“When we know better, we do better

by Kole Odutola

A brief background to the work that engages our guest.

KeituGwangwa is the Head of the Widybrow Arts Center. ThisCentre,is a divisionof The Market Theatre Foundation, which serves both the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as the arts and culture community with a range of programs and events, with a focus on youth and Pan-Africanism. One of its flagship conversations is Thari. This year the focus was on (Toxic) Masculinity. It asked who framed Masculinity? How did we arrive at the models of masculinity that are oppressive and harmful to both men and women?Which culture(s) sustain toxic masculinity? How do we begin to frame masculinity in ways that allows it to contribute positively to society? Its technique is not to have discussions in silos but to have reflections done separately. Thari aims to engage its members and the society at large to see themselves as culture creatives.

To kick off our conversation on a range of culture related topics we wanted to know how she spends her days. Unfortunately, there was no time to delve into aspects of her life as a spiritual healer. To make up for any gaps we also engaged four Nigerians ad a South African in the Diaspora to share their views about South Africa, the place and the people. Please enjoy what we have on offer this week. This is our end of the year conversation but the start of getting to know ourselves on the continent.

Where do you work and what occupies you on a daily basis?

KeituGwangwa: I work at the Windybrow Arts centre. Which is a 125 year old heritage house in the middle of the Pan African melting pot that is Hillbrow, Johannesburg. We work with young people in the surrounding areas, our mission is to create a safe environment for them to play and learn about the continent. We expose them to the music, dance, film, books and poetry of Africa. This is important as it has not as yet been merged into the formal school curriculum. We also have a programme that gives young Arts practitioners a year of professional experience in the field. An arts internship in collaboration with our sister business unit the Market theatre laboratory.  The Kwasha Drama Company has grown successfully over the last 3 years even receiving prestigious awards in the theatre Industry.

What prepared you for this job?

KeituGwangwa: Besides my studies, my passion for the continent. I love Africa with my whole being. I belong to every part of it. I learnt to love Africa through the stories my sister used to tell me of her times walking in the warm rain in Guinea. I was captured by her love for textile, language and culture and my father’s tales about tall beautiful Rwandan dancers. He’d say I am a man but even I can see the men are beautiful not handsome beautiful and graceful. He’d tell me of the mask dancers in Ivory Coast (now Côte d’Ivoire) and the stilt walkers. In my own explorations I learnt how rich Africa is culturally that there is truly no other place so concentrated with wealth as this one. We live it, it is twined in our being. The lack of knowledge about this beautiful continent breeds fear, passed on from society…community to children. Children who will struggle if they don’t expand their knowledge and creativity beyond our borders. This exclusion is something we inherited from the previous regime. It just must be undone. I ran an after-school programme of a5-year curriculum that taught children about Africa called Africa Zazi, which means Africa,know yourself. My experiences with this formed part of what I do at the Windybrow

Which parts of the world did you grow up?

KeituGwangwa: I was born in Gaborone, Botswana. We moved around as a family from country to country in search of refuge. My older siblings were scattered around the world, one in South Africa, another in Tanzania, Romania, Cuba and Zambia at different times. My brother and I being the youngest atthe time lived in England with our parents. Then we were separated. When my parents couldn’t get us to join them in the States, my brother and I went to The Netherlands

What was life like in exile?

KeituGwangwa: So it is safe to say I was born in Exile, I didn’t know anything else. I thought everyone woke up in the middle of the night fleeing, that their houses got bombed just like we saw on TV. My parents were somehow able to protect me from the tragedy we were experiencing, that or my over active imagination cushioned the blow. We were always moving from house to house. I was born into it so it was my normal. Today settling in one place is an adventure. It’s something I had to learn

Can you recount the time you returned to South Africa?

KeituGwangwa: Coming back to South Africa was interesting. I had grown accustomed to a very Dutch life. I spoke it fluently and took part in all the traditions of the people. When Nelson Mandela was freed. We watched it on TV. In Holland we were living with a family friend, Tinekev.dKlinkenberg. She was our parent for the two and a half years we were separate from our parents. She updated us constantly of the goings on in South Africa. The historic moment brought an energy of change in the air. When I went to school thereafter my friends looked at me silently knowing this meant something. My brother and I were the only two black kids at the ASVO Montessori school in Amsterdam. They asked me where our plane was going to land. I couldn’t answer them

I struggled to draw any memories of home since I left so young. My mom came from the United States to the Netherlands to fetch us. It had been almost 4 years since I has seen her. We were going back to South Africa. We were moving…again

What ideas will run through your mind if you chanced upon this quote?

“Culture is key to building a new country. A community that reads, knows its origins, has cultural spaces to enjoy and supports artists, is a society that is proud of its cultural diversity and is equipped with more tools to build peace.

Mariana Garcés Córdoba, Minister for Culture, Colombia

To understand the cultural landscape in South Africa we asked Keitu to give us a key to the cultural labyrinth of the rainbow nation.

KeituGwangwa: This is such a broad question.  If I approach it in the following definition?

“Culture is the current state of a people and how they navigate their time.”

