THE theatricality of politics in South Africa today rivals a Shakespearean tragedy, with characters so colourful that The Bard himself would have reveled in its richness. Every morning one wakes to the news of something else to boggle the mind.
The leaked Gupta emails incriminating scores of political players with the stain of corruption, will provide years of fertile material for stage theatre. Characters range from the highest in the land, to the person in the street: fired former SABC head Hlaudi Motsoaneng, scandal-ridden former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, the sinister Gupta family plotting from their Saxonwold palace how to steal more money from the country, President Jacob Zuma’s former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who wants to become president, former DA leader Helen Zille with her damning colonialism tweets, and on and on. And Zuma himself, with more than 700 corruption charges hanging over his head.
Given all this, there is irony in the upcoming re-staging of a famous play that caused waves in 1959 and became an international hit – King Kong. Produced by Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, it will start touring in a few weeks.
It tells the story of a rural Zulu man, Ezekiel Dhlamini from Vryheid district in Kwazulu-Natal. Like many of his kin, he goes to Johannesburg – the fabled Egoli, City of Gold – to seek his fortune. He becomes a star boxer, known and revered by his nick-name ‘King Kong’.
His successes go to his head; he turns into a bully and braggart. When, one day, he is matched against middleweight ‘Greb’ Mthimkulu, he prances around the ring like a Zulu war dancer. His opponent lands a left on his jaw and King Kong is floored. His decline follows; he receives scorn rather than adulation. He stabs his girlfriend to death, is sentenced to twelve years hard labour for murder, and drowns in a river near Leeuwkop prison farm.
While this African jazz musical accurately captures intriguing aspects of racial South Africa, its most important achievement at the time was its staging in Wits University’s Great Hall in Johannesburg with black performers to a mainly white audience – a radical step, as apartheid’s architects were honing the system to prevent such a thing.
The play was written by Harry Bloom, promoted by businessman Clive Menell, sets designed by architect Arthur Goldreich, and music by Todd Matshikiza. Leon Gluckman, a champion of South Africa’s developing theatre, was producer, with director Stanley Glasser. The play’s jazz musicians, the Manhattan Brothers, went on later to an international career, never returning to South Africa.
Jacob Zuma should attend a King Kong performance. He might recognise himself. He too comes from humble rural origins in KZN, with minimal schooling. In the anti-apartheid struggle he played in the big league alongside icons such as Nelson Mandela. In post-apartheid South Africa, he rose to become citizen number one, with so much power that it went to his head. Seeking self-enrichment rather than serving the people, he did things that shamed his office and the once-illustrious ANC.
Intoxicated with power, he ignored the people’s angry voices, becoming despised by leaders such as Ahmed Kathrada who had been his allies against apartheid. The SA Council of Churches, Helen Suzman Foundation, Nelson Mandela Foundation, trade unions and others told him to leave the stage. He was booed in Parliament and public meetings and transformed into an object of derision. Yet he clung to his accumulated riches and the dark areas of influence he still controlled. In which river will he find his end?
King Kong and Jacob Zuma. One day a play will be written about Zuma’s rise and fall, the Guptas and their corrupt cabal. In the meantime, South Africans ride the roller coaster, trying to make sense of it.