Tuesday 31 December 2019

If My House Were to Date Your House

© Michael Schmidt 2019

If my house were to date your house
There would be hats on the hat-rack
But old photographs in the spice-rack
If my house were to date your house
There would be tiny succulents in pots
And bunches of forget-me-nots
If my house were to date your house
There would be curious boxes everywhere
And books under the stairs
And books in the kitchen cupboards
And books under the chairs
And books on the bathroom shelf
And books on the garage workbench
And books amongst the Delft

If my house were to date your house
There would be Piaf on the turntable
And Bauhaus on the headphones
If my house were to date your house
There would be ballet-shoes and boots
Side by side under the bed
If my house were to date your house
There would be curious boxes everywhere
And books under the stairs
And books in the kitchen cupboards
And books under the chairs
And books on the bathroom shelf
And books on the garage workbench
And books amongst the Delft

If my house were to date your house 
There would be stockings in the shower
And a fruit-bowl in a bower
If my house were to date your house
There would be sculptures to the ceiling
And paintings of exquisite feeling
If my house were to date your house
There would be curious boxes everywhere
And books under the stairs
And books in the kitchen cupboards
And books under the chairs
And books on the bathroom shelf
And books on the garage workbench
And books amongst the Delft

And books in the garden grove
And books in the rowboat in the cove
And books to sweetly smile by
And books to measure miles by
And books to cuddle up with
And books to share a pup with
And books to beat night’s terror
And books for rainy weather

If my house were to date your house
Hats and heels for space would wrestle
Gods and glass bunnies on shelves would jostle
If my house were to date your house
There would be curious boxes everywhere
And books under the stairs
And books in the kitchen cupboards
And books under the chairs
And books on the bathroom shelf
And books on the garage workbench
And books amongst the Delft


Monday 30 September 2019

Elvis' Stillborn Brother

© Michael Schmidt 2012 

Elvis’ stillborn brother
in his cardboard box he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings

Elvis’ darkling brother
in his old shoebox he croons
of the gods they’d be
his brother and he
before they broke the strings

Never wanted to be famous
never wanted to be born
only wanted to be linked
undivided in dark embrace

Elvis’ changeling brother
with his third eye he spies
a Dravidian maid
his heartstrings she plays
until he all but cries

Never wanted segregation
never wanted to be scorned
only wanted to be twinned
whisp’ring like hummingbirds

Elvis’ monstrous brother
in the lonesome night he howls
for his sweet monster-girl
like a Bedouin bereft
pain shrouded in a cowl

Never wanted to be ground
winnowing of his seed
only wanted to be binary
their harmonics on the wind

Elvis’ lovelorn brother
head a nest of wasps he sings
of their souls’ might
two hundred sev’ty nights
when they both were kings


Monday 12 August 2019

Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer (HART) established

Named after South African freelance photojournalist Anton Hammerl, killed covering the "Arab Spring" in Libya in 2011, the Hammerl Arts Rights Transfer (HART) has now been legally registered as a non-profit organisation with its own bank accounts. 

HART is a fully-funded Fellowship in recognition of excellence in human and creative rights, offering a 6-month or 12-month residency in Johannesburg. Successful applicants for the Fellowship will be able to showcase their work through exhibition / debate / event space kindly provided by AFDA: The School for the Creative Economy. 

HART is currently run by a group of five arts and media specialists, being three black women, one white woman, and one white man: a co-ordinator, a logistics manager and assistant, a curator, and a hostess. We are putting the finishing touches on its selection process before we announce that the Fellowship is open for applications from across the African continent and beyond. 

HART is a project of the Professional Journalists' Association of South Africa (ProJourn), the sole organisation that issues press cards to freelance journalists and media workers. Today it proudly joins the growing arts rights justice ecosystem as one of the first such initiatives on the African continent.


Wednesday 31 July 2019

Hamba Kahle, Mandla Khoza, Swazi Revolutionary Anarchist!

