Mbongeni R. Buthelezi – Blowing life into plastic

“For me making art is like having an appointment with creativity itself, I am well aware that should I stop working I will never move closer to the objective of art making which through commitment inevitably results in excellence”

– Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi

*In the winter of 1999 I had the pleasure of meeting the late Ntate Durant Sihlali(1935 – 2004) at the Pretoria Art Museum. I remember vividly that it was on a Sunday and the art museum had the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition subtitled: Scientist, Inventor and Artist on show.

What was profound about that day was that  it was the first time I met Durant Sihlali in person and it happened that on the morning of that day prior to leaving my home in Atteridgeville to attend to my duty as a guide at the art museum, I happened; as I always did those days, to view the regular arts and culture programme that was being aired in the early Sunday mornings by the SABC and it was, I tend to think, by divine coincidence they were showing a documentary on Ntate Durant Sihlali. I remember that he was shown pouring paint on hand made paper. Ntate Durant had played a major role in documenting what was going on during the forced removals of the sixties and seventies in the townships of the Reef.

There I was on that Sunday beholding his rather stocky frame perusing Leornado’s anatomical facsimiles in Preiss Hall – one of the Art Museum’s gallery. It was five to six hours later after watching the pre-recorded interview of his. I chanced a greeting and I was delighted when he gave me a friendly reply punctuated by a slow and humbled voice. Such is the delight when an aspiring artist meets an established artists, polarity is established instantly. However my knowledge of Durant Sihlali is rather limited to books for I had only that one brief privilege encounter with him. His contributions to South African art started to flood my mind as time went by for I began to grasp the nature of black South African artists contribution to South African art later in my life.

Warren Siebrits Modern Contemporary Art Gallery has mounted a tribute exhibition to him during April this year. However what sharply stands out about Durant when one surveys his oeuvre is his handling of water paint and evolution towards the abstract form.

Today this heritage, this ability to delve into the non figurative universe can be discerned in one of Durant Sihlali’s pupils at Funda Centre, Mbongeni Buthelezi, who quite recently I have had the pleasure of meeting at his studio at the Seippel Art Gallery in downtown Johannesburg about ten minutes, through Jozi traffic from the Fordsburg Studios.

The studio is pervaded by the burning musk of plastic as he crouches in front of a black and white plastic painting which forms a series, they all burst with white slashes and splashes as if a stone has been thrown into a black solution whose depths are pregnant with a white colour and this colour; when disturbed explodes into various facial expressions and form. Our business in Johannesburg on 31 August 2007 was to introduce Nthabiseng Montshiwa to Ntate Koloane at the Fordsburg Studio. Because of elapsed time due to a burst tire we had to pass by the Seippel Gallery earlier than anticipated for our friend and colleague in the arts the curator of the gallery Mxolisi Xaba had a prearranged call that he was expecting from Europe and had to avail himself at the prescribed time.

Mbobengi welcomed us warmly, until then I had spoken to him on a couple of occasions on the phone last year at about this very time and had met him briefly in March of this year through Mxolisi Xaba. We found him squatting in the large expanse that constitute his studio. There was of course another person in the studio cutting panels on his behalf. By the end of our meeting I will surmise that it must have been his assistant. The piece that he was currently working on was a part of a six series, having rested the gun-like machine he uses to melt his media; for that is exactly what he does – he paints with molten plastic. We shake hands with him. He crosses over to switch off the music playing from a ghetto blaster atop a sofa strewn with sketch diary and some few magazines. The series of black and white plastic paintings he is working on rest against a wall and there is a supply of salvaged used plastic bags, visible one could already pick out coca-cola six pack plastic wrapper, six pack beer wrapper

‘so you are hard at work man’ says I after we have settled. We are not really seated, the images that surround us are overwhelming, it is actually Nthabiseng who is seating.

‘yes man I am hard at work, you know this is what I enjoy, and with the opening of my solo exhibition coming closer there is no time to waste’ says Mbongeni.

‘Tell me, how did you arrive at this point where you are using plastic’ I ask giving in into the alluring question because when one looks at the work it has a thick impasto of oil painting.

‘Lack of materials was a motivating factor, I do not think if I was a privilege artist who had accessibility to traditional art making materials such as oil paints I would not have discovered the art of plastic painting. I was initiated, groomed and trained through the art of watercolour paints.’

‘When I look at some of the pieces resting on the wall I cannot help but see the quality of water colour painting in them, now I understand that you were trained as a watercolorist; this watercolour quality reminds me of the art of Durant Sihlali.’ I observed.

‘Yes indeed, I was trained by him at FUNDA in the eighties when I use to attend art classes after school and later on when I took art seriously in the late eighties; Durant was a very disciplined and strict artist. I remember I once wanted to reject this medium for the simple drawing technique however Bra Durant enforced the media on us. At the time we had to do some plain air water colour painting so I remember I spent some time painting the old hostels in springs. After prolonged periods of practicing with the media I became better and secured in its use, but as I say I would later find it difficult to afford this medium and that is when I discovered the use of discarded plastic and it was not long when I experimented with molten plastic as a painting media.’ He explains at length.

‘Were there any highlights at point in your career?’ I ask

‘Yes when Nhlanhla Xaba won the standard bank young artist award in 1998 I was invited as an exhibiting guest artist. And my work was exhibited along side his. It was a great exposure for me, I could see then that I was going places with my art.’ He maintains.

‘What do you think of Kay Hassan’s work.

‘Well it is wonderful man, using discarded material always presents an opportunity to re-cycle, to give new life to material. Kay uses discarded Billboard paper – he gives new life to it, I forage for discarded plastic bags – I give them a new use, a new form, a new life.’ He affirms.

What one realises when one surveys the artist’s studio, is that the space is in par with what Mbongeni has just remarked. He does indeed recast a new life into plastic…and this is the ideal of the artist’s relation to new media – to breathe new life into it.

Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi’s plastic paintings are on show at the Pretoria Art Museum from 13 May – 16 August 2009.

*this  piece was written in mid 2008 prior to the opening of the exhibition officially in  May 2009.

© 2009 Mmutle Arthur Kgokong

Chappies Bubble Gum the revival

z8 My trivial aim in the present jottings is a viewing of developments in the recent Chappies Bubble Gum advertisements which use historical events as props to accentuate the importance of the gum as a knowledge assimilator.

