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Culture: The doors of culture shall be opened!

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The grassroots political mobilisation of the 1980s sparked off a massive surge in 'people's culture'. As people found the political voice to shout out their angers, beliefs, griefs and victories, they learned to express these also in cultural forms — from toyi-toyi to jazz, from poster-making to workers' theatre and oral poetry. Youth, women, workers, students and conscientious objectors began to create the image of a people with dignity, of a community striving for the values of non-racialism, democracy and an end to economic oppression.

TIME TO ACT : A PLAY ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA - AL2446_0004  produced by the Action Workshop at CAP, Cape Town. This poster promoted a performance on the struggle in South Africa and the need for action.ABOUT TIME : IMAGES OF SOUTH AFRICA : EXHIBITION AL2446_1811 This poster refers to an exhibition of visual art as part of the Arts FestivalROCK FOR A REASON : SAKHILE MALOMBO BOSMONT TRIO JESSICA BADIRE : 1ST DECEMBER 7 30 PM SELBORNE HALL R4.00  AL2446_1057  produced by the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC), Johannesburg. This poster advertises a concert that was supposed to be held at the Selborne Hall. The city council refused to give permission to the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC) to use the hall. This resulted in the concert being cancelled.  ABASEBENZI: Written & Directed By MZWAKHE Date:	1985  AL2446_0590 This poster is silkscreened black and red, produced by the Khuvangano Productions at the Screen Training Project (STP), Johannesburg.


Apartheid culture vs people's culture

Laughter in the belly of the beast AL2446_0002  	This poster is an offset litho in black, blue and pink, drawn by Zapiro and produced by The Baxter Theatre, Cape Town . This poster represents repression under a monstrous PW Botha, which failed to silence the laughter of the people

Apartheid society has, over the decades, severely distorted the practise and perception of culture. 'Culture' was used to justify colonialism, with claims that European civilisation was better, that African societies were 'barbarous' and 'savage'. In South Africa, this remained a basic presumption. Apartheid law also divided the black population into 'ethnic groups', supposedly based on pre-colonial kingdoms and cultures of the region. Apartheid apologists had a stake in identifying and maintaining such 'traditional' groups. Just as apartheid theory denied the existence of permanent black residents in urban areas, apartheid culture refused to admit the existence of an emergent black urban culture.

Cultural Day: FAWU  AL2446_0600  produced by COSATU for FAWU, Johannesburg. This poster depicts the excitement experienced at a union cultural event. SEPT 30 CULTURAL DAY : THE DOORS OF LEARNING AND CULTURE SHALL BE OPENED AL2446_1805   produced by AYCO at STP, Johannesburg. This poster was produced to advertise a cultural day in Alexandra, to raise funds for the youth. The   principles of apartheid culture infused the education system (both bantu education and Christian National Education), the mass media (radio. TV, and newspapers), and all state-linked structures involved in funding the arts.Of course, people developed their own forms of cultural expression despite official attitudes and structures, and the lack of resources. With the earliest shanty-towns and illegal shebeens came marabi and the roots of South African jazz, a tradition which produced a number of internationally known musicians.




THE LONG MARCH : SAWCO  AL2446_1175   This poster is silkscreened in black, red, brown and grey, prodcued by Sarmcol workers at SAWCO, circa 1986, Howick, Natal. This poster advertises a stage play- The Long March, to illustrate their struggle against the bosses. CONSCRIPTION CLASH: MAPANTSULAS: SMILING CATS   AL2446_0311 produced by the ECC, Cape Town. This poster was produced to advertise the music of the resistance, which was believed to overcome militarisation.


In the 1950s, writers centred around Drum magazine developed a distinctive style of prose writing. The early 1970s saw a wealth of poetry and theatre linked to the student and black consciousness movements. Directly tied to political defiance, songs such as Meadowlands (protesting the 1950s Sophiatown removals) and the poetry and songs of Vuyisile Mini (a trade union and ANC leader executed for sabotage in 1964) became part of the 'folk culture' of the townships.




Culture as a 'weapon of struggle'

CHILDREN ON THE FRONTLINE AL2446_1380  This poster is an offset litho in black and red, produced by Afrapix in 1987. This poster advertises a photographic exhibition of children as victims of, and participants in the struggle for freedom.

In the 1980s cultural activists began to develop what was termed 'people's culture' as a tool for mass mobilisation against apartheid. The concept was first publicly adopted in 1982 in Gaborone, at a conference entitled 'Culture and Resistance'. Taking a stand against the notion of the elite artist working in isolation, the conference called on cultural workers to commit themselves to the oppressed communities, and to explore the expressions, realities and demands of grassroots South African society.


The birth of the UDF in 1983 provided a platform — often literally — for this vibrant cultural voice. The resurgence of mass organisation brought a new mood of empowerment, creating an environment alive to the importance and potentials of cultural work. Hundreds of community events opened up the space for untold numbers to share in some of the creativity, imagination, humour and defiance so alive beneath the squalor, pain and violence of the townships. 


