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From South Africa to Palestine: Art, culture, and the anti-apartheid struggle

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Picture: Freedom Park via Tricontinental / Taken in 1979 – Institute for Social Research Medu members Tim Williams, Wally Serote, and Sergio-Albio Gonzalez print the poster ‘Unity Is Power’ in Gaborone, Botswana, 1979. Anti-apartheid fighter and cultural worker Mongane Wally Serote spoke at a recent event about the centrality of art and culture to the struggle for liberation.

By Mongane Wally Serote and Tings Chak

In 1979, during the height of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a group of exiled activists and artists in the neighbouring country of Botswana formed the Medu Art Ensemble.

A mere six years later, the organisation’s future was prematurely cut short when the South African Defence Forces Special Forces conducted raids in sovereign Botswana territory, killing twelve people – two of them members of Medu Art Ensemble.

During their short years of existence, this group mobilised writers, painters, designers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians, domestically and internationally. Together, they demonstrated the power of cultural resistance, posing itself as a moral and political threat to the apartheid regime. Owing to the international mobilisation and the effective use of culture as a weapon of struggle, the regime fell exactly three decades ago.

Today, three-and-a-half months after Israel’s genocidal siege began in Gaza, South Africa has taken a leading role in solidarity with the Palestinian people and against Israeli apartheid. Pretoria filed an application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. On January 26, the ICJ ruled in favour of South Africa’s request for provisional measures in its case against Israel over the ongoing war on Gaza and rejected Israel’s request for the case to be dismissed.

Artists around the world have also raised their voices in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Under the banner of “Artists Against Apartheid,” artists from 60 countries have created artwork, organised events, joined political actions, and 11,000 have signed onto a joint statement, which declares:

As artists and cultural producers, we join hands with the people of the world and with the heroic people of Palestine, to stop this genocidal war and put an end to 75 years of occupation. We understand the power that our work has in shaping public opinion in our time. As artists we have a unique responsibility to use our voice and artistic practices to protest apartheid and amplify the just cause of the Palestinian people and their resistance against occupation and oppression.

On January 21, Artists Against Apartheid, together with The People’s Forum and the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research organised an event, “Art, Culture, and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle”, which brought together cultural workers and activists from South Africa to Palestine and beyond.

Among the participants was Mongane Wally Serote, the founding Chairperson of Medu Art Ensemble who today is South Africa’s National Poet Laureate. He was joined by fellow Medu member, Judy Seidman, Clarissa Bitar, award-winning Palestinian oud musician and composer, and Niki Franco, podcaster and cultural worker. The event was organised by Hannah Priscilla Craig of Artists Against Apartheid and Tings Chak, the art director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, who recently authored “Culture as a Weapon of Struggle: The Medu Art Ensemble and Southern African Liberation”.

Recalling the history of the Medu Art Ensemble and the South African liberation struggle today is not a nostalgic endeavour, but it is about the present, and the inextricably connections to the current struggle for Palestinian liberation. As Frantz Fanon wrote, we must “use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope”, and this invitation to action and hope extends to artists from South Africa to Palestine, and beyond, who are in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Below is the text of the speech that Mongane Wally Serote gave at the event, including a new poem that he wrote, entitled “Palestine,” which was originally published in the ANC Today newsletter.

Comrades and colleagues present,

Many thanks for this opportunity to go back in time, but to also look ahead focusing on the role of arts and culture in the past but also in the present, as we examine the saying that: ‘Culture is the weapon of struggle’.

It is important to state that the ANC unit, which was eventually given the responsibility to embark on engaging arts and culture activity to serve our people through the struggle for the emergence of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, was most inspired by the then ANC President, Oliver Tambo. He said, after he received the report about the progress for the formation of Medu Art Ensemble, and I paraphrase: Remember that, arts, culture, and heritage have the possibility and potential to unite our people and the world, to fight against the Apartheid system …

We not only believed, but committed as cultural activists, to the fact that our people and country, South Africa, were anchored on centuries of the struggle for liberation. We therefore understood and believed that the South African nation would always express its commitment to the struggle for the liberation of the nation and our country, through its history and culture, and therefore also, through the arts.

As we served our people as cultural workers, being conscious and aware of the four pillars of the struggle, namely mass mobilisation, international support, underground, and armed struggle, as waged by the ANC, we honed in to this understanding in Medu Art Ensemble, in search of new ways to harness that innate being of our nation.

We had to create new ways and platforms, leaning on our political understanding, history, and where possible, on science, not only to harness the varied and diverse arts and creativity which existed, but to also amplify the creativity and expression of the creative acumen of the arts and cultural workers.

We believed and committed to the fact that while arts and culture activity are a creative process to portray and to depict the milieu of a nation, nations, and the world as a mirror does, cultural workers must also be creative and committed to shape, mold, and create artistic and cultural expression to intervene. This way, arts and culture can become the tools to shape, reshape, and/or contribute to the national political consciousness, to defy and dismantle the apartheid policies, law, and system, and to initiate the betterment of the quality of life of the people, the nation, nations, and the world.

