At a young age, Ntuli responded to both the call of his ancestors and the call of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. He was only twenty years old when Pitika Ntuli fled South Africa into exile. Thirty two years later, several countries later, a dozen qualifications later, several artistic ensembles later, Pitika joined thousands of fellow South African personae non grata and journeyed back home. In two days time, Pitika Ntuli will be 73 years young. When I grow up, I want to be like Pitika Ntuli!
Why we Should be Thankful to Pitika Ntuli
Pitika deserves our thanks for daring to broach the subject of Marikana and for broaching it in this powerful manner – through the voices of rocks, bones, metal tools, metal debris and modern technologies. We must thank him for doing this at a time when many have acquiesced to the injunctions of silence. Thanks to Pitika for doing this at a time when many seem to have outsourced their analysis and their judgment on Marikana to a commission of inquiry. But how can a commission tell us how to feel, what to feel and how to think? Thanks Pitika for voicing what we feel but are not able to verbalize. Thanks for portraying what we need to see, but we are too afraid to look in the right direction. Through the exhibition of art on Marikana, Pitika Ntuli helps us look back from whence we come, he urges us to look carefully at where we are and he assists us to look to the hell road that is beckoning.
Marikana has Chosen Us
In the life of any nation, as it is in the life of an individual, there are events and moments, whose catalytic significance is palpable. These moments are often described in words and phrases such as ‘watershed’, ‘turning point’, ‘historic’ or ‘milestone’. Often these descriptions exist only in contestation – i.e. as part of the often fierce contestation of how best to understand the events the descriptive notions purport to depict.
There is no such thing as an uncontested or self-explanatory watershed or historic moment. These moments have to be met, they have to be defined even as they define us; they have to be asserted, stated and restated. Through this exhibition Pitika Ntuli sets us up to meet the Marikana moment.
Through this exhibition, Ntuli is forcing is to consciously choose and carefully construct what we feel and see as watershed moments. It is up to us to identify and give meaning to such moments. His work makes it clear to us that the choices we must make are neither freely available nor freely made. They must be forged in the face of fierce contestation and even danger.
It is not so much that Ntuli has chosen Marikana; rather it is Marikana which has chosen Ntuli from the day it burst into the small screen in his living room, from the moment it bust into his consciousness, awakening memories that he thought were tame and lame. It is not us who have chosen Marikana. Marikana has chosen us and our generation. It is terrorizing our souls and it is poised to haunt our children and our children’s children.
Turning-points and watershed moments are seldom fully recognized as such at the time of their occurrence. In this sense historic moments and turning points tend to be products of hindsight rather than foresight. But Ntuli, has dared to foreground the path of foresight by risking to articulate his innermost feelings about a contemporary, contentious and painful event.
The inability to recognize historic moments can be a function of the blindness of vision sometimes caused by the unbearable brightness of current and the contemporary events. Such inability to recognize turning points can also be a function of willful ignorance, resistance to truth and even self-delusion. This is especially possible where the historic event concerned is controversial and traumatic. In such instances the temptation of slipping into denial and paranoia is great.
As well as saving us from denial and paranoia, Ntuli’s work shatters our fearful silence and exposes our complicit inaction. His work speaks for us at a time when we cannot find words with which to feel and be felt; words with which to cry and be cried for; words with which to make meaning out of evil. When our words and languages are stumped into silence by the sheer enormity of the atrocity we face, this is where fine art and the arts in general become our refuge, our advocate and our conscience.
From Massacres to Massacre
In his book on the Sharpeville massacre, Tom Lodge, in two short pages, lists a dozen South African massacres all sponsored by the state in the 20th and 21st century. He calls them a ‘catalogue of carnage’. The largest massacre in terms of the number of victims killed in one day was Bulhoek In his book on the Sharpeville massacre, Tom Lodge, in two short pages, lists a dozen South African massacres all sponsored by the state in the 20th and 21st century. He calls them a ‘catalogue of carnage’. The largest massacre in terms of the number of victims killed in one day was Bulhoek
Sharpeville massacre (21 March 1960, 69 people died)
Soweto massacre (starting 16th June 1976, up to 700 people, mainly youths died)
Boipatong (17 June 1992 – roughly 40 people died)
Bisho Massacre (7 September 1992, where 29 people died and one of the survivors was one Cyril Ramaphosa)
Marikana (16 August 2012, 34 people died)
While it seems like we have had a long massacre holiday-break between 1976 and 1992, the truth is that the period in between (1976 to 1991) was one of the bloodiest and most violent in our history – with thousands of lives lost. As a country, we do not seem to have managed two decades without what seems to have become a national rite of blood.
