Category Archives: Interviews

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Input Board member, Hans Hernborn, says INPUT 2008 was hugely successful with vibrant discussions in the viewing rooms.

“The heart of Input is always the discussions which happen in the screening rooms. This year the analysis, discussions and different perspectives shared was very rich.’

Hernborn, who is the treasurer and representative of the Nordic Nations, says the sessions were well prepared, the technical equipment was excellent and the venue was effective.

“On the whole, Im positive about Input 2008.”

Hernborn says there are many things the Organisation learned from the Joburg Input experience.

“We have to sharpen our selection of programs which in turn will sharpen the discussions”

Hernborn says all African delegates should feel invited to Warsaw in Poland, the first Input to happen in Eastern Europe.

Ousmane Sembene tells it like it is…

The following interview with Ousmane Sembene is recorded on the Guardian websiteSunday June 5, 2005.

Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese-born ‘father of African cinema’, talked to Bonnie Greer about film-making in Africa, his European experiences and why Live 8 is fake, before receiving the fellowship of the BFI. Here’s a full transcript.

Bonnie Greer: Before I start, I’d like to say that I am a huge fan of this gentleman, so I am really nervous. But I am going to do my best. There will be simultaneous translation by Mr Samba Gadjigo, Mr Sembène’s biographer and himself an eminent professor of French at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Moolaadé is the second film in a trilogy, and you call it a trilogy about the heroism of daily life. Could you expand on that, please?

Ousmane Sembène: We are talking here about the African continent, and it is a continent going through a crisis. Nobody can deny that we have a lot of wars going on; brothers killing brothers; we have a lot of diseases and catastrophes. But on the other hand, we have a majority of individuals, both men and women, who are struggling on a daily basis in a heroic way and the outcome of whose struggle leaves no doubt. This is a struggle whose purpose is not to seize power, and I think the strength of our entire society rests on that struggle. And it is because of this struggle that the entire continent is still standing up. So I’ve tried in my own way to sing the praises of those heroes, because I am also a witness to that daily struggle. In the traditional society which I come from, when you look at our societies, whether you’re talking about the Mandinka, Bambara or Fulani, we have the tradition of the storyteller called the griot and also other kinds of storytellers. Their role was to record memories of daily actions and events. At night, people would gather around them and they would tell those stories that they had recorded. I think there are parallels between myself and these storytellers, because in that traditional society, the storyteller was his own writer, director, actor and musician. And I think his role was very important in cementing society. Now, with new technologies and the tools that we have acquired, I think we can take inspiration from them and do some work.

BG: You have said that Moolaadé is your most African film. Can you expand on that?

OS: When I made such a statement, I was referring to its narrative structure and aesthetic. But then, ultimately, it’s up to my people to judge whether or not I have come close to telling their reality. What makes the difference between this film and the others I’ve made, is I already know what the people are saying in the rural areas. I think it is up to you, brought here in the west by the contingencies of history, it is up to you to understand and to see what is African in this film. And I think your appreciation and judgment is going to help me improve my future work. Right now, I am very, very obsessed, because right now, Moolaadé is enjoying some measure of success. So what am I going to do with my next film? Since the setting for the next film is going to be an urban area, how am I going to talk about African cities? Of course when I talk about African cities, there is no difference between a building in London or Abidjan or anywhere in the world. But what is important is to wonder, the men or the women who live in that building, what kind of life are they living? It’s not enough to have all kinds of gadgets. This is what I’m working on right now.

BG: I adore the title of the latest film in the trilogy, Brotherhood of Rats. I love it because you’re talking about a very important subject: it’s about the cities and the complicity or not of African governments in some of the troubles afflicting African states.

OS: I think that’s just part of my job. If I centre that film on an urban area, how can I show it to people who live in the rural area? How can I make this film in such a way that a peasant in my village in Casamance can understand what’s going on? And how can I now really raise my voice against all the embezzling that’s going on in the cities? Here I am talking about people of this new generation. I am making this film for the young people who are here in this room, and who are going back home: how can I inspire them?

