Wits shrugs off pressure, screens Modi documentary 

Not even personal phone calls to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening of the documentary that focuses on the state of India’s democracy under current prime minister.  

The screening of India: The Modi Question at Wits on Friday, May 12, was a powerful example of the importance of media freedom and open discussions in exercising democracy. 

Difficult conversations about nationalism, police brutality, media freedom and command responsibility – the idea that a commanding officer is responsible for atrocities committed by their subordinates – are very often shied away from in postcolonial contexts. 

The Humanities Graduate Centre (HGC) hosted the screening and panel discussion of the two-part documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his relationship with the Muslim minority in the country. It was released by the BBC in January 2023 and subsequently got banned by the Indian government as “anti-Indian propaganda”. 

The first part follows Modi’s early political life, extending into his time as chief minister of Gujarat province, when in 2002 deadly violence shook the province, with Muslim populations targeted by extremists following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.  

Among many accusations that followed was that direct orders from Modi had allowed for the violence to play out – an accusation that Modi was acquitted of by India’s Supreme Court in 2021. 

The second part of the documentary follows Modi’s career after the riots, focusing on his re-election as prime minister of the country in 2019 for a second five-year term. This is when he presided over a controversial policy changing the status of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and the Citizen Act which revoked the citizenship of many Muslim Indians.

The documentary also covers the ever-increasing suppression of media in the country, with Reporters Without Borders stating that press freedom in the country has declined. 

Sociology professor Srila Roy and Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, Professor Dilip Menon, made up the panel at the screening, with more than 30 people from diverse backgrounds in the audience. The discussion began by highlighting the fact that students at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university were arrested for hosting a screening not unlike the one that was held at Wits. 

The state of India’s democracy came under the spotlight. A group of four individuals in the audience voiced their anger at the BBC during the discussion, labelling the documentary “propaganda” and “hypocritical from colonial Britain” – responses very similar to those made by the Indian government.  

Roy rebuked these comments, stating that it was in bad faith to have a debate of “what ifs” when the subject matter was about the loss of human lives during a time of ethnic violence. The real question, she said, was, “Why is there a ban and why are university students being arrested for watching [the documentary]?” 

The screening was championed by the director of the HGC, Professor Lorena Núñez Carrasco, following weeks of external pressure from pro-Modi supporters for it not to go ahead. Not even personal phone calls made to Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi stopped the screening. 

Menon alluded to the possibility of the pressure stemming from not wanting to ruffle any feathers ahead of the Brics summit being held in Durban later this year. He highlighted the contradiction of India being the world’s largest democracy due to the largest population actively taking part in voting, and yet having the documentary being banned where there “should be free, open discussion”.

The full documentary is no longer available on YouTube, with the site saying this was for copyright reasons. Menon suspects the Indian government could have played a role in its removal. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits hosted a screening of the documentary, India: The Modi Question, which is banned in India. Graphic: Seth Thorne


BOOK REVIEW: Uncovering Memory through the camera-lens 

This project takes the reader on a journey across lands to explore the complex nature of memory; leaving them wanting to explore their own.  

Uncovering Memory is a powerful book which unpacks a research project aimed at working through personal, familial and societal memories by using film to locate oneself in the current day. 

Living in post-colonial and apartheid South Africa, the book recognises that South Africans live in a society that is filled with imagery from the past, and it wants to unearth how these images affect people’s sub-conscious minds.  

Written by Wits film and television professor, Tanja Sakota and published by the Wits University Press in March this year, the book is compilation of understandable and practical examples of the power of practice-based research, film and autobiographical style of academic writing that draws on and analyses the author’s own lived experiences.  

For example, the book seeks to answer the question of how a student in the 21st century can look at a statue of Cecil John Rhodes during #RhodesMustFall in 2015, and be so emotionally charged to throw feces on a statue of Rhodes. In an interview with Wits Vuvuzela, Sakota describes spaces and places around us as, “deeply entrenched with the memory of the past”.  

Using the camera as the primary research tool, Sakota and fellow participants walk through chosen areas which represent something historically important to that researcher, and later, they narrate and critically unpack the impact these spaces had on them. In doing so, they seek to “uncover memory through space and place” to try and “make the invisible, visible through a camera.” Sakota does this in her book as well as in a series of short-film projects under the same name as the book. 