These recent television advertisements are a revival of a product that many of us today will appreciate the resurfacing thereof on our television screens after quite an absent spell from our television screens. In its heydays not only was this gum delicious it also came with general knowledge index which one could peruse once the chewing started.

However the ingenuity of the product’s presentation was crowned by the fact that the wrapper became a collectors’ item not based on its looks only but on the valuable information provided on the reverse side as – facts covering history, geography, science, literature and art. The wrapper was so versatile that some people made crafts like hand made belts by weaving wrappers together into a string. To date the Beaver has remained its recognizable symbol. It comes in flavors of grape, watermelon and original fruit as well as peppermint.

It is the manner in which it makes its return to the television screen that I think blesses it with attention once more. It is its mythologization (permit me to use this word) that affords us the opportunity to want to taste it again, if we have moved on to high prized chewing gums like your so called sugar frees, to experience the legend.

There are two advertisements that have been shown recently on our television screens of Chappies Bubble Gum. Both of these advertisements have historical themes as pedestals to accentuate the product, or should I say they mythologize the gum through historical references. I propose that we look at the two advertisements in order to reveal their similarities as well as their differences. In this regard we shall stand a better chance of revealing the nature of Chappies Bubble Gum’s revival through historical allusions. On another level we shall also reflect on the targeted people that the product is geared towards and how this is achieved. The first advertisement has as its content a group of children visiting a cultural history museum and the second recent advertisement is rooted in the historical event of the sinking of the Titanic relayed through a newsreel watched by a boy at a movie theater.

The Guided Tour setting

A group of children are attending a guided tour at a Cultural History Museum, they are been introduced to the civilization of the Honolulu (Hawaii) and as the tour guide explains the turbulent nature of their environment – specifically the volcanic eruptions. One of the little one’s has a big idea. He deeps into one of his pockets, comes up with a Chappies Bubble Gum and pops it in. Instantly he is transported to Honolulu in midst of an evacuation due to a volcanic eruption. With might akin to that of Incredible Hulk he picks one of the rolling rocks and throws it to the mouth of the erupting mountain succeeding in closing it and stopping its molten lava from oozing out and annihilating the Hawaiians. The ancients of Honolulu cheer him up and happily carry him indebted to him for saving their lives, civilization and environment. He is momentarily transported back to rejoin the tour, his counterparts had been frozen in time during the teleportation and the ‘historical intervention’.

Movies Theater setting

The anchoring force here is the historical tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. We are shown viewers in movie theater watching a newsreel rendition of the sinking of the titanic. At the terrible moment when the ship is about to hit one of the floating ice slits a boy amongst the viewers pops a Chappies Bubble Gum and he is teleported into the news reel (into history) to intervene in disastrous event that caused the sinking of the Titanic. Like the Honolulu intervention the intervener is rewarded, this time by being thrown a party on board the ship.

Global remarks and concerns

What becomes apparent then with the two situations that the adverts present to us in reviving our interest in the Bubble Gum is intervening nature of the protagonists in both of these works. Similarly they are dealing with historical events, thus automatically they tie very well with what the bubble gum wrapper as part of the commodity packaging offers. A second similar feature is teleportation into the historical past. This way the advert is not only telling us that it offers an indexical historical feature – it takes you there. We become the boy, we have to, in order to make sense of what the global message is: Chappies Bubble Gum is not just a chewing gum it is steeped in historical facts and by buying it, you are actually buying historical facts as well.

Now let us look at the differences of the two adverts. While the first advert that was televised deals with near ancient historical event, the Titanic sequel deals with an event near. Very nearer because of the hit Titanic movie most of us has seen.

Now this second installation is arguably an advance, a step ahead – compared to the first advert and it embellishes what I have already proposed at the opening of these jottings – that most of us will come to appreciate the resurfacing of the Gum’s advert simply because we grew on Chappies Bubble Gum.


The advert is here married to a popular cultural object, Titanic the movie and if we take the indexical feature of these adverts and reconsider once more Titanic the movie itself we shall accept that it is an index of the historical event of the sinking of the Titanic without doubt.


Here we are then at a threshold of a sign, a referent and a referent which in turn is a historical sign. Here Chappies Bubble Gum exhumes a historical ghost in order to arrange its self methologically. But the viewer has to be part of this play of mythologization for the myth to be constructed. Why? Because without viewer’s knowledge of the movie Titanic the first sign becomes opaque: the boy watching the newsreel. The viewer will just see a little boy with superhuman strength stopping a huge ship from colliding with an ice mountain, which is actually absurd!

But through the filter of the knowledge of the Titanic the movie the viewer can move beyond this absurd sequence of the events and come to understand the play in the advert. However since the advert does not exactly allude to the movie in that it does not show us the lovers we so loved in the movie; the characters central to the narratology of the movie. The boy then becomes central to the sequence. We see immediately that this has nothing to do with the movie, although we needed to index the movie first to get here; what we have here the historical event of the Titanic, but even so in this instant the insertion of the boy brings forth not a retardation but a deviation from that historical  event. Thus in a linear presentation what I have discussed can be represented in this manner:

Chappies Bubble Gum >>> Titanic news reel >>> Titanic the movie >>> Titanic the historical event!

The latter ‘Titanic the historic event!’ in our schema above is pregnant with ideas and it is these ideas that the advertisement anchor in order to send out its message and by so doing to once more occupy its space of prominence amongst the competing chewing gums.

Explicitly speaking this commercial advert plays with historical event of the sinking of the luxury cruiser by saving it from sinking thus altering history mythologically, in turn creating what I propose to call a Y effect; a one directional historical narrative which separates at a particular point and moves into two opposite directions diagonally, one factual and the other untrue –mythic.

The ‘super boy’, let us address him as such, represent an omniscient force, the knowledge bearer of what will happen at the impact of the cruiser and the floating ice – he is nothing else but that knowledge itself of the sinking of the Titanic but personified. He is that knowledge that will be unwrapped when the gum is opened. Hence, unwrap an adventure!

Both of these Chappies Bubble Gum advertisements uses historical events as tools to prop and accentuate the importance of the gum as a knowledge assimilator.