BG: What do you think of the cinema numerique, the digital cinema?

OS: For us, everything is good. I think that every tool that we can appropriate and use is good for us. What counts here actually is the result of the battle of the sexes, the war between husbands and wives.

BG: I want to go back a little bit to the early days – your life was formidable even before you began to make cinema. You were in the war, you fought for freedom in Algeria, you were a dockworker in Marseilles, you hurt your back and then decided to take a less strenuous job and investigate some of the literature of the African and diasporic world, particularly Claude McKay, the great Jamaican novelist and member of the Harlem Renaissance, and his idea about the docks in Marseilles and the languages of the African diaspora.

OS: I am really unable to talk about my life – I don’t know my life. I’ve travelled a lot and this is the life that I have lived, but that doesn’t mean that I know myself.

BG: All right then, women?

OS: I love all women. Can you show me one man who doesn’t love women?

BG: Well, you are in England. I was struck, and the reason why I wanted to show Ceddo, although you didn’t want me to show Ceddo, is because of the moment in it where a strong woman is putting a line in the ground. So I want to ask, first about the idea of women in African cinema, especially in your cinema, and how important they are for you?

OS: Here we are talking about past civilisations. When I was growing up, married women, of their own accord, always tied a belt around their waists. I think it’s a symbol of their loyalty, their fidelity. It didn’t have anything to do with the men. So when she takes off her belt and shakes it, she was putting her own life and honour on the line. So for husbands like myself, when they shake their belts and tell us not to cross the line, none of us would be able to do it. And it is only on those occasions that the community recognises the woman’s right to kill. Of course you can rape the body, but you can never go against that rule. So one has to die for that rule to be broken. But here we are talking about what I call medieval Africa, and of course now things have changed. Right now, women wear belts that are gold or leather or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that they are more loyal.

BG: Madame [Fatoumata] Coulibaly [who played the lead role of Colle in Moolaadé], how was it for you, playing in this movie?

Fatoumata Coulibaly: Thank you first of all, and I think that it shows that you have a strong interest in African films. Even before I was called upon to act in this film, I was already working in Malian radio and TV. My job was working in programmes designed for women and children, and centred on the family. I travelled a lot into rural areas, and I talked to the women and everybody there. And I tried to touch on all the issues relevant to their lives. During that work, I noticed that many young girls died following the female genital mutilations (FGM), through haemorrhaging. So I did some research in the rural areas. When I decided to conceive of a programme without consulting my boss, I ran into a lot of problems.

I myself made a documentary film which was broadcast only once on Malian television, and of course people hid the tape and said that it was lost. That’s when our administration decided to silence any dialogue about FGM. In spite of that, of course, I wanted to continue that kind of work. In my work I also collaborated with an NGO composed of women. We would go to the rural areas, and we would try to educate them about hygiene and the family, in their own languages, not in French or English. We brought together the village chief and every man, woman and child – everybody came to those meetings. Of course, we don’t start head-on with FGM; we would strategically beat around the bush for a while and then only come to the issue that is important to us. Because in our society, talking about sex is still a taboo, and of course many village chiefs don’t want to hear about that issue. “You are trying to deviate us from our way of life, our traditions.” And of course the argument they give is that these traditions date back to before our birth, and actually they accuse us of being funded by the outside world to subvert their way of life. But with persistence we would come back and get our message across.

Sometimes we used dolls to show the body parts of a woman in childbirth, we show them the pain and suffering of a woman who has been excised. Of course when we show those things graphically, they hide their faces. But we always managed to find a strategy, through jokes and whatnot, to bring them to look and take responsibility and face what we are showing them as a reflection of their own bodies. Of course, the position I hold in Mali – I am very popular – so that helped me in my job. After a while I can see that they are not closing their eyes anymore and they face the body from which a baby is emerging. Of course we do all this with the complicity of a midwife. People ask us questions and we engage in dialogue. We also talk about all the consequences of excision, and I think that has yielded some positive results in abandoning FGM. And so afterward, when Mr Sembène was casting in Bamako – at the time, he did not know how involved I was in the struggle against FGM – I was honoured, privileged and lucky to be chosen to play this lead role. I’ll tell you, this is just the beginning of my struggle, and I want you all to join and support me so that we can reach a positive result.

