‘Elusive Spring’ reveals South Africa today

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. 

“It’s based on fact and it reflects what is happening to our independent investigative journalists such as at amaBhungane and the Daily Maverick,” says van Graan. 

“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.”

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Heather Dugmore
Heather Dugmore was born and raised in Johannesburg. She has a Bachelor of Journalism degree from Rhodes University, South Africa. She operates between her base in the Eastern Cape and her office in Johannesburg. Her writing reflects the diversity of her experience: from humour to environmental conservation to business to academic research. Heather contributes to leading newspapers, magazines, universities and corporates. She has produced, managed and edited content in all its multimedia forms – including books, features, photographs, websites, magazines, publications, reports, newsletters and brochures.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

How lottery execs received dubious payments through a private company

The National Lottery Commission is being investigated by the SIU for alleged corruption and maladministration, including suspicious payments made to senior NLC employees between 2016 and 2017

Pandemic hobbles learners’ futures

South African schools have yet to open for the 2021 academic year and experts are sounding the alarm over lost learning time, especially in the crucial grades one and 12

More top stories

Egypt, Seychelles get first jabs

The two countries have rolled out China’s Sinopharm vaccine, but data issues are likely to keep some countries from doing the same

Fashion’s future is bricks and clicks

Lockdown forced reluctant South African clothing retail stores online: although foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores remains important in a mall culture like ours, the secret to success is innovation

What the Biden presidency may mean for Africa

The new US administration has an interest and much expertise in Africa. But given the scale of the priorities the administration faces, Africa must not expect to feature too prominently

Zuma, Zondo play the waiting game

The former president says he will talk once the courts have ruled, but the head of the state capture inquiry appears resigned to letting the clock run out as the commission's deadline nears
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…