Struggle, the beloved artist

Culture as a weapon of struggle is back. It’s more sophisticated. It’s a bit more grown up. And its practitioners probably will not like the label. But it’s here. And not a moment too soon.

The struggle against apartheid was a struggle for human dignity, for life, for democracy, for non-racialism, for gender equality, for a new morality premised on the greater social good.

That struggle is still with us. All that has changed are the conditions under which this struggle is being waged. And nowhere is this clearer than in the Aids movement. For the struggle of people living with HIV/Aids, their families, their friends and supporters is a struggle for human dignity, for life, for democracy, for non-racialism, for gender equality, for a new morality.


The protest art parallels with the Eighties are astonishing. There are new freedom songs. There are Aids exhibitions. Aids poetry evenings. Aids plays. Aids film festivals. Art auctions for some worthy Aids cause. Aids craft projects to support people living with HIV. Artists are being called upon to use their influence to mobilise support for this struggle. There’s a huge international concert to raise awareness and funds for this struggle, except that this time, it doesn’t happen in London, but right here among us. And there’s the patron saint of the struggle, Nelson Mandela, leading from the front yet again.

Just like the Eighties, one’s social and artistic life is increasingly connected in some way to “the struggle”. Attend the launch of Zapiro’s latest cartoon compilation, and this modest mensch is donating the evening’s proceeds (matched by his publishers, Double Storey) to the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) treatment project. The funds raised that night would pay for the anti-retrovirals for one person for a year. An exhibition opens at the National Gallery, and there’s the crusading Pieter-Dirk Uys who’s educating a whole generation through his Aids struggle theatre, delivering the opening speech. The weekend is taken up by the excited chatter of people who attended the 46664 concert, who might not have given a toss about Aids before, but who are now indirectly linked to the “the struggle”.

Then there was the launch of two books, one an academic book, The Moral Economy of Aids in South Africa by Professor Nicoli Nattrass, and Long Life — HIV Positive Stories by the Bambanani Women’s Group. What an uplifting experience! Ordinary women telling emotional stories of survival. Simple, but moving drawings and photography celebrating life. No SIPs (Self-Important Persons); just a room full of modest doctor heroes who work in extremely challenging conditions, activist heroines who do not give up despite the odds, committed academics lending intellectual muscle to the Aids struggle, backroom artists equipping the voiceless with the creative means to speak powerfully, and scores of ordinary people of all colours who are concerned about winning this new struggle.

There is an organic, unforced non-racialism reminiscent of the Eighties. There is a deep sense of humanity; people are here for each other. Here is ubuntu in practice rather than as a cliché in some hollow moral regeneration pamphlet. Individuals are freely acknowledged and celebrated for their contributions irrespective of their colour. Leaders are respected for what they have done, rather than for positions that they occupy and that demand genuflection. The songs are vibrant. There is the confidence of people taking responsibility for their destinies. Here is a little oasis of what the struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist democracy was about. This is but one of the legacies of the TAC.

It is ironic that far from the modern palaces of power with their “what’s-in-it-for-me” morality and the distant cathedrals of empty moral-speak, a new morality is being forged that affirms life, that celebrates others and gives expression to the values of non-racialism and democracy, in the midst of a deadly disease that is passed on primarily through sexual activity. And in the midst of all this, music, visual art, theatre, craft, literature, film and dance are singing in protest, moving to life-affirming rhythms and painting fresh visions of what could be.

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