Friday, April 22, 2005

Ear to the Ground

Kiri Sailiata
Comparative Freedom Movements
Prof. Rachleff
April 18, 2005

"Ear to the Ground: Contemporary Worker Poets" COSAW & COSATU publication.1991. > The Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) merged forces to publish a remarkable compilation of poetry showcasing the artistic talents and political subjectivities of the South African Black working class. The excerpt available focuses on the experiences of three South African activists: Frank Meintjies, Cindy Maroleng, and Buysile Jonas. Prefacing each artist/activist/worker's poetry is a photo and brief biography. In this paper I will give an introduce each poet and discuss very roughly, as I am not an English major nor a poet, the major themes of each poem and how they relate to cultural production as a means of resistance.

Frank Meintjies was very active in the trade union movements of South Africa. He first worked for the Diakonia and the Media Support Project which serviced various trade unions in Cape Town and then served as an information officer for COSATU in the late '80s. Meintjies also had established talents in the form of print media as a journal for the Natal Witness and its black counterpart, Echo. His work was very much influenced by his Marxist friends and their discussions regarding Brecht, Black Consciousness Movement, and Breytenbach.

One of Meintjies' main purposes in performing and writing poetry was in reaction to the hierarchicalization of education in South Africa, "I saw how the elites used language and their expertise with the written word to dominate. I wanted to use words to explore, to express and through my own feelings and responses, contribute to the working class." His second poem entitled, "Unemployment" addresses the lack of opportunities available for working class blacks and how it strikes at the very pride and core of man unable to provide for himself. In the poem he talks about his unfruitful search for a job, borrowing money from his girl-friend, and stealing fruits from a market. Meintjies does not reinforce the stereotypes of the unemployed black South African male, but rather explores the reality and the reasons behind the construction of that reality. He writes, " here with my back against the café wall/and my pride buried/and I think and think/and I hear my teacher's voice/ 'education is the key'/ the dagga mocks and asks/ 'but where's the doors?" Irony and humor are ever present as he paints the portrait of the black working class male.

The poem in the section is entitled, "This Compelling Freedom," Meintjies plays upon the sense of sight and sound saying "I'm a prisoner of my eyes" and "I'm a prisoner of my ears" following each stanza of descriptives. It's a poem which is just as much a tribute to the suffering that is apartheid as it is to the strength and defiance of a people trying to overcome. His last verse places himself unmistakably in the thick of the struggle for freedom, "From this liberation/This compelling freedom/Of sound and sight/I speak to you."

The third and last poem is dedicated to "Mr. G." and entitled, "Days Before The Strike." The subject of the poem is a man delivering newspapers and his truck is stopped at an intersection. Meintjies comments on the dishonest content of the news and the man's solidarity with organized worker action. The last stanza says, "A comrade passes/You lean out of the window/ Shout 'amandla!'/ The reply, cheerfully/ 'one day workers will be free!'/you agree/Mr.G."Cindy Maroleng the second poet showcased in this excerpt gained her experience with the written word as the daughter and unofficial 'secretary' of a poet and Tsonga folklore author father. She earned money as a freelance writer for various newspapers including the Drum. Maroleng attributes her formal training as a writer to her work with the Bra Stan Motjuwadi, editor of the Drum. She earned a diploma in journalism from Natal Technikon in 1988.

Her background in union activities was as a former member of COSATU's paper union PPWAWU. She was chairperson the COSATU Johannesburg local media structure. Maroleng in league with other so-called, "cultural activists," formed the Soweto Culture Forum and served as the first deputy chairperson.

Maroleng's first poem is entitled, "Red Eyes," and is much more abstract and inclusive of mythical symbols and qualities than Meintjies' pieces. She does not concretely write about union activism or social problems in South Africa as much as she explores the creative experience. "Beyond the Limpopo I did not know/there lies more than/waterfall, mountains and valleys green/I did see this red carpet outstretched/across the Bridge Beit/beckoning to the souls/troubled by the monster below," thus begins the first seven lines of her poem.

