Last Wednesday David Goldblatt wrote an email to the Chancellor of Orders explaining that he was declining the Order of Ikhamanga, a national honour awarded by the presidency to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sports. Goldblatt was awarded the Order in April, and had accepted it, but it was due to be physically presented to him at a ceremony in April 2012.

In his email, Goldblatt writes: “I profoundly regret to inform you that I now decline the award”. He explains that he does so in protest against the parliamentary passing of the Secrecy Bill  (the Protection of State Information Bill), and in protest against “what has been done to the spirit in which the award was created”. He quotes from the official preamble to the National Orders, which cites a “culture of human rights” and a “respect for the dignity of the human spirit”.  

“I submit Mr President that you, your Government and the party that passed this Bill are in contempt of that spirit,” he writes, citing the Bill and the manner in which it was passed in the face of public opposition as “the very antithesis” of the spirit of the national awards. “To accept the Order of Ikhamanga from you on 27 April  would be to endorse your contempt,” he concludes.

Daily Maverick asked Goldblatt why he chose to take the step of declining the honour rather than engaging in another form of protest. “Because I don’t want the award!” he cried irascibly. “If I had already been physically presented with the award I would have returned it.”

Of course, Goldblatt is not the first artist to turn down an award on the grounds of conscience.

Possibly most famously, John Lennon returned his MBE to Queen Elizaberth II in November 1969 with a letter explaining that his action was “a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”.

Jean Paul Sartre said “Non!” to the 1964 Nobel Literature prize, but for more personal than political reasons: “A writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution,” he said.

Marlon Brando turned his back on a 1972 Oscar on the basis of the poor depiction of Native Americans by Hollywood. In fact, in 2003 a secret list was leaked from Whitehall in the UK which revealed 300 prominent names who had privately declined knighthoods and other honours (they included celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and author Roald Dahl). And earlier this month Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was in the news for his continuing refusal to accept Nigeria’s second highest honour as a protest against that country notorious cronyism and corruption.

Aside from being in exceptional company, the 81-year- old photographer has never been shy of making political statements – earlier this year he described himself to The Guardian as a “self-proclaimed, unlicensed social critic”. More often, however, these statements have come in the form of his award-winning photography.

Goldblatt began his photographic career in 1948, the year the National Party first took power, and for years documented the scenes white people never saw: of ordinary working-class life for black and coloured people. He also documented the lives of Jews in SA and of destitute whites. But in the post-1994 era he hasn’t put down his camera. In recent years he has continued to document the effects of Aids, poverty and unemployment under the ANC government, with his latest project focusing on crime and criminals. His photographs are famously understated: The New York Times said of his work last year that “Goldblatt’s art, avoiding the overt display of big feelings, goes for hard South African facts”.

The “hard South African fact” Goldblatt is currently tackling is the infamous Secrecy Bill, which he objects to, not primarily as a photographer or artist, but as a South African citizen. “It will have an impact on all of our lives,” Goldblatt says. “It will bring us back to that period where the security police are looking over all of our shoulders.” In his refusal email Goldblatt seems to suggest that the secrecy legislation is the final straw in his growing disenchantment with the ANC government. Is this the case? “I have been unhappy with the trend in this government for a while,” Goldblatt agrees, citing “a whole string of appalling failures in government”. For Goldblatt, one particular bugbear is the state of education for black children, which he believes is attributable to “bad governance”. 

We asked Goldblatt whether he would encourage other artists to mount similar protests, or even for previous recipients of the Order to return theirs (the list includes André Brink and Athol Fugard). He demurred. “This is my very personal way of raising my concerns,” he said. Goldblatt has yet to receive any government response to his email, and neither does he particularly expect one, “though it would be a courtesy”.

Does he have any similar protest action planned in future? No, he chucklede. “That’s it”. No doubt the fact that Goldblatt has three honorary doctorates and a slew of prestigious photographic prizes to his name will make the loss of the Order of Ikhamanga rather easier to bear. In fact, quite trivial. DM