Where I Stand 07/04/16

Listening to Ronnie Kasrils talking yesterday about how they were aware of Zuma’s behaviour, during the struggle, with regards to women, I was struck by how organisations tend towards silencing people.  I know that this is an obvious point to mention but it is an incredibly hard thing to do, to speak out when there are structures and hierarchies in place that do not want you to speak out and when this is mixed with personal relations.  I remember when it first broke that Zwelethu Mthethwa was being charged with murder I felt something of these pressures.  He was somebody that I had spoken to a lot about Monna Mokoena and the 2011 Venice Beinalle corruption.  He was, after all, the first person willing to talk about it, he seemed to be disgusted by the corruption.

As editor of ArtThrob I was confused.  Zwelethu, although not a friend, had been a source. He was also somebody who had taken to phoning me, on occasion, just for a chat and if I am to be honest I was slightly amazed that a well-known artist would want to talk to me on friendly terms. As troubling as that thought is to me now, I know that I felt a little in awe.  When the news broke of the murder I met with Elana Brundyn, his gallerist.   I remember the talk and I remember how she, in her usual way, said that she thought I was right when I said that this was a news story and not an art story and that as ArtThrob editor I was not willing to sensationalise the story in order to get hits.  And she was no doubt thrilled with the simple fool that she had in front of her (me) who was confused and worried about where the moral position in all of this might be, both personally and publicly. I should state here that I was wrong in the approach in stating that it was a news and not an art story.  Although I think some people were wrong in saying that it was a problem within the ‘arts community’.  Corruption and unethical business practice is a problem within that arts community, an artist murdering somebody is not necessarily a problem within the arts community per se so much as a problem within the whole of South African society.  People did convince me, however, that I must at least acknowledge the story, as I duly did – in hindsight my resistance to publishing was wrong. However, in doing so I felt that I should not sensationalise it or speculate about his guilt.

Of course Sean O’Toole took a very different stance in an article for the M&G, talking about the rumours concerning Zwelethu’s personality i.e. whether he was an angry man with a temper.  And maybe this should be mentioned in public a la Kasrils. Linda Stupart too would have her say.  I was not prepared to have such articles on ArtThrob because at that point I felt that we really had no idea as to whether he was guilty or not and whether this had just been some horrible mistake.  Although I am not sure whether I was just convincing myself and whether my connection with Zwelethu was clouding my judgement – I think it almost certainly was. I became adamant that we should wait for what the trial would reveal.  Little did I know it would take all of this time. Elana had told me that Zwelethu was not saying anything other than that ‘it would all be okay’.  Of course the trial is still on the go but from what the media is reporting it would seem that Zwelethu’s lawyer is not so much suggesting that Zwelethu is innocent but merely trying to get evidence thrown out. I guess we will just have to wait and see – still!

What I can say was the at the opening of the new Brundyn + space, which is now Mokoena’s new space, when I saw Zwelethu there I was horrified – I left immediately. I simply could not believe that Elana would allow him there while there was this cloud hanging over him.  Sure, if he had come out and said ‘I am completely innocent and there has been a confusion over identity’ (this was something that Mark Coetzee had suggested to me when I talked to him. Not that he knew but that he (Coetzee) imagined it would be difficult to identify him in a darkened street – I was a little disturbed by the implications here) then, okay, maybe he could come out in public.  But that was not the case. Zwelethu had refused to speak to journalists (some of whom I had helped to put in contact with him) and he had put nobody’s mind at rest.   The question was how could she allow him to be there on these terms?  Of course, as her relationship with Mokoena would later prove, she is a tough business woman who puts business first.

Personally I think I could have and should have been stronger on this matter of Zwelethu without sensationalising it. I should have done my best to get a response from him personally rather than allowing other journalists to take the lead. But as Gary Kirsten once said ‘hindsight has 20/20 vision.’ I have always been worried about my backbone and this was not a good moment for it. It is hard, though, to speak out against people you know and who are in positions of power – financial, cultural and, as Kasrils admitted yesterday, political.

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