By Nondumiso Hlophe
The Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) believes that a “cultural boycott” – by musicians invited to perform in the Kingdom of Swaziland – is an effective way to address political opinions in Swaziland. Do you?
Last year, the South-African based organisation SSN called on artists to boycott Swaziland by refusing to perform in the country, as a means to further their cause célèbre of political reform for the country. Zahara, a newcomer to the music scene, was one of the earlier noted artists to cite the boycott as a reason for her failing to show up for a performance in Swaziland. More recently, on March 2 2012, seasoned singer Ringo Madlingozi cancelled his appearance at the popular Swazi hot spot, House on Fire, citing the ‘ongoing’ “cultural boycott”. This has led to much confusion in South Africa-Swaziland cultural affairs, concerning whether 1) there is indeed a “cultural boycott” going on; 2) South African political parties support the notion; and 3) diplomacy is truly being exercised on the issue that the “cultural boycott” is for (i.e. politics).
Here’s what we have come to know: the ANC denies any involvement in the boycott, citing their foreign policy stance on Swaziland (being one more of mediation rather than outright pressure) for political reform. The ANC Youth League, on the other hand, has gone against its parent association’s stance and supported this action wholeheartedly. The culmination of the “cultural boycott” issue and the merits of it was debated on Metro FM in a show that was hosted by Melanie Bala and Glen Lewis (Tuesday March 13), but cultural boycotts are not new. An exemplary period when the arts and politics enjoyed a ‘complicated’ relationship status was during the Cold War. The Cold War gave rise to differing ideas (politically, economically and socially) in both states, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The USA and the USSR represented diverging philosophies on a way forward post-World War II, capitalism versus communism respectively. However, whether intended or not, the very competitiveness and efforts towards suppression led to a period rich in expression and innovation. From science to sports, each side of the Iron Curtain flourished. For instance, scientifically, the Soviets succeeded in launching the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, sending the first man – Yuri Gagarin – to orbit the Earth. Sports-wise, Bobby Fischer’s victory dethroned Boris Spassky and interrupted the unbroken chain of Soviet world chess champions dating back to the 1948 World Chess Championship, widely viewed as an American victory.
Culturally speaking, both sides traded heavy ‘artillery’ via formalised cultural exchange programs. Both sides recognised the value in learning from one another on homegrown cultural milieu, at home and abroad, on a practical level. Hence, these exchanges came to influence the way in which “cultural diplomacy” was exercised between states, officially and unofficially. Undoubtedly, the arts were an effective weapon on both sides of the cultural war. The use of artistic licence to convey thoughts on issues of the day varied from artists as it did from medium to audience. However, for every artisan who was singing out loud, writing about and acting out against ideas policing the arts, policies and practices were established to limit the influence of just such works. Nevertheless, I like to think that musicians in particular had a lasting impact on culture. They found ways to convey (political) messages succinctly in a song. These songs provided a much-needed ‘breather’ from weighty debates of the day, merely through the escapism captured in song. These songs transcended practice and policy and today stand as timeless testaments to the times they were written in. However, with more aggressive acts of political will entering one’s freedom of association and expression, it is clear that when one is needed to cross state lines, these freedoms may be tainted, even lost, in the act of boycotting. The issue of Swaziland’s “cultural boycott” calls for one to pay more attention to its political affairs, but is this necessarily a means to an end – a political end, if you will? South African DJ Black Coffee, in an interview with the Swazi Observer (dated Monday March 5 2012), said he wondered why the SSN strove for boycotts rather than using artists to create a platform for awareness and to further their agenda. Instead, the DJ saw that such endeavours were also depriving Swazis of the opportunity to enjoy artists at work. It is a position I agree with, as well as noting the loss of employment, enjoyment and revenue from such events for Swazi nationals.
The exercise of artistic and cultural expression is sensational in that, ideally, it provides a platform for persons (irrespective of colour, creed and caste) to coexist, with music eliciting emotion from one’s core. If we call for its cessation, citing ‘political reasons’, are we not attacking the very organic premise for artists passionately doing what they do? Furthermore, if artists themselves allow for their artistic licence – the one that sees them as both custodians and defenders of these freedoms – to be sanctioned, are they not aiding and abetting the death of the artiste, whose music stood for and appealed to the consciousness of freedom to its fan base? Is the reaction incited by this matter (the debate on artistic freedom) compatible with the action being taken – or, in this case, not taken (the “cultural boycott”) – in the country to promote the real issue (political reform, in case you forgot what the issue being debated truly is)?
I ask you to ponder on the issue of politicisation of the arts. When does it cross the line? Is it when it engages arts and culture in such a manner, as a matter of cultural diplomacy?
Nondumiso (Noni) Hlophe is a global citizen with a Swazi passport. She is a MTN One Young World Ambassador from the Kingdom of Swaziland. Follow her on Twitter (@nonihlophe) and read her blog at www.mtnoyw.co.za.