Maroleng's second and final poem is entitled, "Memories." She explores through memories and bearing witness to the effects of the apartheid system. It begins with commentary on the deplorable state of education, "a system that/deprived me of living my life/to the full/i'll pick up the pieces/ and be a man/ a hu MAN being." She then references the atrocities committed by the South African state "God help me/shake the hand that/that pulled the trigger/that killed my brother/massacred/wiped out/my whole kin/on that fateful night." Maroleng describes the gruesome details of a mining worker's life "when i laboured/sweating/deep down/shaft 11/for starvation wages/help me/smile with the face/ that once harbored hatred" Buyisile Jonas is described in his biography as "Soft-spoken, pint-sized, Buyisile Jonas, is engaged in giant sized work." His work with the trade union movement is the former Education Officer of the National Union of Mineworkers. Jonas is also National Co-ordinator of "an organization like COSAW." He joined the mining industry in the early 80s and became a member of NUM. "My poems and short stories did not escape the realities of the mining environment."

The first piece by Jonas is entitled, "Tribute to Geofrey Njuza, A mineworker who died on 2 September 1989." In this poem Jonas heroifies the life of Georfrey Njuza and offers his example as a model of activism, struggle, and strength. "We draw determination/To expedite apartheid's termination," ends the poem.

The second poem written by Jonas is a piece entitled, "Cause for celebration," he talks about the return of the political prisoners namely Mandela. He describes South Africa not as a bleak place of struggle but rather as "This blooming of a new South Africa."

All three poets are examples of the way in which poetry has been used to privilege and acknowledge the subjectivities of the black working class population in South Africa. The themes of these poems: apartheid, resistance, working conditions, education, opportunities, unemployment, movement leaders, union organizing, are themes relevant to the materials we have covered extensively in class. The distribution and accessibility of this pamphlet to other black working class people is not known. However, given that these three individuals are so deeply connected with not only the labor organizing but 'cultural activism' their voices receive great attention. We can see through the example of Meintjies, Jonas, and Maroleng how forms of cultural production such as poetry are expressions of resistance in the freedom movement of South Africa.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

PV Shava

Amanda’s commentary on
P.V. Shava’s “
The People’s Cause: Political Theatre and the Political Ferment of the 1970s”

As an amplifier of the struggle for liberation, South African theater transported the challenges of oppression to the performance arena. In “The People’s Cause” P.V. Shava struggles with the effectiveness of this process and under what circumstances it took place in the prominent non-radical and radical theater of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Primarily concerned with representations of the past, present and future in the theatrical arena, Shava suggests that, “Blacks need to grapple with the problems of present-day industrial South Africa in light of how the past has contributed in shaping those problems” (Shava, 131). Shava’s argument is that political theater, particular radical theater, is an effective and necessarily tool of politicization that can be a mobilizing force for political engagement. While this argument concludes the article and is declared as the central focus, in reality Shava deals more with how political theater, both non-radical and radical, has confronted the issues of performing black identity.

The development of non-radical theater occurred during a period of “liberalism” (Shava, 128) in South Africa, in which performances could project the black experience without revolutionizing societal structures. Musical drama, or “township theatre”, was decidedly apolitical. The white creators of these musicals were seen as misrepresenting the apartheid struggle and black communities for entertainment value. Seeing these “escapist musicals” as essentializing the life of black South Africans, Shava argues that this narrow depiction is rooted in the inability of white creators and audiences to fully comprehend the black experience. Channeling “divided consciousness” (Dent, Schechner, and Moses, 175) the argument is that blacks performing for a white audience become consumed with translating their plight for the masses, forced to overlook more fundamental political and social concerns in the process.

