IF AN OVERSEAS VISITOR wanted to understand some of the reasons people want to leave South Africa for Israel, the UK or other countries, he or she might visit Pretoria’s state theatre.
This huge complex was built doing apartheid by the government, in the brutalist architectural style popular at the time, a reflection of its status as a cultural icon presenting opera, classical concerts and ballet. It contains theatres and auditoria equipped with facilities for major productions. Its shows were never radical like the Market Theatre’s protest performances in Johannesburg, but in the euphoria of Nelson Mandela’s becoming president in democratic South Africa, expectations rose for a more adventurous tone.
But in the ’90s the theatre in effect became dormant. It reopened in 2001, offering its six venues – the Opera, Drama, Arena, Rendezvous, Momentum, and Studio – for hire.
Today it is in a state of such disgraceful decay, you would be ashamed to bring overseas visitors there. Upon arrival, you enter the underground parking, which is so confusing you have to ask a security guard where the entrance to the actual theatre is, and he must come with his keys to unlock the filthy doors. There are long stairways to be climbed, and no wheelchair access to some of the main spaces. When you pay for your parking, the guard stands alongside you at the machine, and when your R5 change comes out, he turns into a beggar, holds out his hand and says ‘for bread please?’ – implying that if you don’t hand it over, your car might not be looked after.
Most of the complex is closed and unused, like a morgue. Yet, incredibly, within this awful mess, a brilliant play was performed last week in one of the smaller spaces, called ‘The Fall’ about the students’ movement to remove Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from Cape Town University campus.
The complexity of the struggle to ‘decolonise’ South Africa is portrayed with such brilliant directing and choreography that one leaves the theatre vibrating with the power of the performance and inspired that if South Africa contains such talent in its youth, all will eventually be well.
Then you return to the dirty corridors and tunnels back to the underground parking, and into the street where one is pounced on by pathetic beggars at your car window. The emotions of the evening’s experience fight with each other.
At dinner parties among white South Africans, conversations often turn to which country to emigrate to. Canada? America? Australia? Israel? The criterion is that whatever country is chosen, it must actually ‘work’. Where the government does what it’s supposed to do. The streets are clean, the bureaucracy functions. Many people have children or friends living elsewhere; the topic turns to the last Skype conversation with them, and the sadness that most will never return to this country; families they left behind will die here, lonely.
All the countries listed above have problems. America has Donald Trump and his support from hard right Evangelists. European countries have dangerously increasing anti-Semitism.
And Israel has its interminable political and security crisis, continuing to tear itself apart in arguments over occupation of the Palestinian territories, flaming kites from Gaza, and Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the country. But nevertheless, it feels like a country on the ‘upslope’, not the down, its economy booming and people flowing in.
Does one continue to be optimistic and believe South African politicians have the best interests of the country at heart, and the looting of state coffers will stop? Or that Ramaphosa will turn the country around after the Zuma nightmare?
South Africans are desperately seeking an assurance things will turn out okay. The state theatre is a metaphor for the country’s best and worst. If the government turned two thirds of it into a well-run hospital, but kept a small theatre for brilliant productions, it would be better than letting it rot. It’s about the difference between despair and hope.
- Read a review of THE FALL by independent art critic Robyn Sassen
- A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 22, 2018