now, what is a house nigger moment?
A house nigger moment is when a house nigger, instead of enjoying the crumbs thrown his way, starts bitching about size of his piece of the pie and/or the exclusion of other niggers from the dinner party. The former (bitching about the size of his piece of the pie) is best exemplified by Nicki Minaj’s recent house nigger moment. Here we deal with the house nigger moment wrought on by exclusion of other niggers from the party.
The Puppeteer impressed upon us that the VryFees is a white party, and us hankering for a seat at the table is inharmonious. She pointed out that the National Arts Festival and the Mangaung Cultural festival are black dominated, therefore why have a problem with the VryFees being white dominated. The Patron immediately called out her Verwoerdism.
Trevor Noah recently told the British that the last time we blacks allowed them to come through our borders unchecked, we ended up in chains. This undergirds my fear of ‘white only’ spaces – what in God’s name are they planning? Apartheid 2.0i? God forbid!
But I will not dare make this ‘policing white bodies’ argument for its absurdity and bad taste. Especially when I’m in possession of two perfectly coherent and acceptable arguments in my arsenal. I employed them to deal with the Puppeteer’s Verwoerdism thus:
“South Africa is black dominated. As is the Free State. As is Managung. As such the MANGAUNG Cultural Festival must by right be black dominated. The NATIONAL Arts Festival must by right be black dominated. And also by right, the FREE STATE Art Festival must be black dominated. We need not be apologetic about this.”
“If whites want to be unpatriotic and do ‘their own thing’ on the side, they must call just that ‘Net Blankes Arts Festival’ – then we’ll call them out for their segregationist tendencies. But if they dare call it a Free State thing, then we want to see Tata’s rainbow dream lived out in its full colours!”
It is true that the VryFees is a white thing (and for a while I enjoyed it precisely for this reason – maybe a symptom of my blancophilia?); but this ought to change. Even the organisers are aware of this fact – probably pressured by the University of the Free State, which fancies itself the bastion of transformation. The programme for the 2015 edition of the festival is in both English and Afrikaans, with the statements from the key players translated in all three main Free State Languages (Sesotho, Afrikaans and English). This is a marked development from last year’s programme, which was exclusively in Afrikaans. The statements of the key players, all talk to this transformation and diversity, although some almost reluctantly. Annalize Doubell, Chairperson of the Vrystaat Arts Festival management committee, notes that there’s “a new vision. But keeping the ‘old’”. Further on she explains what’s new and which ‘old’ will be kept, “The Free State Arts Festival, with the mostly Afrikaans July festival as its core, will start spreading its creative wings this year to include the other two language groups, English and Sotho.”
Concomitant with the South African rainbow nation ethos, no mention or admission is made that the exclusion of these ‘language groups’ (read blacks) was and is wrong and the inclusion thereof is – in the parlance of the political zeitgeist – a correction of the injustices of the past. That would be taking it too far. It would be asking the art world to admit its complicity to Apartheid – why should it, when not even the political, judicial and military oligarchs have done so? So again, the poor black cousins are just ‘included’ not to address these injustices, but for the greater good of “establish[ing] the Free State as one of the key arts provinces in the world.”
The message is clear as daylight; this is still Boere Rhymes’ song, with D’Anglo on the hook and DJ Hoha on the decks.
This model of ‘transformation’, best summed up by the Playwright as tokenism, permeates South Africa in all spheres; in business, the judiciary, academia, etc. Its champions are the Motsepe’s, Moseneke’s and Jansen’s – who all have temporary passports to whiteness; but are one transgression (house nigger moment) away from dishonour (corruption, fake qualification, etc.).
This model structures BBBEE policies, economic policies and the National Development Plan. Biko forewarned against this model when he said “South Africa could succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70% of the population being underdogs.”
Art reflects this society, the Playwright took issue with this tokenism manifested at the VryFees: “Are we gonna question our participation in the festival as the token black English shows that can be used for PR for funders to see that the festival is transforming, while there are only four English shows against forty-something Afrikaans show?”
While the Poet was merely flirting with Mngqolozana, the Playwright grabbed him and launched a fat wet kiss on his big nigger lips. My dick firmed up a bit; we were now definitely fucksing with Mngqolozana! The Playwright, by bringing up the financial reasons for their inclusion, echoed Andile Mngxitama when he said ‘whiteness needs a bit of melanin to survive in the 21st century’.
In the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement, and with Malema’s barbarians at shore ready to expropriate without compensation, no one wants to be associated with ‘colonial tendencies’. The UFS will not be associated with such, neither will ABSA I’d imagine. The VryFees needs some melanin to survive.
Alas, these artists it looks to as its saving grace are busy tripping, having house nigger moments. What is to be done? Well, for the VryFees things are simple, there are plenty black artists who’d take up the opportunity to be their Obama, as I warned the would-be Mngqolozana’s: “don’t underestimate the fact that there are many on the outside wishing a nigga would pull a Thando and get blacklisted – they’re just waiting to be the next token black face. So tread carefully.”
