UNTIL VERY RECENTLY, the story of black life under South African apartheid has been a tale of ceaseless resistance to oppression culminating in successful national liberation with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. Dozens of books by and about Mandela have depicted the African National Congress (ANC) leader as one of the most eminent statesman of the 20th century. Dozens more books focused on his comrades in arms have evoked a tale of heroic struggle in which the ANC played a leading, if not singular, role. The 1976 youth revolt in Soweto, the rise of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness, the Indian Congress, the international anti-apartheid movement, even the communist party, also played their part in the drama of national liberation. Although postcolonial disillusion with the ANC has now clearly set in, for the most part the “heroic struggle” narrative remains an untainted element of the party’s brand.

With the partial exception of some recent research on the functioning of the “Bantustans,” the ersatz African nations established by (and contained within) the apartheid state, only the works of Jacob Dlamini have struck much of a discordant note. In his controversial 2009 book, Native Nostalgia, Dlamini explored how black people in his childhood township had forged livable, “moral” daily lives within a politically repressive environment. More recently, in Askari (2015), he attempts to understand the experience of an ANC activist who switched sides and worked against his former comrades on behalf of the South African security services.

As Dlamini’s work suggests, the story of black life under apartheid is, of necessity, more than just the story of ceaseless resistance to the state and its manifest injustices. Many, perhaps most, black South Africans had to learn how to lead ordinary lives within the extreme constraints imposed by a system of total white supremacy. But that system, run by a tiny white minority, surely could not function without a certain degree of black cooperation. The nature of such “collaboration” in apartheid South Africa was complex and multifaceted. It ran the gamut from the askaris, spies, and torturers made notorious by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to Bantustan leaders and officials, to black policemen, and even African members of Native Labor Boards. And, as Daniel Magaziner’s new book The Art of Life in South Africa insists, it also included the teachers who attended the Ndaleni art teacher training school with the intention of deploying their skills within the much-maligned Bantu Education system imposed on African schools by the apartheid state.

“Art history as a discipline [in South Africa],” Magaziner observes, “has tended to wed black creativity to the story of protest and oppositional action.” But of course, this hardly does justice to the conflicted terrain aspiring black artists had to negotiate. Magaziner complains, with some justice, that the protagonists in previous histories have “been hitched to narratives many artists would not have recognized,” noting that “artists do not live in these studies; instead, they inhabit social categories.” The Art of Life in South Africa, deeply influenced by the aesthetic theories of John Dewey, attempts to reconfigure our understanding of South African art education and the lives of black South African artists by considering “art as creative practice conditioned by what was possible” under apartheid, rather than as always oppositional in character. This is, potentially, a useful admonition for scholars examining the dynamics of life under South Africa’s brutal regime: people, after all, still had to live. Achieving such nuance, however, requires a delicate touch, at once appreciating black preservation of autonomous social space while acknowledging the degree to which apartheid always impinged on this lived reality. For the most part, Magaziner accomplishes this difficult balancing act.

Drawing on the ideas of Dewey and John Berger, Magaziner considers art as a “social practice” concerned with making “the imagined real.” He conjoins this view with recent developments in African intellectual history that have moved beyond classic anticolonial theory in their concern for “imagining and making real the community,” which requires an attention to the more mundane narratives constructing daily life under colonialism. The art of life, in short. As Magaziner puts it, “art is not beauty shut off from the world — it is the faithful conviction that the world is worth beautifying” — even, it seems, in “[c]ollaboration and cooperation with the apartheid government.”