BG: This leads me to the two most interesting lines in the film. One, the last words of Colle’s husband, “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”, but the strongest sentence is when Mercenaire says, “Africa is a bitch”. I’d like you to elaborate.

OS: Mercenaire says “Africa is a bitch” because he’s completely in despair: he was shocked at what he was witnessing. Maybe it’s me who put my words into his mouth.

BG: That’s what I would like you to speak about.

OS: Because I love Africa, that’s why I call it a bitch. When you love something … I think there is no contradiction between loving Africa and calling it a bitch. I am saying it out of desperation. And the other sentence you refer to is a phrase that is used a lot in Africa, in many languages. Actually, when you look at the Bambara version, it is rendered as “It takes more than a pair of trousers to make a man.” But since I wanted to make it a more powerful statement, I made it “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man”. In the Bambara, the metaphor of trousers is important because a male child cannot wear trousers before circumcision. Circumcision is a symbol of entry into manhood. So that’s why I was playing with those two metaphors; but I decided to use “pair of balls”.

BG: You’ve said that Africa is matriarchal, the idea of the woman as the strong force in Africa. But for us in the west, polygamy is not an acceptable or pleasant practice. Yet you sort of nuance it, the way you nuanced several customs like the excision and the protection, so in the film it is a polygamous situation, yet the women are very much in control. So is this the African language of cinema, is this an African aesthetic?

OS: As far as I am concerned, Africa is a woman. As far as I can tell, and maybe my knowledge is very limited, I really don’t think that 2,000 years of Christianity has brought anything to humanity. When you look at African education, the basis of all African education is this idea of femininity that I’m talking about. Whether you are talking about me or my father, usually, women just give us the illusion that we are in control. Actually, even our virility depends on the gaze and the control of women. Without women, we cannot do anything. I think it’s a good thing.

BG: One, almost final question, and this is a political and philosophical question, about pan-Africanism. You’ve been a great fighter for the liberation, through cinema, of African consciousness, African thought, African people. People in the diaspora, as many of us are in this room – I am myself a soixante-huitard, so I understand, but for the generation after me, and the generation after them, does pan-Africanism necessarily speak to them? Does it have any meaning at all today?

OS: For me, anything that unites is useful. Anything that can bring understanding and peace is important. And for me, there was a phase in which pan-Africanism was a political action. At the beginning of the last century, London was the centre of pan-Africanism. Actually, the first time I visited London was for a meeting about pan-Africanism. In the 1920s, Africa was not the centre of pan-Africanism; the centre was in the diaspora. And it was during those early years, around the 20s, that we saw the first educated Africans. After the first world war, it became stronger and all the people who came from all horizons knew each other. And we met and talked about independence: Chou En-Lai from China, George Padmore, WEB DuBois – those were the people engaged in the struggle. After independence, we preserved the idea of pan-Africanism for the unity of the continent. For me, that is very important.

BG: But today?

OS: Nowadays, with the kind of policies that our leaders are engaged in, and here I am specifically talking about the French-speaking parts of Africa, they are the most alienated individuals I have ever seen. I think it is France that is really leading the job of dividing Africa. Most of our presidents have dual nationalities, French and African. When the going gets tough, they run away to Paris and all our decisions are made in Paris. I think in that context it’s very difficult to talk about pan-Africanism. Of course, it’s just plain rhetoric. Why don’t they abolish political borders in Africa? What is stopping them from developing education in Africa? And again, when talking about the francophone countries, there are a lot of states where the annual budget is secured only with the intervention of France. So that’s why I think in that context it is difficult. But I don’t think we should give up. I am positive that one day we will become independent.