I would say…

Our culture is born of so many different fragments some historical and inherited some branching from an emerging society seeking to redefine itself post a hostile regime into an industrial revolution, essentially skipping some steps in the collective industrial evolution. These are interesting times.

*In reference to culture and the arts*

I would say…

South Africa is complex; its diversity is both celebrated and cursed. It’s difficult to explain how the very thing that unites us simultaneously divides. There are a number of constructs inherited from the previous regime. Placed for the sole purpose of separating us as people that remain functional. Cultural separateness was utilized as a weapon.  We aren’t yet a people that can share appreciation for a shared cultural heritage. Heritage is defined by separate identities. Unravelling apartheid means availing resources to previous under resourced areas. This means for the first time cultural spaces allow unaltered uninterrupted narratives of African people governed by themselves. A merged united front is not the priority at the moment. Seeking to acknowledge and recognize ones true self in artistic expression is. So the consumption of art is divided not only by accessibility to artistic resources but still significantly by race.Which direction do I need to go?

What role do you play within the diverse cultural landscape?

KeituGwangwa: I play two roles, artistic and spiritual. Which I feel are inseparable, the one always referencing or giving birth to the other. A significant part of cultural identity is spiritual. Spirituality uses artistic apparatus as functional tools of expression. Spirituality is artistic, art is spiritual. This body of energetic movement impacts and influences and captures and weaves and mediates, teaches and tries an individual into a particular experience of themselves. I hope it’s towards a better version of who they are who in turn contributes positively to society. This contributor is a culture creator.

Can you take us through the artistic role you play?

KeituGwangwa: I create, Facilitate and nurture platforms for experiences through the Arts that tackle social issues. In this transitionary period as a country we are in the process of decolonizing, redefining, and reaffirming ourselves. I feel art can translate concepts in ways that allow people an introspective experience that may bring them to understand the need for change or evolution or self-analysis.  I use art for social change. In my writings, in music in fine arts in dialogue unpacking other people’s work.

How effective will you say art for social change has been?

KeituGwangwa: Immensely. It is a lived experience. I have witnessed how a single production was quote: “able to achieve in 2 hours what may have failed to achieve in 20years through elaborate eloquent speeches” OR Tambo in speaking about the musical Amandla which was directed by my father for the African National Congress.“Amandla,” the Xhosa word for “power,” was the rallying cry that activists used to punctuate the end of many songs. It tells the story of black South African freedom music and the central role it played against apartheid. Specifically considers the music that sustained and galvanized black for more than 40 years. Focuses on the struggle’s spiritual dimension named for the Xhosa word for “power”. An uplifting story of human courage, resolve and triumph.

The production raised funds, food, scholarships, and housing transportation, Clothing and most importantly solidarity with other countries at a critical point in the Struggle against apartheid. Amandla – art crossed language barriers and spoke to the spirit of resistance in human beings and moved them taking up arms with our people and working towards freedom. I know it’s possible.

You just mentioned your father as a director of Amandla, can you tell us a bit about him and growing up in an “artistic” household?

Growing up in an artistic household was what I imagine growing up in a medical practitioner’s household would be. Surrounded by talks and tools of the trade. 😄

I was often back stage at a concert, or running around with the children of the other artists in the crowd. The house was full of music, costumes, and political talks over jazz cigarettes and wine. I stumble between the ankles of people I called uncle and aunt who I was not aware were celebrities and diplomats. Music was the equalizer and I was front row. Contrary to expectation, this life was not glamorous. I grew up in Exile my parents weren’t able to return home to South Africa. We were refugees, my father ‘aunts and uncles’ the famous ones. They were not showered with extravagance or wealth for their amazing talents. They used their ability to fight for liberation…it doesn’t line the pockets. I grew up surrounded by creativity, this influenced me greatly..

Can you give us a specific example of a community you worked with of that is possible

I don’t have a tangible community I have worked with where research can show evidence

But the community I am working with now is under observation. Come back in two years and see.

The festive season ended the interview abruptly. To make up for the lack of conclusion we sought the opinions of Nigerians about South Africa.

How much of South Africa do other Africans know? To have a sense of the place, we asked just a handful of Nigerians who have visited any parts of South Africa.

Ms. Bunmi Lawson is a seasoned Banker and activist. We asked the question “have you ever visited South Africa? What is your candid opinion of the place and the people?”

Her response was copious,

“I loved it. Even though many Nigerians complain. Nevertheless, I think if you have money, you will have a great time. I visited Joburg and Cape Town, the place has lovely the food etc.

You can imagine my daughter came with me and she walked into the Shoprite not knowing anyone. And they took her to the buyer for Nigeria. Just that one visit and she is now supplying all their stores in Nigeria. I did not go with her at all and we knew no one. That is our impression of doing business in the place. Therefore, I have not found them to be unfriendly. In Joburg, I was a bit cautious because of all the crime stories but I was not attacked. So as a woman in Joburg and Cape Town it was so much fun and friendly people. They wanted me to sell them my braid wigs and talked about our footballers and Nollywood. In my opinion, we shouldpartner more with them and not see them as competition. I have also been to Durban lovely oceanfront and water activities. I was there for a world Economic Forum Conference. Their arts and craft are fabulous. Their use of colors is out of this world. I have so much more to say but let me stop here…

EhiOmokhuale,is a trained urban planner who earns a living as a voice over artist in Lagos. His impression of South Africa was not as expansive as that of Ms. Lawson’s. He I visited South Africa twice (2010 & 2012). He saw a people (men & women) so independent, especially the women, after a debilitating influence of apartheid. “Most of the black South Africans are still not free; their parents & fore parents sold much of their land to the whites after apartheid ended. Nevertheless, because most of them want to ‘eat their cake & have it’, they result to xenophobic mentally against innocent African brothers.”

