Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
The haunting voice of Nina Simone singing "I Loves you, Porgy" came to mind this week, with her mournful contradiction "If you can keep me, I want to stay here with you forever – But when he comes, I know I’ll have to go".
It was the Archbishop Desmond Tutu who made me think of this, when he penned an outlandish plea to the Cape Town Opera to boycott Israel by postponing its tour of Porgy and Bess. To my mind, this went far beyond the scope of what a public figure like the Archbishop should comment on. Particularly when South Africa has official diplomatic ties with Israel and recognizes its sovereignty.
Cape Town Opera’s response noted that it is also in negotiations to perform in Palestine. I doubt there will be any complaints emanating from South Africa when that tour happens. Our Government maintains an unstated position with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one seldom hears an unbiased statement in Parliament.
I, on the other hand, have been accused of favouring Israel. This accusation played in my mind when my office was contacted by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to determine whether I would attend the second Inter-Parliamentary Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism, taking place in Canada next week.
We were informed that seven South African Members of Parliament were invited, but no one had responded. I regret that the internal matters of my Party bar me from attending. I would have liked to engage a discussion on whether comments like the Archbishop’s "increase hatred and hostility", as the Israeli Embassy suggested, or whether they simply "highlight the issues" as the Muslim Judicial Council claims.
But there was something else that bothered me about the Archbishop’s letter. He wrote that it would be "unconscionable" "to perform Porgy and Bess, with its universal message of non-discrimination, in the present state of Israel". That kind of rhetoric adds weight to his call; but I cannot remember a single aspect of Porgy and Bess that relates to non-discrimination.
In fact, George Gershwin’s production was accused of being condescending and racist, which led to scant performances in the sixties and early seventies when the American Civil Rights Movement gained pace. But it has also won awards and been performed to worldwide acclaim for 75 years.
Ironically, Porgy and Bess ran for 124 shows on Broadway and began its first tour before its all African-American cast protested racial segregation in the National Theatre of Washington DC, which resulted in the first integrated performance of any show. But there, in 1936, is where its message of non-discrimination ends.
In fact, its European premiere in Copenhagen, during the Nazi occupation, was performed by an all-white cast. Despite its popularity, the Nazis shut it down. On several occasions, the Gershwin family prevented South African theatre companies from performing all-white productions of Porgy and Bess during apartheid.
When it premiered in the Soviet capital of Moscow in 1955, an official from the Soviet cultural ministry declared, "When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent. When the cannons are silent, the muses are heard." Indeed, when I read the Archbishop’s letter, I couldn’t help but wonder why, as an activist, he did not realise that art is one of the most effective tools to open hearts and minds.
But then, regrettably, this is not the first time I have disagreed with the head of my own Church, the Archbishop Tutu. He writes of "those of us who believed in peaceful means of forcing change". I am one of those, and I recall suffering an intense conflict of conscience with my church over the armed struggle.
I recall the South African Council of Churches producing the Kairos Document which declared it was time for "a just war". I also recall Cannon Burgess Carr speaking in Mozambique on Freedom Day, suggesting that Christ had sanctified violence through the crucifixion.
I recall meeting in London with the Head of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Robert Runcie, to seek his guidance on the issue of "a just war". Before we even sat down he asked me whether other leaders agree with me in opposing the armed struggle. I responded, "Your Grace, you too are a leader. Do other leaders always agree with you?" When he did not respond, I asked him, "Did everyone agree with Christ?" Needless to say, I did not receive any guidance in that meeting.
I also recall that at the funeral service of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe in Graaf Reinet, an attempt was made on my life by a group of youths.
In the aftermath, Archbishop Tutu publically praised these young men, saying they were a new breed of young people with iron in their souls.
Thus I am struggling to reconcile what I know with what I read.
Returning to the conveniently emotive suggestion that Porgy and Bess carries a "universal message of non-discrimination", I must point out that Bess herself is shunned by the community when her violent lover, Crown, kills a man over a game of craps and leaves her to fend for herself. Even her contribution to the burial fund is rejected.
Then a white detective, with no evidence whatsoever, falsely accuses one of the community members of the murder and orders his arrest. A lawyer defrauds Bess based on the fact that she was not married. Porgy is excluded from the Church picnic due to his disability, and later finds himself imprisoned for a week simply for refusing to identify a corpse.
Bess is perhaps the only one who shows no discrimination; after declaring her love for Porgy, a disabled beggar, Bess has relations with her former lover, but returns to live in Porgy’s home. When her lover is killed and Porgy is imprisoned, she runs off to New York with a drug dealer.
This is perhaps not the kind of "universal message of non-discrimination" the Archbishop had in mind when he penned his recent letter. But then I think he had many people wondering exactly what was going through his mind when he wrote it.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP.