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Cultural Workers as Freedom Fighters

The 1980s were a fraught decade in the history of South Africa. It was a time personified by political upheaval and state violence against Black South African citizens. The apartheid regime established 1948 based on an authoritarian political governance and ruled by the baaskap white supremacy, was increasing pressure on civilian protests erupting in many different parts of the country. The apartheid government of the 1980s, also known as the Botha government (P. W. Botha being the first executive state president from 1984 to 1989), was brutally punishing political offenders. In these times of uprising and contestation, up to 40,000 Black South African citizens were lashed, whipped, and tortured each year for their contestation to the oppressive state.


In response to the growing unrest, the apartheid government declared several states of emergencies during this period. On 20 July 1985, Botha declared a state of emergency in the Eastern Cape and the Pretoria region. House arrests, curfews, and the banning of institutions became the rule. Thousands were detained under the Internal Security Act which gave the state sweeping power to control the population's mobility. On 12 June 1986, four days before the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the state of emergency was extended to cover the whole country. As a result of the increasing repression of the authoritarian regime, numerous organizations became banned and ten of thousands of anti-apartheid activists were detained without trial. The 1980s were indeed heady times of resistance to the apartheid government and a much needed global awareness of the crimes organized by the seggregational state. Culture emerged as a crucial weapon of resistance and instrument to be used in the fight for dignity and freedom. The apartheid government realized this and implemented states of emergency to annihilate cultural activities. 


The repressive force deployed against cultural workers indeed underscored the relevance of the arts in the anti-apartheid struggle. The C.A.P. (Community Arts Project), a community arts centre located in the suburb of Woodstock in Cape Town collaborated with other anti-apartheid organizations such as the A.N.C. (African National Congress) and the U.D.F. (United Democratic Front) to produce a cadre of visual artists, theatre-makers and designers and to train them on counter hegemonic art practices. Seeing that there was very little cultural resistance given the harsh living conditions of most South African citizens, C.A.P. curated an arts and cultural festival in South Africa in the year of 1986, in the same vein as the Negro Arts Festival of Dakar 1966, the Pan African Festival 1969, Zaire 1974 and FESTAC, Nigeria 1977. One of the main purposes of the C.A.P. the festival was to advocate for the necessity of culture to be used as a weapon against state and other hegemonic forms of tyranny. The festival which was to be called Towards a People’s Culture became banned by the apartheid government as it was deemed a threat to national security.

About Time was an exhibition organized by CAP at the University of Cape Town in 1986. The exhibition was banned by the Apartheid Regime during the second state of emergency. We have decided to give About Time a speculative afterlife. Our aim is to historicize significant moments in the past to anchor the relevance of artistic and cultural work in the present.