Anti-apartheid fighter and cultural worker Mongane Wally Serote spoke at a recent event about the centrality of art and culture to the struggle for liberationJanuary 29, 2024 by Mongane Wally Serote, Tings Chak
Medu members Tim Williams, Wally Serote, and Sergio-Albio Gonzalez print the poster ‘Unity Is Power’ in Gaborone, Botswana, 1979. Photo: Freedom Park via Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research
In 1979, during the height of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, a group of exiled activists and artists in the neighboring country of Botswana formed the Medu Art Ensemble. A mere six years later, the organization’s future was prematurely cut short when the South African Defense Forces Special Forces conducted raids in sovereign Botswana territory, killing twelve people – two of them members of Medu Art Ensemble. During their short years of existence, this group mobilized writers, painters, designers, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians, domestically and internationally. Together, they demonstrated the power of cultural resistance, posing itself as a moral and political threat to the apartheid regime. Owing to the international mobilization and the effective use of culture as a weapon of struggle, the regime fell exactly three decades ago.
Today, three-and-a-half months after Israel’s genocidal siege began in Gaza, South Africa has taken a leading role in solidarity with the Palestinian people and against Israeli apartheid. Pretoria filed an application to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. On January 26, the ICJ ruled in favor of South Africa’s request for provisional measures in its case against Israel over the ongoing war on Gaza and rejected Israel’s request for the case to be dismissed.
Artists around the world have also raised their voices in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Under the banner of “Artists Against Apartheid,” artists from 60 countries have created artwork, organized events, joined political actions, and 11,000 have signed onto a joint statement, which declares:
As artists and cultural producers, we join hands with the people of the world and with the heroic people of Palestine, to stop this genocidal war and put an end to 75 years of occupation. We understand the power that our work has in shaping public opinion in our time. As artists we have a unique responsibility to use our voice and artistic practices to protest apartheid and amplify the just cause of the Palestinian people and their resistance against occupation and oppression.
On January 21, Artists Against Apartheid, together with The People’s Forum and the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research organized an event, “Art, Culture, and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle”, which brought together cultural workers and activists from South Africa to Palestine and beyond. Among the participants was Mongane Wally Serote, the founding Chairperson of Medu Art Ensemble who today is South Africa’s National Poet Laureate. He was joined by fellow Medu member, Judy Seidman, Clarissa Bitar, award-winning Palestinian oud musician and composer, and Niki Franco, podcaster and cultural worker. The event was organized by Hannah Priscilla Craig of Artists Against Apartheid and Tings Chak, the art director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, who recently authored “Culture as a Weapon of Struggle: The Medu Art Ensemble and Southern African Liberation”.
Recalling the history of the Medu Art Ensemble and the South African liberation struggle today is not a nostalgic endeavor, but it is about the present, and the inextricably connections to the current struggle for Palestinian liberation. As Frantz Fanon wrote, we must “use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope”, and this invitation to action and hope extends to artists from South Africa to Palestine, and beyond, who are in solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Below is the text of the speech that Mongane Wally Serote gave at the event, including a new poem that he wrote, entitled “Palestine,” which was originally published in the ANC Today newsletter.
Comrades and colleagues present,
Many thanks for this opportunity to go back in time, but to also look ahead focusing on the role of arts and culture in the past but also in the present, as we examine the saying that:
Culture is the weapon of struggle.
It is important to state that the ANC unit, which was eventually given the responsibility to embark on engaging arts and culture activity to serve our people through the struggle for the emergence of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa, was most inspired by the then ANC President, Oliver Tambo. He said, after he received the report about the progress for the formation of Medu Art Ensemble, and I paraphrase: Remember that, arts, culture, and heritage have the possibility and potential to unite our people and the world, to fight against the Apartheid system…
We not only believed, but committed as cultural activists, to the fact that our people and country, South Africa, were anchored on centuries of the struggle for liberation. We therefore understood and believed that the South African nation would always express its commitment to the struggle for the liberation of the nation and our country, through its history and culture, and therefore also, through the arts.
As we served our people as cultural workers, being conscious and aware of the four pillars of the struggle, namely mass mobilization, international support, underground, and armed struggle, as waged by the ANC, we honed in to this understanding in Medu Art Ensemble, in search of new ways to harness that innate being of our nation.
We had to create new ways and platforms, leaning on our political understanding, history, and where possible, on science, not only to harness the varied and diverse arts and creativity which existed, but to also amplify the creativity and expression of the creative acumen of the arts and cultural workers.
