Colours of protest

B.N. Goswamy on how artists led protests against apartheid

Mothers of Soweto: Woodcut by Ilse Schreiber
Mothers of Soweto: Woodcut by Ilse Schreiber

LONG years ago, I was at a friend’s house in Zurich. We had just finished lunch and were being served strawberries and cream for the dessert when the lady of the house apologised for the indifferent quality of the fruit.

These strawberries, she said with simple charm, are locally grown and out of season. And then went on to add: "The market is flooded with better, healthier ones; in this season, however, they are all coming in from South Africa, and we in our home do not buy anything that is produced in that country." It was a small, individual, gesture of protest against the policies then being pursued by that country. But it has stayed with me.

It has been some time now, and one tends to forget. But those policies had at their heart then the hated apartheid — the practice of officially segregating the non-White population from the White.

It took that country years to come out of that — through sacrifices, and a movement led by Nelson Mandela — but even as it was in the throes of that deadly struggle, voices of protest were being raised elsewhere: some at the individual level, like my friends’, and others in organised form.

I was reminded of this the other day when I came upon a 20-year-old issue of Ikon, a New York journal. Apartheid was alive then, if not truly well. It was a special double issue, dedicated only to "Art against Apartheid".

And it had some moving contributions from public men and poets, photographers and artists: a number of them, but not all, of African origin. There were in it little poems and long poems, crudely lettered posters and fine drawings, angry statements and plain, chilling documentation.

The Shadow of Soweto — that teeming black township not far from Johannesburg, soaked in the blood of young protesting students — was everywhere then. "At the throat of Soweto/ a devil language falls/ slashing/ claw syllables to shred and leave/ raw/ the tongue of the young/ girl/ learning to sing/ her own name…"

An Indian peacock drinks from a puddle as it roams in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo
An Indian peacock drinks from a puddle as it roams in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Fourteen such peacocks roam the grounds of the zoo freely. — Reuters

Another poet wrote: "married women burnt in their own homes/ I thought I had seen it all that night/ as I lit a candle at my door. / In the brief chronicle of candle light / I cried out as a child might/ to all the night creatures I know/ jackal, cobra, the thousand-eyed owl."

Safiya Holmes spoke of "Ben and all the hued men": "They hung/ a black poet/ Oct. 19th 1985/ 8 am/ his name was Ben. / The rope looped/ and swung/… son of a black woman/ lover of a black woman/ father of a would have been/ doctor, lawyer, astronaut, / magician, teacher, soldier, / musician, painter, stargazer, / hellraiser/ was stripped/ from his brave/ tight waist/ to his/ hold it steady, /ever ready neck/ …"

In the midst of all this, there is a page, overwritten with graffiti, which simply reproduces some laws that the white government had enacted. "A policeman may at any time call upon any African who is 16 or older to produce his reference book. If the African fails to produce it, or if his papers are not in order, he is committing a criminal offence and is liable to imprisonment." Or "Any one who writes a message on the wall of a building, asking for increased political rights for Blacks, is guilty of sabotage. Minimum sentence: five years."

Then, in this issue, there are the images: lustreless eyes; limp bodies; lacerated lips. Valerie Maynard has a powerful painting in which anonymous black profiles of faces are superimposed one upon another as they keep increasing in size, and their mouths closed at first keep opening wider and wider, with shouts emanating from them turning into angry, overpowering swirls of sound.

Outside a window painted by Cliff Joseph, a group of sunken-eyed black boys and girls are gathered, all wistfully looking at a steaming cup of tea resting on the sill inside. And Ilse Schreiber’s Mothers of Soweto captures the utter devastation of a Black mother as she sits keening, all hope drained, rocking the body of her killed child.

There is power in all this. And one gets affected. Thinking of South Africa, one remembers that this was the land from where Gandhi first raised his frail but meaningful voice against these injustices.

But also that somehow, while our government’s policies towards South Africa were firm, how few of us, as individuals, gave help, or noticed. Only Faiz’s ringing words come to mind: "Come back Africa!" he wrote, echoing a slogan. Aa jaao sun li main ney terey dhol ki tarang/ aa jaao maine dhool sey maatha uthaa liyaa/ aa jaao main ney chheel di aankhon sey gham ki chhaal. This is how things eventually come about perhaps: ‘by peeling the coarse skin of grief with your eyelashes’.