Live performance disrupts established norms, expectations

By Naledi Mashishi

Live performance can be used as an act of transgressing societal norms and expectations. This was the sentiment shared by the panellists at the launch of Acts of Transgression: Contemporary live art in South Africa, hosted by the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WiSER) at Wits University on Wednesday, February 20.

The non-fiction book of essays, published by the Wits University Press, was edited by the director of the Institute of Creative Arts, Prof Jay Pather, and writer Catherine Boulle. Pather says that he and Boulle decided to compile the book because of the unique position of live art in South Africa and because of Pather’s professional experiences in combining performance and choreography with academia.

“We had an awareness of how much live art was in the country and the uniqueness of it which needed to be written about in depth,” Pather told Wits Vuvuzela.

Pather said that he and Boulle had a list of potential writers that they used to select the final group of contributors.

“We wanted people who had been published, and some who hadn’t. We wanted people who were writers, artists and academics, and we made up the book that way,” he said.

The panellists at the launch, Zen Marie, Prof Achille Mbembe and Katlego Disemelo, focused heavily on the subject of ‘performativity’ which was defined as the description or the contribution of something new to a discussion rather than a representation of something of the past. The panellists also discussed how performativity had been used by performance artists to disrupt established social norms and expectations.

Disemelo, one of the contributors to the book, described how he used Instagram for research on his chapter on queer bodies and performativity.

“I viewed Instagram as a storytelling medium. By scrolling through carefully curated photographs you can see queer people telling a story about themselves to the public,” Disemelo said.

Wits Applied Drama MA student, Rutendo Chigudu, who attended the launch, said that she would be interested in reading the book based on the discussion that had taken place. “I think it really raises questions to artists, academics, practitioners, and audiences on what our view and interpretations of art are,” she said.

“It forces us to question the artists’ intentions and the audience has to ask themselves, am I coming to see the art or be part of it?”

FEATURED IMAGE: Prof Achille Mbembe, Zen Marie and Katlego Disemelo argue for the relationship between power and performance.
Photo: Naledi Mashishi

What is black hair “supposed” to be like?

I LIKE MY BABY HEIR WITH BABY HAIR AND AFROS: WiSER associate professor, Hlonipha Mokoena discusses the complexities of natural black hair.

An uprising of discontent in resistance of racism, inherited colonial cultural norms and the education of desirability and female sexuality found a voice in multiple schools around South Africa last week, starting with Pretoria Girls High School (PGHS).

At the forefront of the PGHS resistance was the institutional policing of the natural black hair of its scholars, an issue which was the focus of a presentation by associate professor, Hlonipha Mokoena at WiSER on September 5.

“The whole aspect of the world would be changed if Black girls had long hair”,  a quote from Afrocentric anthropologist, Chiekh Anta Diop, which captures how the desirability of black women is policed by whiteness was the motivation for Mokoena’s topic.

Mokoena said that the expectation for the length of natural black hair is confounded by the concept of measurement. Mokoena explained that natural black hair is comprised of curls, and the coils of the curls vary from very tight to very loose which makes measuring the hair in its natural state very difficult. According to Mokoena, institutional policing of long natural black hair needs to be rethought because unless black natural hair is combed out, there is no telling its true length. She also critiqued the senselessness of the institutional regulations such as the length and width of braids and cornrows.

Black natural hair is not only questioned inside institutions like schools, said Mokoena. She argued that there are no safe spaces for black hair. On the street strangers touch black natural hair before asking if they may do so. People question a black person’s heritage due to the texture of their natural hair and even hairdressers refuse to do your natural black hair because of its texture. “Can I touch your hair? Where are you from? I cannot do anything with your hair unless I texturise it!” Mokoena said.

Mokoena stressed that black hair is “naturally dramatic”. “We don’t have anything to do with it, it’s dramatic, it doesn’t ‘flow’”, said Mokoena. She attributed the drama of natural black hair to the simple science of gravity and the fact that natural black hair defies it.

“People don’t know how much money is made in telling black women that they need straight hair”, said Mokoena as she presented the notion of “the professionalisation of hair”. Mokoena explained how hairdressers in the USA do not need to prove that they can style “black natural hair”, instead they focus on perfecting methods like relaxing, perming, and other black hair texture altering methods that are perfected.

