WHAT would you do if you woke up one morning in the servants’ quarters of your wealthy house, put there by your maid while you were asleep? Meet Sheila Shler, the creation of veteran South African actor Robert Colman through a facebook channel. Sheila is a complex character who appears in post-apartheid South Africa, 22 years after democracy. She is a well-to-do white “madam” who owns a house in the elite Johannesburg neighbourhood of Saxonwold.
According to the plot, she was recently moved from the main house to live in the servants’ quarters by her black maid Tryfeena, who has established a shebeen (African pub) in the primary residence. Colman, dressed in drag and playing the part of a confused Sheila who stares directly into the camera and whose facial expressions speak volumes about the challenges of her new inverted life, has produced six short episodes thus far, with more promised.
The plot is sidesplitting yet deadly serious. It is a take-off on one of the major political dramas of 2016 surrounding the infamous billionaire Gupta family which lives in a veritable palace in Saxonwold. The family has been accused of state capture – the bribing and influencing of politicians and government officials, from President Jacob Zuma downwards, for their business interests.
The sub-plot is a public statement by former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe who was suspected of being implicated in the Guptas’ network, that he had not visited their house. When his visit to the area was proved by cellphone records and documented in an ominous public protector’s report on state capture, he admitted he had been in Saxonwold, but said he might have been visiting a local shebeen in the area. It was received with astonishment by the country.
Colman has converted the incident into political satire, digging into the pathologies of South African society with humour and irony. Sheila, talking in her upper-class Johannesburg northern-suburbs accent, bemoans her fate, but is trying hard to understand the social and political dynamics that brought her to this situation. She talks about doing a course with Racists Anonymous and how it feels to have to address her former maid as “madam”.
Previous great names in South African satire include Evita Bezuidenhout, a caricature during apartheid of an Afrikaans woman from a conservative background who embodies aspects of her racist origins but has a subtle understanding of its absurdity. She is the creation of theatre personality Pieter–Dirk Uys, who during apartheid lampooned politicians such as former President PW Botha. Evita was so well-known by anti-apartheid movements – she was called the “most famous white woman in South Africa” – that she had an official meeting with Nelson Mandela after he came out of jail.
When future historians look back on 2017, they will say major parts of the world expected it to be a bumpy ride. The previous year had shaken up the establishment’s complacency, providing political shocks and placing people like US president-elect Donald Trump and his ilk in positions of power in America, the UK and other European countries, with their xenophobia, populism and disdain for the liberal democracies built since World War Two.
Apprehension about this year applies also to South Africa for its own reasons. A major characteristic of 2016 was re-emergence of overt racism – it had never disappeared, but under Mandela’s rainbow nation spell had been submerged and politically incorrect.
But last year, highly publicised incidents ranged from white Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow’s tweet about blacks being like monkeys; Afrikaans farmers placing a black man in a coffin, threatening to set it alight and publishing a video on social media boasting of their act; EFF leader Julius Malema’s consistent anti-white rhetoric; and students at university campuses displaying posters with the words “fuck the whites”. South Africans fear racist antagonism will accelerate, stoked by populist politicians and thoughtless people using social media for their diatribes.
One thing South Africans have in their favour, however, is a basic decency and sense of humour. Coleman’s character Sheila Shler taps into that.
The society has a long way to go before apartheid’s racial legacy is overcome. A character like Sheila cannot solve it, but can hold up a mirror making people laugh uproariously in recognition of themselves, while being thoughtful about it. We look forward to more episodes of Sheila.