Grahamstown is a madeleine cake. A sleepy student town where its history as a centre for English colonial expansion in the Eastern Cape remains apparent on its streets, and in its architecture — in its material, physical and social structures.
It is a place where time can stand still as easily as it can get lost.
I studied here, at Rhodes University — the “Oxford in the Bush” — in the 1990s. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first president of a democratic South Africa during my first-year, in 1994.
Then, I was too young to vote. Now, I am too cynical to do so.
Almost every year, at the beginning of July, I return to this town for the national arts festival. For ten days artists explore both the serious and the irreverent questions that nag at our contemporary psyche.
Through theatre, fine art, jazz, dance, photography, poetry readings, drunken discussions, music and one-night stands, South Africans grapple with the messiness of our young democracy and our humanity. Often, we locate these experiences within the universal stories of family, violence, hope, love, mistakes, our relationships with power, yearning, and suffering.
It was unseasonably hot this year. The mercury hit 28 degrees Celsius in what should have been the middle of winter— usually a time for rain, frigid temperatures and drinking gluehwein. The public’s response was less celebratory of the ‘good weather’ and more concerned about the encroaching climate apocalypse.
Rushing from Port Elizabeth airport to a midday performance I had managed to discard a thermal vest, but the long-johns remained. As did the socks which clung to my feet like sheaths of soggy Himalayan yak-hair – a discomfit that disoriented the otherwise familiar schizophrenia of rose-tinted nostalgia and acute revulsion that fills one up when entering a town where one learnt to grow up, but which still markets itself as the gateway to “Frontier Country” after almost two hundred years of colonial violence.
I am no stranger in this village.
Abel Selaocoe, the main programme’s featured young artist for music, is dripping sweat over his cello in the Beethoven Room at Rhodes University’s music school.
Accompanied by a piano, Selaocoe is playing part of an anti-war requiem by the English composer Benjamin Britten. It is mournful and dark, scattered with eruptions of violence. The horror of World War I, via Selaocoe’s cello, is indistinct from Aleppo, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Marikana massacre.
A middle-aged man sitting towards the back of the room appears unmoved by the performance; incessantly tapping WhatsApp messages on his phone. The piece ends to rapturous applause and an irritated chastisement from the man’s neighbour: “Your messaging is really intrusive,” he says.
The tapper does not relent.
It is so hot that Selaocoe asks for the windows to be opened. Including the cellist, there are only a handful of black people in the room. Ninety percent of the audience are over 60-years-old, and white — plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The open windows let some of their stuffiness out and the sultry afternoon, with its soundtrack of liberated birds, in.
When Selaocoe reinterprets a Giovanni Sollima composition, surrounding his cello playing with Umngqokolo, the Xhosa throat vocal tradition from the Eastern Cape, there are a few purist sniffs — the kind of pinched nose responses one sometimes received from English lecturers when trying to discuss African literature in the 1990s.
The piece is a metaphysical, thrumming exploration of space, time and the ancestors. The man tapping at his phone — despite this being the music of immersion, not multi-tasking — is certainly not keeping time on his screen.
Afterwards, on the street, I reflect on the experience. Many people emerge from the recital beaming; as if their smiles are holding up ears that, almost post-coital, are exhausted and limp from the aural orgasms recently experienced.
I wonder how the man on WhatsApp found the performance: Did he still “get it” while not being fully present in the worlds that Selaocoe had created?
My thoughts are interrupted by Claire. We studied journalism together in the nineties and then shared a house for a while in London. She has been living in Scotland for the most part of the preceding two decades and is in Grahamstown with an initiative called Consciousness Cafe — a series of discussions that hopes to bridge the racial, gender and socio-economic chasms that still fracture our society.
We haven’t seen each other in ages. We catch up a bit. Shoot the breeze.
Claire bemoans the absence of Cue, the festival’s daily newspaper. Run by the university’s journalism department and managed by working journalists, it allowed students to learn about art criticism and meeting deadlines. It was also one of the unique threads that stitched together the festival community each year.
Claire is saddened that while there is an App for the digital newspaper, there are no hard copies available because of funding shortages. There were no cellphones, let alone smart ones, when we attended university together: “Its not the same,” she complains, “usually when you’re out between shows, poring over the reviews and the programmes, its easy to start up conversations with strangers sitting at the next table who are doing exactly the same thing. You get to make friends that way, maybe you get persuaded to watch something you may not have from these conversations.”
That conviviality and sense of festival camaraderie is lost with a smartphone App. Phones shroud users in personal privacies — one is never sure if the person at the next table is reading a Cue review, swiping through Tinder or giggling at kittens attempting skiing lessons.
At an arts festival where audience numbers have dwindled, partially because of the country’s recession, partially because of ineptitude, the smartphone has added another layer of loneliness and isolation amongst those present.
The materiality of a newspaper acts as a signifier that moves from words into the world. In the physical, the smartphone is insular.
Smartphones have changed how we engage with the world, and art. Research suggests that museum-goers spend between 15 to 30 seconds looking at an artwork before moving on.
Sometimes, in the case of a stranger I observe stalking through Grahamstown’s Albany History Museum’s exhibition commemorating the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi, the attention span is much shorter.
