Four lifeless bodies lie on the surface. One is on all fours, either going down or trying to get up, a hint of resurrection perhaps. The other two are being swallowed down as only the shoulders and heads remain perched above the surface. The surface itself is blue and therefore could be a body of water. Four signposts in the picture seem strategically planted. Near one of the bodies is a lady’s handbag. A healthy giant baobab tree stands in the distance against a dark backdrop. There is something innately disturbing about the piece.
These are scenes in Senzo Shabangu’s Get Over It, one of his landscape paintings. For the artist, landscape painting is an artform he employs to express the dynamics of human experiences in a way that allows him to capture detail. The work is his reconstruction of the massacre that happened at Strijdom Square in Pretoria on 15 November 1988. On that fateful day, a man named Barend ‘Wit Wolf’ Strydom went on a shooting spree resulting in the massacre of seven innocent black people, with sixteen others injured.1According to other sources, there were eight dead. Strydom is said to have meditated and prayed for God’s guidance prior to committing the horrific act.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) granted him amnesty in 1994 on the grounds that his attack was politically motivated.2Strijdom Square Massacre: Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strijdom_Square_massacre Strijdom Square was named after J.G. Strijdom, a prime minister in apartheid South Africa. On 9 August 2006, the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Anti-Pass March of 1956 the place was renamed Lilian Ngoyi Square in honour of one of the nation’s leading anti-apartheid activists and fighters.3A Deeper Look at Johannesburg’s New Street Names. Available: http://www.theheritageportal.co.za/article/deeper-look-johannesburgs-new-street-names Together with Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, Ngoyi led 20 000 women of all races to the Union Buildings to demand that the pass laws be abolished.49 August 1956: The Women’s Anti-Pass March. Available: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/9-august-1956-the-women-s-anti-pass-march-africa-media-online/3QKisZ_nLurALA?hl=en
Shabangu made this work after a recent visit to the site of the massacre. “It is an emotional piece for me. I did it to honour the people who died at the Square, and to pay homage to the lost ones. But also, as black people, we encounter people who do not want us to confront injustices of the past. We cannot just wake up and forget what happened. There must be some form of redress”, says Shabangu. Even the TRC’s decision was just cold comfort. The wounds cannot completely heal. Though important, renaming sites is also just symbolic and superficial, especially in a nation where some conservative elements of society still insist on calling the place by its old name. Even more striking is how little an internet search for Lilian Ngoyi Square yields in comparison to that of Strijdom Square.
For an event which happened in the heart of Pretoria, what could be the reason for Shabangu’s choice to portray the scene against a non-urban backdrop. Not only are there no skyscrapers in sight, but there are also no bright lights. It all makes sense when the artist starts to explain the significance of the water body and the baobab tree presented before us. “Our heroes are drowning, and you cannot breathe when you’re underwater”, explains the artist. It is a predicament black people are trapped in. “However, in my culture, and that of many Africans, when we plant someone in the ground, they become the source of strength for the living”, asserts Shabangu. Therein lies the metaphor of the thick baobab stem – people do not die, rather they transcend and become the pillars of strength anchoring the living.
The story of the Strijdom Square Massacre shocked Shabangu so much that he saw the need to speak about it in his art, for the dead will only die when the living stop remembering them. Sadly, there have been many more similar events in the world, especially in the United States of America.5White Extremist Ideology Drives Many Deadly Shootings. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/04/us/white-extremist-active-shooter.html The most disturbing trend in all these crimes is how the defence witness psychologists always seem to find the root of the problem in the troubled childhoods of the offenders, despite the perpetrators adamantly declaring that they knew exactly what they were doing. Indeed, just like in the case of the Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik,6Breivik was ‘already damaged at the age of two’. Available: https://www.tv2.no/a/8241631/ it was stated that Strydom had had a troubled childhood. It is as though there is always an attempt to humanise white supremacist killers.
Currently based in Johannesburg, Shabangu talks of the journey he has travelled with pride. It has been nothing short of a transformation. In Endless Journey I, he chronicles the story of his journey, employing the metaphor of a fancy couch as a base beset with places he has been to or still looks forward to going to. To the left is Mpumalanga, a place which marks his humble beginnings, and therefore very close to his heart. In the middle is Johannesburg, marked by the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge, and the Hillbrow Tower. The Joburg towers have become his trademark symbols in his depictions of the Jozi cityscape. On the wall are some of his most well-known artworks. To the right is an imaginary futuristic city which symbolizes that the artist still has the drive to get to another level. He is not content with the place he is in now. The work also pays homage to rural-urban migrations within the country as people move from the marginalized countryside to the cities or centres of opportunity.
The artist extents the concept of the futuristic space in Propagate Africa, featured in ‘Their Humble Abode’, his latest solo exhibition currently on at the RAW Spot Gallery at the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR). Shabangu is the current RAW Artist in Residence for the Residencies for Artists and Writers (RAW) programme of the NRF/DSI research programme in Geopolitics and the Arts of Africa in the Fine Arts department. In the work we witness the coming together of Africans proudly draped in their national colours facing a backdrop festooned with different iconic African symbols drawn from Cairo in Egypt, Timbuktu in Mali, Gorée Island in Senegal, Ethiopia, and Johannesburg. The work in the exhibition reinforces that Shabangu is engaging with issues stretching beyond the borders of South Africa. In the body of work – composed of drawings, paintings, and prints – the artist ‘narrates the story of African children as they migrate from different places in search for better education’.7‘The Humble Abode’ statement. See the Arts Lounge Africa page on Facebook. Available: https://www.facebook.com/groups/204647466958310 The show will run through the 2021 National Arts Festival in Makhanda.
The idea of moving to Johannesburg or the big city is a dream of most kids growing up in the countryside. They see their role models in the migrant labourers who have moved to the cities and are also breadwinners. Every morning, at Isibani Primary School in Driefontein, a young Shabangu and his colleagues would stand in straight lines at the assembly point as depicted in Morning Prayer. They would sing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika and recite the Lord’s Prayer before being addressed by the school’s principal or one of the senior teachers. In the motivational stories of the principal – or that of Mr Zwane who was Shabangu’s favourite mentor – they saw visions of a life beyond their local surroundings. They dreamt of leaving the countryside for the City of Gold, their promised land. To them, the city was a place of riches, which is why the artist depicts it in gold, coupled with a beautiful bright skyline. They had no idea that cities are places of complicated human relationships and narratives, or spaces haunted by complex histories of the past like the one Shabangu encountered on the visit to Lilian Ngoyi Square. Nothing much has changed over the years as the killer in most African countries is no longer the individual, but the big men and the governing system with the ordinary people still expected to ‘get over it’ and move on. From the Marikana Massacre on 16 August 2012 in South Africa to the shooting of civilians by the Zimbabwe National Army on August 1, 2018, ordinary people are perpetually on the receiving end.
Shabangu says he is drawn to landscape painting because it allows him to tell multiple stories in a single work. The stories he tells range from the autobiographical to things that affect humanity. There is freedom in the artform, and the artist can ask many questions. Another form of inspiration for him desiring to depict places, particularly Johannesburg, is his late father who was a construction worker. On trips to the city, his father would point to all the buildings he had helped construct. What bothers Shabangu is that when he retired after serving for several years, his father did not own a home in the city. His rural home was nowhere near as beautiful and secure as the facilities he had toiled on for all his working years in the city. It is heart-breaking. In art, the son has found a way to tell these stories.