Look at me – I’m not what you think!

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

The play “I See You” exposes the awkwardness between South Africans, as a black university student befriends an Afrikaans woman, and confronts a hero of the Struggle. Photo: Alastair Muir

One of the most complex slices of South Africa’s population which is calling for the ouster of President Jacob Zuma is the middle class black ‘born-frees’ who grew up after apartheid and for whom the pass laws, Verwoerd, Mandela and uMkhonto weSizwe are in the realm of folk history rather than personal experience. For many, Zuma’s heroism – and that of the ANC – during the Struggle is far less important than his anti-democratic, corrupt behaviour today, which they see threatening their futures.

Theatre is a perfect arena to express the quest of these born-frees for their own individuality. It is inspiring how a new generation of playwrights and performers is creating sophisticated works, showing up the politicians’ bravado and posturing, and exploring what it means to be South African in post-apartheid society, with its many demons.

Two superb recent plays – one written by Steven and Kate Sidley, the other by playwright Mongiwekhaya and directed by Swaziland-born actress Noma Dumezweni who grew up in the UK – illustrate the born-frees’ efforts to establish their own distinctiveness relative to the Struggle generation, in the milieu of whites amongst whom they live and work. These whites face their own questions about their South Africanness, amidst accusations from angry young blacks that they are still privileged racists.

The first play, “Shape”, ran at Daphne Kuhn’s Theatre on the Square in Sandton last month. It is set in an up-market gym with three protagonists: a black gym instructor with a privileged education; a white fitness fanatic who battles nagging questions about his sexuality; and a white do-gooder woman who works for the Human Rights Commission, recently got divorced and has joined the gym – she is clearly out of shape – in an attempt to regain her sense of self.

When the black man approaches the woman to take him on as a gym instructor, she declines. He immediately retorts: “Is it because I’m black?” She, of course, instantly denies it so vehemently that it exposes her complicated feelings towards the topic. What follows is a fascinating exploration, told through the medium of gym equipment, change-rooms and tanning rooms, of each of their attempts to relate to the other as people, and ultimately, fellow citizens of the same country, while the familiar political correctness and gym jargon plays itself out.

The second play is currently on at the Market Theatre, called “I See You”. The main protagonist is a young black Wits student studying law who cannot speak Xhosa – the language of his parents – because he was taken overseas at age three when his family went into exile, and he grew up there. After a white Afrikaans woman befriends him in a Johannesburg club, they are driving in a car when they are stopped by a black cop, a former ANC paramilitary fighter turned policeman, who has a simmering resentment at the fact that his role in South Africa’s armed struggle, at great personal cost, is being ignored by young black South Africans who are educated, speak English rather than their mother tongue and have friends who are white.

During the night of abuse which follows, the cop and the Wits student confront each other heatedly, each from their own places in their lives, while the Afrikaans woman tries frantically to rescue the student from the clutches of the bitter policeman.

The Market Theatre was established by theatre legend Barney Simon in 1976 with the explicit goal of facilitating such penetrating, relevant drama. This is Noma Dumezweni’s directorial debut interrogating such issues – which are as important for the born-frees today as the anti-apartheid struggle was for Barney Simon several decades ago.

The play’s name, I See You, is a common Zulu greeting implying bearing witness to the other. In this confused society, how people acknowledge their fellow citizens is riddled with tension and awkwardness. The crass slogans being hurled around with abandon on social media that “all whites are racists”, blacks are “corrupt and inept” – and some are “monkeys” – and so on, must ultimately give way to “I see you”, if this society is to overcome its history and release itself from the grip of manipulative leaders.

The successful staging of these two plays to full houses consisting of all races shows that the process is indeed underway between ordinary people – if only sleazy politicians like Jacob Zuma and populists like Julius Malema will stop trying to sabotage it with convenient racial slurs.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

  • For critical reviews of the above plays, visit  Shape and I See You

2 thoughts on “Look at me – I’m not what you think!

  1. Pingback: And now for something completely shapely | My View

  2. Pingback: I see you: the voice of a new generation | My View

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