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South Africa: the state of the arts 25 years after apartheid

May 8, 2019

South Africa's young democracy is viewed throughout the world as an exemplary pluralistic rainbow nation. But as the country approaches its most important elections in 25 years, does art imitate life?

Südafrika Kapstadt Menschen 2018 Township LANGA Kind im Township Kapstadt Township Langa *** S
A quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, the majority of black South Africans still live in abject povertyImage: imago/W. Schmitt

Social upheaval, revolutions and lasting change often begin in the arts long before they manifest on the political stage. Creative minds discuss the changes they want to see in the world; they go on to write plays, books and songs, and find ways to work around censorship and oppression to reach new audiences with their messages.

In South Africa, one such voice that shaped the country's transition from apartheid to democracy is Pieter-Dirk Uys. Though he has portrayed many characters from the country's contemporary history with uncannily precise impersonations over the years, he is best known in South Africa for a character he invented, namely that of Evita Bezuidenhout — a white Afrikaner socialite and political activist who has been commenting on the South African zeitgeist since the 1980s.

Pieter-Dirk Uys
Pieter-Dirk Uys has performed on South African stages for over 50 yearsImage: Imago/Gallo

"I had to be someone else on stage during those days; someone who those in power back then would not know what to do with. So I dressed up as a woman. It confused the enemy. Because they didn't know who to lock up for going against the censorship laws: Evita — or Pieter-Dirk Uys," he told DW, highlighting the difficult circumstances under which he went on stage under the state of emergency issued by South African President P.W. Botha during the 1980s.

"I fight fear with the F-word: fun. When people have fun, they find a common ground. They laugh at the same thing, together.

"In the end, they could do nothing but laugh at themselves and their absurd laws. And that's what I learned through that experience: Never underestimate your enemy. They will always have a sense of humor. They don't get to where they are because they're stupid.

"We are the stupid ones to let them get that far."

Read more: Author Ruth Weiss: 'South Africa's revolution of change has not yet ended'

The price of freedom

During that critical era, dissident voices against the apartheid government were routinely banned, incarcerated, and in some cases even murdered — as recently as one year before the end of apartheid in 1994. Pieter-Dirk Uys, however, managed to circumvent a lot of the censorship back then, chiefly because he hit the right nerve and made people laugh.

Pieter Willem Botha
Former South African President Pieter Willem Botha (known as P.W. Botha) enacted a series of censorship lawsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He continues to entertain crowds today; however, despite his appreciation for South Africa's democracy, he is somewhat worried about the direction the country is taking under growing populism and with an increasingly volatile rhetoric in the political sphere.

"Apartheid was genocide, it was warfare, it was lies. It was a virus with no cure. I think today, we're in a healthy democracy. After 25 years, we've still got our freedom of expression. But as my character Evita says, 'Don't think freedom is lying on the table waiting for you. Freedom is the lightest of feather in the gentlest of wind,'" Uys explains.

"The only thing that's free is your right to be free. But you've got to work for it everyday. If apartheid taught us anything, it should be that."

Pieter-Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhout
Pieter-Dirk Uys' alter-ego Evita Bezuidenhout holds up the mirror against South Africa's political elitesImage: Imago/Gallo

Creative careers: (not) a black-and-white question

Pieter-Dirk Uys is certainly not the only voice who expresses cautious concern about where South Africa might be headed a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid, as a long list of social problems remain at the forefront of all the election campaigns in the country.

From being an underground activist against apartheid, Uys has truly become a national treasure in the new South Africa. However, other artists have had a hard time adapting their identities to a pluralistic society. Performers of Afrikaans-language music have had to move from prime-time spots on television in the 80s and 90s to private networks and streaming services today — often to lesser success, as the airwaves are now dominated by various Bantu dialects, nine of which are regarded to be official languages in South Africa.

Protests in Pretoria
Political unrest and poor public services in South Africa often result in violent clashesImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot/Z. Jianlan

Some white artists meanwhile have even left the country for its lack of opportunities; in the so-called rainbow nation, they find that contemporary audiences reject them.

