A friend took me to see a 'protest theatre' play, at the Market Theatre. I was appalled and energized. The play was lame, self-serving, and ultimately did nothing to the audience - beyond perhaps evoking some casual sense of outrage and pity for the then voteless majority.
I hated the idea that theatre was reducing Apartheid to a trendy thing for those with money to go and watch scenes from, and then go home, untouched in any real way.
So I sat and wrote something that hopefully captured the anger and violence of the times in a more adequate way. Out poured a nasty little one-person play, and - as with all my work - after a few days of writing, it emerged ready to rock and roll.
The title comes from a line in the play, as the psychotic conservative character snorts disgustedly at the idea of passive resistance as a useful tool of protest.
"Passive resistance? Bring me Gandhi, and we'll fuck him up faster than we fucked up Biko."
I realized that the genteel world of theatre, needed a more elegant form of poster, than
that initial ‘Ian Fraser Poetry Roadshow’ cut n paste job - which owed more to
the sensibilities of Punk than Theatre.
Keep in mind that this was the mid-1980’s. There was a nationwide ‘State of Emergency’ declared by the Apartheid authorities - which boiled down to something very close to martial law, in action.
Anyone with the rank of Corporal and up, was legally allowed to 'detain' you, without trial, and without access to lawyers. People were disappearing, there were massacres almost every week. Pictures of Nelson Mandela were 'illegal' and would get you instantly jailed.
So it was within this
context of what I saw as genuine civil warfare, that I wrote the piece. I'll
detail elsewhere, the official Government reaction to this play.
There were actually three posters, which I used. One has been lost along the way, the other two survived. A friend took a fascinating three picture sequence of a soldier beating a man in the Townships, which simply wouldn’t get published in those days of severe censorship and repression.
My friend was terrified, I wasn’t. So I made a poster out of it. And stuck it up around Johannesburg.
The second, and more
widespread poster, which appeared around Johannesburg - and then also at the
Grahamstown National Arts Festival, was equally primitive - but it contained
a number of elements that would stay with me when making posters.
The naive lettering style and the circular ‘face’ with a straight line (meaning ‘Have an Ordinary Day’).
The face logo had begun to become gradually associated with me. (I’d gotten into the habit of going on repeated graffiti missions at night, dodging the roving police, and army patrols, to spray various things on walls).
I'd dump the empty spray can and plastic bag that I used to protect my hand from the paint, in the garbage, and then slide into one or another bar to drink, if I had the money. Keep an eye on the door for a while, until I was sure that I'd gotten away with whatever vile slogan or image I'd decided to spray on someone's wall.
Point being: gradually the ‘face’
logo became my tag of choice, so to speak.
I actually ran across a mounted photograph of one of my night-time 'faces', up on a wall in an office at The Star newspaper.
It's weird to see
ones own frightened graffiti-art, created in heart-pounding circumstances,
sedately reduced to an elegant-looking black and white picture, framed up on a wall in a newsroom.
-Note in this battered souvenir from a run in Natal, complete with torn corners from the sticky putty I used to put up the posters with, the small line drawing on bottom right, of a bulldozer pushing bodies into a mass grave.
The ghost of Sergio Aragones was alive and well, and living in Apartheid South Africa.