WHEN Smithfield’s new arts festival, the Platteland Preview, ran into trouble last year, someone asked if I’d been in touch with Ismail Mahomed.
As a law writer, I could only assume she meant the late Chief Justice and I wondered at her faith that he could organise art festival miracles from beyond the grave. But no, this is someone else. This Ismail Mahomed is artistic director of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. From our first-hand experience of how difficult it is to maintain and grow such an event I’m in awe of its longevity, vitality and popularity – and of Mahomed’s role in ensuring it flourishes.
He has to be South Africa’s most connected, most knowledgeable arts administrator as well as being incredibly generous with his help. So when he asked tough questions following the appointment of former police minister Nathi Mthetwa as arts and culture minister, I read his views with interest.
One comment resonated with particular force. He challenged the artistic community, if it was truly concerned about the state of the arts and of politics, to have their say through their art rather than merely relying on ‘hashtag criticism’.
‘Where are the creative songs of protest?’ he asked. Where were the public art protests that should be popping up in our public spaces? And the performance art interventions – where were they?
It was a question I asked myself when it was time to put together a programme for Smithfield’s 2014 festival. On the N6 and half way between Gauteng and Grahamstown, our dorp offers free accommodation to performers en route to the National Arts Festival. Performers get a final tech rehearsal here and arrive in Grahamstown primed and ready to roll – and we get our own festival, June 27 – 29, in the rural heart of the country.
So what was on offer this year? Some great shows couldn’t make it because the dates didn’t work but we have at least two productions that might answer Mahomed’s challenge.
One is a political satire written by Craig van Zyl and called ‘The Road to Recovery’. It’s set in a park below the Union Buildings after a woman is hijacked and her car stolen, and the troubled eyes of Nelson Mandela’s statute watch the subsequent events.
The play, by Rebel Productions, has been winning virtually every award that counts – among them best actor (male and female); best original script, best cameo – and we’re predicting it will be sold out in Smithfield. This is a show that’s not going to Grahamstown, but when the cast said they’d be available we jumped at the chance to bring the production here.
The other production is more serious in its style. It’s ‘The ballad of Dirk de Bruin’, a new work by poet-playwright Chris Mann, professor of poetry at Rhodes University.
Mann tackles one of the biggest problems in South African society – corruption – in an unexpected way. He shows us de Bruin, a fictional Everyman character, faced with corruption and wrong-doing in an organisation that means a lot to him: a church that rescued him when he seemed headed for a life on the streets. It changed his life and he’s been a loyal part of the organisation as it has grown. But now, unable to stand any more of the corruption he’s witnessing first-hand, he has taken a stand – he’s become a whistle-blower.
What gives someone the strength of character to act in such a situation, Mann wonders. We all know what happens to whistle-blowers in our society and how they face disciplinary action, lose their friends and their jobs. So what makes them do it, despite the terrible consequences?
This play-length poem finds some answers from key moments in de Bruin’s life. But his experiences are not completely foreign to other South Africans and there will be times when the audience finds themselves identifying with him. By the end de Bruin has become a kind of national conscience figure for the many thousands of people who have close-up evidence of corruption and must struggle with the problem of what to do.
Actor David Butler takes the part of de Bruin and thus adds a third stubborn, rebellious – and admirable – Afrikaner to his growing portfolio of such characters, along with his study of Bram Fischer and Herman Charles Bosman.
Are there other performers and visual artists with views on our political culture and its insidious influence on the rest of society? – I’ll be going to Grahamstown to find out.