In his opinion, “Nelson Mandela united the whites & blacks after apartheid, but today’s South Africans are a disappointment. Teaching & knowing our history is a great way of having a better future. But it’s an African thing to not know, teach it learn our history. If SA did, their street urchins won’t take their African brothers as enemies… brothers who contributed immensely towards the end of apartheid (though they’re evil or criminal brothers sha). Their real enemies are themselves and a few oligarchic whites.”

Oluwatoyin Oyekenu, a development & social change specialist has lived in different parts of Africa. She has an ‘outsider’ knowledge of South Africa.

“There are a set of diverse people whose way of life and mindset differs. Black South Africans have a victim mindset and believes that they are entitled. Colored South Africans are generally nice and ambitious while white South Africans are also focused and inward looking. White South Africans teach their children the history but blacks do not because they think it’s violent. This means there is a generation of black South Africans who believe other Africans are their enemies and rivals and have no knowledge of the details of the struggle”

Felicity-Ann Barlow is a South African based in the United Kingdom.

“I would disagree as all children are taught history in South Africa. In general or this new generation, have his or her own views on history. They vote for the ANC yet they burn down university and refuse to pay school fees .Africans have a power struggle among themselves as presently the rich are getting richer and the poor well you know the rest”

“Oh god yes the majority feel it’s their time. They forget South Africa is not for just Africans but, Asians, Indians and whites. There has always been four race groups”

Toyin Akinosho, a Geologist, publisher and cultural landscapist

The question to him was “do you agree with “Black South Africans have a victim mindset and believes that they are entitled”

“Yeah. I do, but things are far more nuanced than that just like Ijaws come across as having ‘entitlement mindset”

“The girls are amazing. Try a Friday night on Long Street in Cape Town, or Maboneng in Jo ‘burg. [The Place is] vibrant, but two faced. Not as spontaneous as Lagos. Let me illustrate with a story “I once asked Harry Garuba if we could organise a reading in Cape Town. He struggled. It would have been easier in Lagos. But maybe I am too surficial about it. Would it have been easy to set up a reading under a week in Abuja or Port Harcourt?

Things are planned well in advance I chirped in…

“…It wasn’t about planning in advance. Harry simply did not see the possibility”

Felicity-Ann Barlow: So I have been thinking about your question of cultural difference in South Africa, and it is a bittersweet discourse. Sweet because of the rich and diverse cultures, all so beautiful. Moreover, bitter, because of Apartheid’s race classifications and tribal reiterations in the Bantustan system, that used differences against us. We still struggle to understand each other, and appreciate all the idiosyncrasies of the other. Religion, language, class and caste, skin colour, etc. are all things used to discriminate against many and advantage a few. Our rich history is undermined and untold, our traditions and practices reduced to tourists’ curiosities and curios, and who we could have been without colonial interference is a Wakandan fantasy. We get one day a year to wear our traditional clothes in “professional environments”, Indigenous languages are taught as second language at school, everybody has to learn and pass English, and natural hair is still an issue in codes of conduct. Traditions are considered solutions of our ancestors that do not apply to our current problems. Yet, like Amathangula growing through the concrete, we hold on tightly to an identity that is uniquely ours. I hate the word tolerance; it feels like holding your mouth open while the dentist drills into your teeth. We need a better word than that for what we share in South Africa. We are not a homogeneous society, not unified, not cooperative, so little commonality. But we do hold culture, and the places and spaces that hold culture, very deep in us. The taboo of making culture taboo, whether we understand the belief, idea, value, norm, practice, tradition, behaviour etc. or not, it is sacred. We revere who we once were, and who we are, as our prerogative. And although navigating cultural differences in SA feels very much like we make it up as we go along, we persevere nonetheless. I think that redress of the structures of Apartheid, socio-economic changes of equity and equality, would go a long ways in terms of leveling the playing field that holds some peoples and cultures, ideas of beauty and art, in higher esteem than others do. But when it comes to raising kids in a country where they can be exposed to, without necessarily appropriating, a myriad of dynamic cultures, South Africans win.

Conclusion

We started with Ms. KeituGwangwa and ended with five others sharing with us their perspectives about South Africa. I have been to South Africa twice and each time presented me with a different impression of the place. While I was in Durban, I wanted to know why the Blacks were in the background but the Indians were in control of the businesses. I have followed Julius Malema and from him I have come to appreciate the economic complexity of post-Apartheid South Africa (PASA).  I wonder what South Africans think about Nigeria. We must get the conversation started.

 

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