The 1980s was a heady time in South Africa’s cultural history. Apartheid repression was at its height, but so was mass resistance. The independent label Shifty Records brought together a courageous, outspoken and rebellious group of artists who captured in their music the despair and hope of that turbulent period. It is this legacy that is being celebrated in Shifty September, and rightly so, as the label gave South Africa some of the most important contemporary local music ever made.
But aspects of this history are also troubling. Many of the Shifty posters on display in the South African History Archives (Saha) exhibition at the Alliance Française aligned their events with the United Democratic Front (UDF) or other organisations sympathetic to Shifty’s politics. Organisations mentioned include the Johannesburg Democratic Action Group, an organisation of mainly white UDF activists and sympathisers, the Congress of South African Writers, the Five Freedoms Forum and the End Conscription Campaign.
The Shifty-UDF connection was a product of the times. In the 1980s, the UDF eclipsed the black consciousness movement as the dominant liberation force in South African politics. Many politically conscious artists lent their support to the UDF to show opposition to apartheid, including those in the Shifty fold. They also supported the campaign to isolate South Africa, which played such a crucial role in bringing apartheid to an end. The isolation campaign included a cultural boycott, preventing foreign artists from visiting South Africa and stopping South African artists from performing outside the country.
When the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) campaigned for a cultural boycott in the 1970s, it was administered as a blanket boycott. No artists were allowed through, even artists who came from oppressed communities and who were clearly committed to the liberation of South Africa. But activists began to recognise that the blanket boycott was self-defeating, as it prevented art that reflected the real state of life under apartheid from reaching an international audience. Some began to argue for a selective boycott, where artists who were aligned to the cause of national liberation would be allowed to tour unhindered.
I became very familiar with the politics around this decision as I wrote my honours dissertation on the selective cultural boycott, which led to me shuttling between the UDF cultural desk, Azapo and many artists and cultural organisations. It was a difficult period in South Africa’s history to be doing this, as the fighting that broke out between UDF and Azapo supporters three years earlier had left bitterness and profound mistrust in its wake.
As the UDF flexed its muscles in the 1980s, it butted heads with more and more activists who argued for the need to maintain independent organisations out of respect for the political diversity of their members. Some UDF-aligned activists enforced their leadership of the liberation movement in authoritarian, at times violent, ways, especially in the trade union movement.
The Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union became a battleground between UDF supporters who wanted to see the union adopt the Freedom Charter, and unionists who did not want to see the working class movement divided along ideological lines. Many of these unionists were branded “counter-revolutionary” and marginalised, and some were routed violently from the union movement.
Disagreements between the UDF and Azapo about former US senator Edward Kennedy’s visit to South Africa raised tensions between the two organisations, eventually descending into a spiral of bloody conflict in the mid-1980s. While these conflicts were manipulated by the apartheid state, in its report, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid the blame for “necklace killings” of Azapo members and political dissidents throughout the Eastern Cape at the door of the UDF.
Writing in 1987 about the tendency to resolve political disputes using violence, the New Unity Movement cautioned against liberation organisations using Stalinist techniques to resolve political differences, including promoting hatred of other tendencies, using threats and physical violence.
Yet many white progressives who identified with the ‘Shifty moment’ ignored these more troubling features of UDF politics (Rian Malan being the notable exception). After all, their favoured organisation was on the up-and-up, and other tendencies were fading into insignificance; so why stick their necks out and take a principled stand against these practices? Perhaps they had a vested interest in being blind, to adapt a quote from Neville Alexander.
In 1987, the UDF passed a resolution committing itself to organising cultural workers and intensifying the cultural boycott, and to reviving its dormant cultural desk to monitor the boycott. The resolution stated that South African groups touring overseas would not be affected by the boycott if they were “… supported by the democratic movement in South Africa” or if they were “… approved by overseas solidarity groups”.
Following this resolution, the UDF encouraged the establishment of several artists’ organisations, including the Theatre Alliance and the South African Musicians Alliance. The buzz of the time was that artists must “get organised”.
