Johannesburg Dinner

Date: 20 March 2014
Location: The Bag Factory, 10 Mahlathini St, Fordsburg 2092, Johannesburg, South Africa
Guests: Firdoze Bulbulia, Anton Harber, Faith Isiakpere, David Koloane, Santu Mofokeng, Pat Motlau, Aura G Msimang, Molefe Pheto, Malcolm Purkey, Brett Pyper, Joachim Schonfeldt and Monique Vajifdar
Co-hosts: Gabi Ngcobo, Rangoato Hlasane, The Bag Factory (James French and Sara Hallatt) and special thanks to Monique Vajifdar
Food: Curry take away from Bismilla

The 1984 dinner in Johannesburg took place on Thursday 20 March at the Bag Factory in Fordsburg. There were twelve guests: Monique Vajifdar, Pat Motlau, Santu Mofokeng, Brett Pyper, Firdoze Bulbulia, Faith Isiakpere , Anton Harber, Joachim Schonfeldt, Malcolm Purky, Molefe Pheto, Aura G Msimang and David Koloane. I also had one to one conversations with people who couldn’t make the dinner: Ali Khangela Hlongwane, Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn, Kevin Harris and Neil Dundas.

Phrases that came up included: uprising, revolution, liberation. Cultural action was central to the struggle, satire and humour was important as was the power of images, interpreting and capturing the everyday reality of apartheid beyond the superficial tropes. The use of the body and symbolism in theatre to avoid the censors, the role of trade unions, using art (images, theatre) as political intervention, the role of education and workshops in townships, the need to keep a record and the role of people’s media (posters, pamphlets) as a form of dissemination.

Read the contextual notes for more information about Johannesburg in 1984.

