Fashion, film, music and theatre in democracy
Many might look at the politics of the country to see how far it has gone, compared to its previous administrations. However they are mistaken. The arts are one way to see just how the country is faring. The arts have always been a social commentary on what is happening in society, hence the phrase “art imitating life“.
Twenty-seven years into our democracy, where do we fair? The honest answer is we could do so much better. The arts are almost always an afterthought, are not given the attention needed and this causes us to lag behind the rest of the world.
Not that our artists are not producing great work. They are. It’s just that without the support from those at the top, who hold the purse strings and the influence needed to take our art to the stratosphere, the industry will remain underfunded and ignored.
Even with the difficulties creatives face, they still show resilience and this is shown in the work produced by those in the fashion, film, music and theatre communities.
Here are some of the recent highlights (and lowlights) of our young democracy.
When one thinks of iconic fashion moments in democratic South Africa, David Tlale’s show-stopping Joburg Fashion Week show at the Nelson Mandela Bridge, comes to mind.
He presented 92 looks, in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 92nd birthday, where some of the country’s top models, actors, business figures and TV personalities took to the bridge and strutted for their lives.
Tlale is one of the first people you think of when it comes to local fashion. He, Jacques van der Watt, Gavin Rajah, Kluk CGDT, Thula Sindi, and Leigh Schubert, have carried on where Marianne Fassler, Spero Villioti, Amanda Laird Cherry and Gideon began, by setting the tone for what South African fashion design represents.
With the launch of SA Fashion Week by Lucilla Booyzen in 1997, the formation of provincial fashion councils and also Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe’s Africa Fashion International, the industry had bodies that aimed to nurture and provide platforms for our best design talent to shine.
However, not everyone was successful through the various fashion weeks, which sometimes did not fulfil the lofty dreams of designers.
While the 1990s and early to mid-2000s were solid years for South Africa fashion, it’s the 2010s that have seen some of the best fashion concepts and textiles from local designers. And the world couldn’t get enough.
Designers like Laduma Ngxokolo and Rich Mnisi are enjoying worldwide appeal, as are Thebe Magugu, Sindiso Khumalo and Lukhanyo Mdingi, who have all been part of the LVMH Prize. Magugu won in 2019 and Khumalo was a joint winner with fellow finalists in 2020. Mdingi is on the shortlist this year.
While South Africa is slowly embracing luxury designs from local brands, we are also seeing a steady increase of streetwear brands that are enjoying wide appeal, also a step in the right direction.
We were all so excited when Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2006. The film was praised for being gutsy and the performance of Presley Chweneyagae was heralded by many.
However, that was the last time we got close to Oscar gold. Not that we haven’t tried. We have gotten close enough to being nominated, only to lose steam just before the final hurdles.
South Africa has released some beautiful critically acclaimed films over past 27 years. From Yesterday (2004) and Tsotsi, to Jerusalema (2008), Shirley Adams (2010), Four Corners (2015), Inxeba (2017), Sew The Winter to my Skin (2018), Die Ellen Pakkies Storie (2018) and Knuckle City (2019).
Even with quality films, South Africans were not consuming local films, which was a challenge that saw distributors quickly pull poorly performing films.
There was though a trend that was soon prevalent. We loved romantic comedies and anything that DonnaLee Roberts and Ivan Botha released. The biggest box office hits were films by the two former 7de Laan actors, turned producers.
Then there was Happiness Is A Four Letter Word and the Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, which broke box office records. Both films have spurned sequels.
The biggest relief? We stopped finding Leon Schuster films funny, with many being brave enough to comment on how problematic they were. Even so, they still always top the box office, proving that he does still have an audience in the country.
A great pity.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines music as "the art of combining vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion".
While this is of course technically true, music has for decades, gone beyond that. As cliché as it might sound, music brings people together in a way many other art forms can. Just look at what Jerusalema did for the world.
No matter where you are in South Africa, play Mandoza’s hit 2000 single, Nkalakatha, and everyone, no matter their race or tribe, will dance to it. From London to Doha and even Nairobi, I have heard a string of South African songs when clubbing in these cities.
This was not always the case though, pre-1994, South African music was as segregated as its people. For many South Africans, music was a tool used to convey the message of the oppressed masses.
Stars like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Dorothy Masuka, Abdullah Ibrahim, Johnny Clegg, Brenda Fassie and Letta Mbulu all came to see their music as more political in nature.
However, the dawn of democracy saw things change. In 1994, South African media was liberalised and new musical styles arose. Prophets of Da City became known as a premier hip hop crew, though a South Africanised style of hip hop known as kwaito soon replaced actual hip hop groups.
In kwaito, synthesisers and other electronic instruments are common, and slow jams adopted from Chicago house musicians like The Fingers, Tony Humphries and Robert Owen are also standard. Stars of kwaito include Trompies, Bongo Maffin, TKZee, Mafikizolo, Mandoza and Boom Shaka. The band Tree63 also emerged, first known for their hit single, A Million Lights and then further popularised by their version of Matt Redman's Blessed Be Your Name.
From 2009 into 2010, unique and eclectic but thoroughly South African groups, BLK JKS and Die Antwoord in particular, received high acclaim from international music media. Both groups challenged traditional genre descriptions. They significantly increased global recognition of contemporary South African music culture.
In 2016, singer Refentse Morake made waves for releasing his debut album solely in Afrikaans, becoming the first black singer to do so. Fast forward to today and stars like Simphiwe Dana continue to release stellar albums while musicians like Cassper Nyovest and AKA fly the South African flag high with their continental collaborations, while Black Coffee has become one of the most in-demand DJs, globally.
In the early 2010s a new genre of music, Gqom, emerged from Durban and in 2018 another new genre called Amapiano was formed which has taken the music industry by storm. Based on this, South African music is only just starting to show the world how talented its industry is.
Reflecting on the nearly three decades of the post-apartheid era, many will attest that live theatre has encouraged dialogue, social and political change.
First look at the history of theatre in Mzansi.
The origins of theatre in South Africa dates as far back as 1830 when Andrew Geddes Bains’s Kaatje Kekkelbek or Life Among The Hottentots was performed in 1838 by the Grahamstown Amateur Company.
In the early 1960s due to the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, 1953, which formed part of the apartheid system of racial segregation in South Africa, only white people were allowed to enjoy the theatre.
True to their resilient nature, political activists and revolutionaries including Gibson Kante, Sam Moodley. Athol Fugard, Winston Tshona and Molefe Pheto took theatre to the black people.
They started writing and performing at community halls, parks, gardens, homes, restaurants, school and university theatres all over the country, to ensure that while the theatre was only accessible to the elite white people, black people also get the opportunity to consume theatre that is created by their own people, for the people.
“We felt strongly that the stage was the platform that held a mirror to the political life of the country and that politics being the branch of moral philosophy had to deal with the state and its social and economic organisms,” said Black Theatre Movement activist Sam Moodley.
Fast forward to 1994, the shift that many South Africans were anticipating finally came with the political change that aimed to undermine the position of the white-dominated Performing Arts Councils.
With the newfound freedom, theatre houses such as The Joburg City Theatres, The Baxter Theatre, SA State Theatre, Artscape, and Teatro started open their doors to new audiences. And people of all races started to have access to performances from theatre-makers around the world.
The Market Theatre Laboratory, through new and innovative ways, focused on developing the talent of many South Africans, from actors to playwrights, to producers and directors, lighting to theatre-making.
What does the future of theatre look like?
The future of theatre in South Africa looks bleak. The theatre industry continues to feel the pinch, all thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic.
A group of theatre practitioners recently started a petition, demanding that Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa be axed for failing to support the artists despite that a R150 million relief fund was set aside to assist struggling artists.
“We call on President Ramaphosa to launch ‘a new dawn’ for arts and culture by exercising his right to replace the minister, as well as the leadership of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture that has been complicit in the failures of the department and the minister for the last number of years,” read the petition statement.
In March, the iconic Fugard announced its permanent closure, due to devastating financial constraints.
This week, Theatre on the Square announced that it runs a risk of shutting down after losing its corporate funding.
“Due to the pandemic, Sandton’s precious, award-winning and independent Theatre on The Square, on the Nelson Mandela Square, no longer has corporate support. As with worldwide theatres, ticket sales sadly cannot suffice and in this last year, there has been no income whatsoever. We now do not have a naming rights sponsor, nor the privilege of any governmental or provincial subsidy,” read the statement.
“However, the show is not over until the fat lady sings. We have devised a fund-raising strategy to help keep the theatre venue alive.”
While we all hold on to the hope that things will change for the better, the tragedy of it all is that many jobs will be lost and the theatre industry continues to suffer.
This Freedom Day, let’s unite as a country and remind ourselves that “this to shall pass”. The theatre industry will bounce back and the theatre houses will be beaming again.