4 May

© 2009 Mmutle Arthur Kgokong

Invasion X

‘It is the year 2010 in the morning, June 16 and in Pretoria-Tshwane people in the street going to work and school are even fewer than usually; mouth covered as it has become customary to wear surgical masks….’ So reports the one hour radio broadcasting, I remotely wind the volume down and switch it off to write an entry to be submitting to 4thWALL. The television programming has become defunct. However by some weird force of technology the Cybersphere continues to hold henceforth bloggers continue to log on and blog not to forget to mention Facebookers who are also party to the feeding of the net. But dear reader this is not the point of the present fable.

On a worse note those who are relying on public means of transportation to get around are stranded because the Consolidated Workers of Public Transportations (CWPTs) are on strike. And those who are weak are bed ridden due to the Donkey Flue Pandemic. It is estimated that more adults than children have contaminated the deadly virus. Apparently children have proven more resistant to the infection of the deadly virus. At least that is what was known before the government Nurses and Doctors went on a national strike due to wages and working condition… (Cough)

Worse the first World Cup to be held in Africa has been canceled due to the scourge of DFP (you guessed right, Donkey Flue Pandemic)… (Sniff) Aids and other chronic illnesses, that seek medication, continue to wipe away those in whom it has advanced. It seems as if the mechanism that has always fuelled humanity has come to a stand still. As I write this entry I am quarantined in my own home with my wife and the children. As it is we are at what has been termed the third face of DFP…(Guff)

Meaning we are sneezing and coughing terribly to be let out into the surgical mask clad wide world for fear of passing the disease to other people in this advance stage. So we must perish in our nest. Perhaps the children will recover and outlive us. After our demise what will follow will be sanitization of our little flat and the removal of what will be remaining of our emaciated bodies. So as you read this gory (sniff) tale, in perhaps 2020 or so you might be wondering what went wrong. Well one thing that I can let out to you with my little understanding of how creation operates is that human beings from creation onwards they have always competed with diseases. They have learnt how to manage and elude them as they advanced scientifically. We were at the stage where only our carelessness will destroy us when DFP Struck – our doom. And I much suspect that that is why we are dying – we were careless. (Guff)

…on the other hand our life in this planet, in addition to fighting with viruses, has also been subjected to economic survival game or war if you will, henceforth the strikes of CWPTs as well as our health workers. You will be surprised that somehow those who are having medical aid schemes seem to be holding up the disease due to their affordability of ADV (Anti Donkey Vaccine I think it is called) drug taken monthly. Thus the DFP is doing the rounds with poor souls who cannot afford medical aids schemes because they cannot access medical attention at the public health sector. In our household we have depleted funds in our medical aid scheme henceforth the subjection to quarantine by medical detectives. Those who are still well and are clad with surgical masks can’t even earn their meagre wages because the CWPTs are on strike.

Movement is restricted. My dizzy thoughts remind me of a televised interview I saw in 2007 of the president of SAMA (South African Medical Association) on ‘House Call’. During the interview he argued that the conditions in which the doctors (Gruff) were working were unattractive henceforth South Africa was losing good medical doctors and nurses to the private sector and as well as to outside countries, especially the West. When questioned what could be done He gave a radical proposition as an attempt to turn the situation around; he said if the government were to reduce the medical aid grants to its employee or even to cut them altogether to encourage the usage of government hospital – This way the state can invest money into the improvement of hospitals and the working conditions of the doctors and nurses. Thus the environment would be attractive to our South African doctors and nurses. (sniff)

As much as this idea was radical at the time when I heard it, I wish someone in the powerhouse of our state could have taken heed. Perhaps when the swine Flue broke out in the backyard of Latin America last year more doctors and nurses working in good working conditions in our state hospitals will have been our first arsenal against rot and agony that we smell and feel around us today (cough). As for the CWPTs it is a question of management and capacity. In South Africa the taxi industry has thrived without government interference for years. It was initially put in place by a people who have been ostracised to use the government transportation in the days of the great social divide – in apartness times. Before being absorbed (gruff-snuff), the government should have studied the taxi industry in the context of South African culture in order to appreciate its nature; meaning taxi routes, tariffs, challenges, incentives and aspiration and came up with an African solution. Meanwhile (cough, sniff, gruff…

April 30

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009

Narrative Responses to forms of discrimination in South African literature

Abstract

Comparative Literature can be used as a tool of analytical investigation by comparing texts that differ in authorship but having similarities in terms of the content they deal with. Analysis of literary texts using comparative literature can give us the opportunity to see how authors deal with their subject matter/content. It is even more interesting a study when themes are almost similar.

In this essay I will show that both Mob Passion and Country Lovers’ contents are informed by similar conditions; a similar context within which both narrative texts were produced even though the writers’ handling of their subject matter were informed by their own unique personal experiences of this similar condition they were subjected to.

While separate development in South Africa sought to separate black and white people, in Mob Passion Can Themba (1924 – 1968) shows us how devastating tribalism, which the policy of separate development in South Africa upheld, can be detrimental in its quest to uphold the ideal of a pure tribe. This is shown when a relationship takes place between Linga who is a Letebele and Mapula who is a Mosotho, for Mapula’s uncles this cannot be accepted. Themba does not give us the opportunity to get the feel of Linga’s family’s opinion on the matter, there is no time for that, all this is happening in the urbanised area – the outskirts of the reef, where life is fast paced and harsh.

A reading of Nadine Gordimer’s short story Country Lovers 1980 reveals that the narrative is about a girl who has an intimate relationship with a white man but due to the situation that the event take place in, she is not a candidate for a long-term relationship with him. For intimate relationships across the colour line in apartheid South Africa were considered immoral and were forbidden. The man does not pursue marriage with her, she becomes his secret girlfriend and when she falls pregnant with his baby he takes the life of their baby away as a way of removing the evidence of what took place between the two of them. A careful reading shows that Thebedi and Paulus relationship’s evolution from a childhood friendship across colour lines as well as master servant-relation to that of secret lovers is ultimately destroyed by the very barriers it seem to elude from the onset.

Context of the narratives in question

According to Chapman (1996: 237) the novel against apartheid received more critical attention than similar protests in the short story. This notwithstanding, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed various and exciting development in short story fiction and confirmed the short story as the most popular and prolific form of imaginative writing in South Africa.