All but forgotten now, Ndaleni, located in the heart of the rural Natal Midlands, trained over 1,000 students, who “then returned to their lives as teachers and bureaucrats,” rather than becoming artists in a professional or conventional sense. In its origins and aims, the school remained a product of the system of Bantu Education established by the apartheid regime during the 1950s as a mandatory alternative to the baleful liberal influence of the mission schools that had taught a previous generation of Africans. As such, Ndaleni oriented itself to the ideas of apartheid’s main architect, Hendrik Verwoerd. As minister of native affairs, Verwoerd famously opined that “the Native has a different cultural background from the White man, and […] must fit into his own type of community, a different type of community to that of the European.” Magaziner describes how apartheid education experts “shifted the justification for manual work from industrial training,” once associated with mission education, to “the preservation of Africanness,” enshrining apartheid’s cultural mandate of “separate development.” Here, however, a certain measure of invention of tradition proved necessary; in South Africa by midcentury, the “primitive” artistic practices associated with Africans had been severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, by the forces of modernity.

Much of the midcentury debate over African artistic practice and education turned on this question: was there an innate African “genius” — distinct from “Western” artistic practices — that should be cultivated? Or could Africans, with enough proper instruction, enter into the canonical dispensation of what it meant to be an “artist”? Magaziner recognizes in the former proposition some of the seeds of African nationalism, but he concedes — correctly — that such a view readily served as the foundation for Bantu Education in the arts. Even pre-apartheid South African white liberals, at the height of their most paternalistic phase, cautioned that “every care must be taken not to force European ideas upon the natives too early in their [artistic] development” — lest, as one educator insisted, one discourage authentic “means of self-expression from asserting themselves.” Budding African artists got the message: as one of them, George Pemba, remarked about his training, even though influenced by European tradition, “I have tried my best to be typically African.”

As Magaziner observes, this arrangement posed a dilemma for black artists: should they risk “dissolving their Africanness in the stew of colonial modernity,” or remain true to a “native” inspiration that would inevitably confine them to African terrain and provide them with handicraft skills no longer compatible with modern production? At the time, some dissenters recognized that the call to renew a tradition of handicrafts was little more than “the cultural invention of empire and of white supremacy.” Indeed, as it turned out, embracing cultural authenticity ultimately ended up preparing the ground for the worst ideological excesses of apartheid, built as it was on a vision of autochtonous African cultures, immutable and incompatible with European modernity. Although Magaziner doesn’t raise the issue, such “cultural relativism as a critique of the imperial universal” has discomfiting echoes in recent debates about the creative parameters of cultural authority and authenticity in today’s art world.

There is, unfortunately, a pronounced tendency in The Art of Life in South Africa to speak of handicrafts and “art” in the same breath, although (as Magaziner acknowledges) they were not identical, even when prevailing South African discourse sought to merge them. Jack Grossert, the founder of Ndaleni, for instance, “believed that crafts differed from art in name only” — at least, Magaziner argues, in the African context. Confusingly, however, Grossert also appeared to regard craft training as a kind of gateway to a higher “indigenous school of art.” Nevertheless, because craft training grew out of the imported African-American tradition of industrial education, it raised questions about usefulness, vocation, and authenticity. Art education, on the other hand, had a slightly different genesis and trajectory, entangled with matters of aesthetics and creativity. These concerns met, as Magaziner shows, in the differentiation between an essentialized collective “African genius” and the more individualized expression of creative African practitioners. But they were not the same thing, by any means.

With the consolidation of apartheid after 1948, the political tide ran heavily in the direction of promoting ersatz African handicraft traditions; in Magaziner’s words, “the perceived need to preserve the genius of the natives had displaced the potential to discover native geniuses.” It was in this climate that Grossert, organizer of the arts-and-crafts curriculum for Natal province, established Ndaleni’s dedicated art teacher training academy in 1952, admitting 12 students to an “old, crumbling mission school.” Although scant archival traces of this inaugural class remain, Magaziner pieces together enough evidence to surmise that most students were there to embark on “a fine arts program as […] preparation for a career teaching arts and crafts.” As the Bantu Education system expanded under apartheid’s grip, applicants to the school increased. Magaziner refuses to see Grossert as a mere apartheid ideologue, however. Instead, he claims, the school’s initial director was also motivated by Ruskin-like ideals that sought to use craft skills to inculcate “essential human values such as harmony and balance.” In African “primitivism,” Grossert and others (including John Dewey) imagined they saw an antidote to the perils of modernity. In this view, African creativity, if reclaimed in the purity of precolonial forms, could redeem the West. Grossert’s aim, Magaziner posits, was to use Bantu Education to “return the lost vitality to African craft.”

