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Artists connected through struggle

What role do art and literature have in social change? Do they matter? These are hardly everyday questions in our schools. But it isn't an ordinary day when I hear them put to a combined audience of 60 young people in Exeter and a group of South African students more than 6,000 miles away.

The questioner is Martin Phillips, Devon's adviser for digital media education and English and it is June 16, the 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. It is an opportunity not only to reflect on how children of a previous generation changed the direction of South African history, but also to think about the role of culture.

We are in the videoconference room of Devon's media education centre with Year 9s and 10s from community colleges in Braunton and Okehampton. Our English pupils are all white and on our screen are about 20 black high-school students from Cosat, the centre of science and technology, in Khayelitsha, a vast sprawling township of Cape Town.

The environments outside our two buildings are totally different. The conference is part of Crossings, a project linking schools in Devon and Cape Town. Garth Erasmus, a Capetonian artist, is with us in Exeter and is working for three weeks in local schools. He was 19 at the time of the Soweto protests and tells us how news of the shootings galvanised youth in the far-away Cape. We are all riveted when he says: "June 16 changed my life. It made me an artist."

Garth shows us one of his early paintings. It is built up of layers of images with the shadowed face of the youthful Nelson Mandela at its centre behind wire mesh beside a gash of blue ocean and light. He explains that this is a stencil image that, with a tin of spray, could be painted onto a wall in seconds. In banning the face, the authorities set a challenge to artists or "cultural workers" as many artists called themselves. That cultural work, Garth adds, was always intrinsically educational.

Writing in exile in England, I was constantly affected by images emerging from South Africa, especially those involving children. For this conference, I choose to read the opening of a short story from Out of Bounds called "The typewriter". Using my imagination, I had thrust my characters Nandi and her grandmother into that cauldron of Soweto 1976.

Nandi's school would have had little in common with my whites-only school in Johannesburg. I had written my novel Chain of Fire to understand more fully why young black South Africans were risking their lives in resisting apartheid.

For me writing has always been a way of exploring and challenging the boundaries that segregate our experience. When a Cosat student wants to know why some of my books were banned, I try to explain. A Devon boy asks the South Africans whether they would be prepared to do what their parents had done to push for social change even if they knew they could be shot. A lad says "if it was really necessary, I would".

Another Devon student asks whether there are any white students in the Khayelitsha school. There aren't. A girl explains that if she went to a private school, she would be able to mix with white students. But her family can't afford that. It's a sobering thought. What is most heartening to watch, however, is the shared humour. The South Africans are tickled when Martin Phillips points out their multilingualism and the Devon students blush when Martin asks if they could conduct a similar exchange in German.

The South African students end by singing us a most poignant song from the time of their parents' struggle: "Senzeni na?'' - "What have we done?"

Music and song, like art and literature, carry echoes and meanings that connect us over time and place. They expand our awareness. From this conference, I shall especially remember the answer given by a Devon girl to the question about the role of art and literature in social change. "They help us to imagine what it is like to be someone else."

Beverley Naidoo's Chain of Fire and Out of Bounds are published by Puffin.

For Devon's Crossing project see

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