Chapman maintains that Nadine Gordimer (1923 -) was a leading practitioner of the short story form during this period. Chapman maintains that Gordimer shifted the short story from the colonial adventure yarn to a sophisticated art of implication. this is true of Country Lovers for this narrative does not concern itself with adventure, it concerns itself with the social construct of the old South Africa.

Following its inception Drum of the 1950s mark the substantial beginning in South Africa of the modern Black Short Story. Chapman maintains that prior to its appearance between 1951 and 1958 of over 90 stories (printed in Drum) only a few by black South Africans existed outside ‘anonymous’ oral tradition of folk tale: around 1930 R.R.R. Dhlomo in the Johannesburg-based magazine ‘The Sjambok’ had published several ‘moral’ sketches involving situations in the gold mines.

Through Drum’s short story competition over 90 stories would appear in it between 1952 and 1959 (see Chapman 2001: 183). Mob Passion falls within those golden years of Drum. This short fiction marks Can Themba’s first attempt at short story writing and it is forcefully a powerful piece of story telling. Written in 1953 and submitted to Drum Magazine short story competition, the piece won Can Themba the first prize.

Without delay I shall now proceed to compare Mob Passion and Country Lovers. I shall analyse the two short stories in terms of form and theme. Firstly I shall focus on each of the short stories separately. This way I shall be able to show, separately, how each of the narratives is structured in terms of the narration flow. My discussion will reflect how each of the texts communicates their content. My discussion employs narrative propositions in order to make bare their formal elements naked. I then proceed in separate expositions of the narratives to explore how the subject matter is dealt with. Lastly I bring the two narratives closer to each other in an attempt to draw similarities and differences in their respective authors unique approaches to as far as dealing with content is concerned.

Narrative proposition: Mob Passion

1. Linga Sakwe and Mapula have a secrete love affair.

2. The family soon discovers the Secrete love affair.

3. Alpheus and Frans, Mapula’s uncles are enraged by the discovery of her love affair with a Letebele.

4. Ra-Thabo, Mapula’s father gets beaten up under mysterious condition.

5. Members of their community are curios to know who had done this terrible thing.

6. Alpheus and Frans uses this opportunity to lie to the community by falsely accusing the Matebele of committing the grievous act and by also informing the community that one of the Matebele has gone as far as drugging their niece to have an affair with him in order to turn him into his wife.

7. Alpheus leads the community to avenge Ra-Thabo.

8. Linga is killed by the angry mob led by Alpheus.

9. Mapula kills Alpheus.

10. The community regrets its actions.

The narrative proposition reveals that story builds up into a climax that ends up in the bloody martyrdom of an innocent whose crime is that of loving someone of a different ‘tribe’. I shall now discuss the order of the events of this narrative as they take place.

Order

From the narrative propositions above in Mob Passion the events that take place in the narrative are organized in their successive chronology. At the outset of the narrative there is harmony, then there is an introduction of conflict then there is confrontation and then there is a climax.

Starting with the meeting between Linga and Mapula in the train at Industria train station and their boarding off the train at Witpoortjie the narrator presents the setting within which the characters move and interact and after orientating us, the narrator goes on to present the conflict thus bringing up an element of conflict into the narrative. The two are in love but the relationship is threatened by it being discovered by the different ethnic groups to which the two lovebirds belong. The boarding off the train serves as a preparation to the introduction of the conflict that lurks at the discovery of their affair and their aspiration to get married. In the narrative much time is given to the latter, where the problem of tribalism is laid bare to the reader.

Then afterward the narrative shifts its focus to Mapula’s home where her brother tell their uncles, Alpheus and Frans, about the rumor he heard about Mapula of her going out with a Letebele who plans to marry her. Alpheus and Frans are enraged by this discovery. Matebele and Basotho are rivals, they should not mix, this I their stance to the matter. In that instance as they are digesting the foul news, Mapula’s father is brought home injured. Outside the community gathers to find out who had done such a terrible thing to the unconscious Ra-Thabo.

Alpheus and Frans uses Ra-Thabo’s mysterious injury as an excuse to find and kill Matebele, but more specifically the one that has a relationship with their niece. They work out a scheme to enrage the community. Stepping outside, thanks to Alpheus oratory which Themba does not run short on elaborating on it, the curious community is told that it was Matebele who had hurt Ra-Thabo, moreover they tell the community that one of these ‘Matebele’ has drugged and bewitched Ra-Thabo’s daughter Mapula into having an intimate relationship with him. Subsequently, back in the house the two liars had arranged that as Alpheus speak to the inquiring community Ra-Thabo should be brought out in pretense of being send to the hospital in the presence of the community to fuel their anger up.

Their plan works out for the community is enraged b y what the Matebele has supposedly done to Ra-Thabo when they see him being taken out in. The community sets out for vengeance. Alpheus leads them to seek out the Matebele.

Their mob soon runs into Linga and Mapula. They first run into Linga who had left Mapula behind in the outskirts of town under the tree because the latter complained of sore feet. He was scouting the area where he and Mapula were enjoying themselves under a tree to see how they could get back home. They ask him whether he had seen a Letebele around the area, he denies it and all the time he speak to them in a fluent Sotho, just right there when he thinks he has eluded the mob Mapula comes running to him thinking that the mob of people around him wants to hurt him. Just then Alpheus and the mob realizes that they have been talking with the man that they have sought to hunt and kill. They instantly kill Linga. Maoula kills Alpheus in turn. The narrative ends with the community retreating away from Mapula’s wailing. The reader will realize that the scene where Alpheus enrages the community is also given a substantial space like the opening phase where the reader gets introduced to the conflict in the narrative. The narrator makes the hatred that Alpheus and Frans have towards Matebele clear in what we can call the second part of our narrative, or to be consistent with our narrative propositions above this would be in narrative proposition no 2. This hatred signifies the animosity that the Russians – the Ba-sotho migrant workers who in the 1950s’ banded together against the city-slick Tsotsi.

Mob Passion, serves as a vehicle to show that vigilantism is wrong and secondly that inter-tribal division which was specified by the yesterdays apartness/apartheid government which divided black South Africans according to language and ethnicity in terms of settlement in the homelands contributed to the separation that the people practiced once in the cities. The narratives shows how this separation contributed to the violence that occur between people of various indigenous when inter relationships occurred. We have to remember that the government had also put in place the immorality act, which can be seen as a hire state of preventing inter racial relationships. Our discussion of Country Lovers will dealt with this aspect.

Should the previous government not have separated people in the township according to tribes such instances that occurs in Mob Passion would not have taken place. Mob Passion is a response towards the division that black people were subjected to in Townships after the rise of the nationalist government into government in ’48. we must remember that the Drum ensemble to which Themba belonged adapted real events into fictitious rendition of what real and occurring in the backyard of the apartheid machine.

Chapman notes [sic] there is a little distinction between Drum fiction and Drum journalism. Chapman maintains that both the ‘story’ of black life is paramount as the facts of the decade in that (my italics)– Mass removals, the Immorality act (which we will have much to discuss in the next half of this paper), the bans of social mixing, the destruction of Sophiatown were transformed into pot-boilers that suddenly bubbled over into serious, haunting commentaries on the human motivation and behaviour (1996: 240).

Against this background Mob Passion can once more be seen as making relevant commentary on South African society in terms of its distribution. Mob Passion foreground the fact that in the old South Africa our nation was not only separated according to race, but also according to different indigenous groups in how people were located in the reserves, in the Township, by locating different indigenous groups to different areas in the Townships according to language and culture. This narrative speaks against the detrimental effects of separation according to tribalism.

Country Lovers

I shall discuss Nadine Gordimer’s Country Lovers and in the last part of this essay I shall bring the two texts dealt with in this essay side by side in an attempt to show differences and similarities in terms of formal aspects and thematic contents inherent in the texts. According to Chapman(1996: 235) in the 1950’s Gordimer (1923- ) mixed with the Sophiatown’s literary figures such as Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa as well as Can Themba whose work we have dealt with above. This is interesting to know, this supports a supposition that we may erect at this point in our discussion of her – that he insight into the black experience was not informed by a biased media, she had a direct experience of hearing about the black experience from her fellow writers of the 1950s. We see this black experience is illuminated upon in her principal character – Thebedi who exists in a time advanced by three decades to that of Mapula, that is if we take the into account the period when the publication of Crimes of conscience 1991 – the collection of short stories to which Country Lovers belongs.

In Country Lovers Thebedi’s character serves not only as a reflection for of a black experience under the white rule in South Africa but it also questions the subjection of women under the patriarchal system. Like in Mob Passion the events in country Lovers are narrated in their chronological order. However unlike in Mob Passion in this narrative the events are narrated over a period of years.

Narrative propositions: Country Lovers

1. Thebedi and Paulus are childhood friends.

2. Thebedi and Paulus fall in love.

3. The focus of their relationship ends being sex.

4. Njabulo asks Thebedi’s father to have her as a wife.

5. Thebedi falls pregnant with Paulus’s child.

6. Njabulo marries Thebedi.

7. Paulus is angry at Thebedi’s pregnancy.

8. Paulus kills the baby.

9. Njabulo assumes that the baby had died from natural causes, he buries it.

10. The police come to the farm and dig body out.

11. Paulus is charged with homicide.

12. Charges are dropped against Paulus.

Order

In country lovers the narrative, as I have already mentioned, unfolds over a period of years in which Thebedi and Paulus Eysendyck grow up together on a farm and later have a relationship. Paulus is white and he is a son of the farmer who owns the farm where Thebedi stays. Sometimes Thebedi does odd work in the house of the Eysendycks.

The affection that Paulus has for Thebedi soon blossoms into love. It is interesting that Gordimer does not spell it out but through her economy of her lyricism is able to bring to the attention of the reader exactly what evolves out of the affection mentioned above. The evolution of the relationship into a love affair is implied through the thoughts and actions of the central character’s focalization who at certain moments takes over the narrating from the principal narrator. The narrator, the principal that is, goes on to illustrate the division that exists between black and white children as far as accessibility to education is concerned. Both Thebedi and Paulus are central characters in this narrative just as Mapula and Linga are in Mob Passion.

We see through the growth of these central characters the different worlds to which each is subjected to in terms of the privileges of race functioning as a defining category in terms of the quality of schooling one receives. Here the politics of white and black in south Africa are specified.

Thebedi gets minimum education and is destined to become someone else’s wife not a mate in the Eysendycks farm house while Paulus gets the opportunity to go to high school and college. Initially the division that is erected by fate, by ideology of those who hold the reigns of power do not bar the two from falling in love during Paulus’ last year at high school. Unfortunately when the two start to sleep with each other their relationship’s only objective revolve around sexual gratification. When the relationship gets to this point already Paulus had slept with someone before:

He did not tell her about school or Town anymore. She did Not ask questions any longer. He told her, each time, when they would meet again. (see Country Lovers 1991: 20)

We can see that Paulus in control of what happens next this secret love affair that this relationship has turn out to be. His life through High School, his popularity in sports, his acquiring of drivers license and attendance at a College can be looked upon as a measuring bar to show progression in time (about two years) within the narrative discourse. When his ‘progression of time’ is deliberately aligned with that of Thebedi we realise that the farmer’s son is progressing in terms of acquisition of skills and knowledge essential in the real world is concerned and that the girl Thebedi life stands still. The powerful position that Paulus is in is also illustrated by the fact that at School and college he has sexual relationships with other girls, white girls. But the loyalty and dedication of Thebedi to him is undying and un-quivering. The farmer’s son’s position in the relationship is punctuated by his access to college education to study veterinary while Thebedi is left pregnant. This pregnancy explodes their relationship out of control. The pregnancy is an introduction of an element of conflict akin to the discovery of Mapula and Linga’s love affair when one get acquainted with the subject matter of Mob Passion.

Njabulo, a young man who also works for the Eysendycks in the farm

‘…asked Thebedi’s father for her.’ (1991: 21)

At this instance in the narrative the voicelessness and the powerlessness of Thebedi is foregrounded in that we can see that she has no control over what happens next. She is reduced to a status of an object. She gets married to Njabulo and soon gives birth to Paulus’ child whom her parents dot suspect that it is not Njabulo’s. Later on, upon his visit home during study term holidays, Paulus learns that the girl Thebedi has given birth. He goes to Thebedi’s homestead to see the child. He is enraged when he sees the child:

He struggled for a moment with a grimace of tears, anger and self-pity. She could not put her hand to him. (1991: 23)

Despite this reaction that we see exhibited by Paulus, the reader is shown that there is still some love left in the situation:

For a moment there was a feeling between them that used to come when they were alone down at the river-bed. (1991: 23-24)

I have already pointed out that the child brings in an element of conflict in the narrative discourse. Moreover Thebedi’s marriage to Njabulo creates a barrier which Paulus cannot permeate. But let us return to their baby, the baby is the ultimate results of the two lovers. She must not be seen, she must be kept a secret just like their affair. The child as the results of their act cannot be acceptable, at least not in Paulus world.