“If black people are not trained to care for their hair, then who?” said Mokoena as she spoke of a “knowing” about black hair that is lacking. Mokoena highlighted that we all need to know how to care about black natural hair and dispel the myth that “it’s (hair care) supposed to hurt”.



Wits VuvuzelaSLICE OF LIFE: Yes, this is my real hair, and no, you can’t touch it, March 2016.

Wits Vuvuzela, Slice of Life: How much longer?, August 2016.

Mail & GuardianFrom slavery to colonialism and school rules: A history of myths about black hair, September 2016.


WISER kicks off 2016 with #FeesMustFall conversation

On Wednesday this past week, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research kicked off its year with a conversation regarding the role female student journalists played in the protest. The talk was titled “Inter sectional writing in times of protest: Conversations with young woman journalists”


Gauteng Premier worries about the people of his province

Reinventing Pan-Africanism in the Age of Xenophobia, a international symposium, was hosted by the WISER Institute last week.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura says he worries about the people of his province as “many of those [people] come from the rest of the continent”. Makhura was speaking at the discusson on pan-Africanism in the age of xenophobia, hosted at Wits University by Wiser, (the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) and the Ahmad Kathrada Foundation.

Makhura said the the dangers of xenophobia lie not only in the “absence of opportunities” but also in narrow “national interests”. Makhura said that if we want to build a great Africa we can no longer make “catching up” with Western civilization our intention; we must offer something new and unique to the rest of the world.

“If there is something Western capitalism teaches us, is that in fact you can even become more less of a human being as your material needs are met,” said Makhura.

The two-day symposium aimed to fostering dialogue on a number of issues affecting the African continent including xenophobia, racism, tribalism, nationalism and colonial boundaries.

Other speakers on the day included academics Neocosmos and Associate Professor Suren Pillay.

Michael Neocosmos, an academic, stressed that it remains problematic to associate xenophobia with poverty and that research shows that some 65% of South Africans feel that the country’s borders should be secured through electric fencing which is a good indication that xenophobic attitudes are prevalent throughout society.

He also mentioned that people live in subhuman conditions and the assumption is that poor people can’t think, this means that we exclude them from what we think humanity is.

“If we want to expand pan-Africanism it means we must expand knowledge,” Neocosmos said.

SA author becomes wiser

WISER AUTHOR: South African author Jonny Steinberg will join the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in May this year. Photo: Provided

WISER AUTHOR: South African author Jonny Steinberg will join the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in May this year. Photo: Provided

An award-winning South African journalist and author is due to join a leading Wits think tank in May.

Author and journalist Jonny Steinberg has been at Oxford University for the past four years and will be joining the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).

The multi-award winning journalist, author and scholar is part of the university’s Distinguished Scholars’ Programme which aims to attract the best academic talent to Wits over the next three years. Steinberg said he is “grateful” to be a beneficiary of the plan.

“Any good university has to be involved in the production of knowledge, which is universal. This type of initiative will strengthen that.”

After shuttling back and forth between England and South Africa for the past few years, Steinberg told Wits Vuvuzela he is looking forward to being grounded in a local institution.

“Up until now, I haven’t been able to deeply engage with everything that’s going on there [South Africa], I’ve only been able to hover above it, but now I’ll be able to, in a much more immediate way.”

Wits Vice Chancellor Prof Adam Habib said Steinberg “embodies the quality of talented individuals that we wish to attract, both from our shores and abroad”.

“If there is a good story to be told, I look at how that story can amplify these processes.”

He will join Wiser from the beginning of May as a full-time professor of the university and will teach a graduate course while he writes a book about the “transition to democracy”. This new book is about a man who was accused of murder in the early 90’s and spent the beginning of South Africa’s democracy in prison.

Telling South Africa’s stories

Steinberg’s previous books have looked at racial violence on South African farms, HIV and Aids, gang life in prison and South African policing.

He described the work he does as being “deeply engaged with new things and processes happening in South Africa.

“If there is a good story to be told, I look at how that story can amplify these processes.”

Writing, Steinberg said, is something he always wanted to do. He described being at Oxford in the mid-90’s and having to decide if he should stay there or come home.

“The story of a whole country was being rewritten, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Low-brow ‘working class habits’ for high-brow opera genre.

In Zakes Mda’s book the Heart of Redness there’s a story of an educated Xhosa family who sing choral arrangements in four-part harmony – this story has been written, and it’s about to be turned into an opera.