ELDO'S Youth ASSOCIATION PRESENTS : A "LEKKER DISCO" AT CLUB MEMPHIS WITH Ebony Dancers  AL2446_1730  produced by the Eldo’s Youth at the Screen Training Project (STP), Johannesburg. This poster refers to the youth from the coloured area of Eldorado Park, who proposed a ‘lekker’ (Afrikaans for nice, great, enjoyable, etc) disco to raise money.

CONCERT : NAMIBIA : POETRY MIME AND DANCE TO : MA-PANTSULA : CHERRY FACED LURCHERS : SOFTIES : SPECTRES : CIVIC METHODIST CHURCH NEXT TO YMCA : SAT 30 JUNE  AL2446_0319  produced at STP by the ECC, Johannesburg. This poster advertised a concert which formed part of a week-long focus on Namibia.

Struggles within various sectors of the democratic movement were taken up in cultural campaigns. The End Conscription Campaign deliberately worked to build an anti-military culture, encouraging anti-war murals, rock groups, and theatre. Similar strategies were used to highlight the women's struggle.

The founding of the Durban Cultural Workers Local in 1984 sounded the first note of the national worker cultural movement. Located within the black trade unions, and often inspired by ongoing strikes and issues, this movement has produced hundreds of plays, a burst of oral poetry, dance, and film.


WOMEN MAKE THE MUSIC AL2446_0966  produced by the WWM, Johannesburg. This poster focused on women's issues. FORCES FAVOURITES : 11 bands play against the Call-up : RECORD TAPE  AL2446_0359  produced at STP by the ECC, Johannesburg. This poster advertised for the release of the compilation album 'Forces Favourites' in conjunction with Shifty Records, 1985.

As people began to explore cultural forms to express their understandings and demands, a number of communities introduced art training programmes, such as the Community Arts Project in Cape Town, Funda Centre in Soweto and the Alexandra Art Centre outside Johannesburg. These centres played an important role in spreading art skills and ideas, and served as locations for cultural productions.


The power of cultural activity of the mass movement helped to weaken the state's stranglehold on broadcasting, record companies, and other cultural resources.


National Press Day 19 October: STOP THE POLICE STATE: We want a free press AL2446_530 This poster is an offset litho in black and red, produced by SASPU, Johannesburg. This poster depicts the media protesting against restrictions on press freedom under the States of Emergency of the later 1980s.



Establishment cultural institutions gradually and grudgingly began to use the language of popular culture. Thus, even the more formal spaces of culture saw a burgeoning of popular theatre, music, art and video. Museums, art festivals and literary competitions, once bastions of conservatism, have begun to look for broader participation in a bid to avoid being by-passed by history.





UDF & COSATU SUPPORT FAWU'S CONCERT for the Workers : UWC STADIUM - 3 p.m.  AL2446_1068  produced by the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), Cape Town. This poster depicts the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and local musicians giving support (in the form of a concert) to the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU).UDF PEOPLES FESTIVAL : SIPHO 'Hot Stix' MABUSE : BRENDA and the BIG DUDES : SUPA FRIKA : HARARI : And supporting acts : FUN VALLEY  AL2446_1130  produced by the UDF, Johannesburg in 1985. This poster shows how the UDF held People's Festivals in 1984 and 1985, where they won the support and participation of mainstream musicians. SAKHILE . GENUINES : POETRY & DANCE : CONCERT  AL2446_2235   produced by the Progressive Arts Project (PAP), Johannesburg. This poster relates to the Progressive Arts Project (PAP) and how they attempted to organize the cultural workers into collective action. grassroots concert : YOUTH JIVE!  AL2446_2192  This poster is an offset litho in black and red, produced by the Grassroots Publications, Cape Town. This poster advertised local bands playing at a concert that was organized by a community newspaper.


International outrage against apartheid led to the cultural boycott. This had a two-fold effect: it provided more space for South African artists to develop their own styles and forms; and it acted as a focus for people within South Africa, making them more conscious of the negative influences of international culture that appeared here.


 POSTERS FOR PEACE : AN EXHIBITION IN PROTEST AGAINST APARTHEID MILITARISM  AL2446_1449  This poster is silkscreened black, red and yellow, produced by the ECC at the CAP, Cape Town. This poster is one of many that supported anti- militarism.

ANTI-WAR FILM FESTIVAL  AL2446_0377  This poster is an offset litho in black, red and green, produced by the ECC, Cape Town.This poster announces a consciousness-raising film festival for those opposed to military conscription.

When the state cracked down on the mass movement in 1985, cultural activities assumed a new role. With political rallies, meetings, and banning of organisations, cultural occasions provided a forum for people to come together to witness their strength and celebrate their commitment. The state recognised the significance of this by banning many explicitly cultural events — the most prominent being the 1986 Cape Arts Festival. Its slogan would have been 'Towards a People's Culture'.

Cultural activists, like so many community workers, also suffered directly under the State of Emergency. Police raided community art programmes, and detained students and teachers. Books were banned and toyi-toyi was declared a revolutionary activity. Many cultural workers went into hiding.

EXHIBITION : LET IT BE DONE BEFORE DAWN  AL2446_1807 poster is silkscreened black and yellow, produced by CAP, Cape Town in 1989. This poster advertises an Arts Festival exhibition.Sawco's Cultural Project Presents Bhambatha's Children  AL2446_0698 This poster is an offset litho in black, red and yellow, produced by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) for the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). This image depicts another play that was produced by the fired workers of Sarmcol.

By 1987 the pressures on the mass movement had left many structures barely functional. The UDF Cultural Desk was launched to facilitate the growth and organisation of local culture. It also sought to assist in clarifying and implementing the international cultural boycott.

The Desk's first job was to co-ordinate the conference entitled 'Culture in Another South Africa' (CASA). CASA brought exiled and internal progressive workers together in Amsterdam, Holland, to talk, to debate the direction of progressive culture.



South Africa is being de-pressed: Ignorance is fatal : Act NOW! AL2446_0109  This poster is an offset litho in black and yellow, produced by the East Cape News Agencies, Eastern Cape. This poster called journalists to oppose state attempts to muzzle the press.

The conference endorsed earlier positions on theneed to build cultural organisations. It also changed the thrust of the cultural boycott, calling for cultural exchange between the international community and the oppressed people of South Africa, while maintaining a ban on those who were not prepared to take a stand against the apartheid system.

The event served as an important rallying point, and a showcase for the range of exciting progressive cultural work being done in South Africa. But cultural workers returning from CASA came back to repression and the on-going State of Emergency: many of the resolutions taken there are yet to be fulfilled.


TOWARDS A PEOPLE'S CULTURE. : ARTS FESTIVAL 86 : 12 - 22 DECEMBER AL2446_1667 produced by the Arts Festival Committee, Cape Town in 1986. This poster represents the logo of the Arts Festival.

Culture in a future South Africa

South African society finds itself poised on the edge of vast and uncertain changes. Cultural workers aligned to the democratic movement have been forced to look again at the place of culture within their communities, and to evaluate their work in terms of what they can contribute to a future society.


ACT FOR FREEDOM  AL2446_2021  This poster is an offset litho in black, produced by the Action Workshop, Cape Town. This image represents the theatre as a means of liberation. National Congress Cultural Day   AL2446_0041   This poster is an offset litho in black, red and yellow, produced by COSATU, Johannesburg. This poster depicts the importance of culture to workers at their cultural day. Community Arts Project (CAP) presents a play : TRICAMERAL BLUES   AL2446_0653  This poster is silkscreened green, produced by the CAP, Cape Town in 1989. This poster advertises a cultural performance that highlights the rejection of the tri-cameral parliamentary system. Qinisela : Written & Directed By Peter Ngwenya : INTERNATIONAL YOUTH YEAR   AL2446_0464  This poster is silkscreened blue and pink, produced by SOYCO, Johannesburg in 1985. This poster advertises a play about the struggle of squatters which was produced to commemorate International Youth Year.


Albie Sachs, in a paper to an ANC cultural forum in 1989, challenged cultural workers to produce more works 'which by-pass, overwhelm and ignore apartheid'. He echoed the sentiments of other cultural workers, that slogans and overt political content by themselves cannot replace the subtlety, complexity and ambiguity that effective cultural work demands.

What is the role of culture in the period of transition? How can our work help 'open wide the doors of culture?' How can we correct a situation where for so long the state has pumped resources into facilities and opportunities for the minority alone? And what kind of cultural work is needed to end the ethos of oppression, to go beyond angry reaction to apartheid? How do we start building that boldness, creativity and self-confidence needed to transform South African society?

Are you part of the big rush to DEFEND New Nation : Make your mark against CENSORSHIP   AL2446_1670 This poster is an offset litho in black, red and yellow, produced by the New Nation, Johannesburg. This billboard poster called for opposition to censorship and support for the New Nation, which was a progressive newspaper muzzled by the state. Bureau of Information: "Facilitating free flow of Information" : NUSAS - EXPOSING THE LIES AL2446_1933 This poster is silkscreened black, produced by NUSAS in 1986, Johannesburg. This poster challenges the Department of Information's view of itself as an impartial channel of information.SOUTH AFRICA 1987 : THE ANTI-CENSORSHIP ACTION GROUP PROTESTS DETENTION OF JOURNALISTS  AL2446_1669  This poster is an offset litho in black, produced by ACOG, Johannesburg. This poster challenges the detention of progressive journalists. Hands of the Media: National Press Freedom Day AL2446_1892  This poster is an offset litho in black, red and yellow, produced by ADJ, Johannesburg. This poster advertises a rally to protest state interference in the freedom of press.


The discussion and debate on the role of culture in building our new society is likely to continue long into the future.

One thing is certain: progressive cultural workers will be as important in the unfolding of a new South Africa as they have been in breaking down the oppressive and racist consciousness of the old South Africa. They will be creating images —through plays, poetry, music and graphics — that animate, inspire and encourage people to be the active authors of their own future.  

 IQINISO LIZONQOBA! TRUTH WILL OVERCOME! AL2446_3398 The image shows a man being strangled by a microphone around his neck.


Link to SAHA Shifty Records Virtual Exhibition - Indipendent Music in the 1980's


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