Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The freedom to play

Tawana Kupe, Wits University’s dean of humanities, doesn’t think of his workplace as merely an institution of higher learning — he also conceives of it as a “public cultural space”.

Wits University is a place of “creativity and innovation”, a place at which all the creative disciplines are taught, he says.

Indeed, some of the university’s staff are artists in their own right: writer Bhekizizwe Peterson (scriptwriter of the 2004 feature film Zulu Love Letter), painter and printmaker Thembinkosi Goniwe, painter and novelist Veronique Tadjo and painter Vincent Baloyi. As Kupe points out, it is only natural that they “showcase some of these activities to the public”.

Three years ago Kupe founded the Wits Arts and Literature Experience (Wale) — a four-day cultural festival that features exhibitions of visual arts, theatre, music, film, literary discussions and workshops across the university’s campuses. A university press release describes Kupe as the Wale festival’s “champion-in-chief”.

Should a university be hosting festivals? I ask. Kupe replies: “If a university won’t do it, who will?”

In this way, he argues, the university is not viewed by the public as an “ivory tower” but as a site at which the gap “between theory and living reality is bridged”.

The theme of this year’s festival, which is on until April 21, is “Arts on the Edge”.

It has extended its tentacles across the city. This month, the football-themed film More than Just a Game will be screened at Arts on Main in downtown Johannesburg, and Narina Trogon, a restaurant on De Korte Street, will host Tsela, a play by young director Kabi Thulo.

The festival’s line-up features a wide array of acts that include acclaimed director John Kani’s student production of Shakespeare’s Othello, featuring his son Atandwa in the lead. Kupe describes this mixture of old and new as a “cross-generational conversation”.

The festival will also feature photographs by the controversial Zanele Muholi, who earlier this year made headlines when Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana reportedly stormed out of her exhibition.

Ivorian painter and writer Veronique Tadjo (head of Wits’s French studies) will present her exhibition, Crossing Borders, a response to the theme of migration.

Other notable names in the line-up include Staceyann Chin, an American spoken-word poet, photographer and teacher Iris Parker, award-winning performer Gina Schmukler, composer and teacher Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph (the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in composition) and visual artist Nandipha Mthambo.

Is the university reacting to the gathering clouds of conservatism by including a line-up that tackles lesbian issues? “Partly yes,” Kupe says, but, he maintains, the challenge is integral to what a university should be about — “advancing freedom”.

This includes courting controversy and being at the forefront of innovation. “We pride ourselves in being diverse,” he says, “and diversity is the essence of freedom. We believe that a university is the space where controversy must be explored, exposed and people must get to know the controversial, including that which they don’t like or might never know.”

Kupe sees the festival as the university’s contribution to democracy. “Art is important for democracy,” Kupe says. “A university [must] provide space for the celebration of artistic and literary freedom — to be a site of democracy and the performance of democracy.”

For a full programme go to The festival runs until April 24

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

SANDF’s ‘dignity’ comes with a R200mn price tag

Find out about the SANDF’s new uniform, which is costing taxpayers close to R200-million, while mission-critical equipment is not maintained

Q&A Sessions: From sangomas to the world’s biggest stages, John...

His father took him to isangoma when he wanted to be an actor. Today Dr John Kani is revered the world over. He tells Athandiwe Saba about his passions

More top stories

Warring ANC factions united in questioning SAA deal

Four unhappy high-ranking party members say the SAA sale was never discussed at the NEC

Ice skating champion shows off the Cape Flats talent at...

A young ice-skating champion has beaten the odds and brought home a national gold medal

Study finds too much salt can damage immune cell function

The study investigated how sodium intake affects human cells by giving participants 6g of salt in tablet form each day for 14 days, while they continued with their normal diets.

New plan to tackle marine pollution

The environment department’s Source-to-Sea initiative will create 1 600 work opportunities

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…