The toughest fight we engaged in was the struggle against apartheid, and many people in Europe joined, supported that fight, and some of them were gunned down. I think what we need is goodwill because now our struggle is harder because it is an economic struggle. And now Europe is organising itself. So I think there needs to be a rupture between Africa and Europe, and all the international laws being conceived here in the west have to be revisited and changed. Just one case in point, now European countries are running into problems with China because of T-shirts. What did China do? China’s flooding their markets with T-shirts. But last century, France and England bombed Shanghai – they took weapons and invaded them. They can no longer do that because China has organised itself; and Vietnam has organised itself. That is what we lack back in Africa: we have been subjugated so much that all we can do is beg, and some even think what we are going through is a comedy.

Then there is the issue of cotton. During slavery, negroes were in the cotton fields. Everybody knew about that. Now that they are not forcing us to make cotton, we make cotton and they don’t want it. What should we do? I mean, even our leaders have failed to build factories to transform that cotton for our clothing. We could make any kind of material that would be even better than what is made here, but we wait for everything to come from European industry. They are selling us rags. And everywhere you go in Africa, in the big cities, you would think that you were in a Salvation Army store. They have even created an NGO whose role is to sell us second-hand clothes. I think the youth need to hear these stories. The struggle continues.

BG: That leads beautifully into my next question. What do you think of the big campaigns going on now in Britain: Make Poverty History, Live 8, Hear Africa 05? Big initiatives to make people aware and to maybe give money.

OS: I think they’re fake, and I think African heads of state who buy into that idea are liars. The only way for us to come out of poverty is to work hard. Poverty means begging throughout the world. I know your prime minister is spearheading that kind of campaign. A few years ago, the British army was in Sierra Leone – were they there to fight against poverty? It’s a mistake, it’s a lie. But it’s up to Africans to know that, and I think we have to start that revolution back home.

BG: Well, let’s see if that hits the newspapers tomorrow. How much do you want to bet it won’t? My last question, I saw you on French television, on a programme called Rideau Rouge. You were speaking with a young realisateur from Burkina Faso, and you said, “African realisateurs have to be less modest” and then you went into a discussion about the future of African cinema. Can you elaborate on those two things?

OS: I think cinema is needed throughout Africa, because we are lagging behind in the knowledge of our own history. I think we need to create a culture that is our own. I think that images are very fascinating and very important to that end. But right now, cinema is only in the hands of film-makers because most of our leaders are afraid of cinema. Europeans are very smart in that matter – every night they are colonising our minds, and they are imposing on us their own model of society and ways of doing it. And many of our men dress in English suits, with British ties. Our first ladies are called the duty-free ladies and they use only European perfumes and only wear labels.

Subversive Firestart

Andrew Worsdale meets up with Sylvia Vollenhoven, the National Coordinator of Input 2008 – the International Public Television Conference that is celebrating its 30th Anniversary in Johannesburg. (article available in this week’s Mail & Guardian)

“I went to a school where the kids were mostly quite snobbish and ambitious. Everyone was going to UCT medical school or going into exile,” says Sylvia Vollenhoven, “My family was too poor for either of these options. I got the top marks in languages despite being thrown out of the English class for insubordination, so I thought journalism was the best option. I didn’t think you needed any particular training and I had a vague idea that I would be expected to write and travel extensively, at the drop of a hat. So, I carried my passport with me every day to work.”

Born in District Six in the 1950’s, which belies her vivacious good looks and testifies to her intelligence and maturity, Vollenhoven decided to move into journalism in the early 70s working for The Cape Herald before receiving a Diploma from The Argus Cadet Journalism School in 1976 – the same year that television came to South Africa and two years before the first ever INPUT conference was held in Milan.

Those were the dark days of apartheid and the struggle was coming to a head, “The Cape Herald was fun and subversion was the order of the day. Everyone smoked Gaulois and drank brandy for breakfast. When we weren’t planning grand revolution we partied with a vengeance.”

