Thursday, 30 August 2018

The role of arts in transformation

What role does the arts play in social transformation? In what ways does it contribute to peace, development and social justice? These issues are explored in the book Changing our World; Art as Transformative Practice edited by Michelle le Baron and Janis Sarra.



This book, among other things, endeavours to break new ground. It coins the term TAP (for 'transformative arts practice') and refers to TAP practitioners. A question that arises is whether TAP practitioners identify as such - whether for example the late Hugh Masekela would have viewed himself as a TAP practitioner. Since the label is new, most likely not. But if TAP was considered in terms of its essence, many on all continents would align with it, the book argues, and many would likely see themselves as part of the project of fostering the arts as transformative practice.

In my small contribution to the book, I worked on 'how to build a TAP field', so such questions came up. A field is when organisations and individuals see themselves as some kind of 'community' working together to solve problems and develop certain shared practices.

The theory aside, it is worth mentioning two other points here. The first is that arts practitioners who acknowledged that art had a role in the fight against apartheid were much more connected and coordinated in the pre-1994 period. They worked together in and across disciplines, and, for example, made their mark in creating pathways for emerging artists from oppressed communities to emerge and feel supported. The current period, by comparison, is marked by fragmentation and dislocation. So, we may ask: 'what's to be done?' - a question addressed in the exploration of how to build a field.

The second additional point is that in this book we put our heads on the block and link TAP in a fundamental way to Ubuntu. By using the word transformative, "(o)ur focus is on those (practices) that have embedded within them a set of values summed up here as Ubuntu and the goals of enhancing social and economic fairness and reciprocal belonging". In this regard, when we were working on the book, one of the authors, Kitche Magak, often noted that ubuntu was both African and universal - although we acknowledge Africa as the labeler and a place where many practice it more consciously, the call of Ubuntu has relevance and application the world over. Magak (in his chapter) stresses the 'humanising capacity of the arts'. And in a summary of one of our workshop discussions (made possible by Stellenbosch University), he noted that "(h)umanising arts challenges, confronts and contradicts dehumanising dominant ideology". I hope this gives some feel of the content/contents of the book.

The book is published by African Sun Media and Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS).

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Mandela, violence and prospects for deepening democracy in SA

Nelson Mandela had a nuanced position on violence. On the one hand, he led an armed struggle against apartheid; on the other hand, based on his leadership conduct in later life, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this article, I grapple with this  less to find a solution to the conundrum than to throw light on strategies for deepening democracy in SA: https://tinyurl.com/ybvrlqpa .

Frank Meintjies


Sunday, 4 September 2016

CITES 2016 – Africa's lions need your support

The situation of lions mirrors in so many ways the position of animals more generally in this over-industrialised world.

We think of the mighty lion as king or queen of the jungle and as an iconic role player in the food chain. We savour the lion's presence in our subconscious, in our dreams and in the imagination of children. But the reality is grim and bleak:  the lion is often held captive, kept for breeding, used in canned hunting, poached and has its body parts transported by operators along smuggling routes. Cubs are often taken away, used for zoo petting and raised to be similarly killed for financial gain.

This year the issues come to a head with the United Nations' CITES conference in South Africa at the end of September and the IUCN conference in Hawai. The latter conference focuses on "conservation " and achievement of the sustainable development goals, with a dominant focus on climate change. But it may also present an important platform, especially since the IUCN (according to a list it released in 2014) noted that the African lion populations have experienced an overall decline of 43 per cent between 1993 and 2014. The CITES conference will look at the issues of "trade" and "endangered species" -- as such, it allows for the issue of lions to be raised more pertinently and forcefully.

These multinational spaces concerned with "lists" of which animals are threatened with extinction and which are endangered themselves pose problems to those concerned about the position of the lion. In such forums, the pro "regulated trade" and "regulated hunting" lobby groups are powerful. Based on their successes in terms of breeding in captivity, they argue strongly for regulated trade. They have a yearning for animals to be taken off the threatened list. They  assert that regulated trade would be good for species protection. However, many of us who have a deep concern for Africa's lions refuse to accept that industrialisation of lions (valuing lions in the main for the hunter's gun and because body parts can be used as trophies and aphrodisiacs) is the way to go.

