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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Mandela’s ‘Conversations with Myself’- A review

At a demonstration outside the Cape High Court last October, protesters from an informal settlement who face eviction, unfurled a colourful, handwritten banner: ‘Madiba – Long walk to Freedom’.
From the poorest to the richest, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectionately known by his clan name Madiba, remains an inspiration to the citizenry not only of South Africa but globally. Lauded for his courage, moral rectitude and impeccable character, he is a beacon of decency in a world almost thoroughly disenchanted with politicians.
His countrymen however have firsthand experience of his feet of clay – domestic and foreign policy failures, his untenable silences over gross mismanagement and abuses of power by his comrades. Yet none of this ever diminished their love for him.
His presence of mind is legendary. After his release, documentary filming on Robben Island had to be halted as Mandela insisted on finding the prisoner then occupying his cell to ask his permission to sit on the bed. When a heckler is ejected by security he worries about whether they were hurt. At public appearances he’ll amble over to pickets to find out what are their demands. At state banquets he’ll want to wander into the kitchen to thank the cooks and dishwashers. Such stories have turned him into a saint.
Critics of Mandela either begrudge the praise lavished on him personally, where they feel the collective is responsible for his successes, while others critical of the collective admonish him for not acting more forthrightly in his individual capacity. Such is the dilemma of great statesmen.
It is to his credit, that as idealised as he is, Mandela has always been approachable and has never demanded blind loyalty nor encouraged a cult following. He announced early on in his presidency that he would only serve one term and hoped this would set an example to the continent.
South Africans feel eternally grateful to Mandela because during his leadership the country successfully held its first democratic election when at the time a ruinous racial conflagration seemed inevitable. But he writes: ‘the breakthrough [for liberation] is never the result of individual effort. It is always a collective effort and triumph.’
During apartheid, bans were harshly enforced on images of Mandela and even recordings of his voice. White South Africans especially knew nothing of the man. The prison authorities on occasion withheld Mandela’s birthday cards on what is now a United Nations’ recognised day of international public service.
Mandela has, as his archivist, Verne Harris states, become an inseparable part of the ‘creation myth’ of the new nation. Many agonise that what is vaguely described as his ‘legacy’ is all that holds the country together. As far back as 1997, journalist Lester Venter brought out a book ‘When Mandela Goes’.
Mandela is 92, frail but in good health for his age, even if his short-term memory is erratic.
His autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, though honest enough, was reticent. Mandela quotes his fellow veteran Walter Sisulu as saying: ‘we want you to be a model around which we are going to build our organisation’. The myth-making began in earnest. Come election time, ‘Madiba magic’ is still employed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to deliver votes.
Yet Mandela is not untouchable. The dismantling of the legend and historical revision of his tenure began, if gently, with Professor Tom Lodge’s ‘Mandela: A Critical Life’. In August, newspapers ran front page claims of a possible love child. British writer David James Smith’s ‘Young Mandela’, an unauthorised biography, has been roundly criticised for its celebrity approach and elevating unattributed comment (gossip in other words).
Mandela has now opened his personal archive. The result is ‘Conversations with Myself’, a biographical scrapbook winnowed from primary sources: family correspondence during his 27-year incarceration; 70 hours of conversations taped in 1994 held with Ahmed Kathrada (his fellow political prisoner) and Richard Stengel (his ghost writer, now managing editor of ‘Time’) when they reviewed the draft text of ‘Long Walk’; his personal notebooks and aide-mémoire; the unpublished draft of his autobiography written in prison and the unpublished and abandoned sequel to it written in 1998.
Despite claims the book is an exposé; it is nothing like the ‘Confessions of St Augustine’. Mandela won’t speak ill of anyone unable to defend themselves. What a contrast to the back-stabbing, self-serving memoirs of many recent politicians. He says, ‘criticism must be dignified’, ‘factual’, ‘realistic’ and ‘honest’.
He has no insightful comments on any of the many famous people he meets, only bland compliments; even sanction-busting Margaret Thatcher is ‘very charming’, ‘very warm’ and ‘generous’. We learn they shared the same eye specialist. Penal labour in the glare of the lime quarry on Robben Island ruined his eyes.
Where others are involved, Mandela flatly refuses to go into private matters. Stengel, tactful but audacious, presses him on how he would feel if there was marital infidelity on the part of Winnie Mandela. He replies, ‘one must not be inquisitive. It is sufficient that this is a woman who is loyal to me’.