The Argus School, by way of contrast, was a shock to the system for her and was heavily ingrained with racist attitudes so Sylvia learnt how to bunk classes and hang out in Soweto and at the defiant ‘The World’ newspaper, “I learnt most of the important things about journalism from the veterans there who took me under their wing. People like Don Materra, Percy Qoboza, Jon Qwelane, Phil Molefe…the list is long. They taught me that journalism is either subversive or you go and work in a bank.”

After many years working as a print journalist, including being the SA correspondent for Swedish daily ‘Expressen’ where she won the country’s Journalist of the Year Award, Vollenhoven was approached by the SABC to help with its transformation process and she became part of a team that would kick-start transformation, ahead of the 1994 elections.

Together with a team of twelve other journalists and producers she went to Canada and the UK working with the CBC and the BBC and later the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Thomson Foundation of the UK, an international ‘media for development’ NGO, to come up with a new ‘scheme’ for the national broadcaster. “We dreamed big dreams and devised grand strategies. It started with razing the Piet Meyer ‘gebou’ (the Radio Tower – a notorious apartheid icon) and its bomb walls to the ground,” she says.

The group of lefty idealists took positions inside the broadcaster and became heavyweights in their own right. “It was a bruising cycle in the media struggle and at this stage the old style Nationalist guard at the SABC won many rounds. Then we got serious tackling current affairs head-on and I finally ended up being part of the team that started Morning Live.”

At the time these journalists founded the Public Broadcasting Initiative (PBI), with Sylvia as director, which became the pressure group that steered the Corporation’s transformation. But Vollenhoven didn’t spend all her time behind the scenes formulating strategy, for many years she was a news anchor and presenter of current affairs programmes such as ‘Face To Face’ and ‘Focus on One’.

She remembers those heady days of tests and conquests as fundamental to creating her point of view as a broadcasting professional, “The central challenge was that coming from print I did not have a clue how television worked. The most significant issues we faced were not so much pulling the old guard into the new South Africa, it was more the fancy political footwork needed to deal with all that dead wood in a place like that, and the time consuming, enervating endless political parlour games.”

She’s very proud of having been involved in those early transformation processes around in-house training, current affairs and the special election programmes that she designed but says she’ll never go back to flaunting herself in front of the cameras again, “I never again want to be faced with the stress of putting on so much make up and making my hair lie down for the camera, just so you know you also can’t wear shiny, dangly earrings. Life’s too short to wear demure little studs.”

The twelve years she spent at the SABC have made her a strong defender against the barrage of criticism that the broadcaster faces from the media and film and TV producers. She believes, “it is such lazy journalism to fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from the SABC and making it our favourite whipping boy (this is our institution and we are responsible for the direction it takes). It is an incredibly complex organization with a giant mandate.”

The role of the SABC as a public broadcaster even whilst it straddles the demands of a commercial one are distinctive and one of the main reasons South Africa was chosen to host the INPUT conference. “The SABC’s model is unique in the world. The reality is that until the people of South Africa come up with an alternative way of funding public broadcasting, this is the one we’re stuck with and so let’s make it work. There is no God of PBS who says we can’t do it this way,” she says convincingly.

“As programme makers and even as viewers we don’t understand our power with regard to institutions like the SABC. We engage with it as if it is a thing apart. We kind of know that it is wrong to allow it to be controlled by the politicians but we don’t much care who the alternative is. We debate endlessly who is pulling the strings but we don’t care a damn about the endless American crap we watch.”

Then she gets a dig in at the trendy newsmakers who believe they are the ‘in-thing’, “The reason why the media debates are so lacklustre is because the parameters are set by journalists who wear suits (even the women), hang out at swanky Melrose Arch and think Peroni is real beer! My real concern is this constant diet of mediocrity. I think journalists collectively should be ashamed to be getting on their high horses all the time when they are mostly lazy, middle class armchair specialists who have become like doctors… they just don’t do house calls anymore.”

Sylvia became involved in Input ten years ago when she helped put together the first Mini Input in Africa held at Sithengi and she’s been to every conference since the 2000 event held in Canada’s Halifax. “I still get people coming to me saying Cape Town was one of the best Input experiences ever, because it had heart. As South Africans we put so much passion into that event and the people who came will never forget it.”