On the other hand, ten African countries have called for the strongest protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). They have submitted a proposal to transfer all populations of the African lion from CITES Appendix II to Appendix I, according to the organisation  Annamaticus which fights to stop the economic exploitation of endangered species.

Annamaticus states: "The African lion (Panthera leo) has been listed in CITES Appendix II since 1977. However, this mechanism for regulating trade has been poorly implemented for nearly four decades. Appendix II has proven insufficient to halt the precipitous decline of lion populations and the Appendix I listing is long overdue.“

The situation of white lions represent a matter of specific concern. Most members of the public don't realise the precarious and untenable position of white lions. That is because they see them on game farms and in zoos. But there are only 12 white lions in the wild; the rest are in captivity. The critical position of the white lion, however, is often masked because CITES categorises them together with tawny lions.

Against this back background, Linda Tucker and her Global White Lion Protection Trust, has launched the One United Roar (O.U.R.) campaign. This campaign (details here) involves young people from all over the world to highlight the perspective of the lion itself in these debates and discussions.

The campaign involved getting children to upload a simply made video on to the trust's website. Through a combination of public participation and assessment by judges six videos that are most emblematic of the issues at stake. The 6 children will be given an opportunity to visit the white lion territory near Hoedspruit and be given further opportunities to send their message to policymakers. Tucker is on record as saying that with O.U.R. she wants to take the campaign to a visceral level. The aims is  in addition to the rational arguments to properly protect the lions  to get policymakers to hear the message as coming from the hearts of children and in turn to engage from a deeper level of consciousness.

(Lion image by johnny_automatic)

Monday, 22 August 2016

Poem in honour of Elaine Rosa Salo

Elaine Salo, who passed away on 13 August 2016, lived a full and dynamic life. She made a huge intellectual contribution and simultaneously built communities of friendship, practice and deep personal connection with a wide variety of people.

Read my poem in her honour at http://frankbeat.blogspot.co.za/2016/08/legacy.html .

Frank  Meintjies

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Katlehong Arts Centre - a journey filled with challenges and great achievements

The Katlehong Arts Centre played a critical role as a community arts centre over three decades from the mid-70s.

Despite turbulence, institutional tension and, at times, ambiguous political positioning, it made outstanding contributions on many fronts.

Read my full account here: http://tinyurl.com/jbcckg9




Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Development & effective delivery requires cooperation between social partners

Government should be doing more to enrol civil society as it struggles to overcome massive backlogs and a surge of new demands for delivery of services.

Government policy frameworks and the constitution require that government meets a wide range of basic human needs or – if it cannot do so immediately – produce plans for their progressive realisation. In addition to socio-economic services, government also has the obligation to ensure access to justice, community participation in shaping society and the effective functioning of democratic systems.

In a developing country context, it is a heavy load for government to carry, even if government was working well on all fronts.

Civil society organisations such as NGOs and CBOs represent a national resource. They are as much a part of South African fabric as the new government, and in their work and existence preceded the democratic government. Most want to see changes in people’s lives – and are prepared to work to bring it about. They can play a bigger role in advancing development objectives.

There are those on opposite ends of the spectrum who will not be in favour of government and civil society organisations (CSOs) working together to realise development objectives.

Conservative forces within government would advise government and the ruling party to stay clear of CSOs. Government is in charge and should just press ahead, working directly with communities. In the spirit of a strong and developmental state, government should just go ahead and implement as it sees fit, or so that view goes.

Leftwingers would argue that any collaboration with government would be “doing the work of government”. It would be supporting the right wing ideology that argues that the state should play a smaller role in national development.

But the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Problems in development countries are huge but headway can be made if sectors work to find common ground. Furthermore, the constitution, in its understanding of governance, envisages that we all combine our efforts to achieve developmental objectives.

