Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Katlehong Arts Centre story; a remarkable journey


The Katlehong Arts Centre (KAC) is in many ways unlike many of the other community arts centres of the 70s to 90s period. It was not an educational centre per se, had a substantial marketing programme that focused on individual artists making a living, and in its first decade received substantial government funding. But it does belong in this book (forthcoming book on community arts centres); it has a story to tell.

Its story shows the complexity of life in apartheid South Africa. It illustrates the different ways that communities engage with a dominant system. Despite the oppressive local government administration and controls operating in black townships, the KAC found ways of promoting – in significant ways – black artists in South Africa.

We find in this story diverse artistic responses to constraints on expression and the creation, out of divergent interests, of a resilient and dynamic institution. We also witness how a range of difficulties, institutional and otherwise, were managed so that, despite them, significant cultural contributions could occur over an extended period of time.


The Katlehong Arts Centre was born in the shadow of the 1976 upsurge, a rebellion that began as a confrontation between township youth and the state but which widened out to a general uprising that included artists and cultural workers. In the accompanying repression, for example, Lionel Davis and Winston Saoli were jailed while other such as Dumile Feni, Gavin Jantjes and Louis Maqhubela, left the country. Growing out of the Katlehong Arts Society, the KAC was established in 1977 as a project of the East Rand Administration Board (ERAB). The antecedent Katlehong Arts Society was founded in 1969 by a group of six artists, including Stanley Nkosi, Lucas Sithole, Napo Mokoena and Morningstar Motaung. The artists approached ERAB and negotiated the establishment of a community arts centre. Although many community arts centres did not take the route of working with the state, this approach wasn’t outlandish – Cecil Skotnes had previously used the Johannesburg municipality’s facilities to create a centre that supported the development of black artists and build a thriving arts community. According to Gerard Hagg, the six that approached ERAB were acting in terms of their own needs, vying for workshop space, and in terms of the immediate needs of artists in the East Rand. At the same time, some astute administrators in government saw the opportunity of supporting such an idea, and in so doing the opportunity to “win hearts and minds” and to try to foster “better relations” between people[1]. And this was how this joint venture came about.

KAC promoted a broad range of visual art forms; craft was given a prominent place in this range (with ceramics in turn attaining prominence and renown among the crafts). Some, like Wessel van Huyssteen, say the mix was similar to that followed in Rorkes Drift, creating the impression KAC took the renowned centre as a reference point. But Napo Mokoena, one of the founders, says that the Mxilikasi Centre in Bulawayo was the inspiration for KAC. “The Bulawayo institution was mostly a craft centre. We saw it as a model”. And thus, at KAC, a wide range of artistic production took place: painting, drawing, linocuts, pottery, ceramics, sculpture, wirework, tapestry and weaving. The mix of visual art and craft and the wide range of mediums no doubt help to explain KAC’s successes in reaching a wide audience.

According to Mokoena, the KAC was started with a social goal in mind: the centre would endeavour to “remove youth off the streets”. This objective was included in the first constitution.

He tells the story of how the group had initially met at the D.H. Williams Hall, a well known community centre in Katlehong. The hall was already used for certain sports activities. KAC was allocated a corner of the building, but it soon grew and encroached on the space of the sports activities.  The team who formed Katlehong Arts Society felt, according to Mokoena, it needed a base of its own. “That’s how KAC was established. Through our lobbying, we were given access to the old dairy in Katlehong.”

Mokoena explains that the staffing issue came up immediately upon being allocated the new venue. “We decided we needed a staff complement to run it”. The first co-ordinator was Maribe Mamabolo who was recruited from Rorkes Drift. The agreement was that ERAB would be hands off, but the municipality wanted to be involved and maintain oversight “to ensure it was run properly”, says Mokoena. Members of the society who founded KAC were not paid, but full-time staff with certain responsibilities were paid. In the municipality’s personnel management system, there were no posts for art trainers, so KAC staff were employed as cleaners, drivers and labourers.

KAC “fetched” artists from Rorkes Drift to undertake the training programme. Artists such as Ephraim Ziqubu, Bhekisane Manyoni and Gladys Xaba were lured to the centre and engaged as teachers. “In those days we did a lot of training”, says Mokoena. “We had a loose or ad hoc training programme”. The centre had links with local schools and learners would come to the centre after-school for a few hours for an arts programme. Mokoena asserts: “We were a pioneering group that was trying to make a difference”.

As the centre grew and art output increased, KAC needed more elbow room. The proposal was to find gallery space elsewhere. Space was found in the HF Verwoerd building in Germiston which was owned by the then Transvaal Provincial Administration.  The Katlehong premises remained the production space while the Germiston location was the exhibition space. Mokoena states: “Eventually Germiston turned into the head office” referring to the transition of that office to a business centre that included the shop, the information centre and the administrative nerve centre.


KAC was mainly a base for artists, providing them with work space coupled with a range of other support functions. But its social objective, which involved doing something developmental for the youth, pushed it into training/educational activity. Thus, although KAC was not initiated by community educators as “many of the other arts centres were”[2], it addressed education and training needs. The centre, through its links with schools, assisted with art education in schools. It also ran workshops, for example on welding, sculpture, textile work and silk-screening. It further encouraged artists based at KAC to mentor their younger counterparts. In some instances, artists from outside such as David Koloane, who at the time was based at FUBA, also got involved in mentoring. “I went over there because we wanted to get crafts to sell at our premises in the Market Theatre precinct,” David said. “As part of that link, artists would ask me to provide mentorship. Also, I gave input as part of my feedback and selection of crafts.”

By the early 1990s, for the first time, KAC changed strategy and decided to make educational work the central pillar. Those involved emphasize different reasons for this change. According to Wessel van Huyssteen, the first principal of the school, the spur was the need for empowerment of artists. He says that management decided on the educational initiative after considering the need to create opportunities for artists to “formalise their artistic skills”. According to former staffer Lisa Mannhardt, the driver was that KAC wanted to increase the number of arts teachers. “Our main objective was to train art teachers of the future. Then we realised that we are training teachers too late; we should rather start in the last two years of school”. These perspectives provide a background to how the KAC came to launch the matric arts training programme. Informants also concede that funding was a factor. The changed strategy would help to ensure further funding inflows at a time when ERAB contribution had declined and when foreign donors had begun to drastically reduce general funding for community-based projects.

The new initiative got a boost from Rick Wilson, an art buyer, who donated a building[3]. The opening of the school at the building, formerly a brewery, meant KAC now had three centres. The Swedish International Development Agency pumped in R1 million.

ERAB provided an education officer post and van Huyssteen was appointed. “I stepped forward to co-ordinate this focus on education,” he says. Van Huyssteen had been an art teacher in the Free State and used this background knowledge to set up the matric arts programme. He approached the Independent Examinations Board, requesting them to register KAC’s matric through them; they agreed. In this process, circa 1994, KAC registered the Visual Arts and Crafts Academy and began to operate, in the main, under the name VACA. According to van Huyssteen, its core work at the time was the upgrading of secondary school leavers so that they could go on to study at tertiary level[4].

Van Huyssteen notes that, until that time, township learners had no access or opportunities to complete an arts-based matric. The VACA programme required learners to do four arts subjects coupled with two languages. The school started with an initial class of 6, “all of whom passed their exams in that first year”, compared to its final student intake of 35. During the second year, it was felt the school should offer matric exemption. This move, which required the adding of subjects such as maths and accounting, allowed learners a pathway to university-level arts studies.

Some of the artists based at KAC took part in the course; many learners were from Katlehong but there were some from further away. Huyssteen recalls this from his first year: “Each morning, I picked up two Soweto-based learners at the Market Theatre and dropped them at the same place in the afternoon”. He further notes that many of the learners were over 35 years of age, and adds: “We had no formal entry qualification. I remember that one of our students joined the school with only a Standard 7 qualification. He had no problem completing his matric”. The matric project eventually closed in the late 90s. Huyssteen notes that, with access to Model C schools opening up, there was no longer a need for a school that addressed “a speciality need”. In addition, donors, including the Swedish and the Dutch funders, had started to decrease their funding to South Africa which they now considered a middle income country which did not need the same level of donor support.

Management and management issues

There were two levels of management at KAC, made more distinct because of the gap between artists “informal way of doing things” and the municipality’s rule-bound and bureaucratic approach.

In the early days, KAC featured – on the one hand – a co-ordinator who came from an arts background and worked closely with the artists. The co-ordinator arranged and oversaw activities with local schools and also ensured housekeeping tasks were undertaken. On the other hand, there was a management board convened by ERAB and directly controlled by it.

Later, the management board defined itself as a KAC governance board which would engage with ERAB as a parent body or provider of resources – as an external force that needed to be managed. Members of this management team joined the organisation at different points. It included certain paid staff members such as the manager and the marketing specialist. It also included a representative of the original Katlehong Art Society, and “external parties” who were enrolled based on their skills and their link with the centre.  

Initially a member of the East Rand Administration Board, acting as the management board chairperson, had overall authority of KAC on behalf of ERAB. But the centre started moving toward independence. “We needed to change the chairperson,” said Mokoena, who was an active member of the management board. “The ERAB chair led to the imposition of inappropriate decisions, and we felt a need to block that type of transmission of instructions.” Through effective lobbying, the ERAB representative, a Mr Kok, was ejected from the role of management chair. Mokoena says with a chuckle: “I recall that after the meeting, the former chairperson complained bitterly that I had let him down – that I had betrayed him by supporting the decision to vote him out”.

“It was important for us. This chairperson caused problems. It led to policies and decisions not in line with what was happening in the township. For example, he wanted the centre to close at 5pm, the time the municipality offices closed, which was ludicrous. Kok also could not defend the centre when some artists began creating political art – for example, drawing people in chains.”

Mokoena related that Kok also did not understand that KAC was “not supposed to follow government’s way of running things”. Government’s “way” was not appropriate, especially in a volatile situation. He further notes that ERAB’s representatives “did not understand that we did not want them to send troops to the centre to protect it – or to monitor what’s happening.”

Mokoena recounts his experience when COSATU wanted to use some space at the centre on a regular basis. “It was difficult to say yes or no. But we allowed them in. “When ERAB objected, I told them these were workers who wanted to take part in cultural activity and discuss the arts”. They relented, but then sent the security branch to Mokoena’s office demanding further information on the workers’ activities at the centre. “I told them that all I knew was that these were workers who wanted to do art,” says Mokoena, who of course knew that these COSATU members were meeting to discuss ways of mobilising structures in the community.

Gerhard Hagg, who had been asked to make himself available for the management board, become chairperson of KAC’s board.  Both ERAB and the KAC community saw benefit in the idea of Hagg as a chairperson. “We now had a new chairperson an external person who was also an academic, who senior ERAB officials regarded as neutral and objective. So he could more effectively raise certain issues with them.” says Mokoena.

This team oversaw the appointment to overall manager of Napo Mokeona who succeeded Steven Reece (who himself was the third or fourth manager after Maribe Mamabolo). Napo Mokwena ran the place together with a smaller core group who were nominated from amongparticipants as well as those employed at the centre. Mokoena’s leadership was also indispensable in the turbulent 80s, where he was often called upon to defuse tensions and conflict. He is described by others as one who was “good with people”, “handled difficult situations” and “who could take a stand and yet leave everyone happy”.

The management team under Mokoena’s leadership played an important role, ensuring infrastructure and key services for the artists as well as, later, a major educational programme. The capabilities and contribution of this team is evident in KAC’s marketing outputs and KAC’s profile. Mokoena recites many stories of the difficult issues he had to handle. Against a barrage of questions, he had to explain why artists from Rorkes Drift were paid and others not. At times, when artists supported by the local civic association raised questions about finances he informed them: “The books are open; you are welcome to examine the books”. He says that at one stage he held a “full workshop” at Katlehong in order to explain to artists involve with the centre how budgets worked. “While doing the exercise, they came up with a huge budget and I had to remind them that budgets should be based on available resources and be achievable”.

Through this team, and particularly the work of Lisa Mannhardt, KAC excelled at helping artists generate income through sale of their work. When other artists comment, with a note of envy, that “KAC was the best run art centre in Johannesburg,” they are partly referring to KAC’s success in organising art sales. KAC artists’ work were sold at various venues and at annual exhibitions that, according to Hagg “brought in big money” and were, according to Koloane was “the highlight of the year”.

But – alongside the shared successes – there were moments of tension between the management team and artists. Gerhard Hagg is philosophical about this, describing how artists “informal way of doing things” came up against a perception by some in the  management board that “there was no accountability from artists” and a need to “get a framework to run it (KAC)”.

The ERAB’s point person at KAC in the initial stages was one Mr Kok, who was also chairperson of the management board and felt responsible for the centre. This official reportedly felt extremely uncomfortable with artists’ easygoing and ad hoc approach. When Kok was voted out and Gerhard Hagg was made chair, the KAC felt more independent. According to Hagg, this structure did not have formal legal standing but functioned in terms of “a gentleman’s agreement” and ERAB’s recognition that a management committee recognised by artists was “there to help” (with communication and proper functioning). According to Hagg, most management committee members contributed their time without payment and, in a case like that of Lisa Mannhardt, were paid a small salary for what amounted to fulltime work.

On the one hand, the artists appeared to appreciate the role the management team played in engaging with the municipal administration. At the same time, some of the artists maintained suspicions of management (asking questions about whose interest it served) and especially, in certain cases, the white participants of the management team. At one stage, Mannhardt recalls, one of the artists pointed to her and blurted out: “She’s a whitey. Why is she being paid?” Such skirmishes petered out because the majority of artists did not feel strongly about issues raised and, on balance, valued the work performed by the management team. But such encounters succeeded in creating tension and reminding the management team of the power balance that prevailed: that they as a management team could only continue to run things as long as the artists, as community members, allowed them to continue in that role.

Two anecdotes show how tension – usually over issues of money and other resources – manifested itself. One of those was the squabble over use of the vehicle received from ERAB. It was agreed that this could be used by the artists but – due to insurance requirements – the condition that Manyoni was the driver as only he possessed a driver’s licence. But management claims there was abuse of the vehicle; others drove it and when small accidents occurred, those involved would create a sanitised report for management’s consumption. Thus while management continued to protest at the way the vehicle was used, artists continued to use the vehicle as they wanted.

The other major and recurring tension-point was the issue of commissions. The artists didn’t want to pay commissions, according to Hagg. “They didn’t realise how much work the fulltime staff did”. A part of the commission was used to cover the salary of, for example, Margaret Zibby who also worked at the gallery with Mannhardt. It was also used to supplement ERAB funding for the purchase of materials. At some stage, the artists were asked to contribute to purchase of materials. “ERAB funds for this purpose was insufficient”, Hagg notes, “but the artists refused to contribute the difference”. Hagg remembers: “At one stage the artists argued that they needed their own financial advisor, despite the facts that the books were audited by ERAB. They found someone who came to look at the books. After spending time examining the books, the person left and we never heard from him again”.

According to Mannhardt, conflict also surfaced when the academy was launched. A group of artists, those involved in wire work, challenged management. “Their view was that the matric education programme was possible only because it was built on the Katlehong-based activities of the workshops and studio spaces. They were angry that the funding obtained was only used by the academy. They demanded their share.” Mannhardt says that the artists involved in wire work “toyi toyed” as they brought their protest to the Germiston Office. On another occasion, the artists – who normally worked at the Katlehong premises – arrived at the Germiston office and demanded “to see what was going on”. They took over the desks of the administrative workers and answered all the calls. Mokoena and the staff at that office were taken aback, but they did not resist and simply stood aside and observed. “In the end they got bored and left,” says Mannhardt.

There was also some tension around the six flats – residences at the back of the building. These dwellings were part of the premises provided by the municipality. The policy was that visiting artists should use these dwellings – such use would be only on a temporary basis; but some artists refused to leave and moved in with their families. Of course, given the way in which power was balanced, managed could note their concern bit could not do anything about this.

Money was a perennial source of squabbles. In some cases the dissatisfaction arose because artists questioned why they were paid different amounts. At one point, one of the many difficult discussions between key voices among the artists and management, artists demanded the right to call in their own financial expert to examine the centre’s accounts. The management team agreed to this, and – so the story goes – someone selected by the group of artists concerned did arrive at the office and spent an afternoon looking at documents. But there was no follow up to this visit, most likely because the representative was not able to produce a report.

By the latter period, after 1996, KAC was in decline, compared to its former glory. Most artists worked from home. There were even times when the Germiston City Council had disconnected electricity as the centre was in arrears. And of course, someone from management had to lobby and plead for reconnection. There were new processes under way: at this point new DAC funding was made available (drawing from a R50m allocation from the RDP fund). DAC reportedly wanted the centre to professionalise and an external facilitator was called in and ran two workshops to “rebuild”. The workshop achieved little, showing up some of the old tensions and suspicions.