We hear of domestic arguments, but are not told what they are about. A reader must accept that it is noble enough of Mandela not to want to hurt others.
What we do get are his loving letters to Winnie and later on to ‘Mum Gra’ (his current wife Graça Machel).
The most sustained allegation against Mandela, not least made by himself, is the terrible price his family had to pay for his convictions. But such family sacrifice is common to all struggle veterans, many of whom paid the ultimate price.
He writes that his son Thembi aged five, ‘asked his mother where I lived’; this is before Mandela’s incarceration.
Mandela confides: “Hundreds, millions, in our country are suffering and so I felt I had taken the correct decision’. ‘Never shall I regret the decision I made in ’61, but I wish one day my conscience would sit easy in my bosom.’
When his eldest son is killed, the authorities deny him permission to attend the funeral. ‘I spent moments in my cell which I never want to remember’, ‘the last place where a man stricken with sorrow should be’. He is also refused consent to be present at his mother’s funeral. ‘I had never dreamt that I would be unable to bury ma’.
‘My heart bleeds,’ he writes when informed that Winnie has been detained. ‘I have been soaked in gall, every part of me, my flesh, bloodstream, bone and soul, so bitter I am to be completely powerless to help you’.
These ordeals are more painful than all the brutalities of the prison: ‘the lengthy sentence’, the hard labour, the tedium, the slop they are fed, the mindless repetition. But guilt only makes him less demonstrative in his affection; the family must cope on its own.
‘Age and a conservative cultural background [as an African patriarch] do not make it easy for me to discuss in public such intimate feelings or emotions’.
Mandela felt as a leader he had to set the example and defy the government who were bent on breaking him and his spirit. He speaks of the mask he has to wear: ‘The truth is my appearance had nothing to do with the state of my feelings. I was badly wounded and shaken.’
The stiff upper lip comes through in other ways. His missionary school influence is evident when he quaintly talks of ‘the chaps’, refers to a doctor as ‘the quack’, and regularly uses the polite exclamation ‘gee whiz’.
There are many intimate moments. We have Mandela boxing at gym, rehearsing on a penny whistle, overcome with emotion when his car runs over a snake, cleaning the toilet bucket of a fellow prisoner, recounting his dreams and often terrifying nightmares. There is the moment in court before sentence is pronounced when he expects the death penalty.
We are privy to him learning to fire a gun in Ethiopia, developing insurgent strategy, and how happy he is to be in London and able to buy all the literature he wants on guerrilla warfare (banned in South Africa at the time). His inspirations come from unlikely quarters – the Boer commando tactics from Deneys Reitz and Menachem Begin’s terrorist campaign inside Israel for independence.
He is lethally astute. While Govan Mbeki was dreaming of a peasant revolution, Mandela is clear that the struggle will be led by ‘the urban areas where militant workers and an emergent class of prosperous and ambitious traders were suffering all the frustrations of racial prejudice’.
He categorically states he was never a communist. ‘I thought Marxism’ was ‘subjecting us to a foreign ideology’. He also maintains in an essay published in 1956 that the Freedom Charter was ‘not a blueprint for socialism’ but ‘for capitalism’, as Africans would finally have the right to own property ‘and capitalism will flourish among them as never before’.
Freedom may have been won, but his hopes for a ‘society where people will cease thinking in terms of colour’ are still far from realized.
You have to deal with human as humans ‘produced by the mud in society’. He sets out his code as: honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others’.
Far from revealing flaws in his character, ‘Conversations’ is once again offering wise observations to restore the moral compass to South Africa’s deteriorating political ethos.
In accord with current social commentary, many will find it apt when he writes: ‘Frequently erstwhile revolutionaries have easily succumbed to greed and the tendency to divert public resources for personal enrichment ultimately overwhelmed them… They virtually deserted the masses of the people and joined the former oppressors, who enriched themselves by mercilessly robbing the poorest of the poor.’
Even Barrack Obama, who wrote the forward, might sober at the elder statesman’s reflection that it is ‘misleading to place your trust on good men, no matter how highly placed they may be. Where systems are involved, the goodness of individuals is very often irrelevant’. He might too give pause to the assertion that ‘a man holding high office will protect the rights of even his bitterest opponents in battle’.
Mandela reminds us that individuals can and do make a difference and need not stand by hopeless and defeated even against very great odds.
Although the content is carefully selected, the letters incomplete, excerpted and expurgated, Mandela is once again setting the example. His entire archive will be digitalised and made public.
This unique political memoir which intends to show the man not the saint will only make people feel closer to Mandela than ever.

