Art: Not a saviour, a mirror for SA

Evita

Life stranger than art? Satirical artists such as Pieter Dirk Uys run riot with theatrical characters to lampoon South African racial politics. The racial absurdities in the country provide countless artists with fertile ground

IN this country’s nightmare under President Jacob Zuma and his mafia-like network who run the place, the political power play is mainly in black arenas with the entire gamut of good, bad, pure and corrupt. Whites – some 9 per cent of the 56-million population – try to understand it mostly from the sidelines.

Making sense of such things often falls to artists, as in twentieth century Germany between the world wars, when exceptional, radical art was produced capturing the spirit of the times. South African art holds a troubled mirror to society today, epitomised by two recent theatre productions.

The first is by veteran 71-year old satirist Pieter Dirk Uys, called Evita Bezuidenhout and the Kaktus of Separate Development at Pieter Toerien Theatre in northern Johannesburg. During apartheid the character he created, the Afrikaans woman Evita Bezuidenhout, lampooned racist white South Africans and their leaders such as President PW Botha. She became so famous that she boasts she is mentioned in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. Now, in the post-apartheid confusion, she says she belongs to the ANC. Her commentary remains piercing.

Her audience at this venue is largely white and middle aged. The content focusses on ‘white’ perspectives about black politics. Jacob Zuma and former presidents Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Kgalema Mothlanthe feature in it, along with other politicians.

Describing herself as a ‘non-black’ South African – an inversion of the pervasive phrase ‘non-white’ which defined blacks when whites held power – she articulates how Afrikaners’ political relevance has waned, amidst the barrage of fake news and the residue of the fake history Afrikaners were taught at school many years ago to bolster ethnic fervour.

One theme is white fear in today’s hyper-PC atmosphere of expressing critical political views lest one be accused of racism, now that power lies in black hands. Evita also mentions in a telling aside the Weimar republic in Germany which had a role in producing Hitler, as a reference to EFF leader Julius Malema’s possible rise to be SA president one day, with his populist anti-white diatribes.

The second production, Hallelujah! at Wits University’s theatre, portrays the abominable practice of ‘corrective rape’ still exercised in some corners of black society on lesbians. It was written by coloured playwright Xoli Norman. The cast contains talented, young and mostly black drama students from Wits, who portray their characters brilliantly under the direction of a drama lecturer at the university who is also a leading light of South African theatre – and who happens to be white.

But here’s the rub: At the post-performance Q&A she was challenged by an aggressive black student who questioned her entitlement as a white person to direct a play dealing with pain in black culture.

The answer, of course, is that pain is universal, as are the tools of art such as a theatre director’s finely-honed skills. But despite attempts to articulate this, the accusative question remained hanging in the air, with the whites present feeling defensive and frustrated.

Evita Bezuidenhout’s portrayal of the ‘irrelevance’ of white South Africans, and the black student’s rejection of whites’ entitlement to employ their skills in areas black radicals consider to be their preserve, are elements of a crucially needed debate for SA society. The feeling whites have that they are silenced and disenfranchised by radical blacks is not surprising, as the latter assert their identities after centuries of colonialism and apartheid.

Where to from here? For years to come, this society will be healing its wounds. The common decency of most South Africans, and the generally warm relations between blacks and whites on the ground, means there is a chance it will succeed, if only expedient politicians – including President Zuma – will stop stoking the racial embers.

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

Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

Zapiro and Uys

South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

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

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

The hilarious back-story of the “Saxonwold shebeen”

sheila-schler

Whose house is this anyway? South African theatre people have created hilarious scenarios, portraying through humour and satire the intricacies of race, and how well-heeled white South Africans and others grapple with their ingrained attitudes.

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 PieterDirk 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.

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