IS South Africa really on the brink of a race war? Two white journalists visited several places in Johannesburg last weekend to see cultural life behind the scenes, away from alarmist media headlines. Culture is indeed flourishing, but racial threads are ever-present.
Friday night was at the Market Theatre in Newtown, adjoining the city’s old CBD, where the play ‘Egoli’ – Johannesburg’s African name, meaning ‘gold’ – was performed by an all-black cast in a mixture of African languages and English. It describes black miners’ lives, where they descend 3000 feet underground in rickety lifts to extract gold, sleep in crowded, dirty hostels at night, and save their coins to send to wives and children in their rural homes. The play shows the traumatic aftermath of an underground explosion where one miner is killed.
The Market Theatre was started in 1976 during apartheid as a venue for protest plays by anti-apartheid actor and director Barney Simon and Mannie Manim, and has hosted many great names in South African theatre. It is today a partial realisation of his ideals – the packed house for ‘Egoli’ comprised primarily young black theatre lovers, with a sprinkling of whites, reflecting the country’s demographics. Mixed-race audiences were illegal during apartheid.
The neighbourhood of Newtown, however, still reflects the old regime’s obsession with separating whites and blacks. It is almost totally black. Whites live elsewhere; most are leery about driving to that part of town because of a perception that it is not safe. The whites in the audience that night were mainly theatre professionals – actors, directors, critics and publicists with an innate love for the place. In a nearby restaurant whose customers and staff were black, a young waiter asked the white journalists politely if their dinner there was a prelude to attending the play, and smiled approvingly when told it was.
Saturday morning’s venue was the Constitutional Court building – the land’s highest court, tasked with ensuring government and citizens adhere to the liberal constitution – which was symbolically built on the site of a former jail where the apartheid regime held political prisoners.
A young Afrikaans woman, Stacey Vorster, whose husband has the surname Botha – you can’t get more evocative than those two vintage Afrikaans names in terms of South Africa’s history – and a young black man named Katlego Lefine took the journalists through the Court’s art collection, which they are passionate about reviving from its dreadful neglect over recent years. Vorster is the curator of the collection. One of the Judges, Edwin Cameron, has joined them in their quest.
The collection was set up after the founding of the Court by jurist and struggle hero Albie Sachs – who has one arm and one eye because of an explosion in which the apartheid regime tried to kill him – amidst the euphoria of the Mandela era, to symbolize the arts’ contribution to human rights. It includes local and international works.
Sadly, the building itself has also been neglected. Parts of it are shoddy – a sign, perhaps, of the government’s ambivalent relationship with the Court, which has not been shy to criticise its actions. The Court reflects well the new South Africa, consisting of a majority of black judges, including Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
Sunday morning saw a walk in a beautiful public park in the posh, primarily white neighbourhood of Melrose in northern Johannesburg, a favorite venue for people to walk their dogs. At times, the place looks like a Fellini movie, with folks of all cultures mingling, accompanied by dogs ranging from manicured Poodles to Border Collies, Labradors and others. This scene contrasts with a starkly different reality in another part of the park – a black vagrant living in a large tin drum propped against a tree, with an old plastic chair which he sits on most of the day. Joggers and dog-walkers nod to him warily as they go past.
This Sunday coincided with a gathering of a charismatic African Church on the banks of a stream running through the park. Some 50 black Church members, dressed in striking white robes with a cross on the back, stood out starkly against the lush green of the trees and grass. In the river itself, four men stood waist-deep in the water, chanting and conducting a religious ritual with a young man, throwing water over him and pushing him under the surface.
A friendly Church member approached the journalists who had sat down nearby to watch. He explained that the ceremony derived from the biblical story of John the Baptist. It was the exorcism of a curse.
Sunday midday was an Afrikaans play, ‘Pruimboom’ by Jan Groenewald, at the Foxwood theatre in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. The theatre is a converted former stable on the premises of a large, historic building once owned by the Oats family which dates back to the 1820 settlers from England. The audience consisted of smartly dressed white Afrikaners – aside from three coloured women and one black man – who sipped tea and wine in the manicured garden prior to the performance. To a casual observer, the scene could have been lifted straight from apartheid South Africa.
Then, Sunday afternoon was a visit to the 1870-seat luxury theatre at the Montecasino gambling complex to see a performance of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. It was packed to the brim by an almost totally white audience coming to see this famous American classic. Five minutes into the show, the electricity went out, plunging the theatre into darkness and causing considerable anxiety in the crowd about being trapped in a dark place with so many people.
After a few minutes a voice came onto the intercom, apologizing for the power outage and saying they were sorting it out – meaning they were getting generators going which have become standard equipment because of the unreliability of the state-run power utility Eskom. This is another sore point against President Zuma’s government. The announcer wryly thanked Eskom for the incident, evoking laughter from the audience.
With the lights back on, the show resumed. It was superb, performed by local South African actors who imitated the American accents and choreography of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and others flawlessly. It is set in 1927 in New York at the end of the silent movie era, when sound first came into films with the pioneering show The Jazz Singer.
After three days of culture, the journalists returned to the ‘other’ South Africa, with racial jibes flying in every direction in newspapers and social media. Politicians, journalists, analysts, and every Joe Blog on facebook and Twitter lamenting and reminding us how we all hate each other.
How bad really are the racial tensions? Dr Frans Cronje, head of the SA Institute of Race Relations, says: “If you read newspapers and read what commentators say, you would think we are a week away from a race war, but if you ask people nationwide how they feel about race relations, the data is actually very positive.”
A recent Institute survey asked 2500 South Africans whether they thought the relationship between different races had improved since 1995. Some 60 per cent of blacks and 33.5 per cent of whites said yes. About 15 per cent of blacks and 40 per cent of whites said it had worsened. The rest said it remained the same.
South Africa is far from being the happy rainbow nation Mandela envisaged. But on the ground, it has come part of the way. For the rest, the jury is still out.
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report)
- Reviews of the performances mentioned above and the Constitutional Court art collection can be found at: Egoli, Pruimboom, Singin’ in the Rain, Constitutional Court