When Neo Mahlangu’s name was announced at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg, her grandmother started ululating, and the sound soared to the ceiling of that magnificent and moving building. It twisted around the Aluta Continua neon sign, through the prison brickwork and graffiti of the apartheid era, and settled on the smiling faces of all those attending, including Justice Edwin Cameron, Minister Tito Mboweni, Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago and MC Lebo Mashile. The launch of a series of coins – both commemorative and for circulation – to celebrate 25 years of South Africa’s democracy by the Reserve Bank and the SA Mint, was indeed cause for celebration. Not only do the coins highlight our Bill of Rights, but various young South African artists also designed them.
It’s a journey long in the making, and I had the excellent fortune of being invited to some of the early stage conversations with the SA Mint, as the process unrolled. The coins mark the first time that members of the public participated in developing the themes for the coins, as focus groups of ‘born frees’ were invited to provide their views on democracy, freedom and culture. Again and again, the importance of our Bill of Rights as an organ of access, agency, activism and accountability was raised. In the later stages, artists Neo Mahlangu, Maaike Bakke, graffiti artist Rasty Knayles, and Peter Mammes came up with designs for the Right to Education, to Movement and Residence, to Freedom of Religion, Belief and Opinion, and Environmental and Children’s Rights. These were designed as five different R2 coins. And finally, to be launched later this year, will be the R5 coin, created by internationally renowned Lady Skollie, promoting our national anthem with the words ‘Let us Live and Strive for Freedom’.
Artist Neo Mahlangu, on describing how it felt to design a coin, spoke about the practical challenges of creating a work in relief, the challenges of creating shadow and light, but also of the notion of her art going into circulation; not simply being constrained to a gallery or white cube. Conceptually, it is a powerful notion, that the artworks of these five artists are now available to everyone who handles the coins in the day-to-day economy. It will be Mahlangu’s grandmother, my mother, and others who will feel the ‘relief’ in their hand, will see the artist’s vision as it impacts them. For Knayles, it is a further activation of his goals of art in public spaces, art for all. Seeing the artists in the Court Foyer being celebrated alongside political and business dignitaries, was a moment of extraordinary joy for me. I believe the argument of shared value, both within the private sector and broader society, should be focused on the centralisation of creativity into strategy, using creativity as a key to broader narratives.
Talking of broader narratives, Lebo Mashile pinned the proceedings of the day into the larger commentary of our country with a powerful new poem; one which described the difference between history (an act of power) and herstory, and the power of creativity and the arts in transformation. It’s a potent work that deserves to be repeated in print, and in practice. Perhaps that’s the next step. We’ve done the coins – let’s now read poetry on the R10, R50 and R100 notes, let’s read Mashile’s words and those of other wordsmiths, in braille, as we make our daily payments. Let’s remind ourselves why we are proud to be South African, why creativity is a game changer – and ultimately can belong to everyone.
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