Canvassing the arty types

South African youth exude a degree of optimism only possible in a country so pregnant with opportunity. They believe they can carve out their own spaces. Yet some are struggling to forge their identities.

In a series of random encounters at the Lister Medical Centre, South Africa’s restless youth disclosed their hopes for the future and reflected on some of the difficulties they face.

A towering building in the Jo’burg city centre, the 18th floor of Lister Medical Centre has been turned into a gallery space sporting awesome panoramic views of the city.

On this particular occasion, nine days before Youth Day, the young and artistic who frequent the city’s nightspots were dressed to the nines, braving the winter chill — presumably to ogle visual art at an event titled And Then?.

The irony, of course, is that the event drew mostly white youth to this inner-city hangout, an area they probably wouldn’t dare tread by day. But one of my first interviewees, nattily dressed property developer Carl Thome, proved me wrong.

“People in Jo’burg are not Jo’burgers unless they come into Jo’burg,” he started, with a casual disdain for those who claim the city only when it suits them. “We are the London of South Africa — Zambians, Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Congolese bring their own thing from their own countries, making this an exciting city to live in.”

The gallery was teeming with artistic folk, and concerns about the country’s attitude to the arts were high on the agenda, especially the lack of financial support.

Marc Barnard, a 27-year-old graphic designer exhibiting at the event, believes there is no infrastructure in place to support the arts, but is of the opinion that artists should take matters into their own hands. “Pursuing a career in these fields is usually not economically viable. We need to educate the buyers and sellers,” he said.

“Right now, we are not on par with the international market — which is not a problem; we should sustain ourselves. But I believe people who sell [their art] underestimate the buyers. If someone says, ‘I can’t make this or that art because people won’t understand it,’ that’s bullshit. They are cultivating a culture of stupidity. But the only way we’re gonna find our feet is by making mistakes and learning from them.”

Barnard believes, however, that we are headed in the right direction, but it will take time. “For a country to function as a whole, we need to share a collective history, like experience wars and things as a united nation. Any strongly developed country becomes like that because people have experienced adversity together, and here it is just starting to happen.”

Sabelo Mlangeni, a 27-year-old photographer, echoed Barnard’s views. Illustrating the disparities in the country, he said South Africans in the rural areas still face difficulties accessing even the most basic information.

Benjamin Magowan, a 27-year-old film director, was circumspect about the incumbent government, and said he was keeping a close eye on the succession battle within the African National Congress (ANC).

“I’m waiting to see what happens in December with the ANC’s presidential elections,” he said. “Economically, South Africa is doing well now, better than when the Nats ever had it. But, provincially, the government has failed a lot of people. Housing and education have been a balls-up.”

Apart from his concerns about service delivery, he believes the issue of race plays a large role in generating a culture of pessimism, especially when it comes to crime. “It’s easy for white people to sit here and complain, but they’re the ones who have benefited since 1994. People in the ‘burbs freak out about crime … but no one is secure. The poor aren’t secure.”

Just when I thought we were all getting along swimmingly, building our collective history, I met an outspoken film producer on another of my jaunts about town. Tracey-Lee Dearham says she feels the way forward is rocky and precarious.

“The majority of South Africans, I think, live a very mimicked lifestyle,” she declared. “With this whole free market system being incorporated into our everyday lives — you know, driving a BMW, bling-bling, watching MTV — superficial layers are being constructed. Still, I am embedded in the culture, even the warped culture. In our schizophrenic, bipolar, confused state, we are still South African. Because being South African does not mean only the good: it means the bad, the confused, the negative, even the mimicked part.”

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