Wits Professor Tanja Sakota is all smiles when showing her newly published book Uncovering Memory on April 28, in front of the Wits theatre. Photo: Seth Thorne

In these films, released and explained in tandem with the book, participants explore their own historical trauma. Specifically, and most memorably, Sakota explores her parents own personal trauma through walking along the train-tracks in Poland which once transported millions to their death during the Holocaust in her own short film titled, Shattered Reflection. The topics that Sakota uncovers of her own are at times heart-breaking memories of both past and present, through these spaces. 

The book is separated into three main parts: research with students, then colleagues, and finally the authors. The research focused on locations such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Berlin.

As much as each part of the book provides well thought out ideas of the subject matter, the work becomes more powerful for the reader as the book progresses. This is due to the increasingly personal style of writing, where Sakota eventually finds herself central to the research, where she is the filmmaker and researcher unpacking both her own personal and family trauma.  

The book challenges the concept of research being separate from oneself, serving as a key reference for students and researchers (particularly filmmakers) interested in undertaking a similar journey of uncovering their own memories, in attempts to locate who they are in a postcolonial space.  

The book does not have a conclusive ending, but rather serves as a starting point for its readers to use.  

Currently, the book is available on Loot or BridgeBooks.  

Vuvu rating: 8/10 

FEATURED IMAGE: The cover of Uncovering Memory displayed at the Wits University Press. Photo: Seth Thorne


Ahmed Kathrada’s legacy memorialised

The struggle veteran’s 93rd birthday sees the opening of an exhibition, chronicling both his his life and legacy.

Dozens gathered at the Constitution Hill in Braamfontein on Sunday, August 21, 2022 to honour anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada with a special collection of personal artefacts and imagery.

The Ahmed Kathrada foundation hosted esteemed guests at the Old Fort section of the historical monument in celebration of the life lived by “Kathy” or “Uncle Kathy”, as he was fondly known. Among attendees were Kathrada’s wife, Barbara Hogan. 

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela at the exhibition entrance, the Kathrada Foundation’s director, Neeshan Balton said: “[The exhibition] hopes to tell the story of the liberation struggle… it also hopes to get people to experience what living in prison on Robben Island would’ve been like.” He added that the exhibition shows that “freedom and any struggle to be achieved can’t be work overnight, it requires work over generations”.

“Seeing this exhibition in his honour not only gives the family hope but the world hope that his fight for freedom and non-racialism will continue,” said Yusuf Areignton-Kathrada.

From his favourite brown checkered blazer and black slip-ons to a addressed letter to former president Jacob Zuma, and a replica of his prison cell – the exhibition shows the highs and lows of Kathrada’s life.

Kathrada had served as a parliamentary counsellor to the late Nelson Mandela during his presidential tenure before his passing in 2017. The two had been in prison together at Robben Island before Kathrada was transferred to Pollsmoor prison from which he was released in 1990.

Reflecting on Kathrada’s life, speakers went as far as when he was 17 years old starting out as an activist against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act. Despite having held many leadership positions by the end of his tertiary life, “he knew that the struggle had not ended,” said Irfaan Mangera, one of the foundation’s activists. Mangera remembered Kathrada as an outspoken activist who was respected regardless of his young age among his fellow activists.

The South African Revenue Services commissioner, Edward Kieswetter reminisced on the day Kathrada died as he stood beside him in hospital. Kieswetter said, in his last days, Kathrada’s fight had lost spirit as the new generation leaders “were failing to honour the promise of our constitution, to heal the wounds of the past and to establish a democratic society”.

The permanent exhibition will be accessible to the public during normal trading hours.

FEATURED IMAGE: An attendant of the exhibition glaring at the wall detailing the struggle veteran’s last years’ on earth. Photo: Keamogetswe Matlala



Selfies stretch back 300 years

13_Gallery From sitting to selfie (800x533)

The exhibition, From Sitting to Selfie, creates a history of the phenomenon of taking  ‘selfie’. Photo: Tendai Dube.

