The spectacular political changes that transformed South Africa in the 1990's brought a shift of emphasis in the country's social rhetoric. Many old laws and practices were suddenly made extinct. Likewise the desperate discourse of the struggle became archival.
For many years the government used unique terminology to demonstrate its position. They offered Christian National Education for an education that is neither national, nor Christian. Their prized invention was the title Civil Cooperation Bureau, their intelligence arm that acted as a hit-squad. Designations such as Europeans Only, Group Areas, Homeland Policy, Separate Development and Immorality Police set South Africa 'apart' from the rest of the world, and are now redundant. In a piece of concrete poetry entitled Shredded Evidence, made in January, 1997, I laid these failed aspirations to rest.
Our people in the 'struggle' invented their own language of protest. In street marches and mass-demonstrations they screamed out a message of total displeasure and mistrust. Those who attended mass rallies will know the rhythmic vibrations, chanted in the assertive power of African languages that fill the air like thunder and make the earth sway. I believe the rest of the world has nothing that compares with the control and harmony of these melodious voices, loaded with an anger and urgency that make the windows vibrate and send shivers up the spine.
Abamfusa lawula/The purple shall govern gives a graphic representation of this dramatic vocal will and power. The necessity for driving home the messages of these slogans and chants no longer exists, and they too will be shelved in time. The thin horizontal lines of sheet-music run through the whole piece. They fence the slogans in and conceal an English translation, making for a 'reading between the lines.' The simple block-like type is an allusion to Ndebele wall-painting and the vertical ridges are intended to enhance the idea of ripples and reverberations.
Abamfusa lawula/The purple shall govern was prepared for the Purple and Green exhibition, curated by Abrie Fourie, at the Pretoria Art Gallery. The work was begun on 2 September, 1997, ten years, to the day, after the famed purple rain incident took place in Cape Town. Police were spraying purple dye on protesters to mark them for later identification and arrest, away from the prying eye of the international press. One daring protester jumped on the water-car and turned the dye on the police. Soon after that graffiti appeared on the city walls and even on police vehicles which stated: The purple shall govern, a clever twist from the African Freedom Charter which states that the people shall govern.
Ogilvy International advertising campaign
Text for a poster, commissioned by Exclusive Books to advertise the book “Willem Boshoff” written by Ivan Vladislavic and published by David Krut (2005).
There are a million and a half South Africans whose mother tongue is English, and 33 million South Africans whose mother tongue is an African language. You do not have to be a statistical genius to see that English speakers are outnumbered roughly ten to one. You’d think that after eleven years of democracy at least some of them would have learnt to speak a language other than English. (After all, most of the non English-speaking people in this country can understand and make themselves understood in at least two languages other than their native tongue.) You would think, but you would be wrong. Precious few English speaker have anything more than the most rudimentary grasp of any African language, apart, of course, from “ngiabinga,” “siyafunda” and that perennial favourite “yebo gogo.” Oh, most can handle a quick “sawubona” (provided they don’t have to greet more than one person), but for the most part, English speakers will dip their toes into the linguistic waters of an African language and then back away, giggling nervously at the first sign of a complicated spelling, a multisyllabic verb, or (horror of horrors) a click sound. If you are standing close enough to read this, then you are almost certainly one of those whose ignorance excludes them from the bigger picture. For the most part, you walk around day after day overhearing conversations you don’t understand; witnessing interactions whose nuances elude you, strolling through crowds of bystanders who might be speculating about your sex life, musing on the inadequacy of your hair stylist, or simply wondering out loud how you managed to escape from the high security ward of the psychiatric hospital, and you would never know, just as you have no way of being one hundred percent sure that what you’re reading right now really is a translation of the writing above it. You probably know just enough Zulu to suspect that it isn’t, but not enough to prove it. Is there a subtle joke going on over your head, which only the Zulu speakers standing behind you can understand? (Did you just take a quick look over your shoulder?) We’ll put you out of your misery. The words in large type that you can’t understand are in fact the words of protest songs, yoyi-toyi chants from the days of our county’s liberation struggle. These were the words the angry youth sang as they danced in the streets, words that expressed their dispair, anger and outrage in an extremely catchy, melodic way, in fact, veterans of the struggle recall with amusement that large numbers of white people who had no part in the struggle would overhear the songs and later find themselves unable to get that addictive tune out of their heads; would go about their daily business absent-mindedly humming the melodies, serenely oblivious to the fact that the sentiments expressed in the lyrics were unambiguously hostile towards them. Does that make you feel insecure? Or possibly a little displaced? This is just a little taste of what it would be like to live in a world that publicly refused to recocnise your language, that left you linguistically orphaned, forced to embrace someone else’s mother tongue. It’s a theme that fascinated South African artist Willem Boshoff, a theme that he repeatedly explores in his work. As an Afrikaner, he had a complex relationship with English, which he admired, but saw as a dominating imperialist force, that behaved like a “bully at school.”
You can experience an overview of his work in the book “Willem Boshoff,” which is available from the Exclusive Books 2005 Homebru collection, in, of course, English
Ivan Vladislavic in his book Willem Boshoff (David Krut Publishing) writes:
Willem Boshoff's Abamfusa Lawula/The Purple Shall Govern (1997) is a tightly packed wall of political slogans and chants from the struggle against apartheid, a total of forty-nine phrases in 10 pica capitals. The slogans are in various indigenous languages. Between the lines, written within the writing, translations of the slogans are given in tiny letters. These explanations, invisible from two or three metres away, are in English.'
With its combination of shouted slogan and whispered commentary, the work profiles and processes its own viewers. Those familiar with the languages of the slogans (and they are generally black) stand at a distance, reacting with amusement, recognition, alarm. Those whose ignorance excludes them from the bigger picture (and they are generally white) approach the work, until their noses are almost pressed up against it, and read the small print.
In another work from the same year, The Writing That Fell off the Wall, words printed on white blocks lie scattered on the gallery floor. A wisecrack then, not the writing on the wall but the writing that fell off it.
Waarheid ... Ordnung ... Razão ... Meany, meany, tickle a parson. Fallen language. The grand abstractions of the Enlightenment come down to earth with a bump. The fallen terms, in seven European languages, hold your attention for a spell, but the sheer profusion is discouraging.
Principio ... Salvation ... Purite ... Identität ... Grens ... Perfección ...
Wandering through this rubble of meaning, your eye snagged by one term after another, you might be gripped by a disconcerting sensation, as I was. You are standing in a ruined book. The walls are pages that have been rattled until their printed contents came tumbling down. The work is a book writ large.
The viewer of Willem Boshoff's art is better understood as a reader. Boshoff is a writer. Not only is much of his sculpture and installation centrally concerned with language and books, but he has also written concrete poetry and dictionaries, and extended commentaries on his own work and processes. The borders between these writings are porous and their meanings seep through and run together. All of them might be regarded as passages in a discontinuous text. For three decades, he has been researching, writing and annotating a long shelf of books.