Siopis documenting the Drowning of Verwoerd’s Pratt

August 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

”On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf observed. If this was true of 1910 then it was certainly true too of 1960 and in particular of South Africa’s character.  Before that year apartheid was drifting towards something irregular, it was not entirely settled, and perhaps there was a morality that was recoverable.  After the events of that year, however, there was no turning back.  Before 1960 the sign of the defiance campaign was a thumb held upwards, after 1960 this expression of solidarity would turn in on itself to become the fist of the struggle.

Penny Siopis’s video installation, which was shown a few months ago at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (as part of the group show Trade Routes over Time), is an attempt to explicate something of the psychology of that year. A year that saw the arrest of Robert Sobukwe and the PAC’s defiance campaign which resulted in Sharpeville and the 30 000 man march into Cape Town.  It also, significantly, marked perhaps one of the last active white liberal interventions into South African politics; that is to say the attempted assassination of Verwoerd by David Pratt.

In The Master is Drowning Siopis has created a montage out of found film footage into a ‘documentation’ of the concerned and disturbed thoughts of the would be assassin Pratt.  The video takes us through Pratt’s year leading up to the point he placed the 0.22 pistol up against Verwoerd’s head.  Siopis creates this through film clips, subtitles (phrases largely taken from Pratt’s trial) and a splicing of musical arrangements.

Through the joining of these three mediums she manages to convey a simulacrum of Pratt’s emotions, and, by implication, those of the country’s (or at least the white liberal section of it).  One feels that each subtitle has in a sense ‘created’ the image that it accompanies.  Pratt’s epilepsy is attested to in both text and by figures rolling on beaches and writhing through the sea.  We reach his moments of calm in ‘the birds sang more sweetly’ which is set on a clip of school girls playing on the lawn.  ‘How to give the message’ occurs with a baboon seemingly falling out of a tree.

Here Siopis is not creating a direct inference with the text and image but rather is communicating with the artistic reversal of a Rorschach test – that is to say the text suggests the image but does not define it.   These are the moments where Siopis trusts her visual response to the phrase and that trust creates a powerful understanding of not only Pratt’s sense of self but also the country’s. This is almost perfectly evoked when Siopis allows the imagery to play for a while after the text has vanished.  These are the video’s truly strong moments.

However, there are times when the video becomes a little too prescriptive and didactic. This is where text and image are too directly representative of one another. The clip of Verwoerd saying ‘I always choose for final solutions’, although an alarming and ironic piece of footage, is a little too overstated and obvious. The success of the The Master is Downing, one feels, relies on the nuances and intimations that exist between text and image, its weaknesses are its didactic documentation. However, these imperfect moments are at the very least interesting ones.

From Hail to the Thief to Ave Madonna: From Presidential Penis to Pussy Riot

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Madonna’s Pussy Riot Protest [Source: Guardian]

As the members of Pussy Riot sit helpless in court behind their cage of glass and iron, watching their fate being played out in court, there is perhaps one hope of absolution: Madonna.  The punk band/art collective, who openly admit to the sin of feminism, are on trial for having performed a punk hymn to the Virgin Mary, asking her to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow on the 21 February. Despite the fact that the trial seems to bear all the elements of a farce the threat of a substantial jail sentence is, by all accounts, very real and there seems to be little that can be done legally for the three young women.

Russian radical feminist group Pussy Riot stage a protest against Vladimir Putin’s policies at Moscow’s Red Square last January. Photograph: Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

However this is where Madonna steps in. For at her latest concert in Moscow she spoke out publically on behalf of the art-protest-collective as well revealing a written show of support printed on her bare back. To be sure there is always a confusing duality in celebrity protest between that of self-promotion versus the bravery to stand up for the repressed.  And there is almost always an inauthenticity to such actions.  For fame has the merit of the ivory tower and Madonna’s protest, unlike that of Pussy Riot’s, contains not the slightest element of personal danger to it – and authentic actions are to a large degree defined by defying the fears of being sanctioned.  For Madonna certainly is beyond the grips of Putin’s political machinations.  However, in saying this it should be pointed out that precisely because she is beyond the Russian regime’s grip she can, unlike millions of Russian’s, act with impunity for the sake of three young woman.