This article appeared in New Africa Analysis in November 2010

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Andrew Tucker
ISBN: 978-1-4051-8302-4
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

On Clifton Third Beach, muscular male bodies of all hues, from deep ebony to blinding white, from chemically bronzed to natural beige lie side by side. This is Cape Town’s ‘gay beach’. At the height of summer, the vast majority of sun worshippers here are male, though scattered between them are always a few umbrellas with families and children, who seem quite unperturbed by the occasional kiss, body rubs and other demonstrative physical affection between the men. It’s a postcard for the country’s human rights based Constitution; black and white, straight and gay, male and female, all peacefully luxuriating in natural beauty.

Yet this represents only a privileged minority of broader society, and the homosexual men within it are a tiny subset of queer men in South Africa. Many of the Clifton clique share the same circuit; the beach, the Virgin Active gym, the sauna, clubs and bars of Green Point’s world famous ‘gay village’. They either have good incomes or at the very least access to money. They are the visible gay set; the gays you find in television soap operas; the gays that car advertisers and so-called ‘lifestyle’ marketers target; the gays who magnetize the city’s booming rainbow tourist industry.

The cover boy flaunted for gay culture is found dancing on floats in gay pride marches the Western world over. Across racial divides, nationality and even class differences, this is one shared identity, one particular expression of masculinity where gay men can be publicly comfortable, confident, aspirant if not actually competitive in our late capitalist phallocracy. It is an aesthetic choice that is a major departure from (perhaps a reaction against) the mollycoddled, artistic and epicene ‘moffie’, the limp-wristed cartoon figure as pictured in the apartheid government’s propaganda against the End Conscription Campaign, a stereotype that still to this day resides with many South Africans.

These gay men can, should they wish it, be ‘invisible’, though under little pressure to do so for they are already ultra-conformist, having aligned themselves with the aspirations of the dominant culture – the patriarchy and consumer materialism. The accusation that decriminalising sexual orientation has anything to do with the moral degeneration of the country is risible. If anything, the opposite is true. Our crime epidemic of murders, rapes, car hijackings, armed robberies, fraud and corruption, wife beatings and child abuse is hardly being carried out by some secret band of feral homosexuals.

Like Gore Vidal, who put the spin on an old quotation, whenever I hear the words ‘gay culture’, I reach for my gun. Not because it is subversive, but because ‘gay culture’ has turned out to be neoconservative.

Unlike the Castro or Greenwich Village, which were about wresting political power, the Green Point gay village is a tourist Mecca. Imported and copied, it is foremost a commercial enterprise.

In his book Queer Visibilties, Cambridge geographer Andrew Tucker points out that this new visible gay identity excludes the majority of queer men in Cape Town who are black or coloured, poor and largely disempowered. Victims of appalling ignorance and prejudice, and subjected to extreme homophobic violence, they nonetheless survive in their communities by forging other ways of expressing their sexuality and thereby gaining acceptance.

Cross-dressing is one way, especially in the coloured community; ‘nodes’ or safe havens under the control and protection of men who own their homes, have resources and are highly respected in their communities, are another form in black townships.

There have historically been alternate manifestations of identity for black men who have sex with men (MSM); sometimes forged by the men themselves, such as the Xhosa ‘Ivys’’ others in censorious terms imposed by the dominant culture, as in the isitabane or the Zulu isikesana (the ‘passive’ partner) and iqenge (the ‘active’ male).

The fastidious Ivys according to Tucker’s research arose ‘in unison with the more heteronormative ‘Pantsula’’. The Ivys dressed in tight white jeans, yellow and pink shirts, had S-curl hairstyles, partly borrowing their look from Michael Jackson.

Tucker surveyed four MSM nodes: in Crossroads, a group of recent migrants from the Eastern Cape; in Nyanga, a node that has existed since the late 1980s of ‘mature queer men’; in Khayelitsha, a group of professional men, and a separate larger node of younger men, mostly cross-dressers. He does document instances here too of class discrimination; employed black men who no longer want to date and be burdened by out of work lovers, or when men who have already established themselves in the city lose interest in dating ‘country boys’.