Government spokespersons will no doubt enumerate their own requirements for partnering. However in my engagement with CSOs, they emphasize the following about partnership:
  • Collaboration should not be premised on the idea that CSOs must give up their voice and right to undertake advocacy. In fact, governance could benefit if there was more proactive and critical feedback from CSOs rather than eruptions of grassroots protests that sometimes turn violent.
  • There should be an acceptance that CSOs have different strategies and that a CSO may use different strategies at different times. CSOs acknowledge that government is not monolithic and one government department may be more open to collaboration on projects while another may be hostile to the idea of co-operation.
  • Some CSOs desire no role in implementation; preferring to focus on advocacy and campaigns. For example Equal Education, although it is involved in establishing libraries in schools, puts the emphasis on campaigns. NGOs that adopt such positions should be respected and form a vital part of civil society.
  • For CSOs, there are many ways to collaborate beyond being entangled in implementation; CSOs can assume roles in monitoring, in data gathering and research, in programme formulation and as participants in oversight bodies set up by departments.'

Of course, relationships will not always be plain sailing. In a society plagued by race and class conflict and where fierce intra-party and inter-party rivalries coexist with daily community protests, CSOs and government will also have tense standoffs.

Nonetheless, there are many areas in which specific government departments and CSOs can work together – or increase collaboration – as partners to find solutions and advance objectives set out in the Freedom Charter. 

We can draw lessons from, and possibly expand on, interesting examples of collaboration such as these:

– The Department of Labour in some provinces engages community-based advice offices to ensure workers get access to information and assistance related to labour rights.
– The Department of Social Development and its provincial counterparts works with CBOs to roll out victim empowerment services to those affected by rape and domestic violence. (Sadly, however, government keeps slicing away at NPO funding for critical activities such as post-rape services while government's own unit costs for such service continues to climb).
– During the recent xenophobic violence in Durban, NGOs and government had to work together in providing relief. Many NGOs were first on the scene and spent days and nights working to provide assistance to victims. Furthermore, government must work through CSOs in rolling out community-level campaigns to raise consciousness and counter xenophobia.
– NGOs and some units based at universities play a sterling role alongside CBOs supporting farmworker struggles and providing information about labour and tenure rights.
– In health, the Treatment Action Campaign plays a role in monitoring services to people living with HIV and Aids. The Black Sash is similarly is engaged in a joint programme with national government to monitor service delivery at provincial levels.

Outside of collaboration on specific programmes and issues, our constitution envisages a broader interdependency between CSOs and government. Civil society organisations should for example have a voice in national discussions on key policy issues and future direction, in the same way that trade unions and the private sector do. This could be done through apex organisations (network bodies) supplemented by good representation of organisations that directly represent the views and spirit of the grassroots. In this regard, there are huge gaps partly based on dismissive attitudes in many parts of government and on fragmentation and the scarcity of strong networks within civil society.

The need for such strategic-level engagement must be addressed, even as attention is paid to gaps in partnership at local and provincial levels.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

New poetry book launched: Unfettered Days

I make a contribution to Book Week 2015 by launching my poetry book, Unfettered Days. In this work, I continue to grapple with private and public concerns and to foster deeper understandings by trying to grasp truth and understanding by examining of the particular.

In the book's afterword, poet and cultural commentator Lisa Combrinck notes that the poetry’s strength lies in “seemingly insignificant observations” that  “provide the reader with an intimacy that leaves an unease yet also, strange as it may seem, a feeling of deep fulfillment.” She also writes that: “The small revelations are what give the poetry great inner strength and significance”. Read all of Combrinck's comments in the afterword here: http://tinyurl.com/o9uqg8w .

Unfettered Days contains poems about jazz music, the landscapes of childhood, the fluid nature of memory, images of nature and the connections between urban and rural spaces.

Copies of the book can be obtained through the Melville branch of Bookdealers (www.bookdealers.co.za).
Frank Meintjies