The sinking of the Mendi was the greatest military disaster in South African maritime history. The boat — carrying mainly black workers from the South African Native Labour Contingent, who had joined the war effort as labourers — was struck by a British Royal Mail packet-boat, the SS Darro, in the channel between England and France. Six hundred and forty-six men died.
No life-saving assistance was provided for the men on board the Mendi. The Darro’s captain and crew watched as the South Africans floundered in the wreckage and drowned. As they watched, the Darro’s crew would have had their insularity pierced by the South Africans bravely singing and “dancing the death drill” as they sank to their watery graves.
The dead men’s families were never awarded their pensions or the promised grants of land. Their deaths were never commemorated by the Afrikaner government.
The exhibition, through archival photography and paraphernalia, and modern updates including video installations, painting and photography, seeks to address this socio-political lacuna while examining the relationship between humans and water.
It is a powerful, haunting exhibition that moves the viewer to reconsider history’s different versions and contemplate a past brutalism of blackness still very much present in contemporary South Africa’s failures. Many of us are still drowning while the political and business elite who are safely ensconced on the battering ram which has smashed into our ship sinking are refusing to throw out lifebuoys and jackets.
My reverie is pierced by the clip-clopping sound of high heels on polished tiles. The sound lasts only long enough for observation, not irritation.
A woman walks quickly through the large rectangular exhibition room in about a minute-and-a-half. She stops longest in front of Hilary Graham’s triptych of the sinking of the Mendi, painted in oils. She stands just long enough to photograph it before leaving to the next exhibition space and then — judging by the quickly fading aural pock-marks — the next.
I wonder what she has comprehended during that time. What she has experienced as a viewer. I wonder what nuance she will derive from looking at a photograph of paintings that run over six metres in length, on her smartphone screen. I wonder if social media proof of being somewhere has replaced actually being in that present.
The argument that photography, as an instrument of capitalism, is a tool for the erasure of memory was ventilated by the likes of Susan Sontag and John Berger long before the existence of smartphones with cameras.
In his 1978 essay, Uses of Photography, Berger notes that in the 20th century, “the judgment of history has been abandoned by all except the underprivileged and the dispossessed. The industrialised, “developed” world, terrified of the past, blind to the future, lives within an opportunism which has emptied the principle of justice of all credibility. Such opportunism turns everything — nature, history, suffering, other people, catastrophes, sport, sex, politics — into spectacle. And the implement used to do this — until the act becomes so habitual that the conditioned imagination may do it alone — is the camera.”
Almost forty years on, these words appear prescient in a time of tech-deities espousing the untrammelled free-market philosophy of Ayn Rand while eroding the trade union gains of previous decades and hipster-fying the “gig economy” by putting the 99% to almost continuous work.
This is a dystopian time when the very essence of community is being bled by the disruptor casual bed economy. When a precarious sense of self is narcissistically intertwining both public and the private; opening egos to the caprice of “likes”, emoji shorthand, “twars” and selfies, on social media.
Ours is a digital Colosseum where Berger’s “spectacle” is omnipresent. The smartphone — with its Apps and camera — is at the centre of this. “The spectacle,” Berger notes, “creates an eternal present of immediate expectation: memory ceases to be necessary or desirable. With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgment are lost to us. The camera relieves us of the burden of memory. It surveys us like God, and it surveys for us. Yet no other God has been so cynical, for the camera records in order to forget.”
Despite Rhodes University, with its students and faculty, and an abnormally large number of private schools with vertiginously high school-fees, Grahamstown is a moribund place.
It is simultaneously connected, but disengaged from the rest of the country. The deep fractures that are disabling our society — racial turbulence and brutal economic inequality — feel more acute here.
The population of Grahamstown is approximately 70 000. According the Unemployed People’s Movement, a local grassroots organisation, around 80 percent of these people do not have jobs. South Africa’s official national unemployment rate is almost 27% but realists suggest its hovers closer to the 40% mark.
In 1994, as in the present, unemployment is evident on the town’s streets: there are child beggars, the wandering aimless, those merely looking to scrape together enough money for the cheapest alcoholic anaesthetic to be purchased. Others are desperate for enough coins to buy some nappies for their babies.
During the festival the main employment opportunity available to the town’s unemployed is to work as “car-guards”. An old man in a tattered luminous yellow vest comes up to me with a thumbs-up signal to suggest everything is okay with my car. His face is weathered and his hands gnarled.
He has not had a full-time job since before Mandela’s release, he says. His family have struggled with hunger-pangs and indignity through these decades. Aside from marking his ‘X’ on a ballot paper every few years not much has changed for him: there are no sustainable jobs created for him, or his sons and daughters. The local municipality — through a combination of corruption and selfishness — disregard him as much as the all-white councillors did previously. His family do not have electricity in their broken home. The water, which rarely flows from the taps, is undrinkable.
I fiddle with my phone while scratching in my pockets for some coins. “What is this phone that can pay for things?” he asks. I throw him a look of incomprehension. “I see people through the doors of the restaurants paying with their phones,” he says, “and then they come out and say they don’t have any change for me.”
Time has not stood still in Grahamstown. Like the rest of the world, it is a place lost, as much in time, as by time. In the maelstrom of technology, where memory fades, so too does our redemption.
Main Photo: The writer has not really travelled as far back as sepia realities — when this photograph was taken — but he did take a bite of the madeline cake of nostalgia at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown earlier this year – from the book, Grahamstown in Early Photographs, by Frank van der Riet