Of course there are the questions of whether she should be in Moscow in the first place. Of whether she should be accepting the money made at the concert. And whether she should not in fact be calling for cultural boycott instead. However, these moral questions will no doubt only be satisfactorily answered by the consequences of her recent actions in Moscow – that is to say how much did international pressure help to reduce the sentences of these women.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich sit inside a glass enclosure during a court hearing in Moscow.

And in this regard what seems clear is that already we are seeing international pressure paying some dividends in that the state’s original suggestion of seven years imprisonment has now been reduced to three years.  This is although the Russian state prosecutor, Alexei Nikiforov, has seemingly not recanted on the notion that what the three did was ‘violate the traditions of our country.’  And it is here, when government’s begin to appeal to such protean notions such as ‘violating traditions’ to imprison and silence protesters, that perhaps PR and the trappings of celebrity can play an important role.  For when confronted with the totalitarian habit of bending laws to include ‘violating traditions’, together with a partisan jury, there is very little that can be done inside the system. As Slavoj Zizek, in his book Violence, points out that in the former Yugoslavia ‘there was the infamous Article 133 of the penal code which could always be invoked to prosecute writers and journalist. It criminalized any text that…might arouse tension and discontent among the public.’  This idea, as Zizek claims, is infinitely plastic and circular in that the fact that you are being prosecuted for ‘arousing tensions and discontent’ is proof enough that you are guilty of ‘arousing tensions and discontent’.

Of course quite recently we have come very close to seeing this autocratic ‘logic’ in South Africa in the case of Brett Murray’s The Spear. And in a sense more disturbingly this malleability of law to bend to the government’s will is what underlies many of the clauses contained within what has been called ‘the Secrecy Bill’.  The warning is: allow the law too much flexibility and any dictatorship can use it to their own purposes.  It was Isaiah Berlin who admitted that he had, in his earlier work, grossly misunderstood the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan could meet out any violence upon his citizens so long as it was sanctioned by the law. As Berlin eventually realized, quite the reverse is true of dictators. What dictators do is use laws as a ‘kind of jelly you can shape as you choose from moment to moment.  The goal is not to allow anything to set…Stalin made laws which you could be punished for obeying or not obeying at random.  There was nothing that you could do to save yourself.’

This was of course certainly true of most of the dictators of the twentieth century and was of course almost perfectly captured by Orwell in his aphorism ‘some animals are more equal than others’. But today we see this method paling slightly.  If we are to accept some of the reports that came out at the end of the Brett Murray case, then it turns out that President Zuma’s major fear was not having his painted genetalia on display or the fact that the ANC was seeking to trample on freedom of expression but rather what this incident might do to effect his PR strategy.  Zuma, by all accounts, just wanted the whole thing to go away.  For unlike some of the more retrograde members of the ANC, still stuck in Soviet era rhetoric, Zuma is clearly beginning to understand the contemporary world and the necessity to get down and pray before the god of PR.

Did Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ play the same role as Pussy Riot?

What we did in fact see at the start of The Spear debacle was an attempt to create, in Berlin’s terms, ‘a jelly’ of the notion of freedom of expression.  What Jackson Mthembu and others tried to argue was that freedom of speech was in some way synonymous with social cohesion. That was to say that any artwork that might arouse discontent and be an insult to personal dignity was not the same ‘freedom of expression’ as the one inscribed in the constitution.  The attempt to gelatinise ‘freedom of expression’ into the same thing as ‘that which promotes social cohesion and respects personal dignity’ was thankfully met with short shrift in the courts. Conversely in the Russian courts statements from the prosecuting lawyers like, ‘Feminism is a mortal sin’, go, for the moment at least, unquestioned and seem to be accepted as a notion inscribed in law.