Listen to the Johannesburg Dinner

Total running time: 1:36:33

  1. Introductions: the dinner guests introduce themselves and describe what they were doing in the year 1984 (9:47)  Listen Malcolm (returned from studying in up state New York, was involved in Junction Avenue Theatre since 1976), Brett (15 years old growing up in Pretoria, studying classical music); Pat (working as a graphic designer at SABC and Johannesburg Art Foundation teaching in the evenings), David (at the Triangle Workshops in New York in ‘83 and ‘84, also studying at University of London); Molefe (living in exile in London, started Pula Arts Kommune, introducing percussion to poetry); Aura (living in New York performing with Sedition Ensemble); Joachim (ending year of service as conscientious objector and starting a job to pay pack his student debt); Monique (living in London, active in the anti-apartheid movement, moved to Johannesburg in 1985);  Firdoze (growing up as an Indian child and finding it difficult to interact with others, was detained in 1980 because of the school boycott); Faith (filmmaker, senior producer for the BBC working on a series on artists in exile, did a film about Miriam Makeba) and Anton (political reporter for the Rand Daily Mail).
  2. Culture and Resistance (6:04) Listen Malcolm and David recall their involvement in the Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana in 1982; Malcolm was involved in taking Junction Avenue Theatre’s play Marabi to the festival and David was on the committee collecting  artworks from SA to take to the festival. They talk about the experience of crossing the border into Botswana, meeting friends in exile, the tensions between ANC and Black Consciousness at the festival. Malcolm explores the question, why did the security police let us cross the border into Botswana? Molefe reflects on being detained after traveling to the Black World Festival in Nigeria in 1977.
  3. Women’s Movement (3:46) Listen Firdoze reflects on her political awakening among meetings with other women at the time through tea parties; integrating women across barriers; anti-rape campaigns; The Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW) and The Federation of South African Women and the poetry work she did with her sister – for example using narratives of domestic workers.
  4. Historical Frameworks (7:06) Listen Malcolm reflects on the the army marching into and occupying the township Sebokeng in 1984; Monique introduces the international dynamics at the time in terms of relations with Mozambique and the Nkomati Accord (which was signed 16 March 1984); Malcolm recalls the significance of the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983; and Anton tells us 1984 was the year he got married because he thought he was going to prison.
  5. Aesthetics and Protest (2:58) Listen Brett reflects on playing classical music with the grandson of a Pan-Africanist; how orchestras were complicit with the Apartheid State and his experience of the risks of working across aesthetics and social dissonances; Joachim remembers doing anti-eviction murals and anti-conscription posters and how the stereotyping of imagery jarred with his work as an artists, reflecting on the urge to be seen to be associated with the right thing and also as an artist he was thinking about other things; Firdoze remembers doing poetry and theatre skits in the Oriental Plaza – a more political 1980s version of the ‘flash mobs’ that are carried out today?
  6. Artists in Exile (7:26) Listen Molefe talks about PITSO (meaning ‘a gathering’), a group of South African writers in exile that he was involved in setting up in London and the need for an independent artists’ group at the time that wasn’t affiliated to any particular political group; Aura talks about the song she wrote called Azania (2010) dedicated to the Black Consciousness movement; Faith talks about his film about the exiled artist Miriam Makeba for the BBC.
  7. Being an artist in South Africa (6:00) Listen Joachim talks about growing up in apartheid; making art as a reflection on why he stayed in SA; how making money as an artist was a concern; hiding books that were banned and the discussions he was having with other artists at the time; Firdoze discusses her experience of being questioned by her family and community she grew up in about why she was getting involved, that it ‘wasn’t her problem’; about going out to parties to interact with a particular community because ‘you were educating yourself’; Pat recalls how TV 2 and 3, two ‘black channels’, had just started at SABC where he worked, and that there was a separate black graphics department and how different this was to his experience of the Johannesburg Art Foundation where he was teaching a mixed group of people and also the Thupelo workshops which brought artists together (the first workshop was in Johannesburg in 1985).
  8. Education (8:04) Listen The guests discuss centres such as the Johannesburg Art Foundation, FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists), FUNDA, Africa Cultural Center, Mofolo Arts Centre, Meadowlands, the USIS library (United States Information Service), Rorke’s Drift; that there were pockets of things happening all around, such as poetry readings, informal gatherings. Joachim talks about the role of university education; Firdoze talks about growing up in Fordsburg and the school boycotts in 1980; Monique reflects on the lack of pre-school education and access to the arts in schools in the townships, still a problem today.
  9. Cultural Boycott (5:10) Listen Molefe recalls how artists came to the office of the Black Consciousness movement in London for advice and how they advised them not to travel to SA; that there was a strong attempt to stop artists coming to SA; others reflect on how at times it was difficult to decide who to support and that you couldn’t stop artists from travelling out of SA; Malcolm recalls the complicated Cultural Desk – which was deciding what was progressive and what wasn’t; Aura talks about Molapo? being boycotted in New York and her thoughts on this.
  10. Nationality Undetermined (4:26) Listen The travel documents for some of those traveling had ‘nationality undetermined’ written on them. Aura and David talk about the problems this brought them and Molefe and Malcolm talk about how there was suspicion of those travelling outside of SA.
  11. Funding and Support Structures (7:57) Listen The guests discuss the role of formal and informal support structures; how theatre was happening in Soweto by Gibson Kente; that there was liberal conservative capital and embassy funding available; the support of Wits University that provided  spaces for Junction Avenue and Workshop 71 to continue their work; the issue was deciding how dirty the money was; funding for black arts in the UK from GLC; Role of the National Arts Council; Anton reflects on the different, changing spaces people operated in, defined by money, politics, compromises and the contestations between ANC and Black Consciousness at the time.
  12. Parallels with Today (10:42) Listen Rethinking how you do things now, post 1994; Anton was charged and convicted with bugging someone’s phone as a journalist pre-’94; he suggests there was a different ethic then – then it was ok; Malcolm suggests there was a different the role for theatre, after ’95, that theatre audiences started to disappear – people were not so interested in arts and culture as a space for reflection after that; Firdoze brings in the broader political issues – ‘we knew what we were fighting for then’, ‘we knew what we didn’t want’; she recalls fondly her experience of integration, working together, the ensemble, listening to each other, the energy at the time, and that people are more precious about their space, their art, their opportunity now and how to write a better funding proposal; that we see ourselves as individuals now rather than the collective; Molefe reflects on the frustrations he feels that the link between that time and this time is broken, that we don’t have resistance art anymore, that while we have a democratic government, artists have to rise up again.
  13. Elders and Younger Generations (6:22) Listen Bret talks about the difficulties in generalising; the ways in which students are engaging in past works; that the basis of political struggles are different; the issues are different; LGBTI youth for example, are articulating who one is in public space now; Aura talks about being inspired by young people today; Firdoze brings in the problem with mediocrity, how as artists we can be challenging things but that people are not as vocal now, there is a culture of fear in speaking out ad asks how do we change that narrative? Being nostalgic can hold you ransom, there is a need to change the paradigm.
  14. There’s Still a Fire Out There (4:05) Listen Malcolm discusses how there is a danger in nostalgia; that we need to both advance whilst sustaining our history; that they have experienced of living in a social crisis and now have to deal with the new social crisis, that there’s still a fire out there; Aura talks about how there is still work to do – that elders need to share with younger people; Firdoze suggests that discussions like this are continuing to happen in different spaces.