by Elise Eggart, Harvard WorldTeach volunteer
Today, Cape Town is a thriving metropolis
whose growth and economic success are testimony to the strength and vibrancy of
the new South Africa. The city, however, retains many of the scars that it
incurred during the dark era of Apartheid, and these remain as stark and steady
reminders of the city's cruel past. Two of the most notable marks of this past
are the eerily empty city blocks that used to comprise the vibrant neighborhood
known as District Six, and the walled stone and concrete complex on Robben
Island, which served as the Apartheid regime's maximum security prison for
political prisoners until 1991.
No one, perhaps, is more intimately familiar with these two places than Lionel
Davis, who grew up in District Six and spent seven years long years on Robben
Island. Davis's remarkable life has been shaped to a large degree by his
experiences in both of these places, which have infused him with an intense
determination to erase apartheid's brutal legacy while ensuring that the
injustices of South Africa's past are never forgotten. Davis agreed to sit down
with us, an eager group of South African and American students, to tell us a
bit of his own story.
|Growing Up in
| Lionel Davis was born in District Six in 1936, and spent all
of his childhood in the neighborhood. District Six was primarily home to
colored (mixed race) South Africans, but many black and Indian families lived
there as well. The neighborhood tended to break down racial barriers in an
otherwise highly color-conscious society. As Davis remembers, everyone
interacted with everyone else, because "we were all one as poor as the
other, and we were always interdependent." Davis's family occasionally
sent him to fetch food from neighbors when their supplies were short, and notes
that his family was quick to return the favor when the same neighbors were
going hungry. The neighborhood's tight quarters and heavy interdependence led
to "a great sense of togetherness" that Davis recalls with nostalgia.
District Six was a great place to be a kid. From street games to informal
soccer clubs to ballroom dancing, there was never a shortage of things to do.
Children were always out and about; as Davis remembers, "your playground
was the street." The neighborhood's vibrant atmosphere encouraged
creativity among its youth, and the community produced a number of skilled
musicians, dancers, and artists. This focus on creativity, which is still
present in many present-day colored communities, led Davis to artwork for the
first time. When he could find it, Davis would use colored chalk to draw
cartoon characters on the sidewalk. Decades later he would become a skilled
artist, but he had no avenue to pursue artwork once in high school, and his
drawing fell by the wayside.
As Davis grew up, he became increasingly angry about the problems and
injustices that plagued his community. While race relations in District Six
were perhaps healthier than in any other South African neighborhood, residents
nonetheless frequently succumbed to the apartheid mentality. Davis resented the
fact that "whiteness" was sought after by so many people. He recalls
that light skinned children of colored parents sometimes petitioned the South
African government to be reclassified as white, even though this course of
action meant disowning their own families. The increasingly oppressive police
presence in District Six also contributed to Davis's frustration. He recalls
that "white [police officers] were always working against
arresting us and beating us up." Davis had his own share of
run-ins with the law; at one point he was sentenced to a caning after an
altercation with a white woman.
| After dropping out of High School, Davis became increasingly convinced
that drastic action was required to rid South Africa of apartheid's oppression.
When he was in his early 20's, he joined a group known as the African People's
Democratic Union of South Africa, which advocated toppling the white government
with a Marxist revolution. When recalling his time with the group, Davis
remarked that "they had the most wonderful politics," but that
"they were just a thought shop." As time past, Davis became
frustrated with the group's inaction, and he eventually left the APDUSA to join
the more radical National Liberation Front. This group was in its infancy when
Davis joined, but it had the intention of gaining a large number of followers
in order to take up arms against the apartheid government.
Davis began to participate actively in the National Liberation Front's
widespread recruitment effort, but his time with the organization wouldn't last
long. In 1964, he and several other NLF operatives were arrested by the South
African government and charged with "conspiracy to commit acts of
sabotage." Davis was sentenced to seven years on Robben Island. In
hindsight, Davis says that he's glad that he and his fellow NLF members were
caught as soon as they were. Had their plans progressed further, Davis might
have faced a life sentence, or he might have been tortured to death at the
hands of the police.
Robben Island was not a desirable place to be, but life for prisoners on the
island was not completely devoid of hope. By the time Davis arrived at the
prison, the South African government had granted prisoners the privilege of
pursuing their educations from the island, albeit under strict conditions.