An artist who left Cape Town to seek new opportunities in Germany spoke to DW under the condition of anonymity, saying that she's been pushed out of the market:

"I'm sorry for having such unpopular views, but to me the whole apartheid thing is so passé."

"I've been told many times and in no uncertain terms that I'm simply too white to perform at a lot of festivals or in certain spaces in South Africa. And that's one of the reasons why I decided to leave the country."

Tokenism in a museum

While some left the country to pursue their careers, others came to South Africa to maximize on new opportunities in the post-apartheid era. German businessman Jochen Zeitz, former CEO of PUMA, opened the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (known as the Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town in 2017 to highlight the work of contemporary visual artists in Africa. It is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world and in its permanent exhibition shows Zeitz' personal collection of African art.

"The creativity of African Art and the cultural diversity of the Africa continent have always fascinated me. But I never understood why there was no institution or sizable museum for this in Africa, and that's how the idea (to open this museum) was born," he said in an interview in 2017. 

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) in Kapstadt
The Zeitz MOCAA is the world's largest museum of African art but is run by white curators — to the dismay of people of colorImage: J. Jaki

The Zeitz MOCAA has indeed been a welcome addition to Cape Town's cultural scene, but has also drawn criticism for amounting to little more than an act of tokenism, with Zeitz being the latest white, male benefactor on Cape Town's local arts scene working in a team of other white consultants.

Zeitz, however, believes that his contribution merely provides a platform to present new opportunities to emerging artists: "We live in a globalized world and we must overcome black/white cliches," Zeitz says. "We are only here to create opportunities."

Read more: South African writer Pumla Gqola on books and liberation

Apartheid in showbiz?

For people of color, opportunities should abound by that rationale. Yet many artists, especially young people, say they have a hard time even entering the creative industries, let alone make ends meet.

Noluvuyo Mangoloza is a 36-year-old actress living in Cape Town, who has had to fight hard to forge a career in the country's fast-growing film industry. She's performed in commercials, TV series and movies, and has presented on local television but her bread and butter is her work as a production coordinator behind the camera, where she does everything from being a location scout to performing background research for screen projects.

Noluvoyo Mangoloza
Despite Noluvoyo Mangoloza's smile, she feels disappointed by the lack of support for young artistsImage: Privat

Mangoloza told DW that even today, it is difficult for black South Africans to pursue their dreams in creative professions: "When white people say that they have no opportunities, sometimes I think it's a joke, sometimes I feel angry. They have a lot more opportunities, especially here in Cape Town, which is very white. They all know each other."

"When I moved here in 2003 from the Eastern Cape, where there are no jobs at all for young people, I was told that the film industry is only for white people. But I found out that isn't true, either. There is work here, but you just have to give people a chance. And you have to work hard to prove yourself."

Reconciling the past with the present

Noluvuyo Mangoloza says there should be more internships, apprenticeships and similar programs to facilitate the careers of aspiring creative professionals — especially for people of color. She welcomes initiatives like the Zeitz MOCAA museum but thinks that showcasing African talent alone doesn't go far enough:

student protests in Cape Town
Young South Africans took to the streets in protests in 2015 demanding free university educationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

"We need funding. Be that at university, or as new graduates who need to build up experience to be taken seriously. We need opportunities. It is hard to fight for everything. Give us a chance, that's all I'm asking for," she said in an interview with DW.

Pieter-Dirk Uys meanwhile expresses gratitude for all the chances he's been given in his career — not just with his success on stage but also with South Africa's journey into reconciliation and the way he profited from that.

"If it wasn't for the generosity of the majority of South Africans, I wouldn't be here. Because millions and millions of black people had the right to put me up against a wall and shoot me for the crimes of apartheid. Because as a white, Christian-Jewish Afrikaner, I was responsible. I benefited from it," Uys admits.

"But I also believe that this guilt can be a positive thing. You can use guilt to make sure that these awful crimes actually don't happen again. You make sure that you move into a more inclusive world with those in your community, those you share a life with. Reconciliation is something that you always have to share. After all, we're all in this together."

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson