Dikobe Ben Martins

Names: Martins, Dikobe Ben

Born: 2 September 1956, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa

In summary: Artist, Poet and activist, member of the African National Congress (ANC); the South African Communist Party (SACP) and a Member of Parliament since 1994

"As politics must teach people the ways and give them the means to take control over their own lives, art must teach people, in the most vivid and imaginative ways possible, to take control over their own experience and observations, how to link these with the struggle for liberation and a just society free of race, class and exploitation." – Dikobe Ben Martins, The necessity of Art for National Liberation, paper delivered at the Culture and Resistance Festival, 1982.

Figure 1: This is not an image of the 1970’s Steve Biko t-shirt that Martins designed, but this image is an example of the graphic ‘protest’ art produced by UDF affiliated artists.Martins was a UDF patron.

Dikobe wa Mogale Ben Martins is popularly known as Dikobe Ben Martins. His poetry anthologies ‘baptism of fire (1984) and ‘prison poems (1992) published by Ad Donker press are published under name Dikobe wa Mogale. His drawings, paintings, graphics and posters are signed Dikobe. Dikobe wa Mogale is the name his maternal grandmother gave him, in memory of her deceased husband.

Martins was born in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. He attended school at St Joseph’s School in Aliwal North, Bechet College in Durban and Corronationville High School in Johannesburg. He was a member of the Black Consciousness Movement in 1970’s.

He attended art classes at Bill Ainsley’s Studio and at the Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA) with Johnny Rieberio, Fikile Magadlela and Thami Mnyele. As a graphic artist Martins produced ‘protest art’ T-shirts and posters in the 1970’s. In 1978 he was charged and acquitted for producing banned Steve Biko T-shirts. He also produced the poster distributed at Steve Biko’s funeral.

In the 1980’s he produced numerous T-shirts and posters for the United Democratic Front. Between 1979 and 1983 he went to Botswana and Lesotho numerous times, where he remained in contact with Wally Serote, Thami Mnyele and Tim Williams who were living in exile, and who were members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the liberation army of the African National Congress (ANC) and leading figures of the Medu Art Ensemble.

In 1979 he was recruited as a member of the ANC and later as a member of MK. He was made the chief coordinator of the visual art committee in South Africa for assisting artists to attend the Culture and Resistance Conference and Festival in Gabarone.

From 1977 up to the time of his arrest in 1983 under the Terrorism Act he worked at the Community Care Centre and Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre in Pietermaritzburg and ran art workshops and set up one of the earliest silk screen and poster making collectives at the Old Mill building in Printing Office street, in Pietermaritzburg. He was arrested in November 1983 and kept for seven months in solitary confinement and tortured by the security police during this period.

Figure 2: Poster produced by Martins for the ANC in 1991 Source: cover of the book ‘Towards a Transcultural Future’ published online by google books.

In 1984 while he was in detention and on trial, his book of poetry titled ‘Baptism of Fire’ was published by Ad Donker publishers. Before his arrest he had also contributed poetry, graphics and essays on art and culture to the Staffrider publication. Staffrider was one of the most important literary progressive presences of the 1970’s and 1980’s. It aimed at a popular grassroots readership rather than an elite readership and was consciously non-racial, in the segregated apartheid era. Staffrider had two main objectives: to provide publishing opportunities for community – based organizations and young writers, graphic artists and photographers; and to oppose officially sanctioned and establishment culture.

Martins is presently a Member of Parliament and the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs.

Martins has been a Member of Parliament since the First Democratic Elections held in South Africa in 1994. Prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, he was employed by the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist (SACP) after his release from Robben – Island and Johannesburg Prisons where he served eight years as a political prisoner (1983-1991).

He is a Member of the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the South African Communist Party; Member of Council of the Robben Island Museum and an Executive Committee Member of the Caversham Centre for writers and artists.

He holds a Master of Law (LLM) degree in International law from the University of Cape Town, a Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree from the University of Natal (now the University of Kwa Zulu Natal) and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree from the University of South Africa (UNISA) and a Post Graduate Diploma in Management Practice (PG Dip Man Prac) from the University of Cape Town.

Dikobe wa Mogale Ben Martins has published two poetry anthologies baptism of fire (1984) and prison poems (1992) with publisher AD Donker. He is a patron of Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).

He is a practicing artist whose work forms part of the permanent Art collection of the Killie Campbell Collection of the University of Kwa Zulu Natal, the Pretoria and Johannesburg Art Galleries, as well as that of numerous private collections.

He has written a long poem entitled ‘bruises and scars’ which is due for publication in 2011.

He is currently (February 2010) working towards an exhibition of his paintings, drawing, graphics and posters.

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