Thus here at this point in the narrative where Paulus tells Thebedi that the baby must not be seen we come to realize that he never loved Thebedi in the first place, why is not proud of the results of their act. He used her for sexual gratification. This fact is clearer when later on the farmer’s son kills the little one. Though he is soon tried for homicide, he escapes the clutches of the law on the grounds that there is no sufficient evidence o convict him.

Country lovers not only questions the dominance of whites over blacks in South Africa in terms of social hierarchy, but more specifically, through the characterisation of Thebedi, it flashes out the suppression of black women by men in the apartheid South Africa, whose status was subordinate to that of men. And in the light of the situation of Thebedi and Paulus’ secret affair the narrative acutely demonstrate how when the effect is heightened with the white male black woman relationship the imbalance of power relation is severe.

The narrative revisits fascination with the ‘other’. As we see with Paulus’ focalisation when the two lovers are in their ‘love nest’ – the riverbed, after taking the dip:

The schoolgirls he went swimming with at dams or pools on neighboring farms wore bikinis but the sight of their dazzling bellies and thighs in the sunlight had never made him feel what he felt now, when the girl came up the bank and sat besides him, the drops of water beading off her dark legs the only points of light in the earth-smelling, deep shade. (1991: 20)

Paulus Eysendyck’s frustration upon discovering Thebedi’s pregnancy is due to the barriers that have been erected around him by the apartheid ideology that preached purity of race. Despite his honest love for the girl Thebedi his family would never have approved of their relationship. So the relationship cascade to a state of sexual gratification in which Thebedi herself lacks a voice of choosing when and where but Paulus presides over her. Moreover the girl Thebedi’s situation in her own family lacks a voice still and this is shown to us when lobola1 negotiations are entered without her consent. She has no voice in both of these circumstances.

Then Paulus’ homicide trial serves as an opportunity for Thebedi to lash out with lies when she is brought under oath at the witness stand. To avenge herself against Paulus sexual exploitation she lies by saying she saw him pour a liquid into the baby’s mouth before threatening to kill her if she told anyone of what he was about to do (see page 25). The court adjourns.

At the second court proceedings the case is dismissed for lack of evidence to convict the accused. To demonstrate the nature of the society within which this narrative takes place, during the court proceedings, Thebedi is not given enough chance to give her side of the story. This thuds her away as insignificant as far as giving of evidence to the case is concerned. A white man is on trial. Paulus gets away with it.

It is clear that the two narratives that I have dealt with have forms of suppression as their subject matter. Let us revisit them once more before we reach our conclusion. In Mob Passion the narrator deals with segregation between black people who belong to different tribes. He deals with the attitude of people who would go to any extend to up hold ethnic purity. We see that Alpheus and Frans do not approve of their niece going out with a Letebele. This is against their Sotho custom.

The relocation of black people to the township in 1950s under the group areas act2, which sort to vacate blacks from areas which were marked for white use, saw black people distributed, in the new locations, according language and tribes promoted separation amongst the people in that the people banded together according to language and tribes. In Mob Passion Can Themba shows the results of such a situation when we look at the effects when margins of those separated people come into contact because of love. In Nadine Gordimer’s Country Lovers, we are brought into close proximity with the barring effects of the policy of yesteryears – the immorality act. Initially when the relationship between the two lovers becomes intimate the two are guilty of crossing the colour lines in terms of what kind of relationships did the government allow. It, the apartheid monster, denied the people from having love relationships across the colour lines and to reinforce this it persecuted those who dare to do it. But in country Lovers something inhuman takes place when we witness the infanticide and one cannot stop but wonder just how far the tentacles of the apartheid ideology goes – for Paulus commits the greatest crime of all, murder. And because of the laws that have been put in place to protect him, he gets away with it. Do the people in Mob Passion get away with it? No we never find out, the murder at the end of the narrative represents a curtain closer. A kind of a wake up call sounded by Themba to the senseless violence that was taking place between blacks. Since the Ba-sotho’s core aim in banding together as Russians was to get rid of the Tsotsi Problem molded an ideology which at the hands of irresponsible and selfish characters such as Alpheus and Frans transform into a blood¬-thirst.

In country Lovers the relationship between Paulus and Thebedi serves as a vehicle to show the fatality of racial segregation. Their relationship cannot blossom like the same race relationship so it ends up recoiling itself into a sexual affair that explodes in pregnancy. But not only does country Lovers show us this, the narrative also reflect on the power relation bred by such a society. We see that the society in which this narrative has been set is also patriarchal in nature, for we see that Thebedi has no voice as a woman. And also the fact that she is black discredit her when at court for the law serves the interest of the whites.

Concluding remarks

In this essay, using comparative literature, I have discussed two short stories that deal with forms of discrimination in South Africa. The two narratives are set in the context of apartheid South Africa. The main aim as specified at the opening of this essay was to demonstrate how different writers might respond to a similar a stimulus.

The discussion of both Mob Passion and Country Lovers revealed that even though the two narratives are representations of the conditions brought forth by the ideology of separate development in South Africa, each of the works deals with a specific aspect of that ideology for each writer as an observer and a commentator responds to a specific experience. What unify the two texts is that they are responses brought about by the subjugation of the South African people into a repressive social.

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2007

Endnotes

1. Dowry paid to the bride’s parents by the groom as an offering to the work they have done in the upbringing of their child who, given the circumstances brought about by the marriage proposal, graduates into a woman and an mother to her husband.

2. Following the Populations Registration Act in 1950 came the Group Areas Act, a piece of legislation intended over the years to divide every town and village in South Africa into separate racial zones, even though this would involve uprooting whole communities. (see Meredith, M. 1997. Nelson Mandela: A biography. Penguin Books.

Bibliography

Chapman, M. 1996. South African Literatures. London and New york: Longman

Chapman, M. 2001. The Drum Decade: Stories from 1950s. University of Natal Press.