All this is a long way, figuratively and physically, from Clifton beach. Although Tucker tends to understate how the gay village is a safe haven for a very wide range of gay typology, the fact is there have been numerous incidents, from the scornful attitude of “no fats, no femmes”, to allegations of racism and exclusion of those thought to be “lowering the tone”.

Racism is found everywhere in the world (I’ve seen it first hand in gay bars off Wall Street, New York), but it is particularly ugly in South Africa given our history, like coming across anti-Semitism in Germany today. Racist attitudes among gay men is above all galling.

With or without a gay village, the vast majority of queer men in South Africa remain marginalised, their rights of equality more theoretical than real, and perhaps worst of all, they are ignored, prejudiced or invisible to their queer brothers who have the resources, and enjoy and celebrate their liberation through a very narrow and material solidarity. The gay elite should do much more for their Cinderella brothers, the vast majority of queer men, who still suffer victimisation primarily because of their sexual preferences.

Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town by Andrew Tucker is an illuminating and in many way groundbreaking work that points the way forward for further research.

Part 1 is a survey, tracing how ‘the three main historically and racially defined population groups [white, coloured and black] in the city of Cape Town have come to understand and represent queer sexuality in remarkably different yet also related ways’.

Tucker starts by deconstructing the notion of the closet, the liberationist and peculiarly Western preconception that ‘coming out’ is the prerequisite to live an authentic homosexual existence. In the coloured community, Tucker has observed straight men who have occasional sex with cross-dressers but consider themselves straight. Furthermore, the community knows and accepts this. Questioning the legitimacy of this heterosexual / homosexual binary is imperative to understanding a whole spectrum of alternative modes of homosexual expression and bisexual behaviour in the city.

To use a broader term and a reclaimed word, ‘queers’ have lived in almost every society that has ever existed, from China to the Americas, and long before Europe was even conceptualised. Examples of socially accepted homosexual behaviour are well documented in such remote places as New Guinea and the Amazon rainforest, existing before there was any contact with the white man. I have met men in various parts of the world outside the West who engage in homosexual practices, but find the term ‘gay’ inapplicable to them, colonising, and even insulting.

The view that homosexuality is un-African is patently false, but a stubbornly resilient belief. Besides being inherently racist itself and patronising to black homosexuals, this selective scapegoating and stigmatisation has ironically been absorbed from one prudish, narrow tradition of European interpretation of Christian morality. Napoleon for instance effectively ‘legalised’ sodomy. The British in their colonies were the ones to codify and make homosexuality illegal in India, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

However, Tucker, in what appears to be a somewhat contradictory argument, is sceptical of the search for indigenous black African homosexual culture as benefitting equality. Rather, he writes, it should be a search ‘for examples of communities coming to terms with the idea of sexualised difference’ that have ‘not come about because of outside intervention’, the way the provisions of our Constitution for instance are perceived in some quarters. To paraphrase Tucker, in this way there will be nothing to stop communities understanding same-sex desire and queer identity within their society today and finding ways of accepting them. It’s a subtle but valuable argument. The struggle for homosexual acceptance forms a continuum that has been influenced, helped or even hindered and set back by Western notions of gay liberation.

Unfortunately, Tucker points out, the recent legal victory surrounding gay marriage has resulted in a homophobic backlash, associating homosexuals with contamination and white wealth.

In Part 2 of his survey, Tucker cautiously criss-crosses between academic and activist, examining ‘Interactions’ – the social and political dimensions and ‘the costs of invisibility’.

The concluding chapter makes uncomfortable reading. Tucker points out how high risk sexual practices have not been targeted by HIV awareness activists because of their invisibility, compromising the efficacy of such campaigns.

This is not a polemical work in any sense though it could so easily have been. Tucker successfully resists closing down debate, carefully qualifying his points without qualifying them out of existence. His assessments are many, detailed and well substantiated by interview quotations. One is unable to comprehensively review the many valuable insights he brings here. Read the book.

