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Lionel Davis
by Elise Eggart, Harvard WorldTeach volunteer
Lionel DavisToday, Cape Town is a thriving metropolis whose growth and economic success are testimony to the strength and vibrancy of the new South Africa. The city, however, retains many of the scars that it incurred during the dark era of Apartheid, and these remain as stark and steady reminders of the city's cruel past. Two of the most notable marks of this past are the eerily empty city blocks that used to comprise the vibrant neighborhood known as District Six, and the walled stone and concrete complex on Robben Island, which served as the Apartheid regime's maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991.

No one, perhaps, is more intimately familiar with these two places than Lionel Davis, who grew up in District Six and spent seven years long years on Robben Island. Davis's remarkable life has been shaped to a large degree by his experiences in both of these places, which have infused him with an intense determination to erase apartheid's brutal legacy while ensuring that the injustices of South Africa's past are never forgotten. Davis agreed to sit down with us, an eager group of South African and American students, to tell us a bit of his own story.
Growing Up in District Six
Lionel Davis was born in District Six in 1936, and spent all of his childhood in the neighborhood. District Six was primarily home to colored (mixed race) South Africans, but many black and Indian families lived there as well. The neighborhood tended to break down racial barriers in an otherwise highly color-conscious society. As Davis remembers, everyone interacted with everyone else, because "we were all one as poor as the other, and we were always interdependent." Davis's family occasionally sent him to fetch food from neighbors when their supplies were short, and notes that his family was quick to return the favor when the same neighbors were going hungry. The neighborhood's tight quarters and heavy interdependence led to "a great sense of togetherness" that Davis recalls with nostalgia.

District Six was a great place to be a kid. From street games to informal soccer clubs to ballroom dancing, there was never a shortage of things to do. Children were always out and about; as Davis remembers, "your playground was the street." The neighborhood's vibrant atmosphere encouraged creativity among its youth, and the community produced a number of skilled musicians, dancers, and artists. This focus on creativity, which is still present in many present-day colored communities, led Davis to artwork for the first time. When he could find it, Davis would use colored chalk to draw cartoon characters on the sidewalk. Decades later he would become a skilled artist, but he had no avenue to pursue artwork once in high school, and his drawing fell by the wayside.

As Davis grew up, he became increasingly angry about the problems and injustices that plagued his community. While race relations in District Six were perhaps healthier than in any other South African neighborhood, residents nonetheless frequently succumbed to the apartheid mentality. Davis resented the fact that "whiteness" was sought after by so many people. He recalls that light skinned children of colored parents sometimes petitioned the South African government to be reclassified as white, even though this course of action meant disowning their own families. The increasingly oppressive police presence in District Six also contributed to Davis's frustration. He recalls that "white [police officers] were always working against us…arresting us and beating us up." Davis had his own share of run-ins with the law; at one point he was sentenced to a caning after an altercation with a white woman.
Robben Island
After dropping out of High School, Davis became increasingly convinced that drastic action was required to rid South Africa of apartheid's oppression. When he was in his early 20's, he joined a group known as the African People's Democratic Union of South Africa, which advocated toppling the white government with a Marxist revolution. When recalling his time with the group, Davis remarked that "they had the most wonderful politics," but that "they were just a thought shop." As time past, Davis became frustrated with the group's inaction, and he eventually left the APDUSA to join the more radical National Liberation Front. This group was in its infancy when Davis joined, but it had the intention of gaining a large number of followers in order to take up arms against the apartheid government.

Davis began to participate actively in the National Liberation Front's widespread recruitment effort, but his time with the organization wouldn't last long. In 1964, he and several other NLF operatives were arrested by the South African government and charged with "conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage." Davis was sentenced to seven years on Robben Island. In hindsight, Davis says that he's glad that he and his fellow NLF members were caught as soon as they were. Had their plans progressed further, Davis might have faced a life sentence, or he might have been tortured to death at the hands of the police.