The evidence of that possibility existed in our country, inspired by the creativity of the masses in our country but also by how the international community had responded, through the Anti- Apartheid Movement to implement the international support of the liberation of our country, through sanctions, boycotts, demonstrations and the support of the strategic objective of the struggle: to create a non-racial non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

I am suggesting here, that besides the fact that eventually, when Medu was established, it became very important and essential, that there was a common understanding, as different cultural workers responded to the call of Medu, that Medu Art Ensemble as the name suggests, would be anchored, and would participate in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, and therefore fight to destroy the apartheid system. This work was guided by the four pillars of struggle, but very importantly, was absolutely creative in employing the seven art forms, namely, literature, theater, dance, photography, film, posters/plastic arts/sculpture, and music.

That is where the weapon comes from. However, more important is, what must the arts do to result in nurturing a culture, a consciousness, and a commitment, on the one hand, for the creatives to serve the people, and on the other hand, for the nation to be stoic and committed through conscious and deliberate effort and action to not only fight against the Apartheid system but to also defend the strategic objective of the struggle in the future.

That was the challenge then, and it is still the challenge today!

A Poem by Mongane Wally Serote – 29/11/2023


WeWe keep looking this way and that wayWe know this roadThe siren is blurring all sound into oblivionThe siren the siren the siren rings in the heart and blurs hearing and sightTo be deaf and blindThe siren screams and blasts the ears and brain of the human raceThe earth is in a screamThe siren scream is like a strong blinding fierce light into the sightof the human raceWe keep lookingThis way and that way that way and this waySomething must be doneWe keep lookingSearchingWhere on earth will understanding come fromWhere from on earthWill the power come fromTo call a halt to the blinding blurring deafening sirenAhThis world my brotherThis world my sister where where fromWill help comeFrom whomIn this worldAhPalestine!We ask the earThe eyeThe mindWe ask the heartHas the human race runRan away to hide its sight and earRan and hid its being awayWhere from will understanding step in and stop this carnageThe siren is blurring in our beingWhere from from whomWe hear in our ears deep in our minds and eyesIn our beingWe hear from the wind even from the sunlightObliteratePalestine Palestine PalestineBloody PalestineObliterate PalestineObliterate this History Culture and beingThis Echoes and echo as would the being of the mountain echoThey must not be alone please they must not be aloneThe people of PalestinePalestine must not be aloneWe wish we think we feelWe hope as hopelessness attempts to embrace usWe seeWe wriggle out of itThe Palestinians are alone on earthIn the world they are alonePleasePlease they must not be alone they cannot be aloneOn earthIn the world they must not be aloneThey must not be alone they cannot be aloneMany of them perish as we say soManyChildrenI am afraid to count how manychildrenBecause even oneIs too too manyWe hear in our eyes the sounds of the siren and of the explosionAs it blasts our eye and hearingand the red fireflares its coming in the air with the power of a stormThe red-hot fire holds human flesh in its red hot danceIt was preceded by a thick black smokeWhich bellows and ragesOnOhHuman raceIt ragesIn the air and skyThe deafening sound of the bombAbove skyscrapers in the sky towards the earthThe fire flares turning the heavens crimsonthisAsThe Siren is fading into an eerie quiteThe fireThe smokeThe deafening sound of the bombTearsSkyscrapers houses and buildings apartLike a pack of cards brick and cementcrumblesto the earthto be a heap of earth the last grave of menwomen and childrenWe see thisAnd feel their painful slow deathUnder the rubbleAs their death BeginsWe hear this rumble roaras the sight whispers to usWe hear thiswe feel this deep deep in our minds hearts and beingFrom far away we feel thisThe silence of deathWe see this we hear this we feel thisWe own it nowAh Palestine!Victories cannot be won through genocidePalestineForeverPalestineThe Palestinians will be here on earthForever PalestineForeverIn our mindsIn our heartsIn our being as human beingsFor their cryIs a human cry humane to the human racePalestinians own their victoryCulture and HistoryTo live foreverHere nowThe denied two state begins its reality nowTo emerge for realTo beTo be present forever on earth like a Baobab treeUnder the skyUnder the sun and under the moonPalestine must standShestandsOn her language culture historyOn her peopleAnd beingFirm as her flag flaps in the skies in the worldlike the dress of a young ladyDancing in the wind under the sun foreverAh Palestine!Be.

Mongane Wally Serote is a South African poet, writer and a healer. Serote joined the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle against apartheid and later went into exile. Serote is the third National Poet Laureate of South Africa inaugurated on November 6, 2018, and he is still an active member of the African National Congress. Tings Chak is a Hong Kong-born and Toronto-raised multidisciplinary artist trained in architecture. Her work draws inspiration from the migrant justice, anti-capitalist, and internationalist working-class struggles she is a part of.

This article was published on Peoples Dispatch