Patel, E (ed). 1985. The World of Can Themba. Ravan Press.

Gordimer, N. 1991. Crimes of Conscience. Heineman.3542

Art of Persuasion or Manipulation?

Actually a while ago when I started to jot down a piece as a response to the unwelcoming of the Delai Lama by our South African Government I never intended that I will write a few pieces surrounding JZ and the looming elections. And here I am again once more compelled to add yet another sequel to our interesting theatre of events in South African politics.

What is motivating the present jottings goes back to last year when SABC’s ‘Friends Like These’ began to televise a celebrity season. For the point that is to be made in the present piece a bit of explanation of the game is necessary. Friends Like these is presented by DJ Sbu who is an accomplished radio and television personality. In the television game show two groups of friends each consisting of five ladies exclusively and the other five gentlemen compete with one another in a series of games that ranges from testing logic, flexibility, memory as well as how much do the friends really know each other. The latter part is played out by the group that won the intermediate games. The prize is a holiday cruise of the Indian Ocean on board a luxury ship.

It is quite interesting that the present season as well as the previous one (not really spaced out like in the past) has been focusing on celebrity figures and to be precise – young men and women who has made something of themselves in the entertainment industry in South Africa: TV/Radio, film and music.

Now what has been pivotal to each of these episodes has been the posing of a question that has become mantramic (if there is such a word) to what we expect the DJ to ask the celebrity guests as they braced themselves for each of the challenges.

‘Are you going to vote?’

Technically this question will be preceded by the guest’s intro of what exactly it is that they do with their lives as far as the entertainment industry is concerned. To my knowledge none of the guests has ever said that they weren’t going to vote. Sbu then will re-emphasize the fact that young people are doing it for themselves, with reference to his guest celebs, and so should the rest of South African youth. This season then, that is in the final analysis, has been about motivating young people to stand up and do something with their lives.

Now my reader in middle of this celebrity season, against the background of this motivating campaign to the youth to stand up and do something with their lives the dear DJ appears at the background of the ANC president during the party’s last rally. Why?

Perhaps I am reading too much into the signification, but bear with me; you see when it comes to media I am always on the look out for the way media can manipulate visual information to achieve a certain effect. Sunday has proved that the current power bloc in South Africa understands what the phenomena celebrity means. Otherwise why will DJ Sbu appear, clad in shades as usual, at the background of the ruling party’s president moments before his speech is concluded? – Reason: To foster the idea of voting to the youth in the upcoming election, this is my bet!

But then there is more. We identify with celebrities based on what they do. DJ Sbu is an example of the results of hard work and success. At the time where young people do not want to hear about past injustices committed to South Africans and they are increasingly interested in their future and becoming successful in their endeavors it becomes of paramount importance as we move into the present election to highlight to the youth with the image of a successful icon who they can identify with that the ruling party is also for them; that it has their interest at heart. Indeed the mere image of Sbu suggests this. He is a mediated hero and we have come to believe in the mythical specification of our celebrities – we gage our lives based on them despite the mythical world they live in.

As I have said it before elsewhere and I shall say it again here: manipulation of events to ascend to our anticipated goals depends on whether we are able to see the present circumstances as they are and forecasts what we want and turn the situation around to get to that goal.

I hope that other political parties have been attuned to the way the ruling party has played this rally. That the most important person they need to have an appeal to is youth. That their so called devotee members need to know what that party that want their loyalty will give them in return. Furthermore political parties must now start to groom their affiliates at youth level in order to be able to connect with the crowds in this game and stop pointing fingers at the wrongs committed by the ruling party or any other party for that matter.

Would it not be a wonderful idea if political parties could start grooming their most active members in their political party structures/ state apparatus to be competent in their respective portfolios?

This way when the political party concerned ascends to national or local responsibility of any function in this country will ensure that the work is done professionally and competent. This way the political parties will prove that they represent progress rather than decadence.

This is what I have taken from the ‘Friends Like These’ phenomenon: wake up and do something for yourself. Just that act alone will be of beneficial to South Africa. Sbu like any independent body may move on to another power bloc in the future, we have already witness such events before as far as politicians are concerned. Independent thought is the foundation we will have to erect first before critiquing what is going on around us in our socio-politico environment.

20 April

© 2009 Mmutle Arthur Kgokong

The Chain Reaction E-Mail

One thing that I have accepted as far as the World Wide Web is concerned is that it is efficient in spreading a message across distances, cultures and creed. Actually the whole phenomenon of mass communication is an efficient tool in spreading and assimilating ideas into the minds of the public especially if one wants to achieve a certain effect. We see it everyday with advertising and message coupling in sms communication services.

There have been two terrible e-mails with attachments doing the rounds that I have received which I have found not palatable. In fact I found them despicable. The first e-mail entitled

‘Remember to Vote’

claimed to show images of a hotel and a resort swimming pool in Beira, Mozambique in 1975 as well as another set of the same location showing the facilities in 2007 in dilapidated states. This second set of images, I must admit, blow a hard punch on one due to the harsh state of the facilities. Then there are the words:

‘Welcome to Independent Africa! The idea of democracy!!!!’ – accompanying the e-mail.

I have tried to write the words verbatim to emphasize the textual effect of this e-mail. My first reaction was that perhaps this e-mail, which was forwarded to me by a colleague, was part of a chain reaction e-mail that was doing the rounds to get an idea across. Most of us are well aware of forwarded emails; they range from humor to obscenity!
There has been such e-mails that I have received from colleagues in the past and I must say most of them were positive. For instance there have been e-mails about lost children with attachments of the photos of the children which is helpful in speeding the process of finding the little ones and reuniting them with their respective families. i have also received e-mails encouraging positive thinking to the recipients .

Now comes this terrible e-mail i have hiherto referred to and while I was digesting it there came another one and this time the architects of this sinister plot had outdone themselves; they had methodically bundle an array of photos together; these photos were showing buildings in Johannesburg which were in neglegence. This second e-mail was entitled:

‘The Death of Johannesburg’ in the new South Africa.

And it had the message

‘Do not forget Pretoria!!!!’

‘Very very Sad’

For emphasis the latter words had a sad round face inserted after the word ‘sad’. Due to space and the respect that I hold for my country, country men and women I shall not include the photos here, otherwise I shall be playing into whoever it is’s hand.
The point I am trying to make here is that there is a sinister force at work to discourage the new positive thinking in our country, yes go on you may call it New South Africa. And what it means exactly it means a break away from a segregated state where people could not mix into an inclusive state as far as race and culture are concerned. What it means it means an undivided country, furthermore what it means it means solidarity to our country despite the fact of who is pulling the reins. Finally what it means it means countrymen and countrywomen ready to work together to make South Africa a better country – not to work against it. The two e-mails, I hope more are not forth coming still, they are exhausting to look at. They are despicable!

When one start to really think deeper about these images one start to have an idea that they are part of a negative plot to discourage people from believing in the current government; actually I was not blunt enough – the images are part of a plan to argue that Africans cannot govern themselves! That democracy in the hands of Africans is not democracy; rather it is a misused tool to destroy the country through recklessness and plunder. I strongly believe that to be South African or an African in our time has nothing to do with colour, we have passed that stage, it has everything to do with accepting Africa’s past; engaging assertively with the present and looking forward into the future with an attitude to make Africa a better place to live in.

Let us look at the situation in Johannesburg in terms of deterioration. Why is the place deteriorated? Why will Pretoria deteriorate? (Remember this was the fore-grounded fear in the e-mails).  Ralf Zimmerman’s film Jerusalem (2008) has answered this question; The owners of most of the suburban areas move out once black people move in; when they move some of them lease their property; will the tenant look after the place with the care and dignity of the owner?  My dear reader by implication i do not mean black people are careless, carelessness know no culture nor colour. It depends on one’s upbringing. The desertion of certain areas/suburbs by the the bourgeoisie in our country due to the influxs of other cultural groups is a clear indication of separation that still exists and we must not think that it is white people only who behave this way – the emergent black bourgeoisie also behave likewise in their zeal for exclusiveness!

If people care about a place they need to remain in that area regardless of the demographic changes that take place as some people move out and relocate because of job offers elsewhere and new people move in.

If the love and a feeling of camaraderie persist as new people come in they are bound to pick it up that those who have been settling in that area before them are proud of their community/district. Yes if people can just be communal and work together as well as live together we will all arrive into the New South Africa; not all of us are there yet henceforth the despicable e-mails.

In the light of this, then the terrible e-mails that I am preoccupied with these days illustrate a neglect not on the part of the government alone but also a neglect of those people who say they care about the City of Johannesburg.  What are they themselves doing to bring change? This is a symptom of what we have been witnessing with people threatening to move elsewhere and also really do moving out of the country to Australia and other parts of the world simply because they are not happy with who is in charge here. I think a real South African will stay on and will try and contribute to the betterment of this country in the smallest way possible. They will put up with the situation and work out a plan to change it.

Having said this, whoever it is who is circulating the terrible e-mails should try and think constructively and positively about the image of this country because ‘we make it what it is, not the political parties ‘ – we are the ones who fuel the life of the political parties in the first place anyway by believing in them and embracing their ideologies. I challenge who ever it is who think negatively about our country to stop and do their bit to uplift it regardless of political loyalty. You can start by offering solutions counter to the bad things that you see; even just thinking of ways to improve the situation will do.  This is the challenge i pose to you; are you game?

16 April

2009 © mmutle arthur kgokong

BRT

As I write, in the background Tshepiso of the television current affairs programme Interface is conducting a heated debate with three gentlemen around the issue of the charges withdrawal against JZ. This week has been about him and I suspect that just as much as the studio guests are bedazzled by this politician cum celebrity the rest of the country is; guest number one defends the NPA’s decision to drop the charges which is understandable because he is from that camp, the other one is from one of the academic institution with a specialty in political science, while the third is a professor…you get the picture; a bunch of learned motor mouths.

In the other deep background not the pseudo one; the background that all of us will feel the hardest in teh long run: the truck drivers, South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) are on a strike, my guess is food is running out in the shops but most importantly it is fuel in the filling stations that is running out and I dread the day when everything will come to a stand still because of fuel shortages. The drivers are crying out for salary increases.

A couple of weeks ago it was the taxi drivers who took to the streets to question the taxi recapitalization. Their outcry was that they were not properly consulted by the government officials and most of the taxi associations were afraid that their jobs will be on the line. We saw the great metropolis – Johannesburg came to a stand still. A month or so ago it was the bus drivers who went on a strike. What is wrong with this picture? A country that should be working like clock work I struggling with one of the simplest things. Consultation which in its outstretch format we can break it into: communication, mediation and feedback. If only those people charged with making sure that policies and plans to make the modern world operate efficiently were doing their work then we should not be stuck with mere problems that can be solved well ahead before their manifestations.

Take this anecdote from my life for instance; my son and I parted ways with his mother who was headed for work one Saturday morning. Mission: to pick up one of our old cellphones at a repair shop somewhere in Town. My boy is still a toddler which should give you a pretty picture of how fast he can walk, thus being car-less, we decided to take a bus. Well he enjoys bus rides anyway. He has had them periodically since he was still a few months old when he had to get his injection at the local clinic. Anyways returning to the present narrative. We took the opportunity of the one stage bus stop along Essellen Street. When we arrived a few people were dotting the bus stop patiently for the next bus. We waited something like half and hour to forty five minutes before we realized that the bus was not coming. My boy was already groaning with boredom I suppose from wonderment of why we stood there while nothing happened. People started to move away cursing. Well it was time for our cue. I whisked the little fellow on my curve and trotted towards the robot and crossed the Haimilton Street and headed westward towards Town.

I wondered if the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system was to be put in place would transportation problems be solved if a simple transport system such as the municipal buses fail to arrive on time. If the little fellow and I should have went up the road earlier that morning with my madam we would’ve surely gotten a taxi and cruised across Sunnyside and be in Town in good time to get back to sit for cartoons, except that we would be way of the mark of our destination unlike if we could have taken the bus. Fact is we would’ve gotten transport at least. The way I see it the government have a thing or two to learn from the efficiency of the taxi industry in our country before it tempers with it!
As for colleagues and friends who have visited families out of Gauteng I wonder if they will be back in time due to the shortages of fuel after the Easter holidays with the consequences of the trucks which include petrol transportation.

12 April

© 2009 mmutle arthur kgokong