Protesters threaten to boycott Hilton arts week

2011-09-12 00:00

REPRESENTATIVES of South African grassroots movements, civil society organisations and academics have condemned a decision by the organisers of The Witness Hilton Arts Festival to stage three plays from Israel — The Timekeepers, Volunteer Man and My First Sony – at the event which runs from September 16 to 18.

In a letter sent to The Witness and the organisers the signatories, who had been attending a Church Land Programme event in Pietermaritzburg, said the festival is in danger of “irrevocably tarnishing” its image by undermining the Palestinian campaign for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, launched in Ramallah in 2004.

The boycott, which is supported by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, was launched against Israeli academic and cultural institutions to pressure the country into withdrawing from lands occupied in 1967; removing all its colonies in those lands; agreeing to United Nations resolutions about the restitution of Palestinian refugees’ rights; and dismantling its system of apartheid.

The signatories urge the festival organisers to pull the productions from the programme; for sponsors and partners to protest the decision and to withdraw their support should the decision not be changed; for cultural workers and artists to support the boycott; and the public to pressure the organisers to reverse the decision, protest at the festival, and boycott, if not the whole festival, then at least the Israeli plays.

Responding to the letter, Iain McMillan, chairperson of The Witness Hilton Arts Festival, said that while they have taken note of the objections raised to the inclusion of the plays on the programme, the organisers want to make it “absolutely clear that the inclusion of these works in no way reflects the festival’s endorsement, or otherwise, of the state of Israel or its policies”.

He added: “The three plays have all previously been presented at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown: two in 2010, and the third in 2011. That festival is a prime source of material for The Witness Hilton Arts Festival, and the works were selected for this year’s programme on account of their artistic merit and interesting subject matter.

“My First Sony focuses on the challenges facing children growing up in a dysfunctional family; Volunteer Man is about a man dying of Aids in New York and is concerned with voluntary euthanasia; and The Timekeepers is a Holocaust story with a strong anti-fascist message. It has always been the festival’s intention to provide our audiences with challenging drama, reflecting our belief that art in a democracy should transcend political agendas and deal with human issues. The three plays on which attention is now being focused qualify in terms of that intention, and convey messages appropriate for our young democracy. Finally, we need to reiterate the Hilton Festival’s commitment to freedom of expression.”

His words were echoed by Yves Vanderhaegen, acting editor of The Witness, who said: “The Witness supports an open exchange of views that contributes to a better understanding of the human condition and encourages people to go along to the festival.”

McMillan refuted claims that the organisers are backing state-funded plays, adding that the Embassy of Israel and the ambassador, Dov Segev-Steinberg, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Victor Gordon, the head of Tararam (South Africa Israel Culture Fund), had only helped in paying for some of the costs involved in bringing the plays to South Africa. “The company is being paid to perform by the festival organisers on the same basis as any other participants,” he added.

• A full programme and booking kit for The Witness Hilton Arts Festival are available on line at

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