By the 1960s, former students from Ndaleni, now serving as teachers around the country, began to send their own recruits to the training school. This natural network opened the world of art education to a diverse array of students from all across South Africa, even as Bantu Education further constrained their opportunities during the years of “high apartheid.” Study at Ndaleni was now funded by a stipend from the Department of Bantu Education, but it came at a price: graduates were expected to teach for at least one year in a Bantu Education school. The former students Magaziner interviewed saw this as a reasonable trade for “a measure of freedom in the studio,” claiming they returned from Ndaleni “transformed.” (It might have been useful to hear from those with less positive experiences and memories.) In letters and diaries, many former students wax eloquent, in what Magaziner characterizes as Deweyan terms, about how “Art” (always with a capital A) had recalibrated their experience, teaching them new ways of seeing and opening up the world to them.

Lorna Peirson, the school’s director from 1963 to 1981, bluntly stated early in her tenure that “[w]e aren’t training fine artists.” Using syllabi and workbooks from Ndaleni’s extant records, Magaziner manages to reconstruct the basic curriculum at the school during the 1960s and 1970s. He concludes that, Peirson’s expressed conservatism notwithstanding, by teaching students “how to see,” by inculcating in them an “identification with acknowledged masters,” and by imparting technical skills, in practice she encouraged them to produce art, not just to teach handicrafts. “Creativity,” Magaziner notes, “was an ideal taught and a practice learned” throughout the school’s existence. Peirson described her approach to teaching in an interview with Magaziner: “get the materials and push some kind of button [and] then leave it […] to happen.” Wherever they came from, students found in Ndaleni a refuge, a community, and a unique experience of fellowship in the creative arts within the otherwise harsh confines of apartheid. This was especially true as the outside world increasingly appeared shaken by protest, violence, and repression in the wake of the 1976 Soweto Revolt, which barely touched the campus itself.

Nevertheless, as Magaziner points out, the everyday deprivations of apartheid impacted life at Ndaleni, making access to proper art materials a constant challenge. Much of the school’s practical curriculum revolved around scrounging for every scrap of paper, every piece of wood, every bit of clay pried by hand from the local streambed, and improvising when such materials proved short at hand or inadequate. Peirson excelled at teaching the art of “making something out of nothing.” This required innovation and creativity on the part of the students, preparing them to make do as art teachers when they returned to their impoverished classrooms. In a way, this improvisatory attitude functions as a metaphor for how blacks in South Africa learned how to live under apartheid, creating entire life-worlds from the scraps left to them by whites.

There was no escaping the harsh realities of apartheid, however, once the students left the bucolic hillside in the Natal Midlands and returned to the real world. If they were lucky enough to secure positions as teachers in the Bantu Education system, they faced woefully under-resourced schools and an educational bureaucracy hostile to their aspirations and those of their students, both inside white South Africa and in the newly “independent” Bantustans to which they were often assigned. Most were relegated to teaching basic crafts in primary schools, sometimes with the hope that the results might be marketable as “tribal curios” for tourists seeking a little African authenticity. Not incidentally, this practice raised funds for art education not otherwise forthcoming from the Department of Bantu Education or Bantustan authorities.

A precedent for this practice was established at Ndaleni. Magaziner describes the success the school found in annually selling students’ work — a kind of rummage sale that helped undermine the school’s place in narratives of more “serious” art history. Magaziner is attentive to the possibility that local whites eagerly purchased the artworks because they imagined “that Ndaleni sculpture was what African art was supposed to be.” He avoids the additional, if rather more cynical, explanation: for liberal white paternalists of the provincial Natal variety, this was little more than an annual charity event. No doubt displaying an object from Ndaleni in one’s home demonstrated one’s good works on behalf of the benighted Bantu. Still, such genteel paternalism means that at least some of that art has been preserved.

