Duke Ketye’s Resistance

Duke Ellington Sipho Ketye. That’s a name to reckon with. We must assume his parents hoped he would assert his black identity through the arts. Duke Ketye (1943 – 2002) grew up in Soweto, first studied art in South Africa, then took Norman Rockwell’s famous correspondence course while working in a ceramics factory. In his mid-twenties he began painting and sculpting full-time, moving from Soweto to Durban, where he established a gallery and studio space. Clearly, a man of determination and an entrepreneur. Ketye was also versatile, doing sculpture and wood panels on religious themes and paintings on the culture and politics of his people.

Sleeping in the Third-Class Carriage

I have one of Ketye’s paintings, Sleeping in the Third-Class Carriage (1985). It is a wash drawing in black and grey, 20 inches high and 29 inches wide. It depicts eight Black people in a South African Railways commuter train between Soweto and Johannesburg. They are riding either very early or very late and are slumped in crowded seats, asleep. A man holds a hand-operated victrola. A woman covers her face with her hands. A man is visible sleeping in the overhead luggage rack. Black window shades, showing the railway’s logo, are drawn. The luggage rack runs across the top of the painting, and it and the window shades frame the passengers. I see in the painting fatigue, discomfort, injustice, and perhaps despair. Please look for yourself in the thumbnail or my Facebook or Twitter postings.

Ketye painted it at the time of growing artistic resistance to apartheid. It came out the year before Paul Simon’s album Graceland. For me, it evokes the sombre mood of Homeless, the song on the album with the deepest South African roots.

Verlichte or Verkrampft?

The 1984 – 1985 academic year would be my first research leave, and I wanted to travel. A Canadian friend who had gone to work for the public sector in South Africa invited me to a conference the summer my sabbatical would begin. Curious about South Africa and looking for a way to launch my voyage, I bought a round-the-world plane ticket on Canadian Pacific Airlines and its partner South African Airways (Suid-Afrikaanse Lugdiens), with stops in Amsterdam, Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Vancouver.

For a month after the conference traveled all over South Africa, including Kruger Park; Cape Town; the Garden Route between Cape Town and Durban, including the bantustans of Ciskei and Transkei; and Windhoek, Southwest Africa (as it was then). I had hoped to reach out to Black people, but I found that the system, as Apartheid was also called, extended to travelers as well. Often whites raised the distinction between those who were verlichte, or enlightened, and those who were verkrampft, or hardline and reactionary. Virtually every white declared themselves verlichte, but when they explained themselves their attitudes included an uncomfortable mixture of sympathy towards, and demeaning judgments about the capability of, Black people.

I did meet one person I considered verkrampft. I was invited to Windhoek to give a seminar. In the evening, a braai (Afrikaans-style barbeque) was held in my honour. Sitting under the stars in a backyard on the edge of the desert, I asked a question about Namibia; our host heatedly took exception, declaring that only insurrectionists use that name, and the land was and would always be Southwest Africa.

The evening before I left in early September, there were violent riots near Soweto. I was certain South Africa would have a violent future of inter-racial confrontation.

Diaspora Art Sale

Two years after my trip to South Africa I was invited to a private sale of South African art in Toronto (also referred to, among emigres, as Jo’burg North). In the time since my visit, South Africa was often in the news and on my mind, especially the escalating struggle against Apartheid. Buying Duke Ketye’s painting seemed to me to be a way of expressing my solidarity. It was also in the Jewish tradition of standing against oppressors because, as we say in the seder, we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Perhaps I also felt some guilt in that I had not done more to reach out to the oppressed when I was visiting South Africa. Whatever my motives, I liked the painting. It eloquently captured a situation that needed to change.


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