- Michael Schmidt, South Africa

Mandla Khoza was a tall, charming, self-deprecating man who nevertheless remained a tough and committed anarchist-communist militant – despite numerous perils – right up until his death on 26 July 2019 last week at the age of 45 in the Sthobelweni Hospital in rural Swaziland.
It was a warm autumn day with clouds flecking the sky on Wednesday 22 May 1974 when Mandla was born at Kagucuka. The landlocked hilly kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland), shaped like a full-mouthed bite out of the eastern flank of South Africa, was at the time somnolent under the rod of a man who would turn out to be the world’s longest-ruling monarch, King Sobhuza II. 
Sobhuza’s father, Dlamini IV, on ascending the throne at only 16 in 1895 had inherited a rural, deeply traditional kingdom that had just become a protectorate of the Boer’s Transvaal Republic; by 1974, Swaziland, though it had become a British protectorate following the defeat of the Boers in 1902 until independence in 1968, had fallen back under the tutelage of its more powerful, white supremacist neighbour. 
The monarchy has always self-servingly believed that its “Tinkundla” system of rule via clan chiefs was preferable to modern democracy, and a hide-bound, conservative Manzini suited the war-chiefs in Pretoria: the Royal Swazi Police often collaborated with apartheid death-squads and raiders in combating ANC guerrillas using the country as an exile springboard for operations into Zululand or the Eastern Transvaal. 
It was into this comprador sugarcane-growing state with its proxy actions on behalf of apartheid that Mandla was born, growing up to become a looming, raw-boned man with a ready smile deeply carving his cheeks – and a burning desire to set his people free from Africa’s last absolute monarchy, that of Sobhuza’s son, Mswati III.
By late 1996 / early 1997, the struggle for democracy in Swaziland had attracted the attention of the first serious anarchist organisation to operate in South Africa since anarchists built the first trade unions for people of colour 80 years previously, the anarcho-syndicalist Workers’ Solidarity Federation (WSF). 
As a WSF activist, I travelled through the country for its journal Workers’ Solidarity, being deeply impressed by a pro-democracy general strike by 200,000 workers lead by the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), and its youth wing the Swaziland Youth Congress (SWAYOCO). 
There, I also met Simon Noge, the Swazi revolutionary who had been involved with the democratic-Marxist Movement for a Democracy of Content (MDC) in South Africa in the 1950s, a living link to our forgotten libertarian communist past – which the WSF was reviving – who had just been released from a Swazi prison. 
Founded in 2003, the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) was the direct descendant of the WSF, and very soon made stronger and more direct and consistent links with PUDEMO and SWAYOCO’s exile structures in Johannesburg – the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) – and its underground in Swaziland.  There was a strong sense within the SSN that now that it was in government, the ANC (though not its COSATU union allies) had abandoned its earlier dedication to seeing in the dawn of democracy in Swaziland.
We had also encountered and befriended, via one of the ZACF’s two Soweto branches, Mandla Khoza, who for security reasons we rapidly dubbed “MK” (with tongue in cheek as it is the acronym for the ANC’s former armed wing), and his shorter, muscular sidekick, “MD”. The two friends formed the nucleus of a ZACF branch near the St Phillip’s Mission, south of Manzini in central Swaziland, making the Federation a transnational organisation.
By 2005, MD was writing for the ZACF journal Zabalaza (Struggle) on developments in Swaziland, and MK followed the next year, writing about a rather futile, small-scale hand-grenade attack campaign by a SWAYOCO that was increasingly frustrated by the deadlock between royal and democratic forces; it was a risky exercise, as those charged with the “bombings” faced the death penalty for treason.
The two Swazi friends loved the succinct, clear polemics of pint-sized Italian motor mechanic and world-traveling revolutionary anarchist Errico Malatesta, in particular his text Fra Contadini (Between Peasants), a dialogue in which a young firebrand returning from the city explains to an older peasant why anarchism makes sense, and surreptitiously distributed this and other anarchist pamphlets, journals and books throughout the benighted kingdom. 
The challenges the little ZACF cell faced started, primarily, with poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has devastated Swaziland; they were continually trying to develop self-help schemes that would feed themselves and the neighbours in their community – along the lines of what the ZACF’s Phambili Motsoaledi Community Project had done in Soweto.
Mandla lived an uncomplaining Spartan life, in a corrugated iron shack with a compacted dirt floor, and vacant windows through which the wind blew across the spindly wires marking out his tiny plot; it was unforgivingly hot in summer and icy in the winter; he was trying to raise funds for a drum that could store rain-water and irrigate a little vegetable patch.
But his little cell also faced the deadly attentions of the Royal Swazi Police. In a country as small as Swaziland, it was impossible for the militants to remain unknown to the political police and intelligence agents. In October 2005, for example, ZACF member “PN” was arrested at the Swazi border on a visit to Mandla’s cell, and had to be bailed out.
By November 2006, things were building towards a head in Swaziland: PUDEMO had produced a new strategic document, the Road Map Towards a New and Democratic Swaziland, that referred to the guerrilla wars fought in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Chile, and which called for “a new and organised force for liberation that captures the imagination of the oppressed masses and inspires them to action.” 
That force seemed to have emerged clandestinely in the shape of Swaziland Liberation, a nascent guerrilla formation drawn from the ranks of SWAYOCO militants, secretly trained and armed in South Africa allegedly by Young Communist League cadre (and weirdly, former RENAMO guerrillas from Mozambique), and inculcated with an iron discipline aimed at “Rush Hour,” the overthrow of the Mswati III monarchy.
The ZACF took a stance against Swaziland Liberation both because its actions were premature, adventurist, and would likely split the liberation movement at the very point it needed to be united, and because its authoritarianism saw it holding members at gunpoint against their will; this ethical stance, however, drove a wedge between the ZACF and the SSN; but in the event, Swaziland Liberation failed to achieve “Rush Hour.”
In December 2007, the ZACF, having experienced internal problems of its own because of inconsistent levels of dedication and political-tactical understanding in its members, changed from a federation of semi-autonomous collectives into a more tightly-knit unitary organisation called the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (also ZACF). 
Because of the pragmatic difficulties of co-ordinating between the parent organisation in Johannesburg and the cell in St Phillips, it was decided to allow the latter to go its own way as an autonomous Swazi entity. They were not isolated in this: the Swazis had developed their own international contacts, for example, guiding visiting German anarchists through Swaziland, and had a long-standing relationship with anarcho-syndicalists of the Solidarity Federation (SolFed) in Britain. 
Yet in retrospect, I feel that the move towards autonomy – which I had endorsed – amounted to somewhat of an abandonment of support by the ZACF for St Phillips. In 2009, however, the writings of MK and MD contributed towards a ZACF pamphlet, A Bitter Taste to the Sugar-cane: 10 Years of African Anarchist Writings on the Pro-Democracy Struggle in Swaziland (1996-2006), which showed how the anarchist approach to Swazi liberation had evolved and become more sophisticated with time.
Meanwhile, Mandla Khoza tended to shuttle between the Atteridgeville township outside Pretoria and the Manzini district of Swaziland, living by his wits and the aid of friends. His uncomplicated charm and firmness of character had often attracted women, but he found relationships to be a distraction from the struggle for democracy, so he stoically avoided them. 
Mandla made a habit over the past decade or so since his cell’s autonomy of visiting me in Johannesburg at least once a year, and I also met less frequently with MD. They told me how that apart from themselves, the entire militant network they had built up around St Phillips had been implacably and slowly destroyed, the police cunningly opting to poison militants one by one so that they simply died of “mysterious illnesses” that could not be traced back to the authorities.
Mandla Khoza himself was increasingly subject to bouts of recurring illness; whether this meant he too had been poisoned by the police is unknown. At times he would be full of towering dynamism; months later, he would be huddled into a blanket, his chest sunken, his voice a whisper, his smile a rictus, battling to eat a thin diet of porridge supplemented by milk and vitamins. 
On these occasions he spoke to me about dying and pronounced that he was totally unafraid of death, being satisfied with his life. I believed him as he was always deeply resolute in his commitment to anarchism and his struggle for his country’s liberation. He leaves a sister, Nthombenhlope – and a trans-national pro-democracy movement celebrating his life. Hamba Kahle (Go Well), Comrade MK! 


Monday 24 June 2019

Untruths at the Truth Commission

In 2013, based on my coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa in the mid-1990s, and my training of commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the Solomon Islands in 2010, I was asked to advise the Côte d'Ivoire's Commission Dialogue, Vérité et Reconciliation (CDVR). I am pictured here standing behind CDVR president, Maitre Mari-France Goffri, who is seated at right next to Marjorie Jobson of the Khulumani Support Group for victims of apartheid.

A chapter in my new book , scheduled for release next year, bears the title Untruths at the Truth Commission. It is unfortunate, given the TRC researchers' brilliant in-depth, seven-volume, 4,500-page exposition of the complex web that was apartheid, that there is a revisionist notion common among many young people that the TRC was a "sell-out" process - though this is derived from a legitimate concern over the amnesty-for-truth formula that the TRC Amnesty Committee (a separate but linked organ) applied to perpetrators of gross human rights violations. This concern was and remains most forcefully expressed by the families of prominent victims such as Bantu Steven Biko, Matthew Goniwe and Fabian and Florence Ribiero - and I totally understand their reluctance to let apartheid perpetrators off the hook for the price of merely admitting their crimes. In fact, the Amnesty Committee recommended that there be at least 300 prosecutions of perpetrators who had either not applied for amnesty for known crimes against humanity, war crimes and other gross violations, or whose testimony before the TRC was found to be untruthful and so they had forfeited the right to amnesty. 
Unfortunately, political interference by the ANC government under President Thabo Mbeki in the subsequent prosecutions process meant that only one of those cases was ever facing prosecution - that against former Law & Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, former Security Branch chief General Johan van der Merwe, and three Security Branch assassins in 2007 for the attempted poisoning of Reverend Frank Chikane, and that was settled without trial in a plea-bargain that gave the men 10 years' suspended for five. Under what in my book Drinking with Ghosts (2014) I call Southern Africa's "Pact of Forgetting," a secret deal between Mbeki's Cabinet and the apartheid generals in about 2004, it was illegally decided that no prosecutions would result from apartheid; this deal was apparently struck because leading ANC figures as well as apartheid figures would have to face justice for grotesque crimes. That over a quarter century of democracy, no-one has ever been tried for the UN-designated crime against humanity that was apartheid, that not one military officer has been successfully prosecuted for the militarist state's murder, torture, disappearances, and other depredations, and that *all* prosecutions were illegally halted by Cabinet interference in the National Prosecuting Authority's constitutional duty to investigate the 300 cases presented to it by the Amnesty Committee is a crime in itself. 
A total of 21,748 victims were identified by the TRC based on those who had given evidence before it, among whom are some 1,500 disappeared - but among these were only two SWAPO members - the lawyer Anton Lubowski assassinated by the CCB in 1989 and some poor soul tortured in the Northern Transvaal into confessing he was a SWAPO member. This is a clear impossibility, given the 23-year war the SADF waged against SWAPO, with a death toll put at something like 2,500 South Africans, 12,300 Namibians, and perhaps 5,000 Cubans dead (not to mention many others). The TRC rather mawkishly admitted that most apartheid crimes were committed *outside* the borders of South Africa in its rather hot "Cold War" with the Soviet-aligned Frontline States, while the trial of SADF biochem war-chief Brigadier Wouter Basson signally failed to prosecute him for crimes that the trial judge shadily found fell outside his court's jurisdiction (ie: outside South Africa). This is nonsense as such transnational war crimes fall directly under international common law and are readily prosecutable, though not under the International Criminal Court as the Rome Statute only reaches back to 2002. The dropping of allegedly "extra-jurisdictional" mass-murder charges against Basson was overturned by the Constitutional Court in 2005, opening the way for him to be tried on those and several other charges again - though the NPA was illegally ordered by Cabinet not to dare lift a finger against him. 
Fortunately, the Pact of Forgetting is now unraveling, with a growing public chorus in the wake of the successful inquest into activist Ahmed Timol's death that determined it was murder at the hands of the police, that all apartheid crimes be revisited. There were many untruths told at the Truth Commission - especially relating to transnational war crimes - but so much new hard proof of these crimes has since emerged that it should prove irresistible to honest and implacable prosecutors. With so many perpetrators having been allowed to die peacefully in their beds over the past two decades, it is past time that the NPA revisits the 300-odd apartheid gross human rights violations (plus the six charges green-lighted against Basson by the Constitutional Court) with a view to prosecution.


Friday 24 May 2019

Selected Presentations 1998-2019

Continuity versus Change in Southern Africa’s Transition, official book launch of A Taste of Bitter Almonds to a capacity crowd in the library, University of Johannesburg, 12 April 2016

I used to be pretty shy - but over the past 21 years I developed the ability to speak comfortably in public and have delivered scores of lectures and presentations to audiences across the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Antipodes. These engagements have mostly centred on four - in my experience, linked - spheres: the safety and responsibilities of citizen-driven journalists working in transitional societies; the troubled histories of transitions to democracy in Southern Africa and elsewhere; human rights and the protection of vulnerable communities, migrants and persecuted creatives in unstable environments; and the grassroots, directly-democratic politics of anarchism. Here is a selected list of some of my talks, presentations and chairing sessions over the past two decades:

Class Struggle Without Borders: The Recolonisation of Africa and the Future of the Left, public lecture, at the invitation of the Socialist Caucus, University of Zambia, August 1998

Democracia Direta nos Movimentos Sociais Sul-Africanos (Direct Democracy in the South African Social Movements), 1st Encounter of Latin American Popular Autonomous Organisations (ELAOPA), Jornadas Anarquistas / World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 23 January 2003

Basic Anarchist Principles and How they Apply to the Social Movements (Based on the Brazilian Experience), BMC Red & Black Forum, Vlakfontein, 16 March 2003

What is Anarchist-Communism?, ZACF Red & Black Forum, Wits University, 16 February 2008

Four Tools for Workers’ Control of the Poor Community, ZACF Red & Black Forum, Meadowlands, Soweto, South Africa, 26 April 2008

On the Need for a Socially-Oriented Journalism, seminar with Aubrey Matshiqi & Anton Harber, University of Johannesburg, South Africa, 7 May 2008

The Anarchist as Journalist, colloquium with professors of international affairs & communications, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico, 26 November 2009

Reporting Conflict in Transitional Societies, public lecture with photographs by Michael Schmidt, James Oatway and João Silva, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico, 27 November 2009

Two Key Challenges Facing Small Commercial Publications in Rural South Africa, presentation at the Media Development & Diversity Agency’s Learning Forum, Johannesburg, 12 February 2010

(De)constructing Counter-power, series of public lectures at the Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ontario), Centre for the Study of Theory & Criticism, University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario), McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario), University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, followed each night by a presentation at an activist / community centre, Canada,15-20 March 2010

Anarchism’s Global Proletarian Praxis, public talk given at the DIRA Bookstore, hosted by Common Cause and Union Comuniste Libertaire, transcribed by Marie-Eve Lamy, Montreal, Canada, 18 March 2010, online here  

Conflict in Transitional Societies: a Journalist’s Perspective, presentation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with photographs by Michael Schmidt, James Oatway and João Silva, Honiara, Solomon Islands, South Pacific, 20 October 2010

Covering Elections in the SADC Region: Citizen-driven Journalism versus Political Spin in a Tough Media Environment, lecture at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism / International Institute for Journalism Summer School for SADC Journalists, Johannesburg, 15 November 2010

Seismic Shifts: An Overview of Social Unrest in SA from 1994, Social Unrest & Safety Seminar, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism / International Committee of the Red Cross, Johannesburg, 3 May 2011

The IAJ: Grooming the Emergent Layers of African Journalism Leadership since 1992, presentation to the Networking Partners’ Meeting, International Institute for Journalism, Berlin, Germany, 6 July 2011.

Covering Conflict in Transitional Societies, presentation to journalism students, University of North Carolina, with photographs by Michael Schmidt, James Oatway and João Silva, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, 6 October 2011.

Conflict-Sensitive Reporting & Journalist Safety, presentation to Power Reporting: the African Investigative Journalism Conference, Wits University, with photographs by Michael Schmidt, James Oatway and João Silva, Johannesburg, 2 November 2011.

Oral Submission to the Press Freedom Commission, presentation to the PFC on behalf of the Professional Journalists’ Association of South Africa, Johannesburg, 30 January 2012.

Outcomes Based Education Training Methodology, presentation to ZACF internal education session, Wits University, Johannesburg, 22 April, 2012.

Critical Mass: Anarchist Revolutionary Models in the Global South, presentation prepared for St Imier International Anarchist Congress, St Imier, Switzerland, August 2012. Unable to attend Congress, so presentation done at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, 11 September 2012.

Conflict-Sensitive Reporting & Journalist Safety, presentation to Summer Academy, Institute for the Advancement of Journalism & International Institute for Journalism, with photographs by Michael Schmidt, James Oatway and João Silva, Johannesburg, 29 November 2012.

Conflict-Sensitive Reporting: Analysis, Context & History, discussion with Union of African Journalists students, Cairo, Egypt, 6 June 2013.

In the Shadow of a Hurricane: Riding the Storms of Capitalist Crisis, presentation for Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism book launch, Café Mexicho, Johannesburg, 9 November 2013.

After Mandela: The Implosion of ANC Alliance Politics?, public talk at the Museum of City and Sea, Wellington, New Zealand, 13 March 2014

In the Shadow of a Hurricane: How Anarchists Build Counter-power, presentations on IATH research and publications at the Wellington Anarchist Bookfair, New Zealand, Victoria Trades Hall, Melbourne, & Sydney Anarchist Bookfair, Australia, 16, 19 & 22 March 2014.

In the Shadow of a Hurricane: How Anarchists Build Counter-power, presentation on IATH research and publications at the Philosophy Faculty, University of Ljubljana, hosted by the Federation of Anarchist Organisations, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 21 May 2014

Drinking with Ghosts, at Written in Cement: Joburg Authors Telling their Stories, part of the Joburg Festival 2014, in conversation with Rian Malan, il Giardino Decor, Johannesburg, 2 October 2014

Drinking with Ghosts, official book launch, in conversation with Rian Malan, il Giardino Decor, Johannesburg, 9 December 2014

What is Investigative Journalism?, presentation to third-year journalism students, Monash University, Johannesburg, 17 April 2015

Father Michael Dubrovnik and Brother Leonard, launch of Mzilikazi wa Afrika’s book Nothing Left to Steal, University of Johannesburg, April 2015, online at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHR0wvpNKRo 

Cutting the Distances: City-to-City Inspirations for Building Safe Havens, Safe Havens 2015 conference, Malmö, Sweden, 11 December 2015

A Taste of Bitter Almonds, community book launch with former ANC exile SIfiso Ntuli, Roving Bantu Kitchen, Johannesburg, 7 April 2016

Continuity versus Change in Southern Africa’s Transition, official book launch of A Taste of Bitter Almonds, with Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede, University of Johannesburg, 12 April 2016, online here

The Southern African Cities of Refuge Project, presentation at the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) conference, Johannesburg, 4 July 2016

Verité and Veracité, talk with Hamilton Wende after the screening of the Beate Arnestad documentary Seeking Truth at Arusha, Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, 11 July 2016

UAVs over Africa, presentation on behalf of ProJourn and the Professional Society of Drone Journalists to the Conference on Emerging Technologies in Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Ekurhuleni, 17 November 2016

Migration Memory Encounter, chairing a conversation between migrant writers Jude Dibia (Nigeria/Sweden) and Kagiso Lesego Molope (South Africa/Canada), Inkonst, Malmö, Sweden, 3 December 2016

Shoe-leather & Paper: The Importance of Field Reporting & Archival Research, presentation to World Association of Newspapers’ 25th Conference, Chennai, India, 12 September 2017

Democracy and Diversity in Light of the Zimbabwean Coup, Radio Freedom (Podcast 1), chair, Cliff Central, Johannesburg, 20 November 2017

The Liberalisation of the Airwaves in Zimbabwe in the post-Coup Era, Radio Freedom (Podcast 2), chair, Radio Days Africa, Wits University, Johannesburg, 6 July 2018

Writing Narrative Non-fiction, presentation at the South African Book Fair, Johannesburg, 8 September 2018

Acting in Time: Intervention and the Rohingya Genocide, chairing a debate with Judge Richard Goldstone, David P. Kramer and Shabnam Mayet, Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, 14 November 2018

El Sindicalismo Revoluctionario, Comunismo Libertario y Control Territorial (Revolutionary Syndicalism, Libertarian Communism and Territorial Control), talk at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Puebla City, Mexico, 21 January 2019


Friday 26 April 2019

We Are Not Women – We Are Human Beings Making Music

Michael Schmidt, Safe Havens Rapporteur

The wistful voice of the voluptuous, polished cello of Veronika Voetmann merges with the mournful tones of Anela Bakraqi’s black and dusty piano and the honeyed ache of Alma Olssen’s violin, and the notes swarm in the cadences of Bahraini composer Ahmed Al Ghanem’s flute like leftover autumn leaves in a winter wind.
Inspired by his mentor, the late Majeed Marhoon, a saxophonist who took the drastic path during Bahrain’s liberation struggle of bombing the car of a British intelligence officer in 1966, spending twenty-two years in jail as a result, Ahmed’s neo-classical compositions present a bridge between Western chromatic-scale and Arabic micro-scale music.
Similarly, the annual Safe Havens summit of the ecosystem of organisations that protect persecuted creatives around the world convened under the orientalist gilt domes of the Moriska Paviljongen in Malmö, Sweden, to build bridges between artists’ needs and the pragmatic realisation of their human, cultural and artistic rights. The following are interviews conducted with some of the summit’s key speakers and artists.

WE ARE NOT WOMEN – WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS MAKING MUSIC: Emilia Amper (nyckelharpe, Sweden), Nadin Al Khalidi (bass and oued, Iraq) and Liliana Zavala (percussion, Argentina), members of the Forbidden Orchestra, with Farzane Zamen, Iranian singer-songwriter based in Glasgow

Michael: Fantastic to see you perform, very enervating and moving! A lot of percussion, right? There’s a tradition in West Africa where there are sacred drums that are not played and the idea is that they resonate with the beat of neighbouring drums – but they’re never touched. Women, now, playing instruments, drums in particular, that they are not allowed to play, tell me about refeminising the drum, taking maybe that silent drum that was allowed to resonate in the corner and wasn’t allowed to be touched, and doing what you [Liliana] did, grabbing it and playing it, breaking that taboo.

Liliana: Yeah, I’m breaking a taboo, but actually you can’t play at the ceremony, that you talk about, I don’t know in South Africa, but in Cuba, the woman can’t play on the ceremony, you can’t play batá. There is two kind of batá drums: the holy, with another kind of tension – the mechanics is not metal – and the other batá with metal you can play, but never in the ceremony. The woman can’t, today you can’t play in the ceremony, even now.

Michael: But the drum has been masculinised.

Liliana: But we are not using those drums in our band.

Michael: I understand that, but I am just using that as a metaphor.

Emilia: If I would try to answer your question – maybe we don’t really understand – but I guess it’s because we don’t see ourselves as women, we see ourselves as human beings and it’s really human rights to just make music, so for us it’s not like “oh, it’s so special: I’m a woman and I’m making music.” I’m a human being, I’m an artist, I just make music – and then society kind of hits you in the face “ah because you are a woman” and I am like “What?” Oh yeah I have to remember that I am a woman,” and I am stopped, discriminated and treated badly in many ways, again and again and you are kind of surprised every time because we are just human beings just making music because we love it and it comes from our hearts and it’s our life. So we don’t see it as refeminising: we are just human beings making music and then, step by step, being a woman in society today you kind of learn this; it’s really depressing, it really puts you down when you suddenly see more and more of the structures and it’s ugh, and this tired and depressing feeling that it is to be met with sexist feeling and stuff. The tiring feeling is kind of fought with this meeting, this playing in this band; it fills you with energy again and it is so strong for us to just meet here because we know without speaking so much because we immediately know that we share that feeling that we just want to make art, we just want to make music, we just want to be human beings and express ourselves, but we all share the kind of ugh!

Michael: But you were indicating that actually this was a huge loss for humanity – that half of the music, we never hear.

Emilia: Yeah, it’s horrible. We need to do it because it’s human rights and because we lose so much art. It’s not because we have to let this woman because she’s a woman: it’s because we lose so much art and everybody should be free; it’s a human right.

Michael: You have themes that are quite lonesome or plaintive, sad – but the general impression I get from your performance is a recapturing of joy.

Emilia: It’s the “re” that I am reacting to, like refeminising or recapturing. We want to make music that is strong for us and also strong for the audience, so it’s really strong-sad, it’s really strong-beautiful, it’s really strong-powerful, joy, percussion, energy, it’s strong in all different ways! It says something, but life is so rich and life has so many different feelings and we have so many different feelings and experiences and we don’t want to do just one thing.

Nadin: It’s interesting that we navigate after sadness, it’s interesting that’s how you felt about it because these themes we are singing about and approaching, it’s actually about reality. So when I talk about my music school in the beginning, and [being a] refugee, and I don’t know what, and moving to Egypt and coming back, da-da-da-da, there were great moments too in these journeys even if they were horrible while being a refugee. But there is the beauty of finally finding a refuge which is in Sweden, for myself, eighteen years ago, and the freedom to grab a guitar and just play. My boyfriend when I was eighteen years old, he was arrested on stage because he sang Maggie’s Farm, a Bob Dylan song: I don’t want to work for Maggie’s father, for Maggie’s brother, no more. And there was this secret police and they came and they took away his guitar and the arrested him and I saw that happening and that was, is still the love of my life. I wasn’t sad, I was “oh, my boyfriend is a hero!” Coming here and the surprise that Swedish musicians are interested in Arabic music more than me; I had no interest in Arabic music at all. And then seeing Sousou as well, meanwhile I’m studying the language and trying to integrate into society and seeing her on stage and I was like “oh would I ever stand on stage like her?” And then seeing Emilia after a while and meeting her and you get the prize for best musician of the year in folk music and I was like “would I ever talk to her?” And the year after, I got the prize and we were sitting talking and so it’s more about the journey. It’s not sad stories and science fiction – and many people can relate to these stories regardless if they are sad or happy.

Michael: Regardless or the language either, I would say?

Nadin: Of course. And Lili’s meeting with the teacher who didn’t allow her to play – and then eventually they were touring together. I mean there is lots of positive stuff; we can’t just navigate after the drama and the trauma – the story of my mom and the grave – there are no tears in this story because I never cried. 

Emilia: I would say they are more realistic, stories from real life and themes. I think it’s beautiful when you have this luggage with you, luggage, package or whatever, why not sing about it, why not play music about it? We are just human beings and we play themes about things that touch us; they are very inclusive, everybody can relate.

Nadin: We are sharing from ourselves.

Emilia: Exactly, so why look for other themes that don’t exist. Hmmm [drums on the table] what is it that this song should be about? 

Nadin: We have a lot to sing about, we have a lot to talk about, to compose about, so I would say let’s not navigate after sadness because it is not about sadness – because as you said, we are happy playing even if every time when I hold the bass, I hope something will happen and I will just vanish because it’s not my first instrument, then I’m afraid that I cannot navigate on the instrument; that’s the sad part about my role in this band because I want to develop more on the bass. But I don’t think we should navigate after sadness. And when Emilia is talking about the lost songs, about refugees, or racism, or fascism or everything that’s happening in the world right now, this is not sad, it’s reality – but it’s a sad reality, but that’s our everyday life.

Emilia: One thing we could explain about the orchestra is that it is an oasis – and it’s supposed to be an oasis where we can do all the things that we dream about but that we are hindered to do, usually, because of structures or anything, because of ourselves, or people that we meet, society or whatever. This should be the oasis of freedom, musically and artistically, so if we dream about something, this is the place where we should do it, where we throw ourselves out in something and we are here to catch each other in this space.

Michael: I was interested to hear how both Sousou and Lily encountered gatekeepers – but how through their persistence, they managed to convince these gatekeepers to open the gates and actually instruct them and teach them ways that were essentially forbidden originally. You encountered men who were designed to lock you out of learning instruments, both you and Sousou, but through your persistence in both cases you convinced them to teach.

Liliana: I don’t convince, it was [drumming on table] I want to learn, me! But I never think I am a woman who wants to play music, you know? I just want to play music like another person, another man. I never think like this. But I fell in love with the drums with this drum or the conga or another drum – but this drum is forbidden. Sometimes it was very difficult to learn, to find somebody who wanted to do it in Cuba. A lot of the time I had to stay and just a man can play and me I have to just sit and watch – and then they say you can come and you can play. But I never think about what I have here when I am on the stage; I am just a musician. 

Michael: You all sing as well, which is really intriguing. Just perhaps could each of you in term tell me what is to you – in any of the languages you know – the most beautiful phrase or word?

Nadin: There are so many beautiful… I cannot have one specific word in Arabic – and it’s definitely not habibi! [baby! All laugh]

Liliana: If I was to have one word in Spanish, it’s libertad, it’s freedom. I love this word.

Michael: حرية [Hurriyah] in Arabic, right?

Farzane: I can say a classic poem, Iranian poem which is نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود, meaning if you want to reach a goal without pain in the way, you can’t reach that goal. It’s a very famous phrase, very meaningful. I felt it as a woman; I know that we try to say “ok, we are human beings; it doesn’t matter if we are woman or man” but we need to struggle more, we need to fight more. For me just being a musician is not as easy as it is for a man; it’s so much more difficult for me. It’s like climbing a very intense mountain; it wasn’t easy, so this poem for me: نابرده رنج، گنج میسر نمیشود.

Nadin: I would say that what you said while we were outside taking some fresh air is the most beautiful thing I’ve heard in a while: strike while the iron is hot! [Laughs] You get the metaphor? [makes as if ironing clothes – stryka meaning to iron in Swedish – provoking laughter]. There are many beautiful words in many languages. I know when I sing in another band, one of the lyrics that I wrote about my home town, Baghdad, where I was born, you know every time I think Baghdaaaaad, I have to urgh, do like this in order not to cry. So Baghdad is a word that I get a heartbeat from.


Thursday 25 April 2019

Fear of Your Friends and Peers: The Puritan Policing of Liberal Academia and the Arts

FEAR OF YOUR FRIENDS AND PEERS: THE PURITAN POLICING OF LIBERAL ACADEMIA AND THE ARTS: Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programmes at the National Coalition Against Censorship, USA

Michael: There’s been a lot of focus on your country and Trump in terms of an indicator of the rise of right-wing populism and neo-fascism etcetera. Could you perhaps give us a perspective on emerging economies that are perhaps in a more dangerous situation, like Brazil and India, in terms of the rise of similar and more unchecked movements in those regions from the perspective of the US, looking outwards?

Svetlana: I really can’t speak about Brazil and India, but I could speak about the US. We take it for granted that we have the rule of law in the US and liberal democracy in general, and I think that rule of law might be under threat. I mean, what happened recently with the Supreme Court with the election of [Brett] Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice, in a very politically polarised environment: we have a Supreme Court justice who clearly had a very strong political position and clearly did not like Democrats. So this is coming now to the highest court of the land which should have the credibility of being above and beyond politics, and that credibility is being eroded. So then on the other hand you have the stacking of federal agencies with people who are not critical of the president, so I think we should not be taking too lightly the danger this could present, and also the danger that a populist, right-wing US where the rule of law is eroded, what danger that could present to the rest of the world as a somehow kind of check on human rights abuses in other countries. And my work is within the US, admitting that there are very dire situations in other parts of the world, my purpose has been to raise awareness for what is happening here in the stable, liberal West, and how rights are threatened here, where things are going and how freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech to me is not just about saying we are here for individual artists. I don’t think that’s entirely the case and the reason to me is when individual artists matter is when, not so much the human rights of artists though I prioritise that, but more than that, is the health of the public sphere, it’s all of us. So on the other hand, censorship, suppression affects everyone and censorship is the closing off of access to ideas, the stopping of a kind of critical thinking, and this affects society at large. Which is why I question the whole notion of relocation, because it helps the individual but it actually leaves society where the individual was at risk, in a way worse off because critical voices are gone. And what interests me also in the US is the existence of this lively public sphere which is key to any kind of democracy; you cannot have democracy without credibility; you can have a voting process, but people don’t even vote when they know that it does not matter and there’s a lot of disaffection with democratic politics, and it’s complicated. But to me, freedom of expression has to do with the political environment and what kind of political environment we want to have, we need to have, and what’s happening now in the US – which does not jail artists – is a kind of polarisation which has come to the point of fracture; it’s a very fractured public sphere in the sense that I can talk to people that agree with me and I agree with them and we agree with each other, but then there are those other people that live in a completely different reality, they are just, they agree with each other and they say that what I am saying and what my groups is saying is fake news or it is just complete lies.

Michael: So there’s no common grounds for even debating?

Svetlana: There’s no common grounds to even start from a common assumption that “this is true, and this is my opinion and this is our opinion,” no, we have come to the point where we don’t even agree on the basis, we don’t agree on what is true and what is not and that is the basis of this radical doubt of what is true.
Michael: There was this interesting debate that I chaired a little earlier this year on fake news and one of the research elements that was presented by one of the speakers was that in the United States, in terms of media consumption – and this was really counter-intuitive to me, but intriguing – that conservative consumers read far more liberal media than liberal consumers read conservative media. And that was really interesting to me because it suggested a retreat by the Western liberal values into an enclave of their own. In other words, this is not purely a conservative retreat. 

Svetlana: No, no, absolutely, and I think that’s where we have liberal and left groups abandoning the whole principle of free speech. What you’re saying is really true and it’s the refusal of the left to listen to some voices on the other side – and a very aggressive refusal. The New Yorker had invited for its festival [former Breitbart head] Steve Bannon to have a discussion with David Remnick, their editor-in-chief; there was so much protest that they cancelled and they disinvited him. So, why? So you disagree with Steve Bannon, you find him to be a dangerously anti-immigrant racist, whatever, but where does the refusal to even listen to debate with him leave you? They were not celebrating him; it was a conversation and many people were interested in listening to the conversation, but there’s this whole notion of deplatforming.

Michael: Which actually has an element of dehumanisation to it, does it not?

Svetlana: Very strongly so, I mean that is the goal of deplatforming, so these people cannot have ideas that are worth listening to at all, they are pure evil. So this is creating somebody who is pure evil who you cannot engage with because if you engage with them you are legitimising them.

Michael: Well obviously this is a difficult debate, it’s not straightforward. We obviously understand the principles of don’t give platform to outright hate speech and fascism etcetera, but this whole demonization of essentially half the [US] population or whatever your statistic wants to be is really problematic, because you really are disappearing people, you are creating the grounds for grievance in fact.

Svetlana: Right. And what does “don’t give a platform to pure hate speech” mean? You know under US law there is no definition of hate speech, so direct incitement to violence is criminal, but racist speech is not criminalised. So what we’ve had in universities is conservative student groups inviting speakers, provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer who is a white supremacist – they’re people with bad ideas, no question about it – but what happens is that every time they invite such a speaker, they know that the larger student body is going to lash out in protest and they are going to look bad because they are going to be “against free speech.” So you have this baiting of the left and the left is taking the bait. What if you invite a racist speaker and nobody shows up, or five conservative students show up, what is going to happen?

Michael: Or they get adequately defeated in debate?

Svetlana: Or if there’s debate, they get adequately defeated. It’s giving them more credibility [to ban them]. It’s really disturbing because I work on free speech, and now you have these “free speech martyrs” that are very obnoxious figures, whereas don’t deplatform them, give them a platform and don’t go and listen, or ask them a question; they are mostly not that smart and the emptiness of their ideas is going to be revealed. But the more you ban them, the more you create them as mythological, Satanic masters of the universe; somehow you give them more of a stature by rising up as a whole student body and wanting them removed – and the same thing with The New Yorker. And that also creates a kind of fear within liberal institutions that you cannot write about certain topics, you cannot ask certain questions; there is a kind of puritan policing of discourse.

Michael: And this is particularly prevalent, weirdly enough, in academia.

Svetlana: In academia, in the art world. It’s funny that in society at large, these institutions are not dominant. What is dominant is big corporations, big money and Donald Trump, right? At the same time, you have these small enclaves of liberal power that are thinking that they have social power and they can police their own little enclaves – but they are powerless in society at large and when they are policing discourse so strictly, they are isolating themselves and becoming more and more little marginal liberal enclaves. So I am very sympathetic to the concept of social justice, I think the tactics that are deployed now by many people that are interested in social justice and achieving social justice through censorship, I think these are very misguided because censorship has never helped the cause of social justice. Historically, you look: censorship has always helped those in power and those in power – not in academia, but in society at large – are not the people that we want to be imposing censorship. So that perspective is somehow lacking, and I find that a lot of times that even asking the questions in the US, you can be unfriended on Facebook. I mean I have spoken to people within the cultural sphere and they are liberal, left people and they are concerned because you get absolutely mob-attacked if you express a dissident thought on social media, you get professionally ostracised, you get personally ostracised.

Michael: It’s a kangaroo-court mentality.

Svetlana: Yeah, and a kind of dogmatic mentality where you have to be very pure, very politically correct otherwise you’re out – and there’s fear. And fear not so much of the political other, who we don’t even talk to, but fear of your friends and peers. So not only is the public sphere fractured because left and right don’t talk to each other, within the left there are many fractures; the right, however [laughs], have consolidated and they’re very different, you have fiscal conservatives, you have the Tea Party, you have the religious right, they’re absolutely different people, but they are creating alliances for power. And I think they should be critical of Trump; a lot of them dislike Trump but Trump is their way to be in power. And they have their interests, they have their financial interests or whatever and he’s responding to some interests of theirs so they consolidate in the name of getting power. The left is fracturing and the more they are gaining power in academia and liberal institutions, the less they have broad social power in society at large because a lot of people live within those institutions – they don’t see beyond them.

Michael: OK, you’ve stressed that your bailiwick is the USA, but to what extent do you say that the Trump phenomenon and associated things like the Tea Party have been enablers of these types of phenomena elsewhere in the world, either because of the actual imperialist power of the USA or because of its symbolic significance?

Svetlana: Well I think what’s happening in Europe is very much in parallel, I mean Poland, Hungary, you know, you have right-wing populisms everywhere.

Michael: South Africa too; we’re all part of a broader process.

Svetlana: Exactly, and Trumpism is a symptom as is everything else; the basis of this is economic. You look back into the 21st Century and there’s economic discontent, so you have societies that are extremely economically polarised, you had a 2008 crisis that affected people in the middle class that lost a lot – and then the richest parts of society recovered, the stock market did very well, banks are doing very well. You also have a sort of mobile cultural intelligentsia in the West and young people with education and resources who can move and for whom this kind of new economy, the information economy is good. But you also have people who have been left over, who have lost jobs in manufacturing, who have lost security, in the US have lost their houses (the housing crisis), so these people have been left behind.

Michael: You see photographs out of cities like Detroit that look like post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Svetlana: Right. And artists are moving in there, so the liberal cultural elite could make galleries, but what of people who have lost jobs in manufacturing, how will they recover? So they’re ripe for populists like Bannon who had the ideology – and listening to Steve Bannon, which I find interesting, is that he precisely identifies that, identifies the fact that corporations, with the recent tax cuts that Trump did, they’re tax cuts for corporations. You’ve had the most radical economic polarisation of society that you’ve ever had, it’s more than the early 20th Century, so Bannon identified that and the Trump campaign identified the disaffection, and then provided what to me is the wrong answer, which is “let’s stop those immigrants; they’re taking our jobs,” which is bullshit!

Michael: A diversionary tactic.

Svetlana: But there is this correct identification of people’s discontent and this is happening in Europe, that’s happening everywhere, it happened with Brexit; the people who are left over by new economies who have been hurt by crisis but never recovered and they’re angry and they need to direct that anger and they need someone to tell them “you’re a person of value and we will help you recover – at the expense of some other group,” and this some other group that is being pushed forward in the US is immigrants, and in Europe as well. And the rhetoric of hatred is really taking hold because of the existing social anger, which is exploited by populists. So to me it may be the economic model that the US has; I don’t think Trump can accomplish such a revolution of international politics. It is the logic of neoliberal capitalism and the government handling of the economic crisis in which the government bailed out the banks, gave hand-outs to corporations, and the cost was borne by the middle class which is now not a middle class anymore. So this is the environment.

Michael: So what is the role of the arts in all of this? It’s interesting that you talk about gentrification in Detroit because Hassan stressed this quite strongly in his talk and in our interview of how often artists became the thin end of the wedge in pushing marginal people even further into the margins.

Svetlana: We have much activism around gentrification and art galleries in the US. Gentrification is a real phenomenon, but there are two issues and one is first of all it’s not really galleries that are pushing people out, but the big developers, and we have issues in Chinatown where big developers are buying buildings, they’re kicking tenants out and they’re re-renting for a lot more money. The galleries actually provide some value to the community: in LA, there’s a lot of controversy in Boyle Heights which is this area that’s being gentrified; some of the galleries that were kicked out were first-time galleries showing works by Hispanic artists, not the blue-chip galleries that have space everywhere. There are political movements that are sometimes blunt instruments and this is one issue, gentrification, who do you go after? It’s easy to go after the galleries because if you are an arts activist the galleries listen to you – but do you go after the developers? How do you go after the developers? It’s harder to go after the developers, but then what’s the effect you’d have if you just go after the galleries? You remove a gallery; gentrification is still going on. I beg to see the case where kicking out a gallery has stopped gentrification. And the other issue is do we really want to keep the slums? Don’t you want development, don’t you want infrastructure? Do you want people to live in cockroach-filled apartments? There’s this big debate right now on Amazon coming into Queens. So to me, what is your vision, what do you want done? And nobody has stopped gentrification so far. The big problem with gentrification is clearly that artists and people are kicked out after a while. 

Michael: This has happened downtown Johannesburg where the city created a Cultural Precinct and the first move was to relocate the homeless people and kick out the artists who actually lived there and now create this vacuous Cultural Precinct that is denuded of its culture [laughs].

Svetlana: Absolutely, but I think the thing is not to stop development but to create, to advocate to create affordable long-term spaces for artists; make arts organisations or whatever change ownership and create mechanisms where you protect groups that are there and they’re the ones that give life to the neighbourhood. And that’s very doable because you’re otherwise protesting against something that will happen, you’re not going to stop it by your protesting in the street – but you can lobby. And this happens here and there: there’s an area being gentrified and you buy a building from the city and you have a gallery and working spaces for artists, and live/work spaces for artists, so there are all these energies of protest and activism and I think they could be more smartly deployed to not stop a process that will happen but to…

Michael: Make sure it’s integrated into the actual community.

Svetlana: So don’t kick out the galleries, but push the galleries to have a permanent space for artists, there are any ways to do it. But that is something that you can do that probably cities will be amenable to doing because it raises the value – but you also get something for it and you are employing your activist energy in a positive way. I just did a book about curators negotiating difficult content which is called Smart Tactics; I think you need to employ smart tactics rather than this strategy of just saying “no!” You need to deploy a strategy that has a chance of success.

Michael: So tell me a little about hope.

Svetlana: Oh, hope? I think hope is dependent on having a vision. What do we want? A lot of what we’re thinking is what do we not want, and I think the way Safe Havens is structured this time is good because we are saying “what are our goals; what can we do?” It’s more pragmatic because otherwise we can always have a litany of complaints; we can say this is not working and that is not working and the world is going to hell – fine, the world has always been going to hell – but where do you want to be? There are all these protests against artworks in American museums, so there is an artwork and it bothers you, so what would happen if the museums take down all the artworks that bother you, how much better will society be? I mean, what is your vision? Sometimes left activism is kind of feel-good with a short-term goal, but long-term, where do you want to be and what do you want that pre-gentrification run-down neighbourhood to look like? Do you want it to still look run-down? Probably not; you just want it to be affordable for the people that live there.

Michael: And for it to be a viable community.

Svetlana: Yeah. Come here, do development, but do it in a way that preserves the people here – and then you’ll have much more of a chance to be heard than when you are just saying “no, keep development out.”


Wednesday 24 April 2019

Communal Intellectual Property and Fair Working Conditions are at the Heart of Democracy and Human Rights

COMMUNAL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND FAIR WORKING CONDITIONS ARE AT THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Aruna Chawla, lawyer, Indian operations head of Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights Initiative

Michael: Perhaps start with telling me a little bit about your Initiative.

Aruna: I graduated this year from law school so I just started out, possibly one of the youngest here. And I am doing a couple of things, one of which is working with Avant Garde Lawyers as an art law expert; what we do at AGL is provide legal expertise and assistance to artists at risk both in terms of immigration, human rights protections etcetera, and also commercial aspects like intellectual property, etcetera, which is more of the socio-economic side mostly not looked at in arts organisations of this kind that we’re seeing. Other than that, I’m also working on the Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights Initiative which focuses on the manner of utilisation of traditional cultural knowledge and property in a way that sustains societies that that traditional knowledge comes from and corporates or the economic organisations that utilise them. An example of this could be, say, design sensitivities of traditional communities being take up by big design houses – say for example Stella McCartney – which would pick up this design, present it on the runway, sell it across the world, but also in a benefit-sharing model, give it back to that community. It is an extremely important aspect of the cultural rights idea that we were talking about yesterday with Karima as well. The intellectual property protection for traditional knowledge does not exist as of now in the form of patents of how traditional knowledge is applied, or in the form of trade-marks for organisations that work in these – but we’re looking at a model where that traditional knowledge itself can be protected and utilised and not just its applications.

Michael: So that’s obviously quite innovative. In South Africa, we’ve got the situation where a lot of indigenous knowledge around, for instance, the use of medicinal plants and this sort of thing is now at the forefront of innovations to protect those rights as well because these are now being commercialised and monetised and used in other ways by people beyond the originating communities. It’s quite a difficult thing, isn’t it, to establish that as a right in the first place?

Aruna: It is. In the arts field you can attribute intellectual property to one person, so when it is violated, that person can step up and at least, even if they can’t afford legal assistance, talk about their rights being violated. With cultural knowledge, it’s a whole society that owns it; you can’t attribute it to a single person; communities are not going to have legal organisations representing them at all times; these are just people who have had a certain way of living for years and have gathered the knowledge. That is what we are trying to do: we are trying to focus on giving it back to these communities where we can’t attribute that intellectual property to a single person, but also enable them to fight for their rights, utilise the knowledge they do have in an economically sustainable way because it’s not just always about fighting for rights – it’s about getting it back.

