Arterial Network Media Respond to COSATU statement and Swaziland cultural boycott

Below is Arterial Network Media Statement Responding to COSATU statements and the call for a cultural boycott of Swaziland:

“Arterial Network has taken note of the call for a cultural boycott of Swaziland and in particular, of one of our members, the Bushfire Festival scheduled to take place from 27-29 May, as reported in the Mail and Guardian, May 6-12, 2011. We have also taken note of the 10 May 2011 COSATU Statement on the Arterial Network attack on the Swazi Cultural Boycott, allegedly in response to an Arterial Network media statement about the cultural boycott of Swaziland. On the second subject, we would like to clarify that there was no Arterial Network public statement on the matter. COSATU has responded to a first draft of a statement prepared by a Harare-based member of Arterial Network’s secretariat who distributed the draft for democratic input to other members including the chairpersons of Arterial Network chapters in Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Namibia and South Africa. Assuming it to be an official position, our South African colleague forwarded the draft statement to a forum at which the cultural boycott and other forms of solidarity action with struggles for democracy in Swaziland and Zimbabwe were to be discussed. Unfortunately, by the time he realised his mistake and communicated this to the forum, COSATU, the key driver of the forum, was already in the final stages of completing their statement responding to this first draft. This, then, is simply to place on record that the statement to which COSATU responded was not in any way an official statement of Arterial Network; it had not been issued to any member of the media, neither had it been authorised for distribution beyond a few Arterial Network members for comment. Arterial Network deeply regrets the mistake and apologises for any misunderstanding or offence that the draft might have caused. 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.”