The red Mercedez Benz Simon Gush explores Democratic South Africa

Simon Gush - RED
Simon Gush - RED | © Masimba Sasa / Goethe-Institut Johannesburg

Artist Simon Gush talks about the red Mercedes-Benz that workers gave to Nelson Mandela in 1990, the ensuing sleep-in strike at the car manufacturing plant and the power balance 20 years into South Africa’s democracy. 

Simon Gush, what triggered your fascination with the red Mercedes-Benz that workers presented to Nelson Mandela as a gift in 1990?

In 2011 I had just finished an exhibition that was around the ideological divide that had become visible in Cosatu. I had flown down to visit my parents in Pietermaritzburg a couple weeks after the show. It was my father who told me about the strike at the Mercedes-Benz plant as we were driving back from the airport in Durban. The strike itself was fascinating to me and I started to research it more. This is when I found out that the car had been built for Mandela just months before. The combination of the strike and the gift to Mandela interested me because they couldn’t quite be fitted together. I was drawn to them both as stories that couldn’t find a conclusion.

For your exhibition RED, you made a new documentary (together with James Cairns), that follows individual stories of some of the people involved. You mostly spoke to workers, management, as well as union representatives of that time - which personal story affected you most and why?

It is hard to pick out a single perspective because the documentary is really about the interaction between all the parties involved. There are no bad guys or good guys in the story; it is about the various sides trying to find a way through which amazingly they did. We did a lot of interviews in the process and not everyone can be included in the video and not every story. Sometimes some of the bits I enjoyed the most had to be left out of the cut because we don’t have enough time. I guess this affects me the most - listening over and over to the personal stories and not including all of it.

20 years into South Africa’s democracy, strikes are still used as a means to demand swift change. In your opinion, how does the 1990 Mercedes-Benz sleep-in strike compare to recent strikes, for instance the very violent events in Marikana? 

I think we often forget that strikes are always a last resort and that they are hard on both sides. When a worker goes on strike, they are not paid and it can takes years before they can make back the money they lost, even if they get the gains they seek. It is not necessarily economic, it is a process by which workers can hold some power to be able to talk to management on a more even ground. Making this exhibition reinforced for me that strikes are going to be regular occurrences when the kind of inequality that we have in this country is present. It is hard to negotiate from a position of social and economic insecurity and, in these conditions; strikes will always have a political dimension as well.

Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz were able to make their plant in East London one of the most efficient in the world by investing in the workers, not just through pay but through education and housing. This allowed the workers the stability to negotiate. I think we still often ignore the root causes of industrial action.

Thembaletu Fikizolo pointed out in one the interviews that the sleep-in strike and Marikana both happened on the 16th of August. It is an interesting coincidence, but I don’t think that we should over-interpret it.

You have stated that the red Mercedes ‘summed up many aspirations and tensions of an important transitional moment for South Africa’. After 20 years of democracy, and in this election year, another transitional moment is upon us. How do you perceive this milestone?

Anniversaries are important because they engender self-reflection. I feel like this moment has some parallels to 1990 (the time of the events of the documentary), rather than 1994 and the advent of the elections. We are working through the end of an era that needs to be wrapped up before we can move on. I am I very excited by the rumors of a new left wing alliance emerging out of Numsa.

Can you comment on the balance of power between workers and management (of foreign-owned companies in South Africa and others) since this particular moment in 1990 that your work in RED deals with?

Despite the gains made by Labour Relations Act of 1995, power is still in favour of management. The amount of industrial action that we see means that there is no balance. It is hard for workers to have power in a situation where there is such high unemployment. In 1990 at the Mercedes-Benz plant the workers had a lot of power on the shop floor due to militant unions, but this has to be seen in the context of apartheid society. Power cannot only be read not in terms of the shop floor, but must be seen in context with wider society as well.

With Nelson Mandela, the larger than life icon, and of course also the recipient of the red Mercedes-Benz, gone, do you believe the car (and the man) will continue to hold status as a symbol, or will its value shift over time, even be forgotten?

I think the car was able to function successfully as a symbol because of its ambiguity. It’s meaning could shift for each person; a container for their desires. Nelson Mandela, the man is still very much an active symbol. The symbol has been separate from the man for many years now, possibly it always was. This means that, again, people are able to project their desires onto him. I think this is part of why he will remain important, symbolically, for so long. We need to be able to have people we can project onto.  

For RED, you commissioned local designer Mokotjo Mohulo to design the strikers’ uniforms. You seem to place quite a high emphasis on the uniforms as a symbol. Today, we see Julius Malema and his party “comrades” wear red berets. Uniforms as a symbol of resistance? Please elaborate on your concept of the Mercedes strikers’ uniforms.

The uniforms, the beds and even the car are interesting to me as moments when the factory was used in a different kind of way. Instead of building cars to be sold to customers etc… The workers repurposed the factory to produce something for themselves. The car, although it went through the same processes as all cars to be produced, was conceptually different to other cars made in the factory. The beds were a moment of necessity given the occupation; the striker needed somewhere to sleep. Repurposing of materials in this manner involves a creative act. I was interesting in pointing to that act. The use of material from the factory by the strikers was used as a way visualizing themselves, which I find interesting. I don’t mean to glamorize the strike itself - it was very destructive - but there are also interesting moments that point to different ideas of production.  

You pursue socio-political topics in your artistic practice – what other themes do you explore if any?

Most of my art at the moment is about ‘work’. This particular exhibition deals with a historical event, that I think is fascinating and needed to be told but, most of the time, I look at work/labour from a more personal perspective. I deal with the ideological conceptions of work and things that I am thinking about while I am working. I spend most of my time working on jobs that are not art-making and, as the thing that consumes the most of my time; it makes sense for me to use it for my art. Jobs seem slightly more fun when you can think of them as research. We live in a Calvinist society so we don’t talk about it much, but most work is meaningless, repetitive and dull.

Do you consider yourself a political artist?

I did when I was younger, but not so much now. I make the work I find the most interesting to make. It is just that I don’t really find anything without politics appealing.

The exhibition RED runs from 27.03.2014 until 16.05.2014 at the Goethe-Institut gallery.