A Report of the CASA Conference and Festival


We want the world to know
We have come a long way now
We are not like spotless white shirts
We are khaki
It is time, the road, the dust, the heat, the rain and the wind which did it all

Within the resonance of the Renaissance New Church at Dam Square, the very heart of Amsterdam, in the building where Dutch kings and queens are crowned, these words sounded almost as a credo. On Sunday 20 December 1987, opening the exhibition The Hidden Camera, at the final event of CASA, Culture in Another South Africa Barbara Masekela, head of the Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC, began her speech with these lines of poet Mongane Wally Serote.

As a leitmotiv, the lines were printed in large letters at the entrance to the exhibition. Forty-eight South African photographers had contributed specially to this collection – a portrayal of daily life in South Africa, showing oppression and resistance, censorship notwithstanding, just as a group of Dutch photographers had done under Nazism in World War II Die verborgen camera (The Hidden Camera). Here 300 South African artists and an audience of 1,000 gathered for the last time. In the afternoon of the next day they would leave to travel back to Cape Town, Johannesburg, Soweto, Gaborone, Harare, Lusaka, Mazimbu, Ohio, Rio de Janeiro, Melbourne, Stockholm, Paris, London, Berlin, Warsaw and many other towns and villages.

On 6 December they had started arriving in groups of 80, of 30, as individuals in Amsterdam, hometown of South African colonialism and of the apartheid ideology of the Boere in the seventeenth century: but also the city that resisted Nazi anti-Semitism and which now stands against the racism of the apartheid regime. Amsterdam, the Dutch capital and self-declared anti-apartheid city, had been symbolically proclaimed 'cultural capital of Europe'. And during the next two weeks, as Barbara Masekela put it at the closing session of the Conference, Amsterdam became the cultural capital of South Africa.


Culture in Another South Africa was the heading under which all events were staged. To become familiar with that 'other' culture was CASA's aim, and, more importantly, to give support to those 'other' cultural workers striving for a non-racial society. In the spirit of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and of the Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC, UDF and COSATU, culture belongs to the entire population of a country, to those who, as artists, create culture, and to those who participate in culture and enjoy culture. Right down to our times, in the declining years of the apartheid regime, South Africa's history is characterized by cultural oppression; consequently that 'other' culture has existed only in secret or in exile. Communication, exchanges, criticism, appreciation, and free contact with other people: in South Africa today there is no room for such a confrontation, although it is a vital condition for the future.

CASA aimed at stimulating an open debate on the significance of culture in South Africa with regard not only to the future, but also to the significance of culture for the present. CASA was intended as a channel for the exchange of ideas and experiences that are already part of that cultural development of experiences and ideas both of South African artists-in-exile and of artists who have to work illicitly in South Africa at present. This meeting between so many exiled artists and colleagues from inside South Africa itself was probably the most unique aspect of CASA. The arrival of the first group 'from inside' was a feast: the children of the Soweto-based Student Youth Drama Society, the grand old men of the Jazz Pioneers, the cultural workers of the mass democratic movement, COSATU and UDF, and other 'non-aligned' artists. Gradually They mingled with exiled colleagues active in and around the national liberation movement, ANC, and with various non-aligned cultural workers.

Unknown writers and the world-renowned Nadine Gordimer from inside South Africa exchanged views with exiled writers Lewis Nkosi (based in Warsaw) and Breyten Breytenbach (based in Paris). Thabo Mbeki, head of the Department of Information and Publicity of the ANC, took part in discussions with many photographers, journalists, writers, visual artists and musicians such as Academy Award-nominated Jonas Gwangwa (exiled in London) and poet Vernon February in Amsterdam) as well as actors whose names cannot be mentioned for reason of security.

Some artists devoted much of their time to rehearsals and performances because CASA was also the stage for the presentation of the culture from the 'other' South Dollar Brand (alias Abdullah Ibrahim, exiled in New York), the Earth Players of the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and the actors of You strike the woman, you the rock from Johannesburg, and Basil Coetzee with his Sabenza band from Cape Town. Everywhere the response was favourable.

Amsterdam, for two weeks the podium of a free South Africa' wrote the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (8 December 1987). 'CASA 1987: a reunion without fear' was the headline in Dutch quality paper NRC Handelsblad (21 December 1987). 'From dam with euphoria' was the headline in a two-page report in the South African Weekly Mail (15 January 1988). South (Cape Town, 14 January1988) wrote of CASA that 'The Cream of South Africa's cultural community went to Amsterdam to give the world a rare glimpse of this country's talent', while New Nation, another South African weekly wrote: 'It is possible that many significant cultural developments in future years will ultimately be traceable to the historic Conference and Festival on Culture in Another South Africa' (23 December 1987).

One Step Further

Various cultural workers could not alas be present. Mzwakhe Mbuli, people's poet, prevented from travelling to Amsterdam by the South African government (and held in custody without trial from January to July 1988); Zwelakhe Sisulu, editor of New Nation, already in custody without trial for more than a year, was honoured with the CASA Media Award in the CASA Colloquium on Journalism. Other absentees were the late James Madhlope Phillips, initiator of the CASA Choir of 300 Dutch singers singing South African freedom songs; poet and writer Mongane Wally Serote, who played a vital part in the preparation for CASA, but who received his travel documents from the British government only after CASA was over: and fine artist Harry Thamsanqa Mnyele murdered in Gaborone, Botswana, by a South African commando unit. Thami Mnyele was, however, present at CASA in his painting of the huge backdrop against which Amandla the cultural ensemble of the ANC performed. He was present, too, in the minds of many as a symbol of those whose lives and works have been destroyed by the apartheid regime.

In 1976 Wally Serote and ten of his colleagues had taken part in a small conference in Amsterdam. This was the start of the cultural boycott of the apartheid system, and was held with the intention of breaking the Cultural Treaty between the Netherlands and South Africa. In July 1982 Thami Mnyele was present at the Medu conference in Gaborone, where discussions were held about culture as resistance, and in December 1983 in Amsterdam, at the 'Cultural Voice of Resistance Conference', where 50 South African artists in exile and their Dutch colleagues worked on a new filling-in of the cultural ties between Europe and (anti-apartheid) South Africa.

CASA 1987 was the next step: a great number of South African artists (exiles and non-exiles) were to exchange views about the cultural infrastructure of their country under apartheid and as a non-racial society.

To the Dutch public, Dutch anti-apartheid workers and passing tourists, the CASA festival was 'an exciting showcase of South African cultural work', as the Weekly Mail reported. For the South African delegates, CASA was 'the simultaneous conference, where assessment, discussion and forward planning took place'. From December 14 to 19, in spite of the heavy rehearsal, performance, workshop and press schedules, there were six days of prolonged conference sessions covering all cultural disciplines, from music and theatre to journalism and visual arts.


At the end of the Conference, the discussions were summed up in a number of resolutions comprising 'one of the most comprehensive working documents on resistance culture (Weekly Mail), an impressive reflection of the issues debated and discussed by South African cultural workers in exile and from home. The CASA Preamble and Resolutions are not a blueprint ordained from above, not a doctrine for cultural life, not an ex-cathedra pronouncement from the ANC leadership' (Pallo Jordan, member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, in his address to the Conference). They are guidelines to the culture of a democratic and non-racial South Africa, in which culture will be accessible to all. The discussions at the Conference were characterized by a growing consensus on many major points. In Resolution 10 on language, for instance, it was agreed that all The languages of South Africa, including Afrikaans and English, are accorded equal status, despite the fact that the latter two were associated with the tongue of the oppressor. However, 'noting that English and Afrikaans had taken on a disproportionate role in cultural production and communication because of their status as official languages', the resolution stressed 'multilingualism as a characteristic feature of South African society' and affirmed that 'all people shall equal right to use their own language'.

The CASA Conference presupposed an 'implementation of the Freedom Charter' (preamble and Conclusion), the policy declaration of the ANC and the mass democratic movement within the country accepted in 1935 as an alternative to the apartheid state by delegates from all over South Africa. However, the paragraphs in the CASA Preamble and Constitution sometimes had a clearer political composition the general formulations of human values in the Freedom Charter. Thus CASA of a 'vibrant people's culture' and stresses several times the importance of an anti sexist culture'.

In the conference sessions, prepared for with single statements and papers and open to the delegates, observers and the press, there was room for marked differences of opinion, which could be aired in all frankness. Frequently the view was expressed that political situation in South Africa requires that culture should serve the struggle. Often too, however, was the opposite view put forward, namely that culture should formulate its own objectives without self-denial, and that artists free to translate these objectives into militant politics.

The preposition that cultural workers bear responsibility for their accessibility to the mass of our people by speaking to them in a language and in symbols that they understand (1.5) and to work and develop collectively, while noting that the culture of the processors has encouraged a high degree of individualism amongst artists, who based a political analysis rather than on strict conceptions of culture. In the political situation of South Africa such a point of view about collectivity does indeed have in the force of words. All delegates at the Conference emphatically agreed on the formulation that 'cultural activity and the arts are partisan and cannot be separated from politics’ (1.2). At the same time the words of Pallo Jordan were greeted with approval: 'The ANC does not ask you to become political pamphleteers.... The ANC does not require poets to become political sloganeers'.

Considering the differences of opinion about collectivity and individualism for instance, it was all the more pleasing that the CASA participants agreed on a joint Statement. It was a hopeful feature of CASA that so many people with their own opinions and with a common objective entered into discussions in such an outspoken manner. An honest and free exchange of views is a prerequisite for a flourishing cultural life, heterogeneous in nature and aiming to advance the quality of life.


As stated earlier the texts of the 'Preamble and the Resolutions' must be read within the framework of the implementation of the Freedom Charter, that seeks to guarantee 'all the rights to speak, to organize, to meet, to print, to preach' and the 'free exchange of ideas'. In that sense, the CASA Preamble and Resolutions are first and foremost a working document, an addition to the more 'constituent document', the Freedom Charter.
Being a condensed expression of prolonged and intensive exchanges of views, resolutions can be summarized all too easily and interpreted wrongly, most certainly when explicitly formulated fragments are wrested from their context. Besides the Freedom Charter, the many discussions formed an important part of that context ”” the context of CASA ”” as indicated above in the debate about collectivity and individualism. A fine illustration of this was the contradiction between 'slogans as the purest form of poetry' and a passionate appeal for 'poems about our own inner being, we also must write love poems'! ”” An outburst during one of the Conference sessions. With reference to CASA, Pallo Jordan states, 'of course there are different opinions in the movement. Some people think that you can leave out of consideration everything that does not directly relate to the struggle. That is an extremely shortsighted and mechanistic idea of what struggle actually is. One of the objectives of our struggle is that people may enjoy the fullness of life.' (Zuidelijk Afrika Nieuws magazine of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement, February 1988.) The Weekly Mail (15.1.88) summarized its report of CASA thus: 'what was the residue? Flexibility. Hard lines, rigid distinctions were few and far between. In discussions the de facto situation was understood: that community arts centres benefit from an input by professional artists, that there is space for fruitful interchange between proletarian theatre groups and actors and directors from the professional theatre, that progressive culture, though growing, is still in its infancy. Rather than a small exclusive purity, it needs the inclusion of a wide range of partisan artists' (15.1.88).


The CASA resolutions centred on real desires, such as the founding of a 'national democratic organization to represent the interests of all cultural workers'. Since the CASA Conference in Amsterdam, various small CASA meetings have taken place within South Africa. In addition, activities of organizations such as the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) seem to suggest an all-embracing cultural structure. Several resolutions were very explicit, but nonetheless principled, like the resolutions on copyright (11.8) and on funding (11.9). The explicitly formulated need for progressive journals and literature in the resolution on the performing arts (11,15) was inspired by the factual lack of such journals and literature in a situation marked above all by conflict. The word 'struggle', featured in the text regularly, is therefore cliché.

This reality of oppression by the apartheid regime and the struggle against it colour CASA totally. Thus, the resolution about the cultural boycott is of an actual political nature. CASA itself, as a historical meeting between artists from 'home' and from abroad', was a confirmation of the fact that this culture must be nurtured. The world at large, the CASA Conference concluded, must be able to become acquainted with the growing significance of democratic culture as an alternative to the racist, colonialist culture of apartheid (1.7) in furtherance of the national democratic struggle' (11.5) Again the importance was recognized of the 'total isolation of the apartheid regime. Among the tactics to be employed during this campaign, the academic and cultural boycott are crucial, and must be maintained' (1.7). However, it was recognized that the cultural boycott as a tactic in the struggle against apartheid also leave room for cultural workers to enter South Africa and for South African artists to travel and work abroad, in consultation 'with the mass democratic movement and the national liberation movement'. (11.5).

The participants in CASA did not wallow in a romantic idea of a sort of Volksgeist formulated on paper. 'People's culture' is based on the universal principles of non-racialism and democracy, but exists because of the quality of equal cultural traditions and developments in all their diversity. CASA pledged 'to assert a humanist, internationalist but distinctly South African character of people's culture which draws upon the cultural heritage of all the people of the country' (11.2).

CASA expressly left it an open question as to what the 'distinctly South African character of culture' must be. The Conference sought ways to give room to the quality of culture of all the people of the country, in their diversity, on the basis of equality in a non-racial and democratic society. In such a society, with its past of colonialism and freedom, its present of apartheid and resistance, its future of democracy, culture thrives and in such a society the peoples of South Africa will show 'distinctly South African' their culture is.

The CASA Preamble and Resolutions are remarkable historic moments in this latter day of apartheid South Africa. This holds too for the keynote address by Barbara Masekela, head of the Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC, the message from UDF and COSATU, and the address by Pallo Jordan on behalf of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. The press statement of the CASA Colloquium on Journalism and South Africa is an urgent address to the world, at a time when the apartheid regime still prevails, despite growing resistance to it. In view of the significance of the Freedom Charter, its text, along with the recently adopted ANC draft constitution, is included in this volume, a book which both commemorates a truly historic occasion and unveils to the world that rich 'other' culture which has flowered in South Africa, despite 40 years of apartheid oppression.