Written as a play in 2012, Elusive Spring is writer, artist and activist Mike van Graan’s political thriller that deals with corruption and the struggle for democracy in Africa. The main character, Njabulo, is an independent journalist in a society in which the ruling party has little respect for the rule of law or for democratic principles and practice.
“It was inspired by Michela Wrong’s book It’s Our Turn to Eat about John Githongo, an investigative journalist in Kenya who exposed large-scale corruption and fraud at the highest levels of government and had his life threatened for doing so,” says Van Graan.
Eight years later, Van Graan’s play is more relevant than ever in our own country beset with fraud, corruption, deceit, theft, murder and fake news. Such is the strength of the work that van Graan was awarded an Arts & Culture Trust grant, funded by Nedbank, to develop Elusive Spring into a theatre production, novel and six-part television series.
“There are so many incidents of intimidation, assault and even murder of journalists who are simply trying to do their job — to reveal what is happening in society. There are so many journalists whose reputations are maliciously ruined to stop them from operating. And there are ruthless attempts to destabilise our country through fake news, such as the Bell Pottinger scandal.”
Another line in Elusive Spring sums it up: “Turpitude. Profligacy. Impropriety. Corruption by any other name stinks as badly.”
“Socially and politically, the work affirms the importance of independent journalism as a fundamental component of democracy,” says Van Graan. “It warns citizens not to be worn down by corruption fatigue. People must continue to support the work of independent journalists and continue to take action through civil society groups and movements.”
Van Graan started writing Elusive Spring — the novel — during his residency at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies in January. But when lockdown was announced this had to be put on hold.
“Lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic hit the arts hard from the outset,” says Van Graan. “The productions of four of my plays have been halted … I have engaged in fundraising from my networks to support the actors, directors and technical staff who have been affected.”
Van Graan has always shown extraordinary commitment to having the arts officially recognised and supported through national policy, and is the president of the African Cultural Policy Network. From mid-April he has served on the interim steering committee of the Im4theArts movement, an initiative to organise the arts sector to advocate for their interests.
“Thus far, we have hosted a winter school, weekly webinars, and launched a number of working groups in cultural policy, arts education, advocacy and sustainability. We recently published a draft constitution and we intend to grow the movement into a significant force in mobilising and representing the interests of the arts and culture sector.”
In September, Van Graan and a group of artists launched the Sustaining Theatre and Dance foundation, to support theatre and dance during and beyond the Covid-19 restrictions.
Without any inkling of the pandemic to come, Van Graan has also been working on increasing the use of technology within the arts. “In January this year, I facilitated a digital atelier [workshop] in Antwerp, Belgium for 20 participants learning about how to use technology to improve their festivals. Six months later, in June, I facilitated the first online atelier,’ he says.
In July, the Virtual National Arts Festival hosted two of his shows, including He had it Coming, performed by Nancy Sekhokoane, which speaks about gender-based violence and patriarchy.
To date, Van Graan has written 34 plays. Elusive Spring is the only one that has not yet been staged. Perhaps it was awaiting its time, because the theme has become so much more acute. “The fact that citizens have to resort to the courts to get politicians to comply with the laws is so messed up,” he says.
“People have also bought into this idea that having a democratic election every five years is sufficient. It isn’t: it’s just an opportunity for the next political faction to come to power with leadership that has no intention of serving the citizens of this country. The ANC is simply a vehicle to access public funds.”
So where to from here? “Our role as writers and artists is to tell the truth and reflect society back to itself,” says Van Graan.
Through Njabulo’s voice, Van Graan speaks truth to power. “Those in power try to crush him by intimidating those close to him … But he continues to pursue the truth despite everything because to not do so is to allow the authorities to get away with their corruption.”