Several hundred artists and activists from South Africa living in exile and within the country, as well as foreign nationals, were hosted by the Botswana National Museum in July of 1982 in Gaborone, Botswana as part of The Culture and Resistance Conference.
The Culture and Resistance Conference was in large part organised by the ANC cultural desk in exile alongside organisations engaged in arts and culture within the South African democratic movement as a way of uniting activists and cultural workers to form a coalition of cultural resistance to Apartheid.
The archive, reports and documentation of the Culture and Resistance Conference are hard to come by as any proof of their participation or planning was found on a person or at an organisation it could lead to an arrest or a raid, which was happening constantly throughout the country and on the borders. The organising of any activities which could be considered ‘defiant’ was a huge risk to those involved. The activists and cultural workers (who were activists) worked underground to make sure that the conference and collaborating activities did get organised.
The events included a cultural conference, and an art exhibition titled Art for Social Development which was curated by David Koloane and Emile Maurice. It was hosted in Gaborone so as to allow South Africans in exile to attend. Organisations such as, Ravan Press a progressive publishing house, which was founded in 1972 by Peter Randall, Danie van Zyl, and Beyers Naudé in Johannesburg, Federated Union of Black Artists (FUBA), Johannesburg in 1978 by Benjy Francis, Sipho Sepamla, and others to support and promote Black artists, Community Arts Project (CAP) established in 1977 in Cape Town, the Open School based in Johannesburg and Afrapix, a documentary photographic agency, all came together to contribute different forms of art for the exhibition ranging from paintings and photographs to music, poetry and drama. The theme for the exhibition was a reflection on the struggle that cultural workers faced in finding a space in society, and it also served as a platform to question the contribution of artists and cultural workers within their communities. The call of the art festival was for the sharing of arts and training with the community as well as using the environment and public spaces as outlets for the expression of art and resistance art in particular.
Afrapix, which had recently been formed as a collective social documentary photography agency, organised a photographic exhibition lead by Paul Weinberg and had the works of 29 photographers. Peter McKenzie delivered a keynote paper on photography at the conference which was later published in Staffrider magazine. He urged photographers to accept responsibility and to get involved in the struggle, have strong technical skills and make a commitment to change. Several other members of the agency were in attendance including, Jeeva Rajgopaul, and Myron Peters.
Many South African exiles were part of Medu and the festival’s organising team. The events were chaired by Thamsanqa (Thami) Mnyele, a founding member of Medu and delivered the Key Note address at the conference and Dikobe (Ben) WaMogale Martins who was responsible for the organising in South Africa.
Mnyele was concerned with the minimal contribution of the visual arts groups in the townships, whereas people were responding to oppression with other group forms such as civic organisations, trade unions, women and student organisations. After a number of cultural workers from the townships, including Molefe Pheto, fled into exile to Botswana in 1977, Thami Mnyele exiled himself and followed in 1978.
Medu Art Ensemble was a cultural organisation which specialised in music, theatre, graphics, visual arts, and literature. The term “cultural workers” which Medu preferred in place of “artists”, was used to give more meaning and purpose to the act of art making, as they felt that “artist” was a term that was given to labourers. Medu ideals and principles were cross-hatched with other groups in South Africa such as Junction Avenue, Cape Arts Project, and Staffrider Magazine. Medu Members in visual arts included: Thami Mnyele (exiled 1978), Miles Pelo (exiled 1981, left Botswana 1982 for Cuba, Tanzania, England), Heinz Klug (1979 - 1985 in Botswana), Judy Seidman (American-born, in Medu 1980 - 85), Gordon Metz (in Medu 1979 - 1985), Albio and Theresa Gonzales (Swedish/Spanish, in Gaborone from1979 - 1985), Philip Segola (Botswana citizen, occasional Medu member), Lentswe Mokgatle (in Medu from 1982- 85). (Zimbabwean artist George Nene was not formally a member of the group, but was in Gaborone Central Prison during this period, where he studied in art classes run by Medu for prisoners.) Cultural practitioners in literature were: Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa, Pheto Serote, Bachana Mokwena, Keorapetse and Baleka Khotsitsile, Marius Schoon, Patrick Fitzgerald and Thele Moema; in photography, Mike Kahn and Tim Williams; and in music, Jonas Gwangwa, Dennis Mpale, Steve Dyer, Hugh Masekela, Livy Phahle, Tony Cedras and journalist Gwen Ansell; other members included Muff Anderson, Mike Hamlyn (SA draft resister) and Uriel Abrahamse.
The festival focused on politically directed artwork and papers that were delivered by various artists from different organisations and who practised different forms of resistance art. Much of the papers spoke to the role that artists played in an attempt to bring about social change in South Africa.
Dikobe (Ben) WaMogale Martins, an artist and member of the African National Congress (ANC) addressed the conference with a paper titled The Necessity of Art for National Liberation, a quote from the paper reads: "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, how 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."
Each sector of the arts was led by artists who had achieved success in those fields, such as Chris van Wyk in literature, James Matthews in poetry, Robin Orlin in dance and choreography, and Malcolm Purkey in drama, to name a few.
An iteration of the refusal to adhere to the label of “artist”, James Matthew insisted that he does not write poetry, but instead ‘expresses feelings’, and Abdulla Ibrahim (known then as Dollar Brand) defined himself as “The Messenger Boy”, having been quoted as saying “I regard myself as a worker… my function is no less or more important than a street sweeper’s or a doctor's”.
A number of plays were produced at the festival by the Cape Arts Project, the most interesting of which being a mime which demonstrated the perversions of unlimited power. The Junction Avenue Theatre Company staged their version of Modikwe Dikobe’s Marabi Dance.
The conference was set to broaden what people defined as the arts and to promote the idea of culture as a form of resistance. The aim was to motivate cultural workers to make statements in their communities using tools and mediums such as T-shirts, posters, street murals, graffiti and other art forms. Cultural workers could use the media to fight the domination of apartheid in the same way that the apartheid government had been using the media to dominate the masses.
This idea was also inspired by the principles that governed traditional art; that art should serve a purpose, and be functional within a community, as traditional artefacts and artworks were built and created to serve many household purposes: sculptures were used as chairs and headrests and houses were decorated and painted to enhance the village. In this case, the same ideals were to be repurposed as resistance art and as driving tools towards unity and change. This gave rise to the development of public spaces such as The Peace Parks and the popularity of street decorating projects in the townships in late 1985. It was a statement of pride and unity to the government, a message of a spirit that would not be killed by oppression.
“Our people have taken to the streets in the greatest possible expression of hope and anger, of conscious understanding and unflinching commitment,” said Thami Mnyele in his address.
After the conference tensions grew as Botswana became increasingly tenuous and the South African Defence Force (SADF) raids into Southern African frontline states grew, along with attacks on individuals in Botswana.
On 14 June 1985, the SADF raided Botswana killing 12 people, members of Medu including Medu treasurer Mike Hamlyn and Thami Mnyele. He was shot dead by South African Defense Force (SADF) soldiers outside his home in Gaborone on 14 June 14 1985. His plan was to move the following day to Lusaka. The SADF seized collections of his works that were packed into a portfolio ready to leave.
While many left Botswana, some Medu members remained and practised underground. Medu ceased to exist after the killings, but its legacy continued to live on in the other arts and cultural organisations.