Artists voice their support for MTN BUSHFIRE
“I cannot conceive of a scenario in Swaziland where cultural isolation actually strengthens democracy” – Paul Brickhill, Pamberi Trust’s Book Café, Zimbabwe
In the wake of unofficial calls for the cultural boycott of Swaziland, artists and international festival organisations have rallied to support the forthcoming MTN BUSHFIRE International Festival of the Arts in Swaziland.
MTN BUSHFIRE – an independent annual Pan African arts festival, featuring international acts such as Saul Williams and Ayo as well as a host of Swazi, South African and Mozambican artists – has established itself as a significant driver of social development, job creation and cultural sustainability in the nation.
BUSHFIRE’s Call to Action mandate identifies the arts as a catalyst for positive social change. Since its inception in 2007, 100% of the festival’s profits have been donated to Young Heroes, an NGO that supports and empowers Swazi orphans affected by HIV. Internationally acclaimed, Swazi-born actor Richard E Grant has signed on as festival patron for 2012.
The Swaziland Solidarity Network has made an unofficial call for a cultural boycott of the festival to agitate for political reform in the kingdom. And this week, Lira announced that she was withdrawing from the festival to “support the message of more dialogue and resolution around the challenges that befall Swaziland”.
However, artists performing at MTN BUSHFIRE have spoken out in support of the festival, saying that it provides a forum for creative expression, debate and dialogue.
Festival director Jiggs Thorne said: “BUSHFIRE has always been a world-class arts festival with a strong social conscience. Now, more than ever before, BUSHFIRE offers a platform for a diverse range of voices to be heard, and for awareness to be promoted around the most urgent social issues we face as a community.”
The steering committee of the African Festival Network (Afrifestnet), of which Bushfire is a member, pointed out: “A cultural boycott alone will not result in political change in any country. To be effective, such a boycott needs to be part of a broader, focused, systematic set of interventions.”
Swazi-born singerNancy G said:“I personally think that the boycott is targeted at the wrong people. And if it were to go into full effect, the boycott would have very little effect on the matter at hand.
“They [those calling for the boycott] should see this [the festival] as a platform of expression for the people, by the people – not to mention the donations to communities who have been marginalised economically and who are being given the opportunity to trade and to represent themselves.
“The saddest thing is when the ‘haves’ apparently speak on behalf of the ‘have-nots’ without truly taking the time and energy to give those who are really struggling a voice, or even a chance to represent themselves and communicate the reality of situation to the global community,” she said.
Guitarist Greg Georgiades, on behalf of the Jika Nelanga project that also features Steve Newman, said:“Jika Nelanga are happy to participate in this wonderful music and arts festival as we feel that we are contributing to helping orphans and women in rural communities in Swaziland.
“We can think of no better way for us as artists to contribute to this noble cause than to share our music, which we play straight from the heart. We feel that music is food for the spirit and, as such, should be shared with as many people as possible. Bushfire Festival offers the perfect opportunity for our music to make a difference in the hearts and lives of the Swazi people, providing inspiration for the future.”
South African poet Phillippa Yaa de Villiers wrote an extensive blog entry explaining why she is performing at the festival. She reasons: “Why is it only the artists who must be forced to make ‘a choice for their conscience’ while business continues as usual to Swaziland’s other service providers: petrol gets delivered there, all manner of household goods, luxury and otherwise, are traded, but we are not allowed to sing and recite poetry there? For me this is a double standard.
“Culture is how humans make sense of the human condition, through music, performance, art, creativity: this is how we process our reality.”
De Villiers pointed out that “to make them [the Bushfire organisers] responsible for the organs of state, the quality of free press, the king’s new jet, the right to protest … and all the other things that are wrong with the country, is not fair. They don’t have that power. They’re putting on a concert, not running the country.”
She said that by performing at the festival, artists were not legitimising the regime, but were “engaging the souls of the people who want to come and see us”.
De Villiers described MTN BUSHFIRE as “a visionary, engaged artistic phenomenon. Shutting down the Bushfire festival is shutting down the myriad possibilities that could come about when people get together and start dreaming of a better world.”
Jeremy Loops, often described as “a one-man folk band”, is co-founder of an organisation called Greenpop, which plants trees in under-greened schools and organises reforestation events around Southern Africa.
“The aim of our operation is to educate, spread environmental awareness and facilitate social and economic bridging in the areas we work in. Playing at Bushfire resonates with everything that I stand for, and I am honoured to have the privilege to take part in a truly conscious festival.”
Swazi country music duo Dusty and Stones said: "We are participating at MTN BUSHFIRE to contribute to the improvement of underprivileged lives through Young Heroes, to share and learn from other artists from different parts of the world and to honour the power of art in music.
“The cultural boycott deprives local audiences of variety in terms of exposure to various music genres and a chance to watch artists they enjoy. It deprives local artists of a chance to share and learn musical skills from well-established artists. The boycott will eliminate cross-cultural partnerships that contribute to the growth and exposure of local artists."
Afrifestnet added that the arts were “an important vehicle for open expression and for promoting the ideals of democracy, human rights, freedom of association and free speech”.
“We urge, therefore, those calling for a boycott to take due notice of the nature of Bushfire and the role it plays in providing a platform for artists to express themselves, and the positive role it can, and does, play in broader Swazi society. It is our view that it would be counter-productive to embark on a blanket cultural boycott that has the effect of silencing such a powerful, independent voice in Swaziland.
“We note that economic and other sanctions are not in place against Swaziland and in that case propose that a comprehensive dialogue, reaching across all sectors of progressive Swazi society, be embarked on so that our colleagues and friends in that country may be part of an empowered and effective movement toward democracy.”
Tony Lankester, CEO of The National Arts Festival in Gramhamstown notes “The arts can be a powerful force for good and catalyst for change. It is our belief that this force can, and should, be harnessed in a positive way to work for change in Swaziland. To this end, we believe in constructive engagement between artists, civil society and all stakeholders. We also believe that an open, independent platform such as that provided by MTN Bushfire should be embraced rather than boycotted.”
Yusuf Mahmoud, director of Zanzibar’s Sauti za Busara Festival, also signalled his support of MTN BUSHFIRE: “Festivals invigorate young people’s interest in local culture, provide opportunities for artists and civil society to meet and learn from each other, keep traditions alive, create employment for local people and promote responsible tourism that honours and respects local culture.
“In the absence of a legitimate call to boycott from the majority of people in Swaziland, we therefore applaud the Bushfire Festival’s continuing efforts to provide a platform for building unity and promoting cultural diversity and freedom of expression in Swaziland, and opportunities for open debate.”
MTN BUSHFIRE, Swaziland’s International Festival of the Arts, takes place at House on Fire, Malkerns, Swaziland from 25 – 27 May 2012. For more information on MTN BUSHFIRE visit www.bushfire.co.sz.
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Official Photographers - Bram Lanmers and Sydelle Willow-Smith