Whereas we might have understood why and how the gods of Apartheid needed to be served a diet of blood from time to time, we are having a hard time understanding why and how the gods of democracy would also need an appeasement in the form of the blood of the innocent. This is part of the reason we, as a nation, are struggling to make sense of and to give voice to Marikana. If the democratic dispensation has not cured us from our rites of blood, what will?
Pitika Ntuli’s work on Marikana is a challenge for all the people in the arts to dare to give voice to the painful, the taboo-ed, the beautiful, the ugly and the unseemly for which society lacks words or courage or both.
From Constitution Hill to Marikana Hill and Back
The Marikana sculptures exhibition of Pitika Ntuli does several things for and to me.
First it destroys the warped myth of Marikana exceptionalism in terms of which we are supposed to bracket both the past and the future so that Marikana is seen as a once-off incident that is disconnected from both our past and our future. Part of this myth is the suggestion that Marikana is not a massacre but a mere ‘tragedy’ or an ‘unfortunate event’. There are several other (linguistic) devises of expression and control being used to reduce Marikana into ‘just a little atrocity, without any publicity’’.
We cannot witness – on live television in part – the manufacturing of 34 widows in a less than fifteen minutes and then pretend that we have not just witnessed a massacre. Nor can we pretend that two groups that clashed that day were of equal strength. Marikana is not just a little atrocity. It is a massacre which must be understood in the context of other massacres. As it was in Sharpeville, Bisho and Boipatong, we witnessed the violence of the state meted out against civilians. Whether the state in question is said to be democratic or not, when it deals out violence against citizens, citizens suffer, citizens die, citizens are bereaved. People shot at by the police force of a democratic state do not die differently or nicely. They too fall and die.
om the need to ‘teach the people a lesson’, ‘massacre by mistake’, ‘pre-emptive shooting’, ‘their leaders led them to slaughter’ and ‘if we had not killed them, they would have killed us’.
To Lieutenant-Colonel Pienaar, the prototype incarnation of apartheid police culture, the explanation for Sharpeville is to be found in the simple fact that black people lack self-control and are intrinsically violent. When congregated they inevitably pose a danger to public order that can best be dealt with short, sharp painful treatment. The fundamental contempt for the moral condition of the ‘Bantu’ was the essence of his lengthy testimony before the Wessels commission. And it remains a point of reference for many of his colleagues who have survived the passing of the years. (Frankel 2001: 123)
Literature on the Sharpeville massacre, like literature on other massacres tell of the initial frenzy of shooting, the quiet that comes after that as well as the gruesome work of finishing off the dying and the wounded. There was also a concerted effort by the police to pursue the injured in the wards of Vereeniging hospital. One of the reasons there is a concerted effort to discourage people from calling the events of 16th August in Marikana a massacre is a desperate attempt to prevent us reading the Marikana massacre against the backdrop of other massacres. There is an unspoken fear that if we scratch that surface we may see that the logic of the state and the police against the poor blacks who congregate in protest has not shifted much.
Secondly, the Ntuli exhibition makes connections. There are historical connections between the pain of Marikana and the pains of the past. The Marikana sculptures are steeped in the inherited histories and cultures. Right in the midst of this Marikana ensemble, is to be found a piece capturing Sam Nzima’s famous photo of a dying Hector Petersen being carried away by Mbuyisa Makhubo. What has 1976 to do with 2012, some may ask. The answer is; everything. Soweto 1976 helps us understand Marikana 2012 and vice versa. A clear but not so obvious connection made in and through this exhibition is the connection between Constitution Hill and the hill on which the men of Marikana fell. The one hill is a hill of shame while the other is the hill of justice. The hill of justice used to be a hill of shame. Can the Wonderkop hill of Marikana be transformed into a hill of memory and justice? Maybe. But not before we recognize what Marikana means and what it stands for.
The sculptures speak of economic connections symbolized by the hoe, the wheelbarrow, the computer motherboards and the pinions and the shafts. Even religion is featured. One of the pieces depicts a hand-cuffed miner begging for his life, and another clinging to his cross even as he falls. The attempt to bastardize Marikana and isolate it from its cultural and historic roots is powerfully shattered in the exhibition.
Thirdly, this exhibition of Pitika, more than any other, signals the end of our innocence. It is the ending of many honeymoons – the honeymoon between citizens and state, labour and capital, labour unions and their members, between political party and labour unions, as well as the
Fourthly, Marikana exposes the unshaken violent foundations of the state, the extent to which the logic of violence is both embedded and entrenched in it and in its arms and structures. This is the violence of the state and the state of the violence we are in. If you want to experience the violence of the state you need only scratch the surface. Nor does the violence of the state begin when the shooting starts. There is violence long before the crackle of guns, there is violence during shooting orgy and there is violence long after the guns have fallen silent – the last, deadly and gruesome phase of a massacre. The logic of violence reigns supreme. The pieces of Pitika Ntuli speak all these truths and do so with an amazing eloquence. Feel your body cringe as you see deformed and violated metal trying to rise and regain dignity!