While on the one hand non-radical plots centered on the urban majority and youth culture, the portrayal of blackness often took the form of indigenization. Traditional ways of life were depicted as predetermined and intended spaces for the black community set against the backdrop of the “thriving” urban centers. This warping of traditionalism with primitivism, cultural disintegration, and depictions of “smiling natives” harkened back to the paternalistic pulse of colonialism. The suggestion is not that representations of an indigenous past are inherently stereotypical; on the contrary, other radical plays such as uNosilimela used indigenous culture as a way to discuss the deteriorating effects of modernization. uNosilimela is forced to move from his tribal roots to Johannesburg, which is depicted “ - not as a centre for commercial benefit as musical plays imply, but as a breeding ground for the disorientation of black people” (Shava,130). The stability of indigenous society is contrasted with the chaos and turmoil that uNosilimela found in the urban center.

Radical, unlike non-radical theater, has proven its ability to educate about the past, confront traditionalism, and bolster pride in a black African identity without introducing primitivism as the basis for these topics. Owing much to the Black Consciousness Movement, it was between 1972 and 1975 that township theater became radical. Black Consciousness intentions of reaffirming black identity surfaced in radical theater as testimony to the capacity for both social reflection and activism (Woodard, 50). The content of much of the theater of this period dealt with everyday life in the townships or the plight of people fighting for survival, for individuality, and for freedom of expression and action. With the emergence of theater groups such as the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON) and Workshop ’71, radical theater not only considered social commentary as an essential tool of politicization, but also included advocacy and protest as central themes in their productions (Shava, 136).

Raising the question of artistic objectives, Shava must have been channeling Dent, Schechner and Moses (172) who asked: “How could we remain true to ourselves and our own concerns as artists and at the same time remain true to our developing recognition of what might be called a political responsibility?” While the radical theatrical approaches attempted to incorporate theories of black consciousness into everyday struggles, other playwrights withdrew from this practice. Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is about the constraints of pass laws and the significance of black identity. Finding the passbook of a dead man, Sizwe Bansi decides to adopt this dead man’s identity. The play chronicles the daily grappling with the hardships inherited by this new dispensation. Critics of Fugard’s work argue that “There remains an evasion of underlying and fundamental issues” in a play that remains “fundamentally individual and individualized” (Shava, 133). With this critique we must question whether the role of the individual can be considered without ignoring the collective, and vice versa? Perhaps the most glaring hole in Shava’s argument is contemplating how collectivity and individuality may be incorporated into political theater (such as The Dunlop Play’s ethnographic approach for example). In the case of Sizwe Bansi, Shava mildly concludes that Fugard is not considered a revolutionary playwright, and therefore not subject to the same principles of “revolutionary” theater (134).

The introductory argument that theater was an effective mobilizing force for political engagement concludes the article. Unfortunately, because Shava glares over the relationships in the production process, we are left to wonder how this process might have taken place. The obvious question remains: How can theater be a tool for artistic empowerment without subordinating political aspirations to capitalistic ones, and yet still have an audience? This is a definitively political need, and without it the radical changes that theater can affect in this period of transformation would be impossible. Seeking strength and clarity from a South African past, and giving space and support to imaginatively new talent can secure African theater in this place.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Ari Sitas by Shana

<>Ari Sitas’ “Tradition of Poetry in Natal

In Traditions of Poetry, Ari Sitas analyzes the value poetry has for working-class social movements in South Africa. He chooses to do by probing into the contributions orators and writers have made to the movement through their chosen mode of expression. By dividing the writers along the lines of oral and written expression, Sitas hopes to convey the inherent power that can be captured and loss through the poets’ use of voice or scripture. Sitas declines valuing one form of poetic expression over another, choosing instead to show how various poets have used their chosen medium to aid in the “people’s,” i.e. Natal’s working-class, empowerment and struggle for economic, political, and social equality. <>In the following response, I will first introduce the scripture poets analyzed by Sitas, and then explain how their personal style and use of prose is effective or ineffective at reaching the people. Next I will discuss the five oral poets is the same fashion. An important thread that ties each poet together in Sitas’ analysis, regardless of their genre, is how the poets’ background influences their poetic style, the poets’ need to by heard and be representative of the people’s social and cultural movements, and their foundation in Zulu oral tradition.