For the artist things are not so simple – or are they?
Firstly, they have to eat. Free State is not an artist friendly province, so they too must keep in mind that God is not a lesbian and grab every opportunity that presents itself. But what is to be done when one wakes up feeling black – when one has that gnawing feeling that she’s participating in something unethical, when your ‘nigga spider sense’ – to use Katt Williams’ phrase – tingles?
Well, one has plenty of options:
There’s the Immortal Technique option muted earlier, echoed by Biko’s carpentry, “We wanted to remove him from our table, strip the table of all trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African style, settle down and then ask him to join us on our own terms if he liked.”
This is the option threatened by Thando’s decolonisation project.
There’s also the guerrilla tactic I proposed. It worked for the RMF movement, they commandeered a building and renamed it Azania House. Imagine the beauty it would be, black artists appropriating the Rooiplein, filling it up with black bodies and have a good old block party. It’ll be like the million man march, but with swagger. Would Jansen call 5-0 on us?
Then there’s the non-participation option. A total blackout. All black artists and audiences (even workers) boycott the VryFees in protest. Deny whiteness of its life sustaining melanin. Although this move has the risk of leading us down the Puppeteer’s Verwoerd Ave.
All of the above, though, are taking it too far. There’s an easier solution. In the parlance of the black ghettoes, we call it eating with a white heart. Eating with a white heart means acting with a clear conscience. Our artists, we’ve already established, have to eat – but eating means participating in anti-black pogroms, and this makes their nigger spider senses tickle, so how do they quell this? Well, South Africa is a country blessed with solutions. Tata and Tutu’s TRC taught us how to deal with problems without solving them: talk.
Speaking out is our national coping mechanism – freedom of expression is the only tangible victory of our four centuries long struggle. And who can out-express artists? So our artists can choose to speak out against the injustices in the industry, the inherent racism in the structures thereof, and their exclusion or tokenistic inclusion. They will write poems, plays, songs etc. denouncing this Herrenvolkism. But they will never take the next logical step, i.e. any of the aforementioned options. Their speaking out is akin to Pilate’s washing his hands off the execution of comrade Jesus. It’s merely a conscience cleansing exercise – so that they can eat with a white heart.
Once they’ve spoken out, with no threat of following up on their diagnosis and prescriptions (Thando has a 21-point program), the self-same white power structure they speak out against will heap them with praises and awards for their bravery and sparking debate (Jacana organised a decolonisation symposium for Thando and others). In this country you can get away with anything as long as all you do is spark debate. In this sense their house nigger moment is contained and mobilised to sustain the house of the massa – in an ironic twist they become (even if unwittingly) Malcom X’s house niggers proper.
The Patron had already laid foundation to charge the black artists with being compradors. He called them out for their, for lack of a better word, white art. Why support black artists who produce art that mimics the interests and fantasies of whites instead of speaking to the black experience? Decolonisation must also be internal, it must be reflected in the content of the productions.
Where does the Poet and Playwright and the rest of their cabal stand? Will they follow up or fold? Are they ready for revolution or are they merely compradors?
History sometimes does not take long to judge. Hardly had our cyber paints dried on baas Zuckerberg’s walls and we received news of about 70 PACOFS workers taking their protest to the VryFees stage. The Playwright came out strongly to condemn these workers; the rest of the black artists screamed their silence to the rooftops. That settled the matter for me; they’re not even prepared to do the relatively easy job of paying lip service to the cultural revolution. If one can’t link the struggle of black artists with the struggle of black cultural workers; there truly is no hope.
The VryFees has its challenges and solutions, as do the marginalised black artists. But what of my poor old black ass? I’m a resident of the Free State, and a lover of the arts. What must happen when the Free State has an arts festival that practically excludes me? As a law-abiding and taxpaying citizen I can do what South Africans do best; speak out. Well, guess that’s done! Then what? My nigger spider sense is causing me sleepless nights; surely there’s something that must be done? Do I organise a march? A petition? The black insurrectionary block party? Do I boycott? What!? How do I strip the VryFees of all its exclusionary trappings and decorate it in true Free State style?
The circle is closing in around me, I can’t breathe. These questions weigh heavily on my soul. And then, my Sara smiles. Peace descends upon me. Linda Ronstadt’s words ring in my head; ‘love has no pride.’ I feel no shame to admit, like Linda’s partner Aaron Neville, that I don’t know much but that, like Busta Rhymes, ‘I love my Chick.’ These questions that burdened me disappear. When Ptah, God of the arts, comes for his walk about in Eden and finds me naked without any VryFees ticket stubs, like Adam I will look upon Jah’s pretty, pretty face and calmly intone; “the woman thou hast given me.” Burn!