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Once I listened to an art curator from Cape Town argue that tourists come to Joburg to see animals, but visit the Mother City to buy art. As an old white male, his assertion was pregnant with meaning.
There’s a division in our country between culture and nature. The hypermodern Cape is seen as civilised, whereas Jozi is as wild as a safari. This tendency to see our country through this divided prism often has racial implications in its undertow. It produces similarly divided attitudes towards people who belong on different sides of the debate – blacks and whites. A fellow writer referred to its workings as the double standards of white illiberal selectivity.
Check, for instance, the recent uproar about three different artists charged with unacceptably violent behaviour. Zwelethu Mthethwa is alleged to have murdered a sex worker. He has argued it’s a case of mistaken identity and will have his day in court in November. He remains by law innocent until proven guilty, but this hasn’t stopped the court of public opinion from pronouncing whether he should be allowed to continue making a living as an artist.
Then there’s Tshepo wa Mamatu, a former Wits University academic and theatre practitioner who was charged and found guilty of sexual harassment by a committee at that institution. He was fired and has been trying to make amends since. His new play, My Grave, about him confronting his demons and dealing with his remorse, was dropped from the line-up of the upcoming Cape Town Fringe Festival after Sara Matchett, the artistic director of the Mothertongue Project, wrote a letter to the festival’s organisers.
Subsequently, Mike van Graan, the chief executive of the African Arts Institute, convened a panel discussion to explain why the play was withdrawn. Wa Mamatu was also meant to be there to give his side of the story, but he withdrew after he received a phone call from Van Graan warning him that it might not be safe for him to be there.
Would-be fellow panellists included gender activists and writers Tracey Saunders, Ukhona Mlandu and Thami aka Mbongo. The talk continued without Wa Mamatu and resolved to draw up a code of conduct to deal with people found guilty of similar offenses. “We must have a code supported by all by December 31 that tells us how to deal with cases like this. Until then, Wa Mamatu must not be allowed to participate in the theatre,” the panel concurred. His case will be heard and dealt with by another panel later applying this code ex post facto. In other words, they are going to invent a law by which to judge him.
While artists in Cape Town and the rest of the armchair opinion-makers in the country were passionately abuzz about how to deal with the “terrible” Wa Mamatu and Mthethwa, a fellow by the name of John Wayne Stevens was being fawned over at the second Live Art Festival hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts.
He was accompanied by Annemi Conradie, an “anti-crime” academic from the University of Stellenbosch who in 2004 wrote a column lamenting that: “I am the daughter of a South African farmer. I am not allowed to walk our dogs, two Rottweilers, further than about 500m from our home if I am not accompanied by one of my brothers. In South Africa, if you are not raped or killed during an attack, you are considered blessed.”
Stevens uses suspension and hanging the body from hooks pierced through the flesh as a vehicle to explore the body’s limits in what Conradie calls “modern primitivism”. But Stevens is a man who, by his own admission, has been convicted and served time in jail for assault. There were no complaints against his continued presence as a performance artist, let alone from his collaborator. Is this a case of the invisibility of white criminality?
As if on cue, I’ve heard some artists and “cultural workers” from Gauteng are planning to host a panel debate of their own to reject the conclusion and recommendations of Van Graan’s panel. So the Cape-Jozi divide continues. When will it end? What we need is an even-handed approach to deal with violence against women and crime in general – not an approach that appears to see only black deviancy while being blind to white crime.
Main Pic: Annime Conradi and John Wayne Stevens following their performance at GIPCA’s Live Art Fest. From Annime Conradi’es WhatsApp Profile