Local players headed up by Vollenhoven put in the Johannesburg bid four years ago and she says that one of the main reasons it has returned to South Africa so soon after 2001 was because this time it is designed as a pan-African venture, “This time of course you will have the big doses of South African passion but we’ve grown up quite a bit since then, so now we’ll throw in quite a large measure of Afropolitan flair as well.”

Although she’s left hands-on journalism Vollenhoven’ s interests have become more wide-ranging within the field. Her company VIA – Vision in Africa – is committed to pan-African joint ventures and global co-productions and collaborations whilst Dream Weaver Trading is a black female investment group that she chairs.

“My forte is creating massive projects from concept to execution. So I am working on a global collaboration with the SABC and UNESCO for the Human Bondage project, which will feature at Input. I have several projects in the pipeline with the UK’s Thomson Foundation. And of course here and there I might put in a bid in response to the SABC’s regular call for proposals, but my sights are set on the Continent and global storytelling and TV ventures.”

A New World Is Possible If We Can Imagine It So

– An Interview with James Early * (article available in this week’s Mail & Guardian)

James Early is a friend of Cuba. No big deal around here but still an issue in 21st Century America. What’s more Mr Early has long been a friend of Cuba.

Finding a launch pad for critical thinking is always difficult. In the US of A it is doubly difficult because free thinking is often compromised by so many powerful forces, before it can even take off. But James Early fires off his challenges no matter what and then turns the retaliatory salvos into an admirable display of intellectual fireworks, albeit somewhat one-sided some days.

Mr Early is Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife Studies at the renowned Smithsonian Institution of Washington DC. The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex. In keeping with the Institution in which he is based, Mr Early is broader than most academics in his approach to the issues of politics and culture or rather the politics of culture.

James Early is one of the main speakers at the launch of the global Human Bondage Project at Input 2008. Human Bondage is an ambitious, five-year project that will develop a drama series, feature films as well as documentaries… stories of an enslaved people told from the perspective of the slaves. With UNESCO as one of the main partners it will also have significant extensions, mainly educational. We spoke with Mr Early shortly before leaving Washington.

M&G: How do we help people understand, especially those who are the gatekeepers of the mainstream media industry, that stories of slavery are as important as the war in Iraq?

JE: Just as the anti apartheid struggle in South Africa gripped the consciousness of the world, just as the civil rights movement gripped the consciousness of the world, this story in the modern world of mass communication, has the potential to be huge in advancing world consciousness about the legacy of slavery and about the dimensions of democracy that we must envision for all people at this moment in the early part of the 21st century. This project could carry that load if we will imagine the possibilities of that.

M&G: You recently attended the UN commemoration of the anniversary of the abolition of Slavery. What did that occasion mean to you?

JE: It was a heartening experience. One, to see our ideological father, our patriot of 81 years old, Harry Belafonte, most eloquently sitting there next to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. He had not been invited by the US elected representative but by the representative form Barbados. The US government is trying to bury its history of slavery in the hope that it will go away, in the hope that it will perpetuate a so-called colour blind philosophy.

M&G: What does it mean for you to be coming to South Africa for the launch of the Human Bondage Project?

JE: Anytime the victims are able to become the protagonists, it is a potentially powerful step forward… (But) we have to wrestle with the accuracy and detail of what slavery was actually about. The sociology of that, the horror, the terror, the murderous nature of that and we have to situate that very carefully so that we don’t get into this attempt to suggest that because there was complicity on the part of some Africans in the slave trade that it was a complicity of equity. The system of slavery and its interface with capitalism and the ends to which the great philosophers and the great theologians of the world went to rationalise the dehumanisation of black African people is quite a different order of magnitude than the complicity of the Africans who were involved in the selling of their brothers and sisters.

M&G: When we look at issues of class and race in Africa and in other parts of the world, the descendants of slaves are invariably poorer and they have a kind of restricted social mobility. What are your thoughts on the fact that slavery in that sense has not been abolished completely?