The ‘selfie’ has had such an impact on society that the word itself is now part of the dictionary. To capture the history of the phenomenon, the Standard Bank Art Gallery is currently hosting the exhition the From Sitting to Selfie. The  exhibition showcases the origins and history of the phenomenon, often seen to be the result of social media and camera phones.

“There is a lot of variety, it covers a long period of time”, said Sue Isaac, gallery administrator.  The exhibition showcases 300 years of South African portraits, dating back to the 1617 with two portraits by Cornelis van der Voort, Portrait of a Gentleman and Portrait of a Lady.

The collection is proof that the obsession with one’s image has been around for much longer than Instagram selfies.

Capturing a moment in time is not necessarily external; art was created from a retina image from a visit to the optometrist. Another of metal carved into a skull by laser.

One of the more lighthearted time-stamps is a self-portrait of Mikhael Subotzky by Marc Nicolson after being stung by a bee in 2004.

“It’s like looking at Facebook, I just don’t get it [selfies]”, said Linda Engelbrecht, an art aficionado who visited the gallery. “I can’t imagine why people would want to publish bad photographs of themselves”, she added.

Curator Barbara Freemantle explained that sitting portraits in the past were done to “best capture the essence of another human” while selfies are “a memento or to document the photographer’s own presence at a particular occasion.

“I think it’s just a popular fad at the moment which I think will run its course, maybe not because we are all pretty egotistical, so perhaps it won’t”, said Isaac.

The exhibition ends on September 6 and is held on the corner Simmonds and Frederick street.


WITH GALLERY: The 1913 Land Act realised through photos

A crowd of eager art lovers could not resist the magnetism of the historical photographic archive dating back to the 1800’s and commemorating the 1913 Land Act.

The exhibition Umhlaba 1913-2013: Commemorating the 1913 Land Act opened this week at the Gertrude Posel Core Gallery in the Wits Art Museum.

1913 Land Act

This year  marks 100 years since the 1913 Land Act was passed. The act helped to successfully disenfranchise indigenous South African’s in terms of land ownership and its repercussions are still felt today.

[pullquote align=”right”]”No single photographic exhibition could illustrate the full diversity of our complex realities”[/pullquote]

Curator of the Umhlaba Exhibiton, Bongi Dhlomo-Matloa said that the exhibition’s purpose was to help people remember their history. “Commemoration is a relative term here, we are remembering this act that left blacks with only 7% of the land,” she said. Dhlomo-Matloa coincidently wore a black and white ensemble matching the monochromatic nature of most of the photographs on display. She said it was merely a coincidence but nonetheless she carried the colours of our history around her neck and on her shoulders.

Remembering history

Next to the exhibition’s entrance was a plaque detailing the aims, limitations and history behind the curation. “No single photographic exhibition could illustrate the full diversity of our complex realities,” but this by no means, kept the artist/photographer from making an attempt  to illustrate those complex realities.

This history could not only be seen, but was also heard as  jazz, afro-soul and choral music ushered people up the ramp and along the walls of the gallery. It was quite jarring  to hear the juxtaposition between Miriam Makeba’s voice sing Gauteng and then immediately after, a choir sing Die Stem, while standing at the wall with all the apartheid-era photography on it.

Photographic reality

[pullquote]“Commemoration is a relative term here, we are remembering this act that left blacks with only 7% of the land”[/pullquote] Dlomo-Matloa went on to say that these photos were used as they “are very exact” and can therefore accurately depict the reality they captured. The first colour picture seen in the gallery was on the apartheid wall, a photograph by David Goldblatt. It was taken in 1987 at a resettlement camp in the Wittlesea district of the then Ciskei.

Fourth year photography student Melissa Bennett, said  she loved how the photos told a story of overcoming boundaries. She was also particularly intrigued by the way the photos had been arranged  according to a historical timeline.

Dhlomo-Matloa said that the exhibition  was displayed in chronological sequence laid out in a timeline to reflect how things and people changed as time went on. Although a huge amount of images were available, budget and space constraints restricted how many photographs could be exhibited.

The photography on display showcases some of the most talented photographers in the country, like Peter MagubanePaul Weinburg and Ingrid Hudson.

After a walk about the whole gallery, the reality of our history was more than apparent. The exhibition will be on display until January 2014.

Watch the video below in which curator Dhlomo-Matloa talks about the exhibition: