‘The Art of Life in South Africa’: Q&A with Yale historian Daniel Magaziner

From 1952 to 1981, South Africa’s apartheid government operated a training school for art teachers in the Bantu Education system — the school system for black South Africans.

Magaziner’s book tells the story of Ndaleni, which for many years was the only place where a black South African could get a systematic art education.

Although primarily intended as a place to train teachers, the school, known as Ndaleni, offered black South Africans the largely unheard-of opportunity to learn art history and to train as artists. This opportunity came at a price: Upon completing the course, the students were to teach in a Bantu school for at least a year, entangling them with the apartheid state.

The Art of Life in South Africa,” a new book by Yale historian Daniel Magaziner, tells the story of Ndaleni’s students and teachers, the art they created, and the compromises they made — providing insights into the complexities of life under apartheid.

Magaziner, an associate professor of history, spoke with YaleNews about the book. An edited version of the conversation follows:

How did you come upon the story of Ndaleni?

I had finished my first book, “The Law and the Prophets,” which was about the student movement in the 1970s in South Africa. The movement insisted that politics in South Africa was to be a matter of “being.” It called people to be engaged with their full selves, and it insisted that one of the manifestations of that was that you couldn’t make apolitical art.  If art didn’t comment on the politics of the day, then it was irrelevant, and the worst thing to be was irrelevant.

This was familiar to me because in many ways it echoed the art historical literature about black South Africans, which tends to agree that the only way you could read black South African art was through the lens of apartheid and the struggle. This agreement felt historical to me, which is to say that I felt that there must be other ways of reading it.

I began to study the history of black artists and art in South Africa, but I had a difficult time finding documents and voices; I was treading water. Eventually I came upon a biography of an artist, which cited some letters he’d written to someone I’d never heard of, but they were letters, and I didn’t have many documents. I went to the archive where they were held and was shown an entire file cabinet of material concerning Ndaleni. It was the complete archive of the school from 1963 to 1981. Most people in South Africa have never heard of the school.

Why had Ndaleni been forgotten?

It’s unknown partly because it was a government school. Also, it was an art teacher training school, not an art school. There was no art school for black South Africans until the late 1970s. Ndaleni, founded in 1952, was the only place for many years where a black South African could get a systematic art education, but it came under the aegis of the government.  For that reason, people who tend to think only of art in terms of the struggle against apartheid tended to overlook it. Anyone who was affiliated with the government or worked with the government has frequently been viewed as a collaborator, and as in some way morally and ethically suspect.

One of the great examples I discovered of this is the story of Selby Mvusi, a relatively well-known South African artist who was one of Ndaleni’s first students. Mvusi never admitted that he trained at Ndaleni for two years because it was an embarrassment. He went into exile; he painted at time when most African artists were sculptors; he insisted that African art could be modern. He came from a country where your race and ethnicity determined so much of your life. He was determined that would not be his life in exile. The school was part of the apartheid system. By denying it, he was denying his own complicity in participating in the apartheid system.

What does the story of Ndaleni reveal about life under apartheid?

Much like art history, so much of the intellectual history about South Africa is about the struggle. It’s about people’s ideas of how one should act in service of a future one hoped would transpire. What is often left unspoken is the more quotidian intellectual history of how people thought about the regular work of living. This isn’t necessarily the story I meant to tell, but I arrived at it through thinking about art. One thing that makes visual art interesting is that you can’t create an object with material you don’t possess. When you see an artist, you’re looking at someone who works intensely with what’s available.

That’s what people were doing at Ndaleni. They weren’t imagining the world outside of apartheid, but they were striving to do the most with their lives as possible under the circumstances. To me, that speaks powerfully of the limits imposed on them under apartheid, but it also makes apartheid less exceptional because life at Ndaleni strikes me as a very human experience. The Ndaleni experience is a common experience. We tend to focus on those who probe and explore new territories, but that’s not what most people do. Most people just do what they can with what they have.

What was it like to attend Ndaleni?

One thing that makes Ndaleni an interesting experience to analyze is that attending it required geographical movement. Students came from across the country to study there, and that movement itself was a fascinating historical phenomenon in a country where African movement was tightly controlled. South Africa is a vast country with wildly different environmental zones, languages, traditions, and so forth. For many Ndaleni students, this meant that part of the experience of art was the experience of travel and time spent in a place very unlike the urban townships from which most of them came.

They travelled to a beautiful place where it is warm, lush, and relatively near the ocean. For most, the experience of natural beauty and quiet was very powerful. Many had never seen the ocean, and soon a mandatory swim became part of the curriculum. Beyond that, the more typical program of study was itself unique. The education covered the whole scope of art history, which was not part of the typical curriculum for Africans. They did all sorts of practical work to learn the various artistic methods. They needed to learn the methods because they would be charged with teaching them in the Bantu education school system, the segregated apartheid school system. They had the experience of being in the studio and learning methods they’d otherwise have no opportunity to learn.