Michael: I’m imagining that corporates are quite resistant to this sort of idea because they have an instinctive imperialism, essentially, to misappropriate other people’s communal intellectual property.

Aruna: That’s true. I think that what’s interesting about this model is that it’s benefit-sharing, so it’s not that profits are completely taken away from the organisation, it’s that profits are shared among two people or two groups contributing to an economic endeavour. Which is what happens in economic organisations as well: you pay the CEO, you pay the CFO, but that’s people coming together, putting their brain-power together to achieve a common profit – and it’s the same thing that we are focusing on in a benefit-sharing model. One person with the expertise, another person with the money, or the entrepreneurial knowledge, getting together to present this economic or capitalist venture to the world and earning money out of it.

Michael: How do you share with a community? Because for one thing you have to define that community and that’s kind of tricky because communities can be very fluid at their edges.

Aruna. Yeah, so a legal intellectual property protection given to traditional knowledge is a geographic indication. So for example, Champagne which is a geographical indication, it’s about traditional knowledge that’s been going on for centuries of people in the Champagne region in France knowing how a particular variety of sparkling wine is supposed to be made. And this is the exact kind of model we are building on. Now, Champagne was able to build on that investment value over a few years. How we started focusing on this was one of Dior’s collections which appropriated the Bihor – Bihor is a Romanian community and they have a particular design form – and Dior’s collection presented this on the runway, got this design trade-mark and started utilising this and exploiting this without giving it back to the community where the design was inspired. Stella McCartney on the other hand works with the Mexican communities that she’s inspired from and creates opportunities for these women who’ve traditionally been making these designs over centuries and pays them to make them instead of paying factories to make copies of the design who have no relevance or relations to the creation of that design.

Michael: So what you’re saying is that in parallel to trying to create a new – because in many respects it is quite new – legal framework, you’re trying to create a new ethic, really, around how creative industries appropriate and use and for want of a better word exploit other cultures’ specific heritage?

Aruna: Exactly, yeah. So the problem is not with appropriation, it’s when that idea is misappropriated and the profits of that are not shared, which is the whole idea of intellectual property, that the person who creates it or the person who has put in the labour is compensated for the work they do – and it’s just that here we are talking about a community.

Michael: Now you’re obviously from a legal background but do you have ethical or aesthetic concerns about distortions of culture?

Aruna: I think that’s always sad – but I think it’s important to look at whose culture is being distorted. I mean, if it’s my culture distorted, I have the right to say anything about it. What I can do is provide support for what that community wishes to do. I think aesthetic innovation is always going to happen and we are always going to be inspired by what is around us and that is how creativity develops; I mean, nature’s already created all the colour combinations for us, all the colour schemes for us, and we’re constantly being inspired by what already exists. So aesthetic innovation is always going to happen and at times it will lead to distortion as well; distortion happens when someone has a particular way of looking at things and decides to do it a little differently. I think that synthesis will continue happening and that thesis-antithesis idea is going to be there.

Michael: In this globalised world where images can obviously traverse the Earth in seconds, and there is the emergence of elements of a global monoculture, is it really possible to compartmentalise cultures in that way – bearing in mind that on top of that culture itself, including traditional cultures, are not static as people tend to present them?

Aruna: Personally I don’t think it’s possible. Even as lawyers the first thing we learn in law school is that law is not static either; it’s about what’s happening in society at that time and what needs the most legal protection, or what kind of legal protection is required. As society changes, laws are going to keep changing and they’re interrelated in terms of that change and growth.

Michael: So that’s an interesting dynamic tension: that both culture and the arts and law itself are not static entities, that they are continually evolving – and they’re all interpretive actually. So I think a lot of lay people have this conception of the law that it is unchanging but that’s obviously not so, especially with case law and precedent and how that evolves.

Aruna: There case law, there’s policy changes happening at all times and law is about interpretation. I mean, if we’re looking at the UDHR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] and we’re talking about human rights, but as lawyers we are also working towards making sure the UDHR stops being relevant any more in our lives; we want to be in a position in society where we don’t have to keep fighting for the application of the UDHR, but human rights are already protected and documents like these, or the UN bodies, become obsolete.

Michael: We’ve just seen the FreeMuse presentation relating to women in the arts. Do you see a particular gendered skewing of rights and access in India in particular and in South Asia?

Aruna: I think definitely yes, and I’m sure across the world this is true; women have the additional threat of personal bodily autonomy; the first way in which women are controlled is by sexually harassing them; they are threatened not just with taking away access or a platform but also personal threats against bodily autonomy. Men face the threat of death too – but that’s not because of their gender; women face it because of their gender. And it’s not true just for the arts community, but it’s true for all communities across the world and for all industries across the world.

Michael: How does one apply what you’re doing to the broader human rights framework, because it’s obviously located within that, it isn’t just specific to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Aruna: There’s something I will be talking about tomorrow: when we talk about social rights, cultural rights, artistic rights, the first thing that comes to mind is economic rights because when you’re independent you have the financial assistance – whether it’s by funding, or financial sustainability, or the entrepreneurship of what you do – to be able to exercise all the other rights, your social and political rights, your citizenship, of exercising the right to vote, etcetera. They mean nothing if you don’t have the money to exercise them; you live in a society where you always have to purchase food or pay rent for where you live. And that the kind of work I am personally doing as well, empowering artists, specifically in the industries of arts, fashion, luxury, and culture and I focus on economic empowerment.

Michael: So there’s a clear equity aspect in all of this?

Aruna: Absolutely. A big problem in the fashion industry is working conditions of labour, them not being paid fair wages, so if the fashion industry does not pay the labourers fair they’re violating their labour rights, they’re also their human rights because they’re being treated as second-class citizens that don’t deserve to spend money as we do. That impacts the environment because they can’t afford to make environmentally sustainable choices. And this is all a human rights concern.

Michael: Some red flags have been raised during this conference about the misuse of cultural rights to assert false conditions of difference between people, or groups of people, classes of people. Is there maybe some concern in the specificity of your work to try and make sure that at the same time as focusing on very specific cultural rights that you are also doing it within a very universalist ethic? There’s a lot of abuse of culture, particularly religion but not just religion, culture more broadly, as an excuse for prejudicial policies and actions by civil society etcetera. I presume you must keep a weather-eye out for making sure that in strengthening certain communal rights you’re not prejudicing communities external to those communities as well, you’re not trying to create conditions of specificity that are outside of the general human commune if you will?

Aruna: Yeah. I think it’s a very important consideration to have, especially when today and over the years this has always been an issue, when cultural diversity is placed completely at odds with cultural relativism. I mean these two are at odds but it’s not that all of us are different or that we have different practices, it’s that we are still humans at the end of the day who make different choices – even if we were to have the same religion and the same practices, our way of expression might be different. But that does not make us enemies of each other. Say for example the economic independence work that I personally like focusing on: the big fashion houses have the responsibility of paying the labour that they work with a fair wage, even though that labour union might not be strong enough or might not be monetarily as sound as the one person owning a design organisation. And this is about the power dynamics; this is what cultural diversity is about, or democracy for that matter, that people who are in power do not make decisions that the minority has to suffer for.