Interview: Andrew Tucker

What makes you most angry? Social injustice that is being ignored. If we look at what is being researched and what is not – especially when it comes to researchers or journalists from countries other than South Africa who do work here – you can see an overabundance of work on gay rights and same-sex marriage which only speaks to a small, in fact tiny, subset of gay life in the country. This is not only myopic, it’s also intellectually damaging. To empirically look at only those who can access their rights is to paint a very skewed picture. It makes it seem as though ‘Western’ ideas concerning sexual liberation can easily be transplanted to places elsewhere. It seems sometimes that people don’t know what their queer brothers (and sisters) are doing just down the road. Millions was spent on allowing same-sex couples to marry, yet most cannot. Generations of queer men have died in the townships due to AIDS – and personally I find it hard now to come back to townships to visit the graves of people I knew back when I started my research. Great work among NGOs in places like Cape Town is being done to address these key issues. Health4Men and Triangle Project are two examples.

To put it bluntly, just think about what the rainbow flag – the ‘gay’ flag is meant to represent. It’s meant to be a metaphor for unity of diverse groups. The struggles to gain this unity – to protect this unity in South Africa – are struggles that must be written about. To not speak about these issues is to belittle not only what the flag represents but also the incredible challenges and successes that continue to define this country.

The book started out as a PhD. What was its initial goal?
When I first started the PhD at Cambridge back in 2004 my interest was on exploring the socio-sexual dynamics of different ‘queer’ male groups in South Africa so as to better target them for HIV prevention initiatives. Soon however it was realised that it was also necessary to explore why groups might not follow health advice. Quite soon after starting my research it became abundantly clear that a great deal of work would first need to be spent actually trying to understand the incredibly diverse ways in which these communities actually understand the idea of same-sex desire, how they label it, identify with it and relate to wider heterosexual communities.

How was I received when doing my research in the townships?
People often ask me this – and the simple answer was I was received very positively. I looked like such a lost outsider that perhaps people took some pity on me! Certain key contacts in the townships who could then vouch for me when interacting with other queer men. People like Mabhuti Mkangeli, Ronnie Ngalo and Funeka Soldaat gave a lot of time to help me make contact with a great number of queer men in the Cape Town townships. I was also acutely aware that very few people had come to tell their stories before. In effect we had a deal. They would take time to tell me about themselves on the condition that I would then tell others. Coming back to South Africa now to tell my friends what I’ve done is also important.

How has the book been received in South Africa to date?
At the book launch in Cafe Manhattan it was great to see many diverse groups there. And it was great to speak to them all at once. As the book says, there’s such richness to queer communities in South Africa and yet sometimes these individual communities are not really that aware of the richness of each other. So what I’ve found now – and as some have very kindly said – they think they can use the book as a ‘compass’ or a map to understand these differences. If the book can actually do this then I’ll know it’s been a success.

Has the book been of interest to people outside South Africa?
Researchers in Western Europe and North America are still grappling with trying to understand how to talk about and describe sexual difference in places that have followed different trajectories towards some form of sexual liberation to those found in places like the UK or the US. And also because it engages with how sexuality or sexual identities interface with issues such as ‘race’ and class.

Book details

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Interview: Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard can’t bring himself to say the name of the new theatre named in his honour. “I’m just going to call it the District Six Theatre,” he says, pen in hand to autograph a copy of his Notebooks. For just under an hour, we have been sitting in the front row of the Fugard. For the past half-century, Fugard, reputedly the most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare, has chronicled the realities of life in South Africa.

Starting with the earliest surviving text, No-Good Friday, performed in the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg in 1958, Fugard has shown not only our wickedness, but also the soul beneath still struggling to this day to free itself, and to blossom in common cause with all who live in this land.

A spry 78-year-old, his compelling stentorian voice carries his robust being more than ever. His zest for life is infectious. The man and his plays are in this respect at one. He trips up the stairs on to the stage to chat to ensemble members of the Isango Portobello theatre company who have just arrived to warm up for their evening performance. Fugard enthuses with them, asks about the marimbas, tells the women how beautiful they are. “I could fall in love with you, and you,” he laughs. “And [President] Zuma has given me permission!”

Fugard lives in San Diego to be near his one and only daughter and grandson. He starts every day by reading the South African newspapers. The Mail & Guardian “not to flatter you, but it is an essential one”, he says. From Die Burger he chooses two news reports, which he reads aloud to himself to “keep my tongue nimble with my mother’s language, Afrikaans”.

Fugard is in Cape Town to direct the world premiere of his latest play, The Train Driver. He says it is his darkest work.

Athol Fugard: There wouldn’t have been this play if it hadn’t been for the Mail & Guardian carrying a story about that lady who committed suicide on the railway line. I read it online in America and I dedicate the play to her, Pumla Lolwana and her three children. I knew that I had an appointment with that story in some way or the other and for the longest time after first reading it, because the Mail & Guardian carried it in December 2000, I tried in different ways to deal with her. I knew I hadn’t dealt with it in the way that it had to be dealt with. But then finally, I put it aside. I don’t know why or what made me come back to it, but I did, and I suddenly saw that I wanted to deal with that whole incident from the perspective of the train driver, the man that actually drove the train. It’s going to be on the stage in three weeks time.

Brent Meersman: You have always been incredibly prolific. Does writing become easier?

AF: No, it gets harder. Writing one play never helps you to write the next one. They somehow all come with different demands, require a different approach, involve a different perspective. It’s almost like having to learn the craft all over again. Well there is one craft you don’t have to learn – I know that I have over time, developed an ear for dialogue.

BM: This is the premiere you’re directing, so are you making changes to the script?

Oh, yes! The actors are helping me discover the possibilities of enrichments all the way through the text. I have worked with Sean [Taylor] as a director; I’ve not only worked with Owen Sejake also as a director, but I have been on stage with him. I know the heart of Owen Sejake is so big. I’m working with two men I love; what could be a greater gift for a director?

I think the most recent performance you gave was Valley Song?

Was it Valley Song [Royal Court, 1996]? Was it Captain’s Tiger [State Theatre, 1997]? I don’t know, I have no sense of history. Once a play is written, it is out of my life and my desk is cleared.

Do you miss acting?

Yes! When I arrived in Cape Town, I said to Mannie [Manim, the Executive Director] take me to the theatre; I just want to see the auditorium and the stage. He showed me this remarkable auditorium. And I stood up there [he gestures to the stage] and realised it was an auditorium that puts the audience in the palm of your hand. An actor can’t wish for a better relationship.

So you miss the South African audience?

Yes, for one simple reason, it’s the audience that occurs to me when I’m writing a play. Harold Pinter said you write a play first for an audience of one, yourself at the desk. Then you think about it after that first encounter, if it has any quality, and I think of a South African audience that will know, capture, enjoy the nuances that one brings into one’s writing. I write for my fellows, South Africans. You know, white and black, we are dealing with the same issues, they haven’t gone away.

Yes, but post-1994, everyone, not only artists, had to make shift.

I thought it was the end of me as a playwright. I thought there [I] was going to have nothing to write about; apartheid was gone. Nothing could be further from the truth. I write about desperate people, and there are as many desperate people in the new South Africa as there ever were in the old South Africa. So I am not going to die short of stories.

Do you view your work in recent years, in particular Victory and Coming Home, as part political activism?

If you’re going to tell a real South African story you don’t have to worry about its political resonances, they come with those built into them. Just get the story straight, tell the story truthfully and it will be like that pebble in the pond. There will be ripples and you don’t have to worry about those ripples. No one goes into a pond without ripples. And you know, South African stories are like that. Why are people desperate? They are going to be very basic issues.

Have you felt a 21st century shift? When it became the year 2000 did you feel different or was it just an arbitrary date?

No, I just thought it brutally, tragically ironic, that the December month of that new millennium, Pumla Lolwana stood on the railway line, while the rest of us were pulling firecrackers, putting funny hats on our heads, blowing stupid little bugles, getting drunk, wasting money on presents, out of some sort of desperation that I find hard to comprehend, because it is such an awesome act, to stand with your children and make sure they can’t run away, because one tried to and she pulled him back. Oh, my God.

Have you ever thought of suicide?

Myself? No. That’s why I had to write about it. Because I can’t imagine a darkness that great. I am by nature and optimist, not a pessimist . . .

Your plays are always redemptive.

Yes, redemptive, that’s right. Sometimes the note of hope is a bit thin, fragile, but that note is there. In this one too, it is there, but it is more brutally in this one, than in anything else I have written. Suicide is something I can’t understand – how life can get that dark that you give up. I have encountered suicide often enough, but it always leaves me with a question for which I have no answers.

What of Helen Martins [on whom Fugard based The Road to Mecca]?