Prisoners' families had to pay the expense of correspondence courses, and the
slightest rule violation could terminate a prisoner's official education. As
Davis learned though, these strict rules could be circumvented by determined
students. For example, some prisoners snuck paper and pencils into their cells
in empty cement bags, and taught one another in their cells at night. While on
the island, Davis finished high school via a correspondence course. Other
prisoners with longer sentences accomplished even more impressive academic
feats. Davis's friend Eric Daniels, for example, arrived on Robben Island with
only a primary school education and left fifteen years later with two degrees
from the University of South Africa.
After his time on Robben Island, Davis faced an additional five years of house
arrest. Davis believes that being confined to his home was even more
frustrating and difficult than his time in prison, and he began to look for
outlets that would keep him productively engaged during the endless progression
of hours and days. For the first time in well over a decade, Davis began to
draw. He found artwork to be so fulfilling that he resolved to seriously pursue
it when his house arrest ended.
| It was this resolve that led Davis to discover the Cape Arts
Project in 1978. The organization's goal was to educate and empower South
Africans of all races by introducing them to art, theater, and dance. Davis
took his first formal art classes with CAP, and continued his art education
with the organization for two full years. He then spent another two years at
the Evangelical Arts and Crafts Center at Rorke's Drift in Natal. At Rorke's
Drift, Davis was introduced to the medium of screen printing, which is used to
produce artwork on t-shirts and posters. Davis realized that this medium had
great potential to affect widespread social change, and he pursued it
wholeheartedly with the intention of teaching the discipline to others. Davis's
two years at Rorke's Drift gave him a degree in Fine Arts, and qualified him to
return to the the Community Arts Project in Cape Town as a teacher.
Davis taught at CAP through the tumultuous 1980's, as harsh government
crackdowns became more frequent and South Africa became increasingly isolated
in the world. As a screen printing instructor, he assisted a variety of
individuals and organizations who opposed apartheid. South African law made it
dangerous for his students to print posters and t-shirts with overtly
revolutionary messages, but their artwork aided the resistance movement in more
subtle ways. Davis's students produced everything from posters protesting high
rents to t-shirts urging white South Africans to resist army conscription.
Davis is particularly proud of the fact that CAP remained autonomous throughout
the decade, resisting the temptation to align itself with any particular
political organization. This allowed Davis and his fellow instructors to assist
everyone who sought to oppose apartheid, and in so doing, do their part to
encourage all South Africans to bind together in a united front against their
Davis is also proud of the degree to which his work as an art instructor
empowered his students. Education is certainly a subtle form of resistance, but
in the long run, it is perhaps the most potent means of bringing about positive
societal change. Almost all of Davis's students perceived art as a domain that
belonged only to whites, and their education with CAP thus helped to break down
barriers in their own minds. Art education also gave Davis's students a rare
chance to pursue full self-expression. Apartheid's official Bantu Education
curriculum stressed wrote memorization and strove to dehumanize its black
pupils to the greatest possible extent. Generations of black children had
creativity and free thought drilled out of them as they passed through South
Africa's schools. Through drawing and painting, many of Davis's students were
able freely think and create for the first time in years. Often, this
opportunity set Davis's students on the road to attaining a much stronger and
more profound sense of self. "Through the medium of art," Davis
explains, "you can begin to dignify a person."
|Today and the
Lionel Davis was well into his fifties during the early
1990's, as South Africa's white government was crumbling away. Davis had spent
his life to that point struggling against the apartheid regime with everything
from screen printing to plans of guerrilla warfare, and he had sacrificed 12
years of his own freedom to this cause. Many people in Davis's position, after
attaining such a long sought-after goal, would decide to take a well deserved
break. Davis, however, had no intention of slowing down. In 1992, he entered
The University of Cape Town's prestigious Michaelis School of Fine Art, and
graduated two years later with a Master's degree at age 58.
In the years since, Davis has continued his effort to erase apartheid's legacy.
He currently works full time as the educational coordinator for the Robben
Island museum, coordinating programs that teach school groups about the
island's place in South African history. When he retires from his post this
year (2006) at age 70, he plans to buckle down and pursue a painting career.
Young South Africans have much to learn from Davis's example. Creating a truly
equitable society after centuries of white dominance will require the new South
African generation to exhibit just the sort of boundless energy and steadfast
resolve that Davis has displayed for all of his life. Hopefully, the legacies
of South Africans like Lionel Davis will live on through the collective action
of future generations.
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