These organisations led the consultations around the shift from a blanket to a selective cultural boycott, and prominent artists flocked to join. While some clearly joined because they were genuinely committed to the UDF’s politics, others appeared to be motivated by more self-interested reasons, as the UDF was their ticket to international careers that had been stymied by the blanket boycott.
But some artists felt they best served the struggle by remaining independent from all liberation organisations. They argued that promoting a too-close relationship of artists to political formations would come back to bite artists in the future. The role of artists, they argued, was to make the best possible art, and propaganda rarely makes good art.
In fact, it is entirely possible for artists to be committed to the cause of human liberation and yet remain politically independent: when artists have struck this balance in periods of fundamental social change, truly great art has emerged. Artists who subjected themselves to political dictates, no matter how noble, ran the risk of being straitjacketed into politically correct art forms. Art that did not follow the party line risked being stigmatised as suspect and even counter-revolutionary.
At the time, poet Don Mattera saw these dangers looming large. Speaking to the Weekly Mail, he argued, “My personal feeling is that an artist should not be forced to choose a particular political camp when he believes that he is serving the whole community. We all support the cultural boycott, but I think that it has become myopic – it must be made accessible to popular consent.” Yet many of the Shifty generation endorsed uncritically the hitching of all things artistic to the UDF and its cultural desk.
Some artists sympathetic to the UDF and the ANC also recognised the dangers, expressing concern about the lack of appreciation for art in sections of the ANC. In an interview, filmmaker Angus Gibson told me how some ANC members were not familiar with the intricacies of filmmaking. They viewed fiction-filmmaking as a “right-wing activity”, and endorsed community-based documentary as the only acceptable form of filmmaking.
Azapo, on the other hand, showed greater sensitivity to the need for artists to remain politically independent. This could be attributed at least in part to the fact that the black consciousness movement was both a political and cultural movement.
While the UDF argued that the democratic movement as a whole should make decisions about who should be allowed in and out of the country, in reality the democratic movement became reduced to the UDF and the structures it created. The movement made little effort to support the establishment of a nonpartisan network to administer the boycott – along the lines of what Mattera proposed – and sidelined liberation organisations or artists that lay outside its sphere of influence. This meant the boycott could be used to practise a form of ideological purging, where artists who supported the UDF were allowed to travel unhindered while those who didn’t would be stopped, even if they supported the liberation struggle.
The global Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) played a crucial role in the isolation campaign against apartheid South Africa, but it also become notorious for its myopic sectarianism. It played a king-making role, anointing the ANC as the sole authentic representative of the oppressed, and refusing to recognise the ideological diversity in the liberation movement (the exception to this rule being the City Group).
Commenting on these events in the labour magazine Work in Progress in 1987, William Cobbett argued, “… as support organisations, solidarity movements derive their legitimacy from other organisations. They cannot become autonomous bodies deciding strategy and tactics independently … If the AAM is a solidarity movement for all South Africans fighting apartheid, then their support must be carried out in a completely nonpartisan manner, offering concrete help to all strands of the progressive organisations within the country.”
Playwrights Maishe Maponya and Matsemela Manaka, long associated with the black consciousness and Pan-Africanist movements respectively but fiercely protective of their independence from Azapo and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), told me at the time that consultation effectively amounted to “asking for permission” to go overseas, which they refused to do.
They never experienced problems with taking plays overseas, though, but the Afrika Cultural Centre, under the leadership of Benjy Francis, did. Although the centre was often associated with Pan-Africanism, it was vocal about its political independence. The British AAM was particularly insistent about cultural groups consulting the ANC before they toured in the country.
When Francis and the Azanian National Theatre toured the production Burning Embers – a play that strongly condemned apartheid – in 1986, they were told repeatedly they could not hand out promotional pamphlets or secure venues without “ANC approval”. As Francis told me at the time, the AAM’s reaction to them was “petty and ill-informed”, and “an affront to the fact of our struggle”. He concluded that the AAM “cannot live our cultural history for us”.
This reduction of the liberation movement to the UDF became clear at the Culture for Another South Africa (Casa) conference in Amsterdam in 1987, which was organised by the ANC and the Dutch AAM. Its purpose was to discuss the state of arts and culture in South Africa, and the effectiveness of the isolation campaign.
One of the Dutch organisers admitted at the time that the conference “excluded groups … like Inkatha and the black consciousness movement”, equating the former, then an apartheid surrogate, with the latter, a legitimate part of the liberation movement. At an ANC press conference during the festival, an ANC official stated that “no cultural exchange would be possible in future without the approval of the mass national democratic structures within South Africa – namely the UDF and its affiliates”.
One of the writers who was excluded from Casa was Es’kia Mphahlele, himself a controversial figure for having returned from exile in the 1970s. Speaking about the organisers’ sectarian approach, he told me in an interview that “… it displeased me thoroughly, and I was angry because this is not the kind of thing we want to do if we want to create a certain front, a broad united front, even if it is not an institutionalised organisation but a broad front where people feel that no matter what the political affiliation they have, they can say what they want. I was thoroughly displeased with it. It was divisive and it made people feel they are irrelevant.”
My UDF cultural desk interviewee, who requested anonymity at the time, was also not very impressed, and criticised the external organisers’ sectarianism, for which they as the desk were heavily criticised. He was a true democrat who recognised the importance of building unity in the liberation movement and not being narrow. But all too often this sentiment was not carried over into organisational practice.
In spite of the Casa slight, Mphahlele took a long-term view of the blight of sectarianism. He argued, “I would be prepared to say, let us go through this painful process of separate streams, with the foresightedness to know that ahead of us there is bound to be a national culture, and even though we cannot predict what it will be like, it will be there”.
In 1990, the ANC’s Albie Sachs picked up on these themes again in his seminal paper ‘Preparing Ourselves for Freedom’. He argued that ANC members should be banned from saying that culture is a weapon of the struggle, as this attitude had impoverished art.
Instead, Sachs argued, the revolutionary duty of an artist is to “write better poems and make better films and compose better music, and let us get the voluntary adherence of the people to our banner”. Denying artists the creative space to explore human existence fully, he felt, could lead to a new South Africa that was democratic on the surface of things, but spiritually dead.
Today, 25 years later, artists enjoy strong constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. South Africa’s democratic centre remains very much intact. But, nevertheless, there are also signs that Sachs’ plea for artistic independence has fallen on deaf ears in some parts of the ANC and the state. The Film and Publications Board’s attempts to censor Brett Murray’s painting The Spear and Jahmil Qubeka’s film Of Good Report suggests a creeping cultural conservatism that is hostile to artistic freedom. Thankfully, the board has an excellent appeals tribunal.
Murray appears to identify closely with Shifty’s legacy of artistic courageousness, as he made some sculptured lights for auction during Shifty September. The funds raised will be used to cover the costs of musicians’ travel to the Shifty Music Heritage Festival.
While official attempts to censor The Spear had no place in a democracy, the exhibition the painting formed part of, Hail to the Thief II, was not without its problems. In fact, it overflowed with stereotypes about the ANC as a corrupt organisation chasing the money at the expense of its own members and the poor generally.
Hail to the Thief II was an exhibition made by a clearly very angry artist. Murray and others who came through the ‘Shifty moment’ lament the fact that the ANC has degenerated, that the ANC of today is not the ANC of old. But those who make this argument lack a sense of history in that they built up the ANC into something it was not.
The ANC has always been, at its core, a multiclass reformist organisation that could bring South Africa to the point of dismantling apartheid – which it did so admirably under appalling conditions – but couldn’t offer a meaningful programme to eliminate poverty and inequality beyond that point. Multiclass organisations the world over run the risk of being taken over by predatory authoritarian elements once they assume power as they are driven by their own internal contradictions to put a lid on dissent from within and without. The ANC is no exception to this rule, although it still remains on the democratic end of the scale.
