By Mike van Graan – On the subject of the cultural boycott of Swaziland, our position is informed by our work across the African continent as a network of creative practitioners, cultural workers, activists, creative enterprises and NGOs active in the creative sector and its contribution to development, democracy and human rights on the continent. With 22 national chapters and a further 8 nascent chapters in all five African regions, Arterial Network operates as an independent, civil society movement precisely because of the experience of arts practitioners across the continent of governments that are notoriously unsympathetic to freedom of creative expression, and who generally do not support the arts or artists except when they may be used for state entertainment purposes or to boost the image of the country abroad.
In recent weeks, we have seen the arrest of theatre-makers in Zimbabwe, the detention of rap artists in Angola and the release of a Cameroonian musician after three years in prison for music that was deemed too critical by the ruling party.
Given Arterial Network’s constitutional principles including a commitment to democracy and to human rights and freedoms as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we support the cultural isolation of repressive regimes that violate human rights and that deny or restrict democratic freedoms to its citizens.
The recent scrambling by international artists to return or donate to charity their earnings from performing for the Libyan dictator, Gaddafi, underscores the need for artists to refrain from giving credibility to governments and political parties that notoriously abuse human rights and freedoms.
Similarly, we would caution artists generally, and Arterial Network members in particular, against lending their talent, art and celebrity to political parties engaged in electoral contests even in democracies. Too often, artists are used to solicit the support of ordinary people as voting fodder during elections, only for parties – once elected – to serve the interests of elites, and to ignore not only those who voted them into power, but also the interests of artists who helped to put them there. Our preference would be for artists and cultural workers to maintain an independence that would allow them to speak truth to power whenever those in power abuse such power and do not use it to serve the interests of the majority of citizens.
Cultural workers across the continent tell a similar story of rampant exploitation, poor working conditions, an absence of regulatory protection and a lack of recognition of their rights. Even in democratic societies, artists experience these and encounter censorship through political, economic and other forms of intimidation.
It is for these reasons that artists, cultural workers and others engaged in the African sector are organising themselves across the continent to advance and protect their interests. These interests coincide with the interests of those in other sectors of societies where struggles for democracy, for human freedoms and for the eradication of poverty are taking place. This is the background for Arterial Network’s imminent establishment of Artwatch, a regularly-updated website to monitor and expose violations of freedom of creative expression in African countries.
While we support the cultural isolation of repressive regimes and their elite beneficiaries, we believe that blanket cultural boycotts do not take account of the complexities of the struggles for democracy. Arts festivals play a variety of roles in Africa including economic and social integration, but they are also key platforms for democratic expression. Because of this, festivals in some countries are under threat by repressive regimes that seek to control and limit the content of such festivals.
The Bushfire Festival in Swaziland is a valued member of Arterial Network and as such, is a signatory to the organisation’s statement of principles. As an independently organised platform, it not only provides opportunities for Swazi artists that they would not otherwise have, and allows artists to express what they want, but it also channels significant funds to the AIDS sector in the country that has the lowest life expectancy in Africa. The Bushfire Festival is an exemplary combination of freedom of artistic expression, local artistic development and social engagement.
We are delighted therefore, that after a meeting between the Festival organisers and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign, the boycott of the Bushfire Festival has been called off. We urge artists and the public to support this Festival in its own right and for the wider impact that it has.
Arterial Network believes that in our pursuit of democracy and human rights on the African continent, rather than the arts sector always having to abide by what others decide for the sector, all sectors need to engage with each other democratically and work together in devising and implementing the most effective strategies to realise our common goals.
Furthermore, where a cultural boycott is being proposed, we believe that cultural workers and their representative structures in the affected country have to be consulted and integrated into the formulation and implementation of the strategy in the same way that cultural workers and their organisations were a key mechanism for vetting cultural activity in the course of implementing the cultural boycott in South Africa.
Finally, we call upon Arterial Network members and national chapters to engage and cooperate with other forces for democracy and human rights in their respective societies.
Arterial Network is a network of artists, cultural activists, creative NGOs and others engaged in the African creative sector, launched on Goree Island, Senegal in March 2007. The vision of ARTERIAL NETWORK is of a vibrant, dynamic and sustainable African creative civil society sector engaged in qualitative practice in the arts in their own right, as well as in a manner that contributes to development, human rights and democracy and to the eradication of poverty on the African continent.
National Chapters of Arterial Network have been launched in North Africa: Morocco, Algeria, Egypt; West Africa: Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Liberia, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali; Central Africa: Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon; East Africa: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda; Southern Africa: Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Africa.
The aims of ARTERIAL NETWORK are
1. to build effective, sustainable in-country, regional and continental networks within and across arts disciplines to play advocacy and lobbying roles within countries, regions, on the continent and internationally as appropriate.
2. to collect and distribute relevant information, data and documents to empower civil society arts and culture organisations in African countries and regions to plan and take informed action in their interests.
3. to provoke debate, discussions and theorising around arts, culture, creative industries and contemporary arts and culture discourses and to develop African positions and leadership on such issues.
4. to help to build national, regional, continental and international circuits (festivals, outlets, etc) to distribute African cultural goods and services and enable African artists to tour their works and to generate income through their creative output
5. to facilitate the training and development of human resources required to practice, distribute and market the arts and creative goods and services of the African continent.
6. to mobilise local, regional, continental and international resources in support of the development, promotion and distribution of African creative goods and services.
7. to improve the working and living conditions, and to defend the rights of artists and creative practitioners on the African continent.
ARTERIAL NETWORK is committed to the following fundamental principles which members are required to abide by and practice:
1. a commitment to participatory democracy including free and fair elections of leadership and accountability to membership.
2. a commitment to human rights as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the right to freedom of creative expression.
3. a commitment to transparency in decision-making, the allocation of tenders and paid work, the communication of decisions and in all financial matters with the concomitant need to declare conflicts of interest, real and potential.
4.a commitment to partnerships, to working collaboratively with existing organisations and institutions and to sharing resources and knowledge, rather than working in competition and consuming resources through duplication.
5. anti-discrimination on the basis of gender, language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religious belief, age and disability.
6. respect for cultural diversity and cultural co-existence but recognising the need to challenge cultural practices that conflict with fundamental human rights.
7. recognising and affirming different forms of knowledge, including traditional and indigenous knowledge.
8. respect for the varying conditions in which artists and markets operate on the continent and the need to respond to this range of conditions.
9. continuous pursuit of international best practice and improvement of the quality of products, goods, services and organisational practices while rooted in African experience.
10. a commitment to addressing the challenge of HIV/AIDS within the African creative sector.
11. a commitment to working in the best interests of ARTERIAL NETWORK as a whole and the pursuit of its vision and strategic objectives rather than individual or factionary interests.