To be sure the fact that South Africa’s laws are not, to date, the ‘jelly’ that still exists in Russia is hugely to our constitution and judiciary’s credit.  However, there are still the rather disturbing forces outside of this solidity as when Gwede Mantashe went on record to say that: “What the ANC cannot win in the courts, it will win in the streets.” However, what is notable about the hindrances that both Putin and Zuma are encountering is that to try and create this ‘law jelly’ is one thing – Putin having to date been far more successful than Zuma – but to try and create it and escape a PR catastrophe is quite another.  And this is something that we see with the Secrecy Bill and the ANC’s shyness about actually delivering the coup de grace.  This timidity in facing the beast of PR can also be seen in Putin’s rhetoric which seems to have taken on a conciliatory tone in the face of the media frenzy that has been created around Pussy Riot, of which Madonna has been its most prominent voice.

It certainly seems true that although Pussy Riot’s punk-prayer to the divine Madonna, to rid Russia of Vladimir Putin, may fallen on the Divine’s deaf ears, the earthly Madonna, the virgin mother of global PR, has made almost as good an intervention to protect these three brave women as her name sake in heaven could have done.  Whether of course this goes to furthering her own (the Madonna on earth’s) brand and PR is largely irrelevant.  In a world where Facebook and Twitter can begin and sustain revolutions, governments ignore the power of PR to their detriment.

The Spear and the Sickle: Are Zuma and the ANC appropriating the actions of Lenin?

June 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

The liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously argued that there where two kinds of liberty.  He called them positive and negative freedom.  Positive freedoms, he suggested, were inscribed in laws and what has become known as ‘rights’ i.e. the right to water, the right to healthcare, the right to economic freedom etc.  Negative freedom was simply the area in life where a human being acted without being coerced by either a person or law.

Berlin’s argument was that although many rights and laws were good, noble and decent they could, and quite often do, come into direct conflict with negative freedom.  This was because the ‘rights’ of some could start to define certain human needs and understandings. And the problem with this was that the needs and values of some may come into a direct conflict with the needs and rights of others.  He called this notion ‘the incommensurability of values’.


The right to dignity, for example, is just one such right or value that acts in this manner.  That is to say that one person’s dignity is another person’s joke.  If one person may feel that the exposure of genitals is undignified another may think it to be relatively harmless and maybe even entirely politically necessary and moral.  Berlin’s point was that making a rule that protects one person’s concept of dignity is in fact a net loss of freedom because it restricts another person in acting in a way, that they believe, to be either perfectly harmless, and perhaps, in Brett Murray’s case, to be morally good – i.e. his intention was to criticize what he believes to be a patriarchal, corrupt and profligate demagogue.

This was essentially Berlin’s point that, by enshrining one notion of the good one inevitably restricts another person’s equally earnest set of beliefs.  Berlin argued that if one starts going too far down this road one does not end up in a free and liberal state but heads towards dictatorship. Define the notion of ‘the good’ too narrowly and one ends up, no matter how unintentionally, restricting other peoples’ beliefs of what is good.

Negative freedom, he claimed, was the simple idea that a human could act in an area without infringing any law or being cowed by any bully. I am free in that no man is master over me in a given situation, and that I can act autonomously without the hindrance of others.  Most laws, Berlin argued, were not created with freedom in mind.  The law preventing murder, for example, is not, he would have said, freeing people from being murdered but in fact stopping the freedom to murder.  Of course stopping people from murdering others (and in particular, me) is a very good idea and there are not only very fine moral implications to this but also rational and practical ones. 

But don’t be fooled, Berlin warned, society is not increasing its freedom by having a law that prohibits murder, it is in fact losing a freedom but for some very good reasons.  So what then are the arguments for freedom if complete freedom would allow something as egregious as murder?  In this regard Berlin proffered several arguments, one was that a certain level of freedom is moral.  ‘Paternalism,’ he quoted from Kant, ‘is the greatest form of despotism.’  It also, he suggested, allows people to find their own unique strengths that are necessary for human flourishing.  But he also, at times, displayed some sympathy for one of John Stuart Mill’s arguments for freedom and that was that freedom had an instrumental value.

