New Internationalist

A tool for change

Oppressive regimes are scared of artists because of their ability to highlight the wrongs done by politicians. Dictators are very scared of them because of the following that artists command. Because dictators survive by restricting information flow to the general populace, the artist becomes the thorn in the dictator’s shoe. Thriving democracies have vibrant arts industries; a good example is South Africa and a bad example is Zimbabwe – where artists are continuously persecuted.

Thuli Zuma, daughter of South African president Jacob Zuma, debuted in a major role as an actress at the 2010 National Arts Festival and she observed some painful realities. She told the Sunday Times that she was immediately confronted with the ‘tough part’ of artistic freedom when she heard ‘nasty, unfair’ jokes about her father in comedy acts at the festival.

‘I knew what was coming and I braced myself, and sure enough, the attacks came, belittling him – they were nasty, unfair, not nice,’ she said. ‘But I didn’t walk out.’

That’s the role of the arts: to keep politicians in check, to highlight and talk about things that wouldn’t ordinarily be talked about. At the moment, the loud-mouthed Julius Malema (the chair of the ANC youth league) is currently in court; the AfriForum dragged him there for for singing the song Dubul’ Ibhunu (Shoot the Boer).

Ayasab’ amagwala (the cowards are scared)
dubula dubula (shoot shoot)
ayeah
dubula dubula (shoot shoot )
ayasab’ amagwala (the cowards are scared)
dubula dubula (shoot shoot)…

The song was sung during the apartheid period in South Africa and the argument is whether or not it should be sung now, as apartheid is a thing of the past. But it is also argued that it is part of South African history and that that part of history should be preserved by the continual singing of the liberation songs.

There are many examples of art in its many forms being used as a tool for political reform or as a way of addressing issues that wouldn’t ordinarily be discussed in public; in many instances art has made a huge difference.

Guernica by Picasso

Image by jmussuto under a CC Licence

Guernica is a painting by Pablo Picasso, in response to the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces, on 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Republican government commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a large mural for the Spanish display at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (1937) at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Guernica shows the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. This work has gained a monumental status, becoming an anti-war symbol and an embodiment of peace.

Kenule ‘Ken’ Beeson Saro Wiwa (10 October 1941 – 10 November 1995) was a Nigerian author, television producer, environmental activist and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize. Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in Nigeria whose homeland, Ogoniland, in the Niger Delta has been targeted for crude oil extraction since the 1950s and which has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. He was hanged on 10 November 1995 for speaking out against the environmental damage to the Niger Delta caused by Shell Oil through its 37 years of drilling in the region. Ken Saro-Wiwa was campaigning for what Greenpeace considers the most basic of human rights: the right to clean air, land and water. ‘His only crime was his success in bringing his cause to international attention,’ said Thilo Bode, Executive Director of Greenpeace International. Even though he was hanged, his prominence as an artist helped bring the cause to the attention of the world.

Owen Maseko, the world-famous Zimbabwean artist, was arrested on 26 March 2010. His crime? He dared to be bold. Maseko opened his exhibition on 25 March at the Bulawayo National Art Gallery with an artist’s impression of the harsh reality of Gukurahundi as well as the decades of oppression and violence that have characterised Zimbabwe. In a combination of graffiti, 3D installations and his painting, Maseko unflinchingly dared to tell the truth, adding his usual and whimsical element of humour.
Since it’s against the law to insult or undermine the President’s authority, Maseko was slapped into leg irons, taken to prison and held for four days. He was reportedly interrogated in 12-hour sessions, and his work has been banned in Zimbabwe. However, his trial was postponed indefinitely in September 2010 after Bulawayo Magistrate Ntombizodwa Mazhandu granted an application filed by Maseko’s lawyers for the Supreme Court to determine whether criminalizing creative arts infringes on the freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.

Art will continue being the voice of the voiceless and even though some might get arrested and some even killed, art will continue highlighting the ills of authoritarian regimes.



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  1. #1 alexweir1949 15 Apr 11

    RSA is deeply corrupt and far from democratic

    Alex Weir You stupid NI - South Africa is a deeply corrupt state with a deeply corrupt Ruling Party and huge income disparities and social and economic inequalities. Why do you lie?.....

    New Internationalist Magazine ‎@Alex, if you read the 2nd-6th paragraphs of this blog post, you will see what the author has in mind here. Nobody claims everything is fine in South Africa, just like not everything is fine in other democracies such as the UK or the US.

  2. #2 Giedre 15 Apr 11

    the above

    Just to explain to other readers: the above is a comment thread in response to this blog post, taken from New Internationalist's facebook page.

  3. #3 mgcini 19 Apr 11

    RSA is deeply corrupt and far from democratic

    @ Alex. I agree with you that South Africa is highly corrupt, however the difference between then and Zimbabwe is that artists can freely speak out against such and people can demonstrate. In Zimbabwe corruption, looting...is sponsored and encouraged by the 'state' - read Zanu PF. Artists are harassed for speaking out...

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About the author

Mgcini Nyoni is a playwright, theatre director, screenwriter, thinker, blogger and poet based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He is also the founder and creative director of Poetry Bulawayo.

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