South Africa: the state of the arts 25 years after apartheid
South Africa's young democracy is viewed throughout the world as an exemplary pluralistic
rainbow nation. But as the country approaches its most important elections in 25
years, does art imitate life?
– Sertan Sanderson, Deutsche Welle, 8 May 2019
Social upheaval, revolutions and lasting change often begin in the arts long before
they manifest on the political stage. Creative minds discuss the changes they want
to see in the world; they go on to write plays, books and songs, and find ways to
work around censorship and oppression to reach new audiences with their messages.
In South Africa, one such voice that shaped the country's transition from apartheid
to democracy is Pieter-Dirk Uys. Though he has portrayed many characters from the
country's contemporary history with uncannily precise impersonations over the years,
he is best known in South Africa for a character he invented, namely that of Evita
Bezuidenhout — a white Afrikaner socialite and political activist who has been commenting
on the South African zeitgeist since the 1980s.
"I had to be someone else on stage during those days; someone who those in power
back then would not know what to do with. So I dressed up as a woman. It confused
the enemy. Because they didn't know who to lock up for going against the censorship
laws: Evita — or Pieter-Dirk Uys," he told DW, highlighting the difficult circumstances
under which he went on stage under the state of emergency issued by South African
President P.W. Botha during the 1980s.
"I fight fear with the F-word: fun. When people have fun, they find a common ground.
They laugh at the same thing, together.
"In the end, they could do nothing but laugh at themselves and their absurd laws.
And that's what I learned through that experience: Never underestimate your enemy.
They will always have a sense of humor. They don't get to where they are because
"We are the stupid ones to let them get that far."
The price of freedom
During that critical era, dissident voices against the apartheid government were
routinely banned, incarcerated, and in some cases even murdered — as recently as
one year before the end of apartheid in 1994. Pieter-Dirk Uys, however, managed to
circumvent a lot of the censorship back then, chiefly because he hit the right nerve
and made people laugh.
He continues to entertain crowds today; however, despite his appreciation for South
Africa's democracy, he is somewhat worried about the direction the country is taking
under growing populism and with an increasingly volatile rhetoric in the political
"Apartheid was genocide, it was warfare, it was lies. It was a virus with no cure.
I think today, we're in a healthy democracy. After 25 years, we've still got our
freedom of expression. But as my character Evita says, 'Don't think freedom is lying
on the table waiting for you. Freedom is the lightest of feather in the gentlest
of wind,'" Uys explains.
"The only thing that's free is your right to be free. But you've got to work for
it everyday. If apartheid taught us anything, it should be that."
Creative careers: (not) a black-and-white question
Pieter-Dirk Uys is certainly not the only voice who expresses cautious concern about
where South Africa might be headed a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid,
as a long list of social problems remain at the forefront of all the election campaigns
in the country.
From being an underground activist against apartheid, Uys has truly become a national
treasure in the new South Africa. However, other artists have had a hard time adapting
their identities to a pluralistic society. Performers of Afrikaans-language music
have had to move from prime-time spots on television in the 80s and 90s to private
networks and streaming services today — often to lesser success, as the airwaves
are now dominated by various Bantu dialects, nine of which are regarded to be official
languages in South Africa.
Some white artists meanwhile have even left the country for its lack of opportunities;
in the so-called rainbow nation, they find that contemporary audiences reject them.
An artist who left Cape Town to seek new opportunities in Germany spoke to DW under
the condition of anonymity, saying that she's been pushed out of the market:
"I'm sorry for having such unpopular views, but to me the whole apartheid thing is
"I've been told many times and in no uncertain terms that I'm simply too white to
perform at a lot of festivals or in certain spaces in South Africa. And that's one
of the reasons why I decided to leave the country."
Tokenism in a museum
While some left the country to pursue their careers, others came to South Africa
to maximize on new opportunities in the post-apartheid era. German businessman Jochen
Zeitz, former CEO of PUMA, opened the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (known
as the Zeitz MOCAA) in Cape Town in 2017 to highlight the work of contemporary visual
artists in Africa. It is the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world
and in its permanent exhibition shows Zeitz' personal collection of African art.
"The creativity of African Art and the cultural diversity of the Africa continent
have always fascinated me. But I never understood why there was no institution or
sizable museum for this in Africa, and that's how the idea (to open this museum)
was born," he said in an interview in 2017.
The Zeitz MOCAA has indeed been a welcome addition to Cape Town's cultural scene,
but has also drawn criticism for amounting to little more than an act of tokenism,
with Zeitz being the latest, as a white, male benefactor on Cape Town's local arts
scene working in a team of other white consultants.
Zeitz, however, believes that his contribution merely provides a platform to present
new opportunities to emerging artists: "We live in a globalized world and we must
overcome black/white cliches," Zeitz says. "We are only here to create opportunities."
Apartheid in showbiz?
For people of color, opportunities should abound by that rationale. Yet many artists,
especially young people, say they have a hard time even entering the creative industries,
let alone make ends meet.
Noluvuyo Mangoloza is a 36-year-old actress living in Cape Town, who has had to fight
hard to forge a career in the country's fast-growing film industry. She's performed
in commercials, TV series and movies, and has presented on local television but her
bread and butter is her work as a production coordinator behind the camera, where
she does everything from being a location scout to performing background research
for screen projects.
Mangoloza told DW that even today, it is difficult for black South Africans to pursue
their dreams in creative professions: "When white people say that they have no opportunities,
sometimes I think it's a joke, sometimes I feel angry. They have a lot more opportunities,
especially here in Cape Town, which is very white. They all know each other."
"When I moved here in 2003 from the Eastern Cape, where there are no jobs at all
for young people, I was told that the film industry is only for white people. But
I found out that isn't true, either. There is work here, but you just have to give
people a chance. And you have to work hard to prove yourself."
Reconciling the past with the present
Noluvuyo Mangoloza says there should be more internships, apprenticeships and similar
programs to facilitate the careers of aspiring creative professionals — especially
for people of color. She welcomes initiatives like the Zeitz MOCAA museum but thinks
that showcasing African talent alone doesn't go far enough:
"We need funding. Be that at university, or as new graduates who need to build up
experience to be taken seriously. We need opportunities. It is hard to fight for
everything. Give us a chance, that's all I'm asking for," she said in an interview
Pieter-Dirk Uys meanwhile expresses gratitude for all the chances he's been given
in his career — not just with his success on stage but also with South Africa's journey
into reconciliation and the way he profited from that.
"If it wasn't for the generosity of the majority of South Africans, I wouldn't be
here. Because millions and millions of black people had the right to put me up against
a wall and shoot me for the crimes of apartheid. Because as a white, Christian-Jewish
Afrikaner, I was responsible. I benefited from it," Uys admits.
"But I also believe that this guilt can be a positive thing. You can use guilt to
make sure that these awful crimes actually don't happen again. You make sure that
you move into a more inclusive world with those in your community, those you share
a life with. Reconciliation is something that you always have to share. After all,
we're all in this together."