This idea in some ways goes back the observations of Hume, who was one of the first people to realise that morals and values are relative.  Relative to time, place and culture, values more often that not changed organically and that there was nothing necessarily morally progressive about this growth – great barbarism could follow years of great social and spiritual enlightenment and vice versa.  Mill believed that one way of ensuring that positive progressive development takes place in a society was a fundamental subscription to the ideals of freedom. This was because Mill claimed that freedom had not only moral qualities, as Kant had argued, but also that it had practical ones. 

Mill stated that ‘due to the imperfect nature of the human mind the interests of the truth require a diversity of opinions.’ That was to say that ‘experiments in living’ would reveal results that may not be those that are predicted by blindly holding on to certain cultural practices. And that only in an open and free society that was underpinned by deliberative decision-making processes could sustainable progress be achieved.  According to Mill even if somebody expressed the most the most vile and immoral doctrine, freedom of expression should allow it to be aired.  This was because, so long as there was no physical threat to others, this expression may go some way to resolving an issue if only in that it would allow for others to express that doctrine’s negation.

And this is broadly speaking one of the most regularly quoted defense of freedom of expression. But ironically Mill’s limits of freedom of expression was ‘that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed through the medium of the printed page. It is not acceptable to express the same view to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer.’  And it was this very sentiment that COPE’s leader Mosiuoa Lekota expressed when he stated in parliament , ‘when the ruling party, that is, the government …threatens to unleash mass force on society, the constitution is thrown out of the window.’


Sadly the whole Murray incident has displayed, for all the world to see, South Africa’s complete lack of democratic maturity.  For a court application to have been abandoned and the response to have degenerated into mass marches and paint throwing sadly shows the petulance of a country whose rulers and citizenry prematurely ejaculate without even the slightest regard for the constitution and the free deliberative structures available to us as a democratic society.

What is even more disturbing is that not only have Mill’s instrumental uses of freedom been trampled on but in fact more importantly Berlin’s concerns regarding what may result from the hegemony of certain values also seems disturbingly relevant. Berlin’s exposition of where these kinds of attitudes may lead now should come firmly into focus. Berlin claimed that forcing one interpretation of something like ‘dignity’ onto a society would ultimately result in despotism.  And this in fact is the very idea that underpins our constitution; that is to say that there should be no cultural hegemonies – one man’s manners are another man’s manacles. No one culture should make demands over another.  The fact that one culture finds it completely unacceptable to display a penis and another culture hardly bats an eyelid does not mean that the one culture can demand the removal of the penis.

What underpinned our post-apartheid settlement was that no one race or culture should be allowed to dictate their preferences over any other.  Under our liberal constitution just because I maybe Muslim doesn’t not mean that I can demand that nobody must be allowed to drink alcohol.  And just because I am a Catholic doesn’t mean that I can tell President Zuma that he must only have one wife – despite the fact that polygamy deeply offends my cultural and moral sensibilities.  As a Musolic I must just accept that other people do things that offend me but so long as they are not physically abusing or defaming me I must accept the fact that I cannot and should not stop them from acting in the way that they see fit. After all if I stop them form acting in a way that they believe to be moral no doubt they will try to do the same to me. This was precisely the very situation the Berlin saw as humanities greatest threat.

What this means, and seems so difficult for the conservative patriarchal element of South Africa to get to grips with, is that, in a pluralist liberal society, if you don’t like it, and it is not directly and unfairly harming you, then you just have to accept it. Or at least try to explain your concerns in an open deliberative process.  Now perhaps we should heed Berlin’s warning in his celebrated essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” that by bullying one culture to accept another culture’s understanding of what human dignity is, is not only coercive but leads to autocratic dictatorship.


Berlin often stated that this was in fact the essential problem with Leninism; that its interpretation of what human needs are and what it is to be moral were too narrow.   This would inevitably result in what Lenin stated was the reason for his brutal and coercive actions i.e. ‘to make an omelet one has to break of few eggs’.  Or to put another way, when I know the ‘real’ (in this case ‘African’) dignity, then “I can ignore the wishes of other men or societies, bully, oppress and torture them in the name and on behalf of their ‘real’ selves” (Berlin, p133).  This doctrine for Berlin, whose family had fled Lenin’s Bolshevik terror in 1918, was anathema. Of course the irony of all of this is that Murray’s painting of Zuma was in fact based on a depiction of Lenin. This now seems entirely appropriate seeing as Zuma and his acolytes’ demands have been that, in their terms, ‘African dignity’ should take primacy over the freedom of expression. This is the very kind of Leninist approach that Berlin, and indeed our constitution, sought to subvert in the name of an open, pluralistic and liberal society.