The driving force behind many poets is the need to be the “people’s poet” and the need to create the “people’s poetry. (139) However, scripture poets who hope to capture and empower the struggle of the people have the difficult task of overcoming the barrier that the written word erects between the poet and a people “to whom paper was as good for cigarettes as it was for words.”(139) Three written poets, Dhlomo, Kunene, and Gwala, try accomplishing this task through this obstructive medium. Dhlomo hopes to appeal to the “New African”, “ a class of intellectual and intelligently organized black workers by writing “’black classics’ of literature in the service of the community.” However intelligent and forceful his words, his choice to both write and write only in English prevent his works from reaching the people. However, his works, far from failures, serve to clear the path for future poets. Kunene hopes to channel the rich Zulu oral tradition by writing in Zulu. He does so in order to avoid English’s colonial restraints, but unfortunately, “the people” cannot read Zulu. However, his rich background in Zulu oration and his attempt to merge Zulu oral praise with written expressions serves as a founder for future “spiritual preoccupations of the black consciousness movement.”(146) Gwala, is an orator as well as a writer, however his performed poetry failed to reach pass small groups of black militants. Thus, his poetic works, which were intended for performance, are regulated to bound pages. Sitas points out that each of the scripture poets are trying to communicate through in “imagined oral language --- communication trapped in print.”(149) Adding to the tragedy that these poets are “unread by the people” is that these poets will continue to be separated from the people until social conditions improve, making it possible for ‘the people’ to read.

Sitas believes that oral poetry is “one of the most powerful means of expression,” and that it channels the people need to control their own creativity and own their own voices. Five orators chosen by Sitas in his analysis are Vilane, Zondi, Hlatswhayo, and Qabula. The orators capitalize on the tradition of the black working class’s subsistence on “oral modes of communication and celebration.”(151). Particularly insightful is how many of the for mentioned orators use Zulu tradition and history in various ways to the people’s everyday struggles, and empower the movement. Each orator also channels his own background and formal or lack of formal education to bring inspiration to the people. Oration allows for such variety in education attainment, unlike written, because it allows poets to compose in any language, whether formal or informal. It also allows them capture the immediate concerns of the people, their transitions, and the changing world; thus creating a “popular poetry of the people that is very accessible.

According to Sitas, regardless of the differences that separate the written and oral poetry, they share the following five principles: (1) promise of hope and redemption, no matter how distant, (2)haunted by violence and death, (3)despite this harshness, it makes aware that “there is defiance and it is defiant,” (4) claims familiarity with the people, and (5)is self-reflective and “critical of popular organizations and popular habits and practices.”(159) Sitas hopes that the two traditions can learn from the other through the way they express themselves. It is through this articulation of events, of the people’s story, that we will learn.

Sitas stresses the differences between the two genres in hopes of enlightening the reader of the ability the two forms have in producing social change. Sitas accomplishes this aspirant task by analyzing the work, form and delivery of three great scripted poets and four oral poets. Most importantly, and a credit to the purpose of his paper, Sitas shows the ways each poet, through their chosen genre, contributes to the people’s empowerment. Yet, he also shows how the poets’ chosen genre limits their ability to completely capture the people’s voice and move their social movement to a higher plane. However, it is not a matter of which genre is better, rather how the differences in the poetic expressions are empowering the people who need to them.


Tomaselli Summary<>

In “The Semiotics of Alternative Theatre in South Africa,” Keyan G. Tomaselli explores what he refers to as“committed” theatre and its pertinent relationship to class divisions in working class South Africa. Tomaselli argues that because working class theatre is organically contrived and performed by members of the working class, translating the message of a particular play to a wider (albeit white) audience is problematic, to say the least.

A central theme in Tomaselli’s paper, and one he mentions immediately, is the idea that the introduction of capitalism into a work of committed theatre only serves to dilute the original intent of the play; on the contrary, Tomaselli argues that the ability of authentic black theatre to resist the “bland homogenizing influences of capital” are precisely what leaves it to “stand almost alone in its consistent achievements as a medium of popular working class expression” (14). Tomaselli also believes that the integrity of black theatre is maintained by its tendency to reflect and mediate reality. This type of theater, with its emphasis on exposing and interpreting actual situations, is common among countries in which class divisions and social categories are marked and perpetually in conflict. Thus, Tomaselli points out that there will never be a shortage of material for political theatre productions so long as inequities, especially those of the class variety, stand.

