Playwright unleashes interrogation of South African culture to unmask inequality
Prolific playwright and cultural activist Mike van Graan is determined to be heard on as many platforms as possible, writes Diane de Beer
This has been a good year for cultural activist and playwright Mike van Graan. He has won the 2018 Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award, a biannual international prize recognising those who foster dialogue, understanding and peace in conflict areas, and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria in April.
He used the awards as opportunities to continue his interrogation of SA’s cultural landscape, past and present.
"This is my first graduation ceremony. I was part of the apartheid-must-fall generation. To attend the University of Cape Town — a ‘white’ university — I was required to apply for a permit from the Department of Coloured Affairs," he told the audience at Pretoria University’s ceremony. "In terms of the separate-and-unequal policies of the time, it was deemed that people of my classification would attend the University of the Western Cape. To qualify for a permit to UCT, I had to do a subject not offered at UWC. My permit subject was … drama.
"By the time of my application, I had never been to a formal theatre; the state-subsidised Nico Malan Theatre in Cape Town where I lived was boycotted, first because it started as a whites-only facility and restrictions were placed on racially mixed casts, and then when it received a permit to allow people other than those classified white as audience members, this was deemed an affront to those who self-identified as black.
"Similarly, many in my generation boycotted our graduation ceremonies. While we were obliged to apply for permits to obtain what we considered to be the better education offered at institutions like UCT at that time, we viewed graduation ceremonies as symbolic induction into an essentially unjust system.
"We live in different times. And yet we are no less shaped as individuals by the context in which we live and we are no less graduating into a society wracked by deep inequality.
"As a playwright I seek to interrogate contemporary moral questions we encounter in a society in transition."
The multiple award-winning, provocative playwright’s work includes Green Man Flashing, Some Mothers’ Sons and Brothers in Blood.
Van Graan, whose plays have been performed around SA and abroad, was described as a "courageous and provocative advocate not only for local theatre but also for the broader field of cultural heritage in general", by Vasu Reddy, dean of the faculty of humanities at Pretoria University, when the PhD was bestowed.
"His plays interrogate SA’s sociopolitical conditions and he locates these explorations in a deeply human context to create layered and emotionally evocative plays.
In such a divided society, with its inheritance of division, whose stories are told? Whose values and interests are served by theatre? Whose standards are used to evaluate theatre? Who acts, who directs, who designs the lighting, the costumes, the setsVan Graan
"His plays are testimony to a critical and political consciousness that both demonstrates and encourages engaged, critical citizenship in and through the theatre."
After the 1994 elections, Van Graan was appointed special adviser to the minister of arts, culture, science and technology and helped formulate post-apartheid cultural policies.
He is also the president of the African Cultural Policy Network and an associate professor of drama at UCT.
He is a consultant in arts and culture and serves on Unesco’s technical facility for the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
He has written 30 plays to date, most of which interrogate the post-apartheid condition. In recognition of his work, he received the Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award, worth R1m, previously awarded to Antjie Krog and John Kani.
Van Graan says he is " deeply conscious" that while he is able to write and produce plays in a society in which more than half the population lives below the poverty line, with official unemployment at 26%, many of his fellow citizens are unable to access his work and enjoy their fundamental right "to participate in the cultural life of the community and enjoy the arts" as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"In such a divided society, with its inheritance of division, whose stories are told?
"Whose values and interests are served by theatre? Whose standards are used to evaluate theatre? Who acts, who directs, who designs the lighting, the costumes, the sets?" he asks.
"It is not enough simply to write and produce within the system, within the structures as they exist; it is necessary simultaneously to work for systemic and structural changes within the theatre sector itself and within our broader society that shapes both the theatre industry and the opportunities afforded our citizenry, always working towards a more just, more humane order," he concludes.
When newsrooms around the country slashed their arts departments, Van Graan produced a regular newsletter, The Cultural Weapon, in which he explored the state of the arts. He was determined to participate, to be heard on as many platforms as possible and was often a lone voice.