Democracy: African or European?

June 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Democracy: African or European?.

Democracy: African or European?

June 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

‘Venice is quite a lovely place,’ was the answer the South African arts and culture minister, Paul Mashatile, gave to a question put to him on radio. The question concerned allegations of corruption regarding South Africa’s participation in the 2011 Venice Biennale.  Although one must give the minster some credit for imagination, this kind of answer is, sadly, typical of the kind bald-faced contempt that government figures, all too often, show towards South Africa’s democratic system.

To be sure a relatively small amount of money – about R10-million – is in question with regards the corruption surrounding Venice (the Biennale that is, not the lovely place). But what is significant is that the story itself acts as a perfect heuristic for South African political life that is both disturbing and, in a strange way, reassuring.

It goes without saying that it will take the country many years to move on from certain ‘political’ understandings.  One of the recurrent rubrics is that ‘we cannot expect European standards in an African country’. And no matter how reluctant one is to admit it, the post-Mandela government has done a relatively decent job in validating this rather vile notion.  For no matter how optimistic you are about South Africa, the fact remains that the consequences of a kleptocratic, schizophrenic and non-transparent government have been very bad.

But as I often hear from my European friends there are not in fact two standards, one African and another European, because corruption is present in both paradigms.  They persistently tell me that ‘government corruption is government’ no matter what county you live in.  This is true.  However what is in question is how accountable the government is to this corruption and to what degree the government allows transparency.

And on this front it would, surely, beggar belief if a European government minister merely said that ‘Venice is quite a lovely place’ when asked to respond to the allegations of corruption surrounding his involvement with ‘[the] Venice [Biennale]’. Nor could a government department in Europe simply ignore a request for public information for nine solid months. And could a European government department, in the age of emails, really repeatedly claim that the reason that they did not respond to requests for information was that they had ‘misplaced the draft’?  Well this can and does happen in South Africa.  And does so, seemingly, without so much as a blink of the eye. Or is there just one blink?

And now some background is needed. On the 27April last year the Venice Biennale announced that South Africa would participate at the Biennale for the first time since 1995. It also announced that a Lethole Mokoena would be its commissioner.  Of course Lethole Mokoena turned out to be Mr Monna Mokoena a private gallerist in Johannesburg and a person was rumoured to be a friend of the minister. And unsurprisingly two of the artists that were sent to the Biennale were none other than artists from Mr Mokeona’s own gallery.  This revelation set off a storm within the South African art world.  People wanted to know why no boarder consultation had taken place and why Mr Mokeona had seemingly been given government patronage without any tender process having transpired. And then one of the artists (the only one without a gallery connection to Mokoena) pulled out due to ‘a lack of transparency’.

The matter went all the way to parliament, but again there hardly seemed to be a blink of the eye.  The department merely responded that ‘there was no time to call for public participation since any delay would have caused South Africa to miss the [Beinnale’s] deadline’ – this although Mr Mokoena admitted that he had been preparing for it since 2009.  The department also stated that ‘the process was transparent since the Commissioner reported to the Department’.

However, the matter did not simply end there.  Eventually parliamentary pressure produced a budget. The budget revealed that Mokoena had requested amongst many other things R36 000 a month for six months to run a twitter account. All the while nine months of journalistic demands for information produced nothing.  Finally, after court papers were served on department it succumbed.  On the 4th of this month the department duly handed over documents containing one minuted meeting that the department had had with Mr Mokoena – together with two letters and the record of two a bank transfers totaling R10-million.

To be sure one minuted meeting does not a functioning democracy make, but what this meeting did reveal is perhaps the most encouraging sign that one could have possibly have hoped for.  And that is that, although the minister may get away with ‘Venice is a lovely place’, the department, in the minutes at least, shows a deep and telling concern for Mr Mokoena’s and the minister’s lack of democratic procedures.

The minutes of the meeting reflect that department expressing, before the issue had even made it into the media, deep alarm that Mr Mokoena had not consulted with the rest of the arts industry. It also raised the concern that Mr Mokoena’s actions ‘could not only get bad publicity from the sector if they have not been consulted, but parliamentary questions can put the Minister in a difficult position.’  It went further saying Mokoena’s actions ‘should not compromise the minister.’ And that it ‘anticipated a lot of questions from the industry at large’ and suggested Mr Mokoena go and consult with other in the arts industry.

However the department democratic anxieties were in stark contrast to Mr Mokoena’s and his spokesperson Mr Victor Dlamini’s.  For the minutes reflect Mokoena steamrolling the department, saying that it is too late to consult with the sector because the deal was ‘done and dusted’. Mokoena also states that he had previously ‘discussed the artists and proposal with the minister and the he [the minister] approved.’  He is also noted as stating that ‘at this late stage [the inclusion of other artists was] not possible’.  He also slightly bizarrely states that consultation had in fact taken place with people in Belgium and the Netherlands.

So the long and the short of it is that it seems to be that democracy is not entirely dead in South Africa after all. That is to say that it lives and breathes in that most unlikeliest of places, a government department.  And at the very least what this story has revealed is that there is in fact a democratic standard that is alive and well but that in this case it would seem to have been marginalised and subverted by both greed and hubris. What is so alarming about the story is how the minister’s, Mr Mokoena’s and Mr Dlamini’s actions have forced the department into a position with which it is clearly uncomfortable.  Considering what else has transpired both in the press and in parliament it would seem that the department has on many occasions been forced to do the minister’s and Mr Mokoena’s bidding, which seems clearly at odds with departments own instincts.

This is precisely what is at the root of so many of South Africa’s current problems: a corrupt and arrogant ruling elite who remain largely untouchable.  For although, as this story indicates, democratic sentiments exist it still remains true that large sections of the government and their cronies simply scoff at it.   And sadly this kind of arrogance is often shared by the ANC’s opposition in parliament, the Democratic Alliance, who in their fiefdom of the Western Cape are, in my experience, almost as defensive and dismissive in their attitude towards releasing public information.

Interestingly what seems to be developing in the country are two strains of civil action.  On the one hand civil rights campaigns like Right2Known (a campaign against the new Information Bill) have recently been forming, while on the other hand people have been venting their displeasure with the government in what have been termed ‘service delivery riots’ – people throwing stones and petrol bombs at the police in areas with poor or non-existent infrastructure.  These movements and acts of civil disobedience, like those in many other countries today, remain strangely unaligned to party politics. COSATU (the trade union politically aligned to the ANC) has also been active in these areas criticizing the government on policy and failure to address corruption – but as yet they show no signs of wanting to break from their political partners. There is also the developing presence of the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, who is both well respected (and disliked) on both sides of the political spectrum and whose interventions have thus far proved to have delivered some interesting results.

However the major problem that exists is the failure of a legitimate opposition party that can threaten the ANC government in an election and that can hold them to account.  The DA for many, including myself, does not and can’t fulfill this role unless it veers considerably and definitively to the left – something that its largely white conservative base will never allow.  The simple truth of it is that the ANC still stands in this leftist position, or at least is perceived to stand there by an electorate that listens to its rhetoric.  For another party to try and root itself in the same soil, while at the same time being a legitimate option for a large section of the black population is no doubt one of South Africa’s greatest challenges.  And this is certainly many years if not decades away from happening.

So the time to account for many of the political elite is still, realistically, very far away but as the above story proves it is not for a lack of democratic sentiment. Like in many parts of the world today South Africa’s real democratic movement has yet to come. But its embers seem at least to lie cozily in the heart of the establishment quietly awaiting to alight on the winds of change. As yet, however, those winds are merely the equivalent to the breeze off five pieces of paper received, after nine months of constant pressure, from the department of arts and culture.