Part of the reason we are not encouraged to think of Marikana as a massacre is that we might unveil and unravel the psychological (and physical) bunkers within which is hidden the state’s violent intentions – the spaces where violence is manufactured, stoked and readied before its deadly deployment as and when it suits the state.
Fifthly, the Pitika exhibition is deftly crafted in such a way as to foreground the humanity of the victims. Walk around the pieces and you will see human figures rebelling against mechanization, instrumentalization and dehumanization. Walk between the pieces you will meet Mphumzeni Ngxande of Lujizweni village in Ngqeleni outside Mthatha; you will see the 35-year-old Mvuyisi Pato of Mbhobheni Village in Mbizana; you will hear Mzukisi Sompela from Lusikisiki; you will feel Phumzile Sokhanyile, the rock driller preacherman from Mdumazulu village in the Transkei; you will connect with Khanare Monesa of Boroeng near Butha Buthe in Lesotho; you will engage with Janaveke Liau of the village of Likolobeng in Lesotho and you will converse with Tsietsi Monene of Mpumalanga to name but a few. This is not an exhibition about issues, processes, arguments, policies, abstract ideas and structures. It is an exhibition about sons, husbands, brothers and breadwinners. It is an exhibition about flesh and blood human beings practising their humanity in the face of great odds. This is an exhibition of sculptures about discarded people. The sculptures are built with discarded, derelict materials formally used in or as tools – useless tools used to depict ‘useless’ people who are in fact treated as if they were worthless tools. Yet the sculptures display these people rising through and in the abandoned debris of modern and not-so-modern tools and cultures to assert their humanity.
Sixth, the art ensemble we have come to witness here today is the most articulate expression of the meaning of the Marikana Massacre so far. I have seen nothing written – historical, fictional or artistic – that comes close to the depth of meaning ascribed Marikana by Pitika Ntuli in this work. Like the Sharpeville massacre before it, the Marikana massacre ‘represents an end, a beginning, a social commentary and an evaluation’ ( Frankel 2001:180).
This exhibition makes it clear that Marikana is a historic moment and a turning point. But will South Africa turn?
Extroducing Pitika Ntuli and his work
We have come here to celebrate the work of a man whose words and works tease, soothe, heal and bruise all at once. Anyone who feels bruised should not blame Pitika, rather blame Marikana and all that lies behind it.
We are here to be challenged by a man whose touch brings dead wood back to life – a man who battles with stone until it looks at him with a malicious smile. Here is the work of a man who bypasses flesh and blood and goes back to the bone to carve meaning and invoke immortality.
Here is an agent provocateur whose hands and mind inspire an uprising of the debris of western industrial culture. He manages to instigate discarded metal against its users and its uses alike. Under the spell of this man, derelict wheelbarrows, abandoned exhaust pipes and irreparable motor engine parts have come back to haunt us.
Come now my friends, let us immerse ourselves in the art works of Pitika Ntuli. Let us soak ourselves in his razor sharp mind deftly deposited into each of the figures, figurines and sculptures on display at this exhibition.
Come, let us converse with his Marikana pieces. Can you hear the prayers of the human wheel-barrow asking for his life to be spared? Can you feel the messy agrarian revolution superimposed on an industrial revolution superimposed on a computer-age revolution superimposed on the greed of capital?
Come, let us consider the meanings of Pitika’s portrayals of the fallen men of Marikana.
We can wipe away the blood off Pitika’s stone sculptures but with what shall we wash away the stains in our complicit consciences?
Frankel, Philip. 2001. An Ordinary Atrocity. Sharpevill and its Masscrre. Wits: University Press
Lodge, Tom, 2011. Sharpeville. An Apartheid Massacre and its Consequences. Oxford: University Press.
Alexander, Pieter; Lekgoa, Thapelo; Mmope, Botsang; Sinwell, Luke;Xezwi, Bongani 2012. Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer. Sunnyside: Jacana
Maluleke, Tinyiko Sam 2012.’ Did Human Beings Die in Marikana?’ http://www.tinyikosammaluleke.com/2012/08/did-human-beings-die-in-lonmins.html
Maluleke, Tinyiko Sam 2012. ‘Marikana: I have been to the Mountainntop.’
Maluleke, Tinyiko Sam 2012 ‘South Africa Government Insanity: Is it Temporary or Permanent’?
Reeves, Ambrose 1960. Shooting at Sharpeville. The Agony of South Africa: The Agony of South Africa. London:Victor Gollancz
Levene, Mark & Roberts, Penny (eds) 1999. The Massacre in History. New York: Berghahn Books.