South Africa in Black & White

Mario Pissarra, 30 January 2014

Note: originally published as editorial to Third Text Africa vol 2 no. 3m 2010

When, in 1989, Albie Sachs presented his paper “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom”, he was addressing two audiences. In immediate terms, he was addressing his comrades in the ANC, in anticipation of a transfer of power and the concomitant shift from resistance to governance. But he was also speaking to a much broader audience, much of which was not present at the ANC seminar in Lusaka, namely the nascent, democratic South Africa.

Thus, while controversy centred on his provocative call for a ban on the slogan “culture as a weapon of struggle”, in retrospect the resonance of the paper perhaps lies more in its challenge to get beyond the oppressive binaries that shackle our imagination.

With the gini coefficient in freefall, binaries are very much a part of life in South Africa. But the one that dominates popular discourse is not class, but race.

For those who fought for non-racialism, it is surreal to find that in post-apartheid South Africa the same racial categories we were urged to reject have been retained for official purposes. The typical argument to retain them is that without them the wrongs of the past cannot be addressed. One can have some sympathy for this position, since the opposing argument that colour is irrelevant in the new dispensation rings hollow when studies confirm that whites still dominate the economy.

And yet, retaining four problematic racial categories as primary indicators of identity has consequences for the future. A whole new generation who were never subjected to the Population Registration Act (1950, repealed in 1991) is being asked to tick boxes: African, Indian, Coloured, White. Since many of these young people come from families and communities that have themselves accepted these identities, what hope is there of ever erasing them?

In everyday encounters it is alarming how the baggage associated with these racial categories, along with other once-legislated ethnic identities, affects perceptions of ‘community’ and of difference. Grand nation-building projects, like the 2010 Fifa World Cup, may manage to paper over the cracks, but the fissures are deep, wide, and many. And even if the rainbow nation prevails, nationalism has proven itself the all-too willing bedfellow of xenophobia… South Africa sits on several time-bombs, a country battling to redress the past and to inspire a vision of the future.
Fortunately for artists no-one expects them to solve these problems. If they have any inclination to address these issues the field is rich. At one end, critically examining the historical construction of racial identities reveals a process so riddled by political expedience and inconsistency as to feed an insatiable satirist. On the other end of the spectrum, the challenge to vision new identities presents boundless possibilities for the imagination.

So what does this have to do with Third Text Africa? The articles in this edition appeared in Third Text at the time that South Africa was beginning to emerge as a visible player on the international art circuit. They reflect burgeoning international interest in South African art. Since that time several South Africans have developed successful international careers. Indeed, even for those who have not emigrated, the leading galleries in South Africa acknowledge that their business is largely international.

Thus, with post-apartheid South African art being almost synonymous with the concept of identity one needs to ask: is the international community attracted to artists who provide insights into South African identity that cannot be gleaned easily by outsiders, or does it favour artists who are able to translate questions of South African identity into discourses that correspond with international understandings of race, and of South Africa? Why, for example, does the international art-world’s apparent interest in coloured identity often get conflated with the concept of mixed race, and seldom addresses the (once official) sub-categories of coloured identity that relate more directly to questions of indigeneity? Why is it that coloured artists who reclaim their African identity are seldom featured in international exhibitions?

Many have already reached the point with South African art that ‘identity-fatigue’ has set in. And yet one can ask how much of this work has even scratched the surface, helping South Africans make sense of their past and their future.

Most of the world cannot be reduced to black and white, and South Africa is no exception.

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