Renowned composer and librettist Neo Muyanga found inspiration in this book and adapted it into an opera. Muyanga loosely draws from Zakes Mda’s book and an episode of Nelson Mandela’s release.

“universes of old music and new music – black music, white music and complex music- will seek to define itself in a particular political style.”

“The book suggests lots of musical styles – traditional musical styling is suggested in this book and a particular kind of bushman music is elicited,” said Muyanga who added that the integration of Xhosa and Bushman families create a particular sound. Popular choral piece Baradi ba Jerusalema (Daughters of Jerusalem) will be one of the workshopped pieces where “universes of old music and new music – black music, white music and complex music- will seek to define itself in a particular political style.”

NEW AGE MOZART: Neo Muyanga celebrates his award as composer in residence at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) paying homage to Zakes Mda and Nelson Mandela.  Photo: Provided

NEW AGE MOZART: Neo Muyanga celebrates his award as composer in residence at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) paying homage to Zakes Mda and Nelson Mandela. Photo: Provided

Muyanga was recently awarded as the composer in residence at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and as part of this award he will engage in research to support the development and performance of the operas.“Opera is assumed to be an elitist preoccupation and in many instances it has become that,” said Muyanga before dismissing the stereotype, describing it as having “sleazy … working class habits.”

Muyanga’s research will see him undertake the popularity of opera in different black communities in both South Africa and the global south and the contributions it has made to black communities.“What I’m trying to understand is a black identity through the lens of opera singing and choral music making.” During his fellowship Muyanga will also engage in research to support the development and performance of the operas.

Although Muyanga said he doesn’t know what kind of impact he wants his research to have, he is “keen to have multi-layered conversations … in which institutions like Wits to help platform”.


Township kids indebted to parents for Model C schooling

Children from South African townships owe their parents a “debt” for investing in their education in city schools, according to researcher Mark Hunter.

Hunter was speaking about his research on different educational systems at Wits University earlier this week. “Education individualises relationships. Debts are formed through education”, said Hunter.

According to his research, South Africa accommodates two educational systems, one for the rich and the other for the poor.

Hunter also said poor, single-salaried households that can decide to invest in only one child’s education, suggesting that in a household “you can have people who eat from the same pot, but have different educational prospects”.

Security officer at WAM (Wits Arts Museum), Norman Hlongwane has three children, but only pays school fees for the two older ones in Limpopo.

“I pay R600,00 every month for my children’s school fees”, said Hlongwane. He says he doesn’t expect his children to repay him: “I’m helping them – that is the process”.

Charlene Manuel, a shop assistant in Braamfontein gives her mother, who helped to pay for Manuel’s education, R2000, 00  a month for groceries but doesn’t expect her daughter to do the same for her.

“I wouldn’t expect her to pay me back – but help around”, said Manuel.

Thabo Sinyongo, one of the attendees at Hunter’s seminar, moved from a township to a model C school and sees a benefit in these schools.

“It adds to the social capital that is born through these connections”, said Sinyongo.





Ubuntu: bringing change to urban South Africa


Ubuntu is a concept often thrown about in discussions about South African society and earlier today, two prominent philosophers unpacked and debated the concept in front of a large audience at Wits University.

As part of The Art of Human Rights workshop, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) hosted a debate with Prof Thad Metz from UJ (University of Johannesburg) and Wits professor Lucy Allais.

Both speakers dedicated part of their presentations to ideas about how to implement the second phase of Ubuntu into urban South Africa.

Ubuntu is broadly considered to be the African concept of “human kindness” and “community”.

According to Metz, it is “difficult to implement in a place like Johannesburg because of urban influences and lack of community”.

“There are little ways to do it … it takes a village to raise a child. Constructing a compound or a society where everyone takes responsibility to raise the children and rear them in the right direction.”

“If we are going to foster any type of Ubuntu in urban South Africa, we have to deal with the main issues that this country faces,” said Allais.

She stressed that “poverty and inequality” are the two biggest problems in South Africa.

“The State needs to enable everybody to participate as citizens. If we have social welfare, why do we have beggars on the street?”

She emphasised that if the state is not dealing with these issues than it’s up to civil society to pressure the state about what they are doing to about the “lack of social welfare and the like”.