JE: Slavery has not been completely addressed. I would say that chattel slavery characteristically in the sense of the Atlantic slave trade in which people were turned into objects, into property like animals or like field tools, has been characteristically abolished There is however a socio-cultural and economic hold over. Let’s take the Americas for example, from Canada to Argentina right through the United States, through to the Carribean and including socialist Cuba where I spent a considerable amount of time. The correlation between skin colour and marginalisation and poverty and low self esteem and lowered access to education, lower statistics in the defining dimension of state power and public institutions are hold-overs of slavery. What we are still struggling with is the social, cultural, economic strictures that carry over from slavery.

In fact there’s a whole new order of health investigation now across class lines. Issues of anxiety and physical issues, issues of what enslaved people were forced to eat and how that is transferred through the genetic pool and future generations even when those generations might emerge in middle and upper classes. Their health statistics tend to be characteristically lower than those who came from freer dimensions of society. So, in that regard we are still dealing with the legacy of chattel slavery.

M&G: So much of our society has been built on slavery and we have inherited a racist culture… people like you are doing a lot of work in order to raise awareness and to change that. Do you think these changes are taking effect globally?

JE: A New World is Possible, my own slogan. A new world is possible if we can imagine it so. We joined the African people and defeated colonialism. We joined the struggle and defeated apartheid in South Africa. We all wanted SA to be free not only because it represented the struggle of the enslaved darker people exploited and oppressed but because it also helped us to confront the unfinished social revolutions in our own country, particularly in a place like the US. Mandela became a metaphor for all humanity. The reconciliation process that played out in SA was not just something for us to observe from afar, it was a way for all of us to think back through all of the struggles that we had been involved in and to try and avoid the vengeance that so many of us may have wanted to exert on those who had exploited us.

We must take stock of those victories. We have come a long way yet we have a very long way to go.

* James Early of Washington’s Smithsonian Institute is a main speaker at the launch of the Human Bondage project at Input 2008.


Artists Are The True Gatekeepers Of Truth

Submitted by: Sylvia Vollenhoven

It is a sunny afternoon. I am playing in front of our table gram, a gramophone radio that looks a like a mini Voortrekker monument. I am just tall enough to reach the volume knob to turn it louder to hear the song. Day O, Day O, daylight come and he wanna go home…

We have no clue what the words mean but the voice is compelling and fun. It becomes part of our games and all the children sing it. We remember it forever. I can still hear the song and its cadences coming out of the radio.

It is a cold day in winter in the Sixties. I am at high school. My friend and I are rummaging through second-hand LP’s at a flea market stand on Cape Town’s Grand Parade. We find an album with a picture of Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. We can’t believe our luck. We thought all Miriam Makeba’s music was banned.

We don’t understand all the lyrics but we play it over and over. Songs like Khawuleza, Malaika and Beware Verwoerd. The music speaks powerfully. We are discovering our political voice.

Half a lifetime later I am talking with Belafonte – United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, artist par excellence, human rights activist – about coming to South Africa. The voice that has woven itself into the fabric of my life calls out to someone for coffee.

Harry Belafonte received a national order from the President in Pretoria this week. He was awarded the Order of the Grand Companion of OR Tambo, for his contribution to a “better world for all, free of racism, poverty and exploitation”. He is also here to launch the Human Bondage (Slavery) Project at Input 2008.

“To participate in this conference in South Africa is a great reward for me at this time in my life.  There have been many Pan Africanists gathering before I was born and always there has been an attempt to put Africa at the table of debate, at the table of recognition, so the world can understand what happened to us. The conference will give us a chance to establish a basis to measure the truth about slavery and what it has done and continues to do in a way that we never have before.”

Belafonte was born in 1927, the year Charles Lindbergh made his debut non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic, Al Jolson starred in the first feature length talking movie (the Jazz Singer) and Trotsky was expelled from the Communist Party.

