The South African ‘Cultural Seasons’ in Russia

south african cultural season


By Helen Borodina

Photography of the unveiling ceremony, by courtesy of the Embassy of South Africa in Moscow, photography of concert by Helen Borodina.

On November 29th 2016, the South African Embassy in Russia in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture of the Republic of South Africa hosted a concert to launch the South African ‘Cultural Seasons’ at Dom Muzyki (House of Music) in Moscow, officiated by the Honourable Minister of Arts and Culture of the Republic of South Africa, Mr Nathi Mthethwa.

During the concert, the performances of South African artists Given Nkosi, ‘Mzansi Youth Choir’, Dizu Plaatjies, Sisonke Xonti, Magda de Vries, ‘Moving into Dance’, Bokani Dyer Trio and others, accompanied by a Russian Orchestra, had the audience stunned for three hours. The next day saw an event of great historical significance: the unveiling of monuments dedicated to Messrs Moses Kotane and John Beaver Marks. These two stalwarts of the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress have passed on – Mr Marks, in August 1972, and Mr Kotane, in May 1978 – whilst in exile in the USSR. By agreement with the Russian Government, their remains were exhumed and repatriated to South Africa in February 2015.

The Unveiling 

The day was very cold, but also sunny, and the site of the Novodevichy cemetery and mon-astery looked solemn but bright. The ceremony began with Pastor Vyacheslav Starikov’s opening words, followed by speeches by Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky and Minister Mthethwa. Mr Wakeel Marks and Mr Daniel Noel Louw, J.B. Marks’s family members, and Ambassador Sam Kotane, Son of Moses Kotane, who unveiled the memorials, read the inscriptions and made speeches in their honour. Then the two Ministers laid the wreaths, and the Pastor said a prayer. The South African Ambassador to Russia, Her Excel-lency Ms. N. M. Sibanda-Thusi closed the ceremony with a word of thanks.

Ties of Many Years

The unveiling was followed by a cocktail reception at the Marriott Aurora hotel, with an exhibition about Moses Kotane and J.B. Marks prepared by the National Library of South Africa. Mr Mthethwa made the opening address, and for the rest of the evening the guests enjoying their wine and snacks, viewed the exhibition which represented an account of South Africa’s relationship with Russia and stories about Kotane and Marks.

The next day, Minister Mthethwa travelled to St. Petersburg to participate in the St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum.

Despite Minister Mthethwa’s busy schedule, he kindly agreed to an interview at the South African Embassy. On my way to the embassy I read an article in a ‘Rovesnik’ (a popular Soviet youth magazine) from 1986 I had brought along, in which there was a compilation of a collection of Nelson Mandela’s letters to his wife during his imprisonment, and citations from his speeches and writings. I was visitor number 24 at the embassy that day, and felt as if I was taking a trip to South Africa without having to travel as I spoke to the Minister about the relationship between the two countries in the past and today, the ‘Cultural Seasons,’ and, of course, BRICS.

Minister Mthethwa, how did South Africans achieve so much, how did they manage to get beyond apartheid?

The answer is the revolution in South Africa. In our struggle for freedom, we used culture, our heritage, to unite countries. Nations like Russia – the Soviet Union then, connected with us through art, music, and dance. We had cultural exchanges in the past, and we’re getting to that point again. I feel that we’ve made a good start, and it’s only going to get better.

Please share your impressions of speaking before the MGIMO students in Moscow during your visit in 2015.

They were fascinated to learn about Moses Kotane and J.B. Marks – how they came here, their life stories, what they did in this country, how they stood up for workers and became part and parcel of this family, this country. Of course, they had heard about Mandela. These two giants were Mandela’s mentors; people who guided him when his politics were still very weak and nascent.

What is the significance of today’s events?

It further strengthens ties between South Africa and Russia. It’s time for us to express our gratitude to the loving people of Russia, particularly for their role in keeping the memory of our heroes alive. The Russian government has allowed us to put cenotaphs where these peo-ple had been buried, letting it remain the place where we will continue to respect them. It’s something we will never forget.

What does it mean for South Africa to be part of BRICS?

BRICS is a great thing. Developing nations are coming together for important exchanges, independently. Today we see the lives of the people of the BRICS member countries changing for the better. We don’t need to beg. We can create our own BRICS bank, our own rating agencies. BRICS is an alternative system that covers all social and economic spheres and it’s going to work to benefit the rest of the world. Social progress is only possible when there’s cooperation amongst nations – as opposed to a world war!

Our readers are an international audience living in Russia, with their own understandings of Russia and Russians. What’s your take on this?

It’s a big mistake to harbour prejudiced perceptions. Some misconceptions, I believe, may be caused by the language barrier, or perhaps, by the impression that Russians are too ‘into themselves.’ When you get to know them, you realize that they are the most pleasant people in the world. Obviously, sometimes, we must rely on perceptions, or even assumptions about others, but it’s only when you start getting to know people in their home environment do you begin to see them for who they really are. It’s important to remember that Russians are people the West doesn’t want the rest of the world to interact with, and the western media works hard to alienate Russia and her people from other continents – Africa, for one. However, when the countries of Africa were brought into a struggle for freedom, they got to know the rich, kind and beautiful Russian soul. I believe we must do more together. Culture is a very powerful tool that helps us understand each other. Cultural collaborations help more people get closer to each other.

What is the role of the Russian ‘Cultural Seasons’ in South Africa, and of the South Afri-can ‘Cultural Seasons’ in Russia?  

South Africans still need to learn more about Russia, to understand that Russia isn’t only Moscow, that it’s a huge country, rich in culture and art. The Russian ‘Cultural Seasons’ will allow South Africans to get a glimpse of that, bringing real Russian people, in Russian clothes, playing national Russian Instruments, to South Africa. And when we bring our mu-sicians, dancers and singers to Russia, we help Russians to get to know us in the same way.

I thanked the Minister, stopped the recording, and later I reflected on what I had seen and heard over those two cold November days. I realised that the world we live in will always be full of new things worth knowing, no matter where we’ve already been and what we already know. That honouring heroes and celebrating life and peace with song and dance is the right thing to do.