As part of this rebuilding, the KAC was constituted as a Sec 21 company. Artists were required to nominate two people but it reportedly wasn’t easy to find willing nominees. For some involved in the process, adopting the Section 21 company structure was seen as a way of prizing the centre out of the municipality’s control – but it didn’t succeed. Local government remained involved. The structure contained four or five board positions while donors who remained involved could nominate two to three directors to the board.

Engagement of the market

One of KAC’s greatest achievements was its engagement with the art market. Instead of standing apart from the formal market with its complexities and biases, it engaged with that market, and did so with a great degree of effectiveness. In some senses, this engagement grew out of a more basic objective: to assist artists to make a living. According to Lisa Mannhardt, the driving force begin the centre’s marketing initiatives: “This was a big thing for me: that artists were helped to make a living. I wanted to get work out. I wanted to bring in enough money so artists could make a living, to ensure the centre functioned well, to make sure we kept the kombi running, to ensure we could cover the buying of materials.” 

In what former staff members describe as an emphasis on marketing, KAC – from the earliest times – embarked on a range of activities aimed not only at sales, but also at creating awareness of the centre and demand that would increase the number of buyers of KAC-produced art.

The KAC employed Mannhardt, who first came in to assist with one exhibition, as a marketing specialist[5]. She steered an ambitious programme to open up sales channels with the outside world, which included:
  • Engaging private galleries and galleries based at institutions in Johannesburg and Pretoria
  • Regular exhibitions at the centre
  • Exhibitions further afield, nationally and internationally
Mannhardt recalls: “We established an information centre and gallery in Germiston. We also held numerous exhibitions, including in Cape Town, the United States (Seattle) and Germany, as well as at private galleries, embassies, and university galleries. There were also instances where private individual opened their houses to us.” Mannhardt said it was difficult to estimate the number of exhibitions a year; they were numerous.
KAC forged a link with Helen de Leeuw gallery, a relationship that played a decisive role. This gallery, which was based in Hyde Park, promoted artwork from the Katlehong Arts Centre. It constantly took stock from KAC and clocked up sales. KAC also made links with other venues where its art output was sold, including, the Everard Read Gallery, The Goodman Gallery, African Magic, Bryanston Market, Peter Roos Park, FUBA and Artists under the Sun, Lizzards in Cape Town and the African Arts Centre in Durban. These outlets generated wider interest in KAC: many customers and buyers, after this initial exposure, followed up to make direct contact with the office or to visit the shop at Germiston.  KAC built good links with the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Manhaard made inroads for KAC artists and their work at places like Pretoria University – “which admitted in the beginning that it did not have a single work by a black artist” – and other universities in what is now Gauteng.  The exposure achieved through this wide range of interventions did more than raise KAC’s profile; it created public awareness of black art.

Another feature of the marketing programme was the permanent exhibition at the information centre. The aim was to profile the artists and all artists were represented. KAC purchased a work from each one and made it part of the display. These pieces on display were not for sale. Manhaard says it was not easy making sure the exhibition remained intact. Buyers often lobbied to buy and, sometimes, certain staff members – about to give in and make the sale – had to be reminded of the purpose of the exhibition.

This marketing programme gained wide respect among artists. According to David Koloane, KAC’s annual exhibitions “were the highlight of the year, featuring paintings, craft, pottery, tapestry and weaving produced at the centre”. Hagg notes that the initiatives and sales worked well as an income generating strategy.  

Mannhardt and the artists drove the marketing programme with determination – and apparently with very little discussion of some of “tricky” issues that might arise, let alone theoretical and ideological aspects[6].

KAC took a matter-of-fact approach to disseminating the art. Mannhardt described the pragmatic approach as follows:
  • On which spaces to use and which to avoid: “At some stage we wondered whether it was politically correct to place our art in certain spaces. In the end, we put it everywhere. The artists had to make a living”.
  • On assessing the art: “We never selected works. Artists decided what work they wanted to make available for a show. Also, in many cases, the gallery representative would come out and choose the art that he or she wanted. The only time we chose was when we bought artists work for the permanent collection at Germiston”.
  • On pricing the art: “Valuing the works of art is a difficult thing. Our view was that the artist must decide the price he or she wants. We took that figure and then put our percentage on the price quoted by the artist. That was the simplest”.
Even though they apparently never discussed whether the level of commercial activity impacted on the quality of art, the management team at KAC were, of course, not naïve about issues of quality. They were aware that artists who joined KAC from Rorkes Drift had expertise that provided an important foundation in a range of disciplines. They also supported the idea of workshops and encouraged artists to provide mentorship. However, most of these processes took place organically at the centre while, in general, the management team maintained a strong focus on operational issues at the Germiston office.

One of the management team, Gerhard Hagg, acknowledges that at a Centre such as KAC the brilliant and outstanding work coexisted with mediocre art. He recalls that in discussions about art many artists were – in his view – overly sensitive about and not open to art criticism. “In other art groups (which I have been part of), we gave robust feedback to each other. At KAC, he said, artists did not want to want to give a peer tough feedback. They feared that, when their work came up for review, their colleagues might make incisive comments about their work”. Referring to an attempt at reviewing work at a KAC workshop he ran, he states: “People were too nice to each other”,

KAC produced excellent work, but there were also cases where artists made too many repetitions to the point where a receiving gallery resisted. “The gallery representative would say: I don’t want 15 pieces of that work. I only want three,” says Mannhardt. Such instances highlight the problems and challenges of a heightened commercial approach.

Artists were, in more ways than one, a central part of the marketing programme. At the core of the programme was the vision and dynamism of the art and craft they produced. But, in addition to this, the artists sometimes undertook parallel marketing initiatives and, in instances, engaged in their own sideline deals at an exhibition venue.

Mannhardt notes that one of the artists Gabriel Tsolo, himself an outstanding marketer, differed with her on how the art should be marketed. On one occasion, Tsolo voiced his position during preparations for a KAC shows at a gallery.  Mannhardt says that while she was setting out each piece “as an artwork in its own right”, Tsolo objected, arguing that this was not the African way. He felt art should all be grouped together ‘market style’, and there was no need to create space around each artwork.

It is not clear whether other artists took a strong position on the issue, but an experience at embassy show suggests they were happy to engage with both marketing styles. On the one hand, the works were displayed neatly indoors, properly framed and with the lighting all correct.  On the other hand, the artists arrived with additional pieces of work under their arms, as it were, and set themselves up in the bottom of the garden. There, in the corner of the garden, they sold the same pieces at a cut price – sometimes for a quarter of the price in the price list.

Generally, artists continued to sell their own work directly. It became accepted as normal KAC practice that artists would come to an exhibition – one that had been carefully set up with submitted works – carrying additional artworks, which they sold to buyers. “It was their art, they were entitled to do it that way,” says Mannhardt. Artists often used the centre’s microbus and set off to flog their work at Artists under the Sun at Johannesburg’s Zoo Lake. In addition, Gabriel Tsolo – who Mannhardt describes as an extraordinary marketer – undertook his own initiatives. “KAC was, in a way, a place where everyone did their own thing”.


KAC was born and grew in the crucible of turbulence. It is located in Katlehong, an area that forms part of processes of urbanisation which carry with them instability and insecurity alongside processes of community building. As with many townships, despair and hope live side by side, stability co-exists with a sense that everything is provisional, constantly changing and precarious. Life is made uncertain by crime, economic downturns, or by distance events – personally related or otherwise – that impact. Beyond the generally township reality, KAC became a flashpoint of violent political struggle in the eighties.

All townships have lived through periods of different kinds of oppressive state control and of community responses to it. However, in the eighties, Katlehong became a particular hot spot. Newspaper articles of the time chronicle the ongoing conflicts between the state and activists as well as between the “third force” and youth activists. Violence and death were part of daily life. Curfews, police raids and army controls during the long states of emergency cast its shadow over Katlehong.

Those involved with Katlehong speak of the “difficult times” in which the art centre operated. For the outsiders, being in the township was an incredible revelation. “We could see what was really happening”, Manhaard says.  “People were dying.”

For those living in Katlehong, conditions deteriorated rapidly and life became even more precarious in the eighties. Repression and violent clashes between hostel dwellers and the militant youth that formed part of the resistance movement made its mark on township life. Troops in armoured vehicles patrolled the streets.

On the one hand, the centre remained a neutral community place and, for example, did not make political posters. At the same time, it could not escape the politics and the effects of political confrontation on the streets of Katlehong.

The centre was deeply affected and those interviewed recounted some of the grim experiences. Mokoena was shot and wounded after being ambushed.  Another informant describes how, one day, concerned about impending attacks, Mokoena arrived at the centre with a minibus-load of children who needed refuge. According to Lisa Mannhardt, the conditions of crisis frayed the trust that existed. The circumstances “brought people closer, but people were also scared to speak to each other”.

The situation also led to clashes between the centre’s management team and the East Rand Administration Board. The municipality formally complained about COSATU’s use of the centre for its regular meetings. The troops entered the centre, to make their presence felt and to intimidate. The security policed dropped in to ask Mokoena probing questions about activity at the centre.

The centre was impacted. Despite sometimes being criticised for being apolitical[7] and being part of a centre that was not renowned for ‘political art’, KAC artists produced a “life-sized steel and canvas Casspir” which was displayed in a gallery during the first Johannesburg Biennale, in 1995.

Relationship with other centres

Some consideration needs to be given to KAC’s relationship with other community arts centres. KAC fits within, and benefited from, the overall sense of collegiality between community arts centres. But it sometimes faced question from certain quarters. The questions arose mainly against the backdrop of KAC’s government funding and links with the East Rand Administration Board. But there were also, in the margins, questions related to “commercialising” and craft work.

Gerhard Hagg recalls that, as far as formal structures are concerned, it was “quite a fight” to get us accepted by the other community arts centres in Johannesburg. “Many artists did not take a stand, that is true. But it is also true that some in positions at other arts centres were jealous of our success. At one stage they even called us traitors,” he says.

According to Hagg, a few questioned whether KAC fitted the description of a community arts centre. At one stage Hagg and Mokoena attended a meeting of the Association of Community Arts Centres (ACAC) which was formed in 1991 and was based at Dorkay House. They had heard that representatives of the Art Foundation had wanted to exclude them but decided to attend a meeting to face the issues head on. “Napo was there with me. No-one at the meeting had the courage to criticise us.” Hagg said KAC’s approach was to go to spaces where art centre representatives met and claim their space as artists.

Hagg said trade union representatives also raised questions – calling for more outspoken art from KAC – partly through the shop stewards that came to the centre for meetings. Referring to such questions about the kind of visual art produced at KAC, Hagg said although the centre did not produce artwork directly for use in political campaigns, the KAC artists’ work “showed how bad life was in the township”. And Mannhardt states that, in some ways, “the work spoke of what was going on”. Hagg concedes that the centre was a home to a spectrum of artists: there were some with a strong voice in terms of content; but there were others who focused in the main on making a living and getting subsidies. “I recall one artist who used to retort, with pride: ‘I am not one of those radical artists from Alex (Arts Centre)”. But, Hagg insists: “KAC did its share”.

Of course, taken more generally, the literature supports the idea that KAC played a positive and progressive cultural role. Reviewers note that community arts centres, including KAC, arose because black artists and art students were historically prevented from accessing arts education and found it hard to access materials and workspace. In this connection, as the Artist Press[8] notes, “The Katlehong Art Centre provided East Rand artists with facilities and inspiration during the 1970's and 1980's”. However, it is also true that tensions existed in relevant circles around whether Katlehong Arts Centre was, so to speak, political or radical enough. It can be argued that such tensions only manifested with any significance as the societal conflict intensified, society became more polarised and centres such Community Arts Project (CAP) called for artists’ activism against apartheid[9].

Key features

Katlehong Arts Centre was defined by various features which created certain difficulties but which also help to explain its success. These key factors include the following:
  • The organisation maintained a broader approach to art and art content, allowing space for artists who were primarily interested in artistic expression and avoided explicit political expression. This approach dovetailed with the centre's “make a living through art” approach; it also correlates with the strong craft focus. At the same time, there was space for artists to work together on a piece such as the “Casspir” and to participate with other arts centres in formations such as ACAC.
  • The organisation was actually a community centre where, in many senses, people could “do what they like.” In this regard, artists connected to the centre had a great degree of freedom. They could choose to work from home or the centre; they could choose to sell their work through KAC or directly to buyers. The artists also made links with the local civic organisation and sometimes, if they liked, could take use an adversarial approach in taking if issues with management.
  • In terms of management, the organisation operated with parallel structures and/or leadership nodes, each with relatively clear spheres of influence. The centres of power, conscious of the different interests involved, worked in co-ordination with each other. In a pattern that partly mirrored these arrangements, the artists, the management team and ERAB often had different objectives, but all had enough of a stake to continue to work co-operatively.
  • KAC was a hive of contestation and differences of opinion. Such differences were not resolved but ‘managed’ so that all-out conflict was in most cases averted. Different sides adopted a “live and let live” approach. For example, at least one major artist disagreed with the official marketing approach; but he simply continued with a parallel marketing programme. Without downplaying the stress caused by contestation, these differences created gaps and increased options for artists: the individual artist had more options as they forged their personal strategies of survival or advancement.
  •  KAC took black artistic ‘voices’ into art spaces which previously featured no black artists or very few black works. These included university galleries, private galleries and embassies.
  • KAC remained, throughout, a place of dynamic art production and significant art output. This output included remarkable visual art but also pioneering craft work. This made it, par excellence, a significant role player in the advancement of black artists and, by extension, the development of South African art.

As a collection of interests, the system not only worked, but possessed a distinctive dynamism.


The Katlehong Arts Centre made a powerful contribution [10]. It allowed numerous artists to make a living through their creativity. It showed to other arts centres the possibilities of connecting with the art market in a way that extracted benefit and increased visibility of artists’ work. It did more than other arts centres in exploring a connection between a community arts centre and the school system or schools in a specific local area. It boosted, significantly, public awareness of black art. Above all, it was, during the period under review, a vibrant working space and hothouse for a slew of significant black artists.

Frank Meintjies

[1] These sentiments were conveyed by Gerard Hagg, Wessel van Huyssteen and Lisa Mannhardt. According to Manhaard, KAC became a “showpiece” for government. She says government brought many visitors to the arts centre to show them what it was doing for the creative arts “in the community”.
[2] Gerhard Hagg, author’s interview notes.
[3] Wilson’s wife, Stephanie, a lawyer, also assisted by providing pro bono legal services to the KAC board.
[4] See where The Artists press notes that KAC “transformed itself” into the Visual Arts and Crafts Academy (VACA) and confirms that the focus was on preparing school leavers to access tertiary studies.
[5] She had met Stanley Nkosi many years before, and had even (at the time) been asked on a site visit to Katlehong to give her opinion to see if “the dairy” would be suitable for use as studios.
[6] Professor Pitika Ntuli, referring to the pressures of commercialisation, distinguishes between “art I make when I am hungry” and “art I make to express myself”. The implication is that artists may compromise on quality when using their artistic talent as part of a fervent income-generating strategy or when art is consciously made for a defined buyers’ market.
[7] Mannhardt recalls that at a show in Cape Town Sue Williamson remarked to her that the work of Katlehong Artists was not resistance art and suggested that KAC should consider some sort of training or workshop intervention to expose them to the concept and raise awareness.
[8] See
[9]  CAP resolved to undermine  apartheid ideology. It also called for artists to be cultural workers and to get much more involved alongside community struggles. See  Hobbs, P. and Rankin, E. Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa. Cape Town: David Philip, 1997.
[10]  To read more about the Centre's contribution and an important analysis of the dynamics at the Centre at the time, please see Franks, P and Vink, A, 1990, "Between Ideals and Reality: A research Investigation of the Katlehong Art Centre,"  HSRC. You can access key conclusions of this study at: 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Blood and stone (a poem on Fanon and Ghandi)

if fanon versed ghandi
on some wind-blown street

as ghandi
lay in a pool of blood
with fanon’s concerned hand
on that bony shoulder
does fanon whisper
‘any means’ are sometimes

as marchers
in determined mood
bear down on fanon
does ghandi, like tutu,
fall on his knees, dramatically, & plead
to his diverse people
not to trample, &
show love?

flesh turns to blood
blood turns to stone

if they met at a roadside diner
would ghandi have broccoli and beans
and fanon bite into steak?

skillfully toting their persuasiveness
sparring conversation)
would fanon emerge
bare chested, staff in hand
would ghandi rush forth
with gunbelt over dhoti?

Frank Meintjies
(this poem is taken from my first book, My Rainbow [2009])