We believed and committed to the fact that while arts and culture activity are a creative process to portray and to depict the milieu of a nation, nations, and the world as a mirror does, cultural workers must also be creative and committed to shape, mold, and create artistic and cultural expression to intervene. This way, arts and culture can become the tools to shape, reshape, and/or contribute to the national political consciousness, to defy and dismantle the apartheid policies, law, and system, and to initiate the betterment of the quality of life of the people, the nation, nations, and the world.
The evidence of that possibility existed in our country, inspired by the creativity of the masses in our country but also by how the international community had responded, through the Anti- Apartheid Movement to implement the international support of the liberation of our country, through sanctions, boycotts, demonstrations and the support of the strategic objective of the struggle: to create a non-racial non-sexist and democratic South Africa.
I am suggesting here, that besides the fact that eventually, when Medu was established, it became very important and essential, that there was a common understanding, as different cultural workers responded to the call of Medu, that Medu Art Ensemble as the name suggests, would be anchored, and would participate in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, and therefore fight to destroy the apartheid system. This work was guided by the four pillars of struggle, but very importantly, was absolutely creative in employing the seven art forms, namely, literature, theater, dance, photography, film, posters/plastic arts/sculpture, and music.
That is where the weapon comes from. However, more important is, what must the arts do to result in nurturing a culture, a consciousness, and a commitment, on the one hand, for the creatives to serve the people, and on the other hand, for the nation to be stoic and committed through conscious and deliberate effort and action to not only fight against the Apartheid system but to also defend the strategic objective of the struggle in the future.
That was the challenge then, and it is still the challenge today!
We keep looking this way and that way
We know this road
The siren is blurring all sound into oblivion
The siren the siren the siren rings in the heart and blurs hearing and sight
To be deaf and blind
The siren screams and blasts the ears and brain of the human race
The earth is in a scream
The siren scream is like a strong blinding fierce light into the sight
of the human race
We keep looking
This way and that way that way and this way
Something must be done
We keep looking
Where on earth will understanding come from
Where from on earth
Will the power come from
To call a halt to the blinding blurring deafening siren
This world my brother
This world my sister where where from
Will help come
In this world
We ask the ear
We ask the heart
Has the human race run
Ran away to hide its sight and ear
Ran and hid its being away
Where from will understanding step in and stop this carnage
The siren is blurring in our being
Where from from whom
We hear in our ears deep in our minds and eyes
In our being
We hear from the wind even from the sunlight
Palestine Palestine Palestine
Obliterate this History Culture and being
This Echoes and echo as would the being of the mountain echo
They must not be alone please they must not be alone
The people of Palestine
Palestine must not be alone
We wish we think we feel
We hope as hopelessness attempts to embrace us
We wriggle out of it
The Palestinians are alone on earth
In the world they are alone
Please they must not be alone they cannot be alone
In the world they must not be alone
They must not be alone they cannot be alone
Many of them perish as we say so
I am afraid to count how many
Because even one
Is too too many
We hear in our eyes the sounds of the siren and of the explosion
As it blasts our eye and hearing
and the red fire
flares its coming in the air with the power of a storm
The red -hot fire holds human flesh in its red hot dance
It was preceded by a thick black smoke
Which bellows and rages
In the air and sky
The deafening sound of the bomb
Above skyscrapers in the sky towards the earth
The fire flares turning the heavens crimson
The Siren is fading into an eerie quite
The deafening sound of the bomb
Skyscrapers houses and buildings apart
Like a pack of cards brick and cement
to the earth
to be a heap of earth the last grave of men
women and children
We see this
And feel their painful slow death
Under the rubble
As their death Begins
We hear this rumble roar
as the sight whispers to us
We hear this
we feel this deep deep in our minds hearts and being
From far away we feel this
The silence of death
We see this we hear this we feel this
We own it now
Victories cannot be won through genocide
The Palestinians will be here on earth
In our minds
In our hearts
In our being as human beings
For their cry
Is a human cry humane to the human race
Palestinians own their victory
Culture and History
To live forever
The denied two state begins its reality now
To emerge for real
To be present forever on earth like a Baobab tree
Under the sky
Under the sun and under the moon
Palestine must stand
On her language culture history
On her people
Firm as her flag flaps in the skies in the world
like the dress of a young lady
Dancing in the wind under the sun forever
Mongane Wally Serote