Hail to the Thief II included tropes that bordered on racism. Whatever one thinks of the ANC and its recent history, it cannot be reduced to the caricatures that Murray put on display: a male gorilla humping a female one, ostensibly representing the party’s relationship to the people; or a party that has used its proud history of struggle to demand Chivas, BMWs and bribes. The ANC remains so much more than that, even President Jacob Zuma’s ANC.
Now that the ANC’s internal contradictions have emerged more starkly, its former hagiographers are dumbstruck, unable to comprehend what they are seeing. So they slide into cynicism: hail to the thief! But even angry artists are entitled to their overstatements; nothing is gained from censoring their art.
It is possible South Africa would not be enjoying the rights and freedoms it does today – including freedom of speech – if brave and committed members of the ANC had not struggled to bring the current society about. But Stalinism is part of the ANC’s political traditions too: a tradition it internalised through its alliance with the South African Communist Party and its doctrinaire, one-size-fits-all approach to national liberation struggles elsewhere.
Evidence of an authoritarian streak in the ANC’s politics and a lack of respect for political diversity has been there for decades, for those who cared to look. But so many of the Shifty generation preferred not to.
So many of that generation, who promoted one organisation as the sole and authentic representative of the oppressed, failed to defend the principle of political diversity and embraced uncritically a highly utilitarian view of art and its relationship to politics. In the process, they laid the basis for what exists today: a ruling party whose leaders believe they can and should rule till Jesus comes. This history provides a salutary lesson in the dangers of political expedience. It is often said that hindsight is an exact science, but foresight is not as difficult as it is made out to be, as the most accurate predictions involve an element of science too.
It could have been anticipated that, as social polarisation sharpened, genuine democrats in the ANC would lose ground to the securocrats. It is these very securocrats who now have full access to the coercive apparatuses of the state.
After two decades of ANC hegemony, political diversity is increasing. But as new political formations come into being, democracy is being tested, and in some cases found wanting. When the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) disrupted Parliament recently, demanding answers from Zuma about when he was going to pay back the money for upgrades to his Nkandla residence, the security cluster, led by the military, moved with lightning speed to enforce parliamentary points of order.
But when whistle-blowers and political critics have been killed in circumstances that bear all the hallmarks of political assassinations – as was the case with three National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa shop stewards recently – the security cluster responds with glacial slowness, if it responds at all.
Shifty September should make us pause and reflect on uncomfortable truths about South Africa’s cultural transition. Twenty years into democracy, whites still wield inordinately high levels of symbolic capital relative to their numbers. While the freedom to create is available to all South Africans, the opportunities to have one’s creative work heard or seen still remain distributed unevenly across society.
Can this be why, in the same month that the legacy of Shifty Records has been celebrated so enthusiastically, one of South Africa’s most important poets, Mafika Gwala, died in relative obscurity? Media coverage of Shifty September has been extensive, but articles about Gwala’s death took a week to surface, and even then there were only a smattering.
The national culture Mphahlele so yearned for has yet to come into being. This lack of transformation damages the cause of artistic freedom. The problem gives official censors more moral weight, as they can argue that the artists they are trying to censor are reactionary throwbacks from South Africa’s past and their works are ‘not in our culture’.
Happily, history is not on the side of censors. In their 1987 article on the lessons of Stalinism, the New Unity Movement argued Stalin had no sense of history: he had only a sense of himself. As a result, it took three short years after his death for his legacy to be disgraced forever.
The movement drew this lesson from Stalin’s history: “That which today seems all-powerful will not necessarily remain so forever. Only those actions which intrinsically advance the cause of our struggle, and therefore that of humankind, will be kindly judged by the future generation.
“Thuggery and violence and intimidation in the liberatory camp can at best bring short-term gains. Some may be browbeaten into silence. But others will rise to question and challenge, and they will right the wrongs by restoring these freedoms and relegating the violators to their rightful place in history, namely, the dung heap. Let the clique be warned, let them learn from history!”
All images courtesy of the South African History Archive