According to Daniel Magaziner, “We tend to focus on those who probe and explore new territories, but that’s not what most people do. Most people just do what they can with what they have.”

I argue that this was the upside of their compromise, which also had many downsides. The biggest downside was that you had to work for the apartheid government for at least a year, which meant you were collaborating with the government. They lived in an old and dilapidated mission station. The food was terrible. They were closely policed and infantilized in many ways.  In exchange for these conditions, they had the unique opportunity learn about art: to study Roman art, to study the Renaissance, to learn about Picasso and other artists, to travel, to swim in the ocean, to go to museums. These were uncommon experiences that profoundly marked people.

What did students encounter after they left Ndaleni?

Once they left Ndaleni, they entered a world in which most people didn’t understand what they were doing. As much as they lacked resources at Ndaleni, the resources at the apartheid schools were infinitely worse. In some schools you’d have 100 students for every teacher. Often, they couldn’t teach art because the schools were so short of teachers. They were subjected to the authority of bureaucrats who ran the Bantu education schools, which was a thoroughly corrupt system with scant resources.

When the Soweto uprising occurs in 1976, the school — which had always been political — is suddenly even more politicized, which could put teachers in danger. Perhaps the standout example of this is Silverman Jara, an Ndaleni-trained teacher who became principal of a Bantu school. Jara’s students stoned him to death. He thought of himself as their teacher; they saw him as a collaborator. This is an extreme example of the very common experience of trying to do one’s job — which most teachers thought was profoundly important — in a context when it was anything but simple do so.

What are your favorite stories about Ndaleni students? 

How much time do you have? Here are two favorites: The first is about a student named Samson Mahlobo, who just desperately wanted to be an artist. He studied at Ndaleni and went to teach because he had no other choice, but his dreams were different. Apartheid complicated things for him. There was no way for him to be an artist in Nigel, the mining town where he lived. He was constantly writing to galleries asking to do a show, but he never pulled one off. For one, he didn’t have any materials. He repeatedly asked people for stone to carve or paints and canvas. He needed to move to Johannesburg, which had an art scene, but doing that required obtaining a re-endorsement from the Department of Bantu Affairs, which wouldn’t give him one. You couldn’t move without a job and “artist” was not considered a real job.

He tried and tried and finally landed a show, but he couldn’t get materials to work with, and the gallery canceled on him. So he killed himself. It’s a dramatic story, but it’s also a profoundly human story. It powerfully captures the limitations people faced.

The other story is about a man named Abednego Dlamini. It’s probably the story that I love the most. Dlamini had the biggest file in the archive. He wrote to his teacher three times a years for decades. He was not a very good artist, but he was an excellent teacher. He was constantly writing letters, complaining that nobody takes him seriously as an artist, but saying, “Oh by the way, I’ve been promoted; I’ve gotten married; I’ve bought a house; I’ve had daughter.”   

Over time Dlamini, gave up his dreams of becoming an artist. Instead he became principal at a small school near the coast, and before the school opened, he erected a small statue of a reading student to greet his students. He never became a successful artist, but he provided the title of my book. In the mid-1970s he wrote to his teacher and said that although there had been little progress in his art, he had experienced great progress in the art of his life. He played the hand he was dealt and exploited it to the fullest using his talents.

I’ve never met him. I’ve tried for years to find him. I don’t know if he’s still alive, but I’ve not been able to track him down. I think I’m glad about that. It means I can imagine him satisfied.  Just imagining him as satisfied is a tremendous challenge to South African historiography. There is no category for it.

Were the Ndaleni students collaborators?

One of my major issues with South African history — and this is true of any country with an intensely politicized history— is that we have a hard time with gray areas. The students were people. They weren’t spectacular people. They weren’t rebels. With the exception of Selby Mvusi and a couple of others, they did not transcend their circumstances. But they tried to live good lives.

Like Dlamini, they played the hands they were dealt. When people hear that expression, they think it implies passivity, but you have to play the hand. It’s not passive. Dlamini didn’t make the rules, but he played the game very well.

I’ve given talks in South Africa, and people have approached me and said of the students, “But really, they were collaborators.”

I once gave a public lecture in the Steve Biko Center in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape Province. Some of the younger members of the audience called the students collaborators; but afterwards, a woman approached me and quietly thanked me. She seemed very moved. She leaned forward and whispered to me that she had been in the police. The police were obviously collaborators, but her experience of it was fuller and richer and more ethical than the label “collaborator” would suggest. I was very moved by that, which is not necessarily to excuse whatever she may have done, but instead to recognize that this is life. It is just life.

Yale’s Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Areas Studies, Whitney Humanities Center, and Frederick W. Hilles Publica­tion Fund supported Magaziner’s project.

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