The State Theatre: Bullies in the wings

SAst with morfe people (2)

Is it racist to criticise a state funded theatre? The South African State Theatre opened in 1981. It is a government funded company originally intended to promote the development of the performing arts. Arts practitioners claim that it is in a very poor state today and its administration is sorely lacking. Critics have been attacked for saying this and accused of doing so for racist reasons

WHY would a professional who’s given a whole career to the arts industry suddenly be deemed racist? On Sunday I attended a performance by South African-born performance artist Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, at Pretoria’s South African State Theatre (SAST), accompanied by arts journalist Robyn Sassen. Khoza is well-known throughout Europe and elsewhere, and collaborates frequently with South African-born choreographer Robyn Orlin.

We expected to watch the piece as we would in any theatre, based on criteria theatres worldwide honour. This includes making the audience safe, and feel safe, the production’s age limits, allowing for people with disabilities, not allowing dangerous aspects such as open flame to exist unattended.

When we arrived at SAST, however, we were confronted by a frightening array of experiences: we as white theatre-goers were treated with obvious hostility by certain people present; and SAST is mostly in a state of sad neglect. It exists on public funding. Sassen is a veteran journalist who has covered the arts extensively, for over 20 years, including productions at SAST. She has written about its condition previously.

The work, Red Femicycle, which focuses on South African femicide and bullying was hosted in an unusual space in the theatre complex. Ushers took us there via a convoluted route, which they clearly were not sure of themselves. Eventually we arrived at the venue’s appallingly shabby reception area.

It was clear that we as whites stood out like a sore thumb. When I picked up my cell phone to photograph the room’s state, I was aggressively confronted by a black man who told me he hadn’t granted me permission to do that. He did not identify himself.  I said we were from the media, this was a public place, and the pictures were not for publication, but a record of the room’s condition. Others had also been photographing. I asked why he had confronted me, not them. At that moment the work began. He said threateningly, “We will continue this afterwards!”

Sassen decided to write a story on her blog about the theatre itself and our experience there before she reviewed the work. It was published and immediately went viral. (the link to her story is given below)

The next morning a man who according to his Facebook page is associated with the regional secretariat of the ANC youth league, said in one of several rambling vitriolic Facebook posts: “…This Woman called Robyn Sassen is of no difference to a vulture of doom that is hovers over black lives… a scavenger that moves with great menace toward anything that represents black excellence!!! … we do not need an opinion of a bloody racist and bias agent …”[sic] A picture follows this text, of several angry-looking men, led by one holding a spear menacingly.

Clearly, this person is only one voice. But on Facebook, regardless of the credibility of the post or who it comes from, responses get exaggerated and polarised in the face of controversy: people publicly take a side or privately extend support by contacting one side or the other, as many did with Sassen. Khoza and his cast went out of their way to offer Sassen support.

We come from a ghastly racial history. The ANC has not yet learnt how to run a country, nor cherish the arts which it treats with disdain. It also hasn’t learnt to bring to book troublemakers and thugs who are embarrassing its good name or what is left of it.

The purpose of this article is not to make gross generalisations. It is to present a snapshot of an incident which left a deep, troubling impression.

Arts journalism is already beleaguered as an important critical field of art making. Sassen says she will not again review anything at SAST. It has to date, not reacted officially to her story other than “likes” from its artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi for some of the hostile Facebook comments.

Sassen story on State Theatre: State Theatre How Dare You

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za

Our ‘spoilt brat’ heroes

numsa strike

Who caused South African Airways to crash? The workers unions Numsa and Sacca reject claims that their strike crippled SAA financially. They say the board of SAA already knew the dire straits of the company.  In the picture, SAA workers bring the operations at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to a standstill

THOSE of us who were adults at universities in the 1970s and 1980s had a socialist bent, and the goal of keeping workers content was deeply felt. It overrode many other things. Many trade-union members and anti-apartheid activists came from idealistic Jewish youth movements such as Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair. Before that, Jewish activists historically played roles helping build unions throughout the 20th century. Anti-apartheid activist Solly Sachs, for example, was a Communist Party member in 1919, and secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in 1928.

Now, what do we think of trade unions who have dominated the headlines for striking against South African Airways (SAA)? Are they there to ensure that national organisations like the airline run smoothly for the country’s good? Or are they there only for members to squeeze out as much as possible for themselves without concern for the consequences? The desired answer seems obvious. But it’s not so simple. Their members’ demands are often justified, but meeting them all in this country today is impossible.

The media is full of stories covering the fight between SAA and the trade unions NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) and SACCA (South African Cabin Crew Association). It’s bizarre for an airline that analysts say is in terminal collapse to be engaged in a fight like this. Professor Jonathan Jansen reportedly described the strike as akin to the Titanic’s crew striking. They wanted higher wages just after the ship hit the iceberg. Unfortunately, in South Africa’s hectic politics, striking has become almost the default position for voicing a grievance.

Negative perceptions of unions may be unfair since they continue to ensure fair working conditions for thousands of members. But union leaders are perceived by many as behaving like children. They are seemingly oblivious to the dire state of the country, and unwilling to see further than their members’ immediate demands. South Africa has a 29% unemployment rate, and a sinking economy. It seems unions would blithely bring the country – and its airline – crashing down around them rather than act responsibly.

Their dealings with SAA are typical, insisting on wage increases far beyond what the airline or country can afford. They forced SAA to cancel scores of flights as a way of confronting it. This cost SAA hugely in terms of reputation and finances. It’s come to a sad pass. Commentators see unions today not as heroic fighters for fair working conditions, but as “spoilt brats”, as Sikonathi Mantshantsha wrote in Business Maverick last week. The reality is that in sane government circles today, there is talk of a general wage freeze in the public sector to curb costs, rather than giving salary increases.

What would the old idealistic Habonim activists think about the South African trade unions they were passionate about in their youth? Would they be disappointed to see them reduced from the heroes they were during apartheid to naughty children throwing their toys out of the cot? Would they even recognise them?

Many of the old activists would certainly have changed with time both in their worldview and lifestyle. Similarly, the unionists and the rationality of their demands have changed. But there is debate about whether it’s been for the good.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za