Readers of this book benefit from this preservation as well. For an academic monograph, The Art of Life in South Africa is exceptionally richly illustrated. The text is interspersed with images of teachers, artists, and their collaborative creations. One of the students described Ndaleni as a “Public Art gallery,” and Magaziner makes sure we get a tour. One of the most appealing aspects of the book’s visual design is the inclusion of the work of South African photographer Cedric Nunn, whose work appears in the interleaf and epilogue. Nunn, who lived near the ruins of the school in Natal, spent a quarter century documenting this “relic of apartheid” as a physical testament to the memory of art instruction. Nunn has a shrewd eye for the elegiac lurking in the commonplace and decrepit, as evidenced by his beautiful landscape photos of the neglected terrain of the 19th-century Xhosa wars in the Eastern Cape. His photographs here are of remnants of sculptures, murals, friezes, mosaics, and other elements that merge the school’s ruins with the creative work that went on there.

For her part, Lorna Peirson did not rely on charity alone to spread her message of art as life. She “had faith” that a cadre of trained African art teachers would prompt the government to enhance Bantu Education’s art curriculum. To put it charitably, this was a naïve hope. In the long run, few Ndaleni graduates, confined as they were to apartheid primary schools, proved able to translate their education into comprehensive art tuition. By the 1970s, those who had found more promising posts in urban high schools confronted a new generation of students willing instead to challenge Bantu Education with protest and even violence. As apartheid and Bantustan functionaries, the art teachers were apt to find themselves on the wrong side of the barricades; at least one met his death at the hands of his striking pupils in 1980, the same year Ndaleni closed its doors.

If the educational mission of Ndaleni might be reckoned a failure in the face of these obstacles (and it is not entirely obvious that Magaziner would agree that it was), not all graduates became teachers. A handful, like Selbourne (Selby) Mvusi, pursued careers as well-known artists. Others, like Ezekiel Mabusela, found his mode of creative self-expression as a department store window dresser in Johannesburg. Still others, like Godfrey Ndaba, made a living through selling their stereotypical portraits of township style in the street — “compromising with the market,” as Magaziner puts it. But these alternative paths are also stories of frustrated dreams and blocked aspirations. Magaziner seeks, and occasionally finds, redemption in the life stories of many Ndaleni students. Unable to practice their artistic talents, they nevertheless, in his view, proved creative in the lives they led, as they “chiseled” at the reality of living under apartheid and “tried to make something beautiful of it.” As pleasing as this sentiment may be, here Magaziner begins to stretch credulity. Can we really presume that a single year spent as a student at Ndaleni made for a life well lived, formative experience though it may have been?

Magaziner regards the Ndaleni initiates as subjecting themselves to a totalistic communal discipline, much as communists, Christians, or soldiers might have done. But in this case, the transcendental force to which they bent was not history, the divine, or the nation, but, he claims, “Art.” This is an appealing idea, but is it plausible? Was there, for example, a form of excommunication for those who strayed from the fold — an initiation into a secretive code of practices, language, and behavior that students and teachers shared, and continued to share, after they left the school? If so, Magaziner does little to convey what these rituals might have been, beyond a general appreciation for art as a creative endeavor.

Despite these criticisms, The Art of Life in South Africa is entirely convincing about the need to take the experience of these teachers seriously on its own terms, recognizing their capacity for self-expression under the most unpromising of circumstances. Yet one can’t help but wonder how their choices to work within the system might have been understood by other, less compromising individuals, including artists, who rejected Bantu Education in its entirety. Perhaps Magaziner claims too much when he insists that “it was through apartheid that [the students were] able to say something and from apartheid that [they] […] strove to create something lasting and beautiful.” True enough — but what might these talented men and women have achieved outside of apartheid’s prison?

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Alex Lichtenstein is editor of the American History Review and professor of History at Indiana University. His most recent book, with Rick Halpern, is Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid.