South African theatre points the way on this wild ride

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What makes a South African? Can theatre help the people of this tortured country get past their history and look each other in the eye, as in the play Suddenly the Storm?

THE last few weeks’ Orwellian rollercoaster in South African politics shows how confused this country is about itself and where it’s going. Set against the smoke and noise on the national stage, Mandela’s Rainbow Nation seems like an old black-and-white movie we once saw in a bioscope where we ate popcorn and cheered, and which we remember as “the good old days”. The actors and plots about the freedom struggle are like a folk legend, as we question what it means to be South African nowadays.

Most countries, old or new, face this question in one way or another. Donald Trump’s astounding rise in the politics of the United States to where he stands a chance of becoming the next president, has caused millions of Americans to re-examine who they really are and what they share as a nation. Is that crude buffoon truly the face of America?

Israel’s creation 68 years ago was driven by radically different narratives of what Zionism meant. Would the new Israel be epitomised by a suntanned secular kibbutznik ploughing the fields at day and reading poetry at night? A religious Jew returning to his Holy Land? A haven against anti-Semitism after the Holocaust? Or something else? Vigorous contestation about what it is to be Israeli continues today.

South Africa is also a new country, post-apartheid and post-Mandela. Who are its people now, as they stumble from crisis to crisis? Will EFF leader Julius Malema’s anti-white demagoguery, the white estate agent Penny Sparrow in Durban referring to blacks on the beach as monkeys, and furious black students burning books as they demand decolonisation of universities, forever be the dominant tunes to which they sing? Is President Jacob Zuma in essence a tribal chief dispensing patronage to his subjects, as he seems to think, with a Divine right to rule the country?

Great art may often hold a mirror to society, warts and all. Three excellent recent plays in Johannesburg by local writers portray the challenge of South Africans in finding each other through their anger and conflicted histories. The first, called “I See You”, by Mongiwekhaya, portrays a young black law student named Ben at Wits University who was taken out of South Africa as a very young child, grew up in England and hardly speaks his parents’ Zulu language or knows their culture. He meets a flirtatious white woman, and while in the car they are stopped by the police. A black cop, a bitter man who calls himself a “comrade” of the Struggle who has not benefitted from it in any way, assaults Ben viciously and mocks him for not speaking Zulu and for his flimsy cultural identity, as if he is a traitor, while Ben rattles on about his “rights”.

Another, called “Suddenly The Storm”, by Paul Slabolepszy, exposes the tortured feelings of a white former apartheid policeman who, during those dark days, did the unthinkable by falling in love with a black woman, who was also in love with him and with whom he conceived a child. She left him precipitously one day in a desperate attempt to protect him, telling her family he had raped her, and went into exile with a new husband, where she died after many years. During the performance set in post-apartheid South Africa, a dignified, beautiful woman arrives one day at the old policeman’s dingy house and reveals that she is his daughter. A torrent of feelings emerges in them both, transcending the tortuous categories of white and black.

The third play called “Dop” by Retief Scholtz, is set in a bar where the barman is a young Afrikaner who was taken as a child to Australia when his parents emigrated to escape South Africa’s political chaos, and has come back to find himself. An old, lonely Afrikaner enters the bar, and as he consumes dop after dop of brandy, getting completely drunk, a heartfelt connection develops between them concerning love and identity.

After all that has happened in the country, it will take far more than a generation to tie together the threads of humanity between South Africans, so they can actually see each other. Hopefully, Mandela’s vision will not remain just an old black and white movie.

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

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