“Where does my history fit into all of this?”
Sethembile Msezane used performance art to spark discussions about Afrophobia during the Vrystaat Kunstefees at the weekend. She talked with Thapelo Mokoatsi about refusing the term ‘xenophobia’, rewriting female history and colonial statues in Cape Town.
An artist stood on a plinth in front of the University of the Free State campus at the Vrystaat Kunstefees this weekend. A fringe of beads covered her face and she wore a dress printed with African flags.
A message was written on the plinth with a black Koki pen: “I breathe like you, I bleed like you, hug a fellow African”. She stood and stretched out her arms for three long hours as passers-by looked on. Some stopped and stared, notably perplexed, questioning whether she was human or inanimate. Others gave in to the written request and embraced her.
Sethembile Msezane, an award-winning UCT MFA student is revered for using performance art to raise questions about women’s bodies in public spaces and uses her body to make political statements. Her performance over the weekend spoke specifically to Afrophobia. “I am as much human as you are and if you agree with this message you will do what it says,” she said, referring to her request to ‘hug a fellow African’ following the recent violence that swept cities across South Africa.
Audience reactions to Msezane’s performance varied. “The first time I walked past I didn’t quite understand but…when I read the message I got goose bumps. It’s very powerful”, said Farai Mukonde, a Zimbabwean national and craftsman who sold his products at the Vryfees. “I think only an African can understand what this is about, that should mean something and make the conversations more interesting” he added.
Sellwane Tshabane, a UFS LLB student said, “I think she stands up against xenophobia and she has flags representing one thing: unity, togetherness, one love”.
Msezane was personally affected by the violence that the media labelled as ‘xenophobic attacks’ in April. “The violence that has been happening against African nationals is specific; if it was xenophobia it would be happening to all kinds of foreigners. It would be happening to the Turkish or English, to everyone who comes to this country. But it is directed at African black nationals…I think we should call it what it is”, she said, while drawing on the historical role that language has played in acts of violence and oppression.
“During apartheid the government did not want to call apartheid what it was because in calling it what it was it gave people the ammunition to fight against what it actually was,” she said, explaining her decision to stick to the label ‘Afrophobia’ instead of ‘xenophobia’.
Msezane said one of her most powerful performances was in April, shortly after the violence against African nationals subsided. “I felt like I had to speak through my art and I am glad that I did because on the day that I performed, it touched a lot of people…a lot of people thought about their position in relation to what has been happening since 2008 with the attack on African nationals in South Africa”, she said.
She continues to perform because, “the attacks keep on happening…and in re-performing this performance I get a wide audience to actually engage with what I am presenting within my performance which is to identify with other African nationals”.
Msezane’s first live performance was in 2013 as a statue on Heritage Day in front of parliament near the statue of Louis Botha in Cape Town. Since then she has performed at Infecting the City, as well as during the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue at UCT. “You do not know who your audience is [with performance art]. Some people touch me inappropriately but it is the nature of performance art,” she said. “Once you put yourself out there in the public space, anything can happen.” She has also performed at the Grand Parade in Cape Town, the city play a large role in her art.
“As a black woman living in Cape Town, surrounded by colonial structures and statues, it was all very foreign. I looked around me and in public space and all I could see were white male colonial figures and I wondered where my history fits into all of this and so I performed in relation to statues or monuments questioning the absence of my freedom” she said.
With Msezane’s art already covering a range of political issues including education, inequality, freedom and Afrophobia, there’s no doubt that there’s more to come.
Below is a poem penned by Msezane.
In time of Afrophobia who are we?
Who are we?
Who are we if not Africans from Africa?
Surely we are not European; we are not spacemen or aliens
We cannot exist in a void
We cannot be alien at home
We cannot call our own- aliens- in our home
And yet we do…
We call our brothers all kinds of things, some of which our previous colonial masters did not teach us.
They taught us hatred, they taught separatism, they taught us my skin is better then yours, my speech is better then yours
But good lord, this language is not even mine…
Africans- Colonised we revolutionised against this divide
We told them keep your prejudice, keep your imperialism, and Damn it, keep your neocolonialism!
But oh dear, it seems some South Africans were only fixated in them keeping their apartheid; blind-sided by the colonial consciousness that rejects our own Africanness.
The media perpetuates the black South African as Xenophobic
What about the white South African that may not throw a stone at an African
But instead builds a wall of inaccessibility to rental property, work or any opportunities?
The fear of African nationals needs to stop
That is what is really going on- that is Afrophobia…
The SOUTH in South Africa does not change that I breathe like you fellow African
That I bleed like you
18 April 2015, 25 degrees Celsius, my skin scotched underneath the sun
I stood there as it darkened and browned because of love
There is no room for prejudice in this African (me)
There is no room for Afrophobia in me because self-hatred is not an option- I’ll leave that to the colonialists
And so this African, hugged other Africans and other nationals on that day
Women, men and children shared themselves with me, they shared their heartbeat, their hurt and their love
Offering Love in the time of Afrophobia (disguised as Xenophobia) is who I am
But dear South African who are you?
Poem courtesy of Sethembile Msezane
Images courtesy of Sethembile Msezane