Sometimes we get brilliant feature writers. Shiffa was at Constitution Hill in Joburg and got to see the Jacobs Coffee project which consisted of using 5000 cups of coffee to build a portrait of Nelson Mandela. She also talks about what it means to be South African. It’s definitely an inspiring read.
I am a good South African. Well I’m as good as any half Kenyan/Ethiopian naturalized private-schooled twenty-something drama-student can be. I always wear my ‘Save The Rhino’ bracelet despite the fact that I hate the colors as they clash with my outfits. Sometimes I make the effort to turn the lights off when I see those reminders to use electricity sparingly, and other times I don’t. I’m definitely sure I can greet you in at least 6 of the official languages but just don’t ask me if I’m fluent in more than one. Yes, I’d much rather watch a stand-up comedian’s re-indention of our nation’s current events than watch the news.
I’m a walking talking contradiction, right?
However, I’m learning more and more that it is these little binaries that make me a good South African.
The notion of saying one thing, doing another, but always having the best intentions nonetheless. Nothing has made this more apparent than a recent trip to Johannesburg.
In celebration of Mandela Day, Jacobs Krönung in collaboration with artist James Delaney created a giant mosaic portrait of Nelson Mandela. We heard about it through the grapevine and some friends thought of it as a lovely way of rounding off a well spent day at the Neighbourgoods Market. I should be excited to see this but initially I’m less than thrilled. It’s cold and I’d rather not get out of the car. But because I’m a good South African and because it’s got something to do with Nelson Mandela, because I like to call myself an artist, because we drove a long way to get to Joburg and because my gang of friends is keen; I swallow my frustration and chose to focus on taking in light shallow breaths (a drama technique used to stimulate excitement). Within a minute its working, ‘Let’s get our culture on,’ I say to myself as we walk down a paved slope. I take the lead, no longer sulking but ready to be moved to tears with conceptual commemorative performance art, the kind of Joburg thing that we Pretorians long for. And voila, there it is! And it is… cups. Hundreds, Thousands. Five thousand paper coffee cups. I’m deflated and disappointed.
Apparently it was a spectacular affair, we just happened to have arrived after the festivities. One of the organizers tells us that earlier in the afternoon, people and organizations came to make donations; to play board games with children from disadvantaged communities and write on paper cups as Delany laid them out recreating the image of our nation’s most adored citizen. Jacobs black coffee provided the darkest shade in a grayscale graded image of Tata Madiba, with various quantities of milk poured into the coffee to provide the lighter tones. The result, an interesting image only just slightly visible from the first floor of a neighboring tower.
I try to but cannot suppress my immediate concerns: This is pleasant image is said to be on display for slightly under one week and while I’m sure the intentions behind the work are pure, I can’t help but think that this is such a waste of coffee and milk. How long will this artwork stay on display for? What happens once the milk rots? What a foul smell that would create? There’s this image in my mind of Mandela sitting in an armchair, being slightly disappointed at how unnecessary this all is. What a whack birthday present.
Nonetheless I quickly shrug these thoughts off. I have to, I’m an artist and I’m with company. I pretend to see it for more than what it is and if anyone actually asks me what I think of the mosaic I say I absolutely adore it. I’m summoned to join the rest of the gang in exploration of the courtyard and then the part museum part gallery Constitution Hill. It’s quite a beautiful place. Not what I expected to find today.
Outside stands Flame of Democracy, a testament to the fight for freedom. Here one can solemnly reflect or toast ones icy gluteus as we did. We enter into a vast space with double volume ceilings panes of glass allowing light in. The floor and walls are fringed in ethnic motif mosaic, its contemporary and I like it. I move around this space and find an array of art pieces sculptures and instillations. I see a series of brightly colored body maps each provide accounts of the creator’s personal struggle with HIV/AIDS some accounts are grim and moving. We precede further down in the space until we reach a striking sky lit area that houses several large marble plates. Each plate has an engraved tally of time spent in prison imprisonment as experienced by various freedom fighters in their pursuit of Liberty. Suddenly the gravity of things begins to become apparent.
On our way home I realize what I have learnt: to me being a good South African means defining your own reality. It is having your own appreciation for this country; its art and culture, its struggles, its grit, and its contradictions. It involves a personal celebration of its triumphs and acknowledging its history having the conviction to interrogate the status quo, expressing oneself and being free to just have a laugh too. I still live with my inconsistencies; I’ll continue to secretly dislike the Mandela mosaic, and carry on being moved by some scratches in stone. After all, poet Alice Walker urges us to, ‘…take the contradictions of your life and wrap them round you like a shawl…to keep you warm,’ and like ones very own Flame of Democracy, they sure do.