Robben Island was not a desirable place to be, but life for prisoners on the island was not completely devoid of hope. By the time Davis arrived at the prison, the South African government had granted prisoners the privilege of pursuing their educations from the island, albeit under strict conditions. Prisoners' families had to pay the expense of correspondence courses, and the slightest rule violation could terminate a prisoner's official education. As Davis learned though, these strict rules could be circumvented by determined students. For example, some prisoners snuck paper and pencils into their cells in empty cement bags, and taught one another in their cells at night. While on the island, Davis finished high school via a correspondence course. Other prisoners with longer sentences accomplished even more impressive academic feats. Davis's friend Eric Daniels, for example, arrived on Robben Island with only a primary school education and left fifteen years later with two degrees from the University of South Africa.

After his time on Robben Island, Davis faced an additional five years of house arrest. Davis believes that being confined to his home was even more frustrating and difficult than his time in prison, and he began to look for outlets that would keep him productively engaged during the endless progression of hours and days. For the first time in well over a decade, Davis began to draw. He found artwork to be so fulfilling that he resolved to seriously pursue it when his house arrest ended.
Art and Education
It was this resolve that led Davis to discover the Cape Arts Project in 1978. The organization's goal was to educate and empower South Africans of all races by introducing them to art, theater, and dance. Davis took his first formal art classes with CAP, and continued his art education with the organization for two full years. He then spent another two years at the Evangelical Arts and Crafts Center at Rorke's Drift in Natal. At Rorke's Drift, Davis was introduced to the medium of screen printing, which is used to produce artwork on t-shirts and posters. Davis realized that this medium had great potential to affect widespread social change, and he pursued it wholeheartedly with the intention of teaching the discipline to others. Davis's two years at Rorke's Drift gave him a degree in Fine Arts, and qualified him to return to the the Community Arts Project in Cape Town as a teacher.

Davis taught at CAP through the tumultuous 1980's, as harsh government crackdowns became more frequent and South Africa became increasingly isolated in the world. As a screen printing instructor, he assisted a variety of individuals and organizations who opposed apartheid. South African law made it dangerous for his students to print posters and t-shirts with overtly revolutionary messages, but their artwork aided the resistance movement in more subtle ways. Davis's students produced everything from posters protesting high rents to t-shirts urging white South Africans to resist army conscription.

Davis is particularly proud of the fact that CAP remained autonomous throughout the decade, resisting the temptation to align itself with any particular political organization. This allowed Davis and his fellow instructors to assist everyone who sought to oppose apartheid, and in so doing, do their part to encourage all South Africans to bind together in a united front against their government.

Davis is also proud of the degree to which his work as an art instructor empowered his students. Education is certainly a subtle form of resistance, but in the long run, it is perhaps the most potent means of bringing about positive societal change. Almost all of Davis's students perceived art as a domain that belonged only to whites, and their education with CAP thus helped to break down barriers in their own minds. Art education also gave Davis's students a rare chance to pursue full self-expression. Apartheid's official Bantu Education curriculum stressed wrote memorization and strove to dehumanize its black pupils to the greatest possible extent. Generations of black children had creativity and free thought drilled out of them as they passed through South Africa's schools. Through drawing and painting, many of Davis's students were able freely think and create for the first time in years. Often, this opportunity set Davis's students on the road to attaining a much stronger and more profound sense of self. "Through the medium of art," Davis explains, "you can begin to dignify a person."
Today and the Future
Lionel back on Robben IslandLionel Davis was well into his fifties during the early 1990's, as South Africa's white government was crumbling away. Davis had spent his life to that point struggling against the apartheid regime with everything from screen printing to plans of guerrilla warfare, and he had sacrificed 12 years of his own freedom to this cause. Many people in Davis's position, after attaining such a long sought-after goal, would decide to take a well deserved break. Davis, however, had no intention of slowing down. In 1992, he entered The University of Cape Town's prestigious Michaelis School of Fine Art, and graduated two years later with a Master's degree at age 58.

In the years since, Davis has continued his effort to erase apartheid's legacy. He currently works full time as the educational coordinator for the Robben Island museum, coordinating programs that teach school groups about the island's place in South African history. When he retires from his post this year (2006) at age 70, he plans to buckle down and pursue a painting career.

Young South Africans have much to learn from Davis's example. Creating a truly equitable society after centuries of white dominance will require the new South African generation to exhibit just the sort of boundless energy and steadfast resolve that Davis has displayed for all of his life. Hopefully, the legacies of South Africans like Lionel Davis will live on through the collective action of future generations.

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