Sunday, 26 June 2011

On Art, Race and Being Presumptuous

When I decided to start this blog, I had a long list of topics I wanted to get through. It's still pretty long. And the issue of art (in the broad sense) and identity was not on it. But three recent, ostensibly unrelated, exchanges in the Mail and Guardian have made me think that this is an interesting one to tackle. [Links to articles are at the end of this piece]. As with some of the other issues, I don't claim any special expertise, only a particular (and I think largely unrepresented) perspective.


The first exchange that caught my eye was a pair of reviews of journalism professor Anton Harber's book, Diepsloot, one of which was by Andile Mngxitama. Although with different emphasis, style and tone, both reviews came to the conclusion that the story Harber had written would be best told by an(/the) inhabitant(s) of Diepsloot. It is relevant to mention that both reviews were by black males and that Harber is a white male. Harber responds to this sort of criticism indirectly in a separate interview, where he says that "I would ask you to read the book and judge it by its content...I offer just one perspective, and I hope it is a sympathetic and insightful one".

The second exchange was about a set of works by the artist Brett Murray (white male), going under the exhibition title Hail to the Thief. The majority of those works are anti-apartheid posters that Murray has altered to, in his words, "expose the new pigs at the trough". The main article is by one of the makers of those posters, Judy Seidman (white female). She argues that Murray's posters constitute 'bad art' for all sorts of reasons, but particularly because he sullies the content of the originals (including actual individual anti-apartheid activists) and only addresses the issue of corruption of the struggle's principles in a crude and superficial way. Murray's response is to gesture at his own role in making anti-apartheid posters - though not any of those represented - and to argue that he is in fact trying to show-up the inheritors of the struggle mantle as "effectively pissing on the graves of the struggle heroes".

The final exchange involved a critical comment on Zapiro's use of the rape metaphor in his cartoons, which claims that Zapiro "dehumanises...the pain of rape survivors" and that his (excessive) use of the metaphor is an affront to the author as a rape survivor. In addition, some have suggested that Zapiro's rape cartoons are racist in as much as he is portraying only black men in this fashion. [Here is a slideshow of relevant images put together by Zapiro:]

 To save you the suspense, let me state the conclusion of my argument here. I think all the writers have some valid points. However, to the extent that I come down on any particular side it is on those of Seidman (the critic of Murray), Harber and Solomon (Zapiro's critic), but not primarily for the reasons they explicitly provide. I think this is an interesting combination, since the more common opinions will be either for Seidman, Mngxitama and Solomon, or for Murray, Zapiro and Harber. I hope that my argument will also shed some light implicitly on why that is the case. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

We need to fix the state

I seem to be writing more op eds than blog posts at the moment, but since the former are not being published I will post them here. Below is an article I wrote for Business Day relating to the civil service. It was in part response to these two pieces, but also building on my previous posts re the civil service question:

Gavin Keeton (an Anglo American manager-turned-academic economist at Rhodes who has a regular Business Day column):

An editor's note by Peter Bruce arguing that running the SA economy should be common sense (which I largely agree with) and that therefore it should be left to market forces (which I don't):

We need to fix the state

There are not many issues in South Africa on which one can say that there is a widespread consensus, but the suggestion that the state is failing to adequately deliver on its socio-economic mandate elicits support from across the social and political spectrum. Unfortunately, this consensus tends to quickly polarise into two camps: those who suggest that the state is failing because it has inadequate power and resources, and those – like Gavin Keeton (“Getting state to do more may worsen delivery”, Business Day, 9th May 2011) - who argue that because the state is failing its size should be minimised. Both views are dangerously simplistic. Giving additional power and resources to a largely inefficient and incompetent entity is clearly foolish unless the entity is overhauled. Arguing that an entity should be bypassed simply because it is currently dysfunctional is equally foolish.