Now, 81 years later that active voice is still firm, like a trustworthy handshake. It even retains much of the sensual magic that has made Belafonte one of the most successful recording artists of all time. I ask him what drives him to travel the globe still raising his voice.

“Much of my resolve to do the work that I do as an artist is rooted deeply in my experience of poverty.  My mother was a woman who came from the Caribbean, the island of Jamaica. A combination of poverty and racism made her life in many instances quite unbearable.  As a child I watched her go through that and through the odds she instilled in me a belief, a sense of responsibility, that if I did nothing else in life I needed to commit myself to try to end racism and to end the plight of those who were trapped in the abyss of poverty.”

And in being true to that commitment he pulls no punches. He once called George Bush “the world’s greatest terrorist”. At another time he used an old slave metaphor to describe US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, as someone who has been permitted into the house of the master. Once after visiting Venezuela and declaring support for President Hugo Chavez, the King family withdrew a request for him to eulogise Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr Martin Luther King. He became “uninvited” after George Bush declared his intention to attend the funeral.

And being true to that commitment he is tireless. He was a close friend of Dr Martin Luther King even supporting the family in trying times. He brought together performers like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen, was responsible for “We are the World.” He was key to the success of former President Nelson Mande’s first visit to the USA. The list goes on and on…

“I believe that it is a great, great blessing to have been called upon to play out my life in the world of art.  I think it is a noble place to be and one can do noble things from there. Those who influence artists, who are themselves artists, are really quite astounding. I think artists are the true gatekeepers of truth.  I don’t think any other force known to human evolution, known to social design, known to our spiritual existence, does for the world and for people, what it is that art does.”

His connections with South Africa go way back to a time when the apartheid regime forced many of our finest artists to flee and live in exile. He became close to many and a benefactor for some… Caiaphas Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Jonas Gangwa, Hugh Masakela and of course Miriam Makeba, to name but a few.

So, now that his link with South Africa has come full circle – from liberation struggle to democracy –  does he think we are living up to the ideals of… for one his great friend OR Tambo or Nelson Mandela.

It is quite evident that it is struggling to live up to the ideals of those great men and the ideas of its own sense of mission.  There is no question however that much has not happened and as a matter of fact SA sits in a very vulnerable place on many issues dealing with the demands and the needs and the hopes of the population.  I am particularly concerned about the youth of Africa and the kind and the level of unemployment, the level of discomfort that people are feeling.

 “But by and large I think that it has more than evidenced to the world that it can handle the responsibilities of being an independent state, a sovereign state, a state governed by Africans. That it can do those things that will help democracy thrive and endure. I think that SA is in a struggle but so is every country in the world. These are uncomfortable times in which our globe exists and South Africa has its path cut out for it.”

A voice of reason. The voice of controversy. Voice of the voiceless.

“Power, the quest of power in itself, usually resides at the doorstep of villainy.  Art and the power that it wields, it doesn’t seek to rule, it guides.  It doesn’t seek to divide, it seeks to unite. I have a moral suspicion of those who aspire to power and I am always looking at the kind of sad abuse that exists from places that control and have power and what it does to destroy humankind and all life for that matter.”

A beautiful bunch a ripe banana

Daylight come and he wanna go home

Hide thee deadly black tarantula

Daylight come and he wanna go home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belafonte on film, racism and masks

Harry Belafonte can be seen at Input 2008 where he will attend the launch of the Human Bondage project as a keynote speaker.

Truth and War: candid entries from North America

North America… Canadian and American selections this year provide glimpses into the range of real-life issues facing the diversity of its people. Programmes use courageous and unusual television formats (the sitcom, personal memoir, figurative graphics and journalistic documentary) to explore issues of stereotyping, prejudice, cultural clashes, immigrant communities, justice and the human side to war. Debates are bound to be sparked around the role of public broadcasters as standard bearers of principled journalism and conveyers of different “truths”.

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The film Operation Homecoming (above) received an Oscar nomination this year in the category of Best Documentary Feature and can be seen at Input 2008 on 7 May.

Click here to read the interview with director Richard Robbins.