Also unique to committed theatre is the deeply personal bond formed between audience and actors. Because this type of theatre is most often performed by members of the working class specifically for members of the working class, audience members are able to view the events acted out in front of them from a more informed standpoint, simply because they, themselves continually experience the injustices explored in such plays. As Tomaselli explains:

“This interaction with the actors is a cathartic experience which works to mitigate their lot in a performance which sees no separation or distinction between actor and spectator, stage and life or performance and reality: they are all part of the whole, inter-twined in a metonymic relationship which connects art with life. (15)”

Tomaselli’s notion of the world as a stage within the context of political theatre in South Africa is then later used to explain the problems that occur when black theatre is co-opted by the masses.

Tomaselli then explores what he sees as something of injustice: the phrase “black theatre.” As he states, “To argue that such theatre deals mainly with black experience is fraught with difficulties since the causation of that experience tends to be ignored” (15). Furthermore, Tomaselli argues that the term is used to differentiate between itself and “white” or “Afrikaans” theatre, which only serves to perpetuate the “idea of dualisms on in society.” Tomaselli instead prefers either “commited” or “working class theatre.”

Tomaselli goes on to discuss the various ways the notion of class plays into power structures on the “set,” and how class identities within the artists themselves constantly threaten the political veracity of the production. Tomaselli identifies three distinct, class-driven situations present in South African theatre. The first of which is the black director-author who is part of the petty bourgeois class. The financial success they gain from their plays “tends to push them towards greater aspirations for class mobility” (16). Eventually, these directors become alienated from the actors they have collaborated with and will no longer be able to identify with the issues and conflicts addressed by their plays.

The second type is the same petty bourgeois director-author who decides to resist the temptation of class mobility in favor of continuing with the struggle. These people grapple with internal conflict continually and may not be able to embrace the proletarian lifestyle fully.

The final case involves the “white petty bourgeois intellectual” who decides to use his or her advantage and empathy towards working-class issues to bring these issues to the forefront. Tomaselli notes, “Under these conditions, identification with the working class is a self-imposed deliberate action which suggests questioning of the ideology of his own class” (17).

Indeed, Tomaselli goes into great detail regarding the white influence and perspective and its implications within committed theatre. Although he acknowledges that the African actors who portray white officials cannot experience their character’s life, he asserts that because white audiences cannot possibly know the experience of their African counterparts, the meanings behind the various theatre productions will be reduced to mere metaphors that whites can somehow grasp. Because he believes that the viewer’s class position is the determining factor in the overall message one will take away from a play, Tomaselli especially worries about the mass production of committed theatre (20).

Implied in this piece is that with white audiences inevitably comes commercialism, something Tomaselli is whole-heartedly against. He states, “With this penetration of capital, art is transformed into a commodity and is consequently robbed of its critical, negating role in relation to capitalist society. As a commodity, mass art is tied to the ideological purposes of capitalism” (20). He references several working class productions that were performed for mass audiences with the effect that much of their content had to be censored. Tomaselli romantically expounds on the “organic” nature of the plays as they stand. That is, they do not require so much as a curtain or a spotlight and are able to incorporate elements from their surroundings (i.e., a barking dog, traffic noise) that serve to make the play all the more relevant. Tomaselli also appreciates the oral tradition of committed theatre, noting that because it is not written, it cannot be censored and can be modified at any stage to better suit the political atmosphere at any given time.

Tomaselli also faults the notion of mass art because once it is presented, it is not sufficiently analyzed in terms of political or socio-cultural aspects and is instead often analyzed in terms of playwrights and texts.

The end of the article is comprised of a question-and-answer interview with Halton Cheadle, who helped create the play entitled “Ilanga Le So Phonela Abasebenzi.” Cheadle explains how much of the content of the play came directly from the mouths of people involved in the incident it chronicles. In this sense, the actors in the play did not so much have to act as retell their stories to an audience. Tomaselli ends by noting that plays like “Ilanga” have the capacity to change with the times and the evolving needs of workers. In conclusion, Tomaselli states, “Worker theatre must, therefore, be conceptualized as alternative theatre for it strongly resists a content determined by capital, that is subject to the interests of capital and that is controlled by capital” (31).

Monday, April 18, 2005

Summary of The Emergence of Powerful Black Unions by Roger Kerson

In his article The Emergence of Powerful Black Unions, Roger Kerson argues that labor organizing is one of the few above ground avenues left for black South Africans to express their dissent against the apartheid system. The reason for this is that the economic survival of the apartheid state depends largely on the power of black labor and industry, and consequently the state has no choice but to recognize and content with the new unions. Roger Kerson himself is a spokesperson for the United Auto Workers union and his article appears in The Anti-Apartheid Reader which was published in 1986 before the fall of the apartheid regime. Kerson outlines the importance of labor activism in the anti-apartheid movement and demonstrates that union activism extended beyond economic gains for workers and into the political sphere as well.
Kerson begins the article with a material example of the power of black unions. When John Gomomo, a shop steward at an auto factory and vice president of the National Automobile and Allied Workers Union was arrested by South African Security forces, 3,000 black workers at the factory walked off their jobs and refused to return until their leaders were released less than six hours later. This is a markedly different situation than most political activity happening in South Africa at this time where, “With most opposition groups under constant attack by the government-- virtually the entire leadership of the United Democratic Front, for example, is in detention, awaiting trial or in hiding, and several people have been mysteriously murdered-- trade unions are one of the few remaining aboveground outlets for black resistance” (Kerson 277). Unions have a distinct advantage over other anti-apartheid groups specifically because the South African economy depends on black workers in a way that makes the state vulnerable to their demands.
The union organizers are aware of both the leverage they have as workers in their dealings with the state and of the political interconnectedness of economic issues inside the factory and the repressive apartheid system at large. According to Chris Dlamini, president of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), “There’s no way we can divorce ourselves from the popular struggle... It emanates from the fact that people don’t have the right to vote -- that our people do not have equal access to the wealth of this country, even though we pay taxes... Trade unions are the only platform we’ve got” (Kerson 277). This accountability to black South Africans outside of the industrial world as well as to the workers themselves perhaps stems in part from the democratic nature of these unions and the fact that only active workers can serve as union officers who are at all times accountable to the rank and file.
The importance of black workers in the South African economy has in turn led to prominent business leaders and large corporations who “do their best to defeat black workers on the industrial front are suddenly painting themselves as supporters of black political aspirations” (Kerson 278). These corporations are being hurt economically because of the South African political crisis and the subsequent divestment of many global corporations. Increasingly, they are also looking to protect the interests of capitalism in the potential post-apartheid state. A.M. Rosholt, executive chairman of Barlow Rand Ltd., asserts the need “for businessmen to speak out more forcefully for the need for reform and to take steps to guarantee that blacks ‘enjoy their fair share of the fruits of the system’” (280) in order to protect a capitalist institutions from anti-apartheid reforms. Kerson argues that black workers will not be bought by the business rhetoric. Though these businessmen also argue that divestment hurts workers, two opinion polls actually “show that more than 70 percent of blacks favor some form of economic sanctions or divestment to put pressure on the Pretoria regime” (280). The union leadership and the ran and file are clearly aware that their best interests and the best interests of the corporations are not the same.
Ultimately, Kerson makes a good argument for the importance of black unions and “nonracial” unions in fighting the apartheid system through activism both inside and outside the shop floor. The discussion of the role of corporate businessmen encouraging an end to the apartheid system is especially interesting given the role of capitalist interests in the post-apartheid South Africa that succeeds the publishing of Kerson’s article.