Yes, yes, but look, there too, although the truth about Helen Martins was suicide, I copped out. I gave it [The Road to Mecca] a slightly more positive ending, that she realises there is a greater challenge than just lighting the candles, and that was confronting darkness. So even that had a positive note in the end in her resolve to try and face the darkness. But of course Helen didn’t; you’re right, she drank caustic soda.

Those two beautiful women [Helen and Else in Road to Mecca]. For a man with my crude metabolism and crude whatchamacallit to go into that area. I was very audacious going into that. It was a learning curve, because it forced me to examine a lot of things about gender and role playing. I haven’t done it again. Or have I done it again?

Perhaps Allison and Marta in Sorrows and Rejoicings?

Yes, that’s right Sorrows and Rejoicings. And in Exits and Entrances, André Huguenet, he was such a beautiful man.

I saw the original production when it went to Edinburgh, and it was the best one I’ve seen.

It started off in one of my favourite little theatres just down the road from me, in southern California, and I was so happy with it. Those two actors [Morlan Higgins and William Hurley] had got to the heart of the play I had wanted to write, and they had captured the profound debt of gratitude that I had to that man [Huguenet], and even more important than that, forget myself, but that they had somehow touched on the beauty of that man. And his pain and his loneliness.

Only the accents bothered me. As a South African playwright, performed all over the world, people keep attempting this very difficult accent of ours. Shouldn’t it be played without accents?

That’s the first advice I give to every American director. Don’t mess around with it. What South African accent are you going to talk about? We have a dozen. I say, oh please, don’t call in your drama coaches and give these actors complications they don’t need, just let them speak. But no, they don’t always listen to me.

Are your choices artistic or do you have in mind the practical realities of the theatre today? I felt for instance that Booitjie and the Oubaas would have been a fantastic three-act play of O’Neill proportions.

No, these are artistic choices. The canvas must be small, tight. I’m a miniaturist. I haven’t got an O Neill sweep. It’s like, you know, the artist who chooses a piece of canvas this big [he pretends to hold up a canvas, a square foot in size], whereas Brecht does the equivalent of Diego Riviera, he does a whole panorama, you know and it’s magnificent. And Christ! my admiration for the ability! I couldn’t tackle that. Give me two characters I’m happy.

When you write, do you perform the lines aloud?

Yes, I find that I am talking to myself, It’s about the sound . . . I first fell in love with that when listening to my mother with her Afrikaner background – she was a Potgieter – and what she did to the English language in trying to speak it correctly, it was beautiful, and that’s when I fell in love for the first time – like Hester . . .

We had a fantastic revival last year of Hello and Goodbye with Dorothy ann Gould.

I believe so! Oh, I am so proud of that woman. It’s amazing that that little play refuses to lie down. It also gets revived in America.

You must have a clear sense of the importance of your works in terms of their place in history, but do you ever think about how the work will speak to a future audience?

No, no. You can’t indulge in that. But, Brent, I know for myself personally, I’m not talking about the audience or the critics, but for me, Train Driver is the most important play I have ever written. What other people are going to make of it, I don’t know, but because it has that kind of significance for me, I realise I might never write another play. But I can’t believe that, because my notebook is already full of ideas, images for work I want to do. So I must be very careful about talking about it as my last play, but it might be. My health is not quite what it used to be, and my wife and I live with the reality for both of us – that something could happen suddenly. But one thing I do know, I will have my pen in my hand and I’m not going to give it up easily to the undertaker when he tries to stretch me out for the coffin, I will hang on to it.

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A comparison of Gevisser, Roberts and Gumede’s biographies of Thabo Mbeki

As the country (eagerly it would seem) has waved goodbye to Thabo Mbeki, are we as a nation any closer to understanding him? On the one hand a spate of recent biographies are illuminating, on the other hand commentators and columnists have mostly turned upon him with a vengeance, obscuring any objective assessment of the man’s legacy.

This could not have been more clearly demonstrated than when on the very day of what should have been Mbeki’s greatest triumph, closing a deal between Mugabe and the opposition MDC, it was Jacob Zuma who won his battle in court to have charges against him dropped and Mbeki who came in for a blistering attack from just about everyone – the judge, opposition parties, the media, the ANC executive. Zuma’s supporters even staged a mock funeral for the incumbent. How did Tambo’s chosen heir end up so ubiquitously unpopular?

The point is Mbeki rose to the presidency of South Africa never having contested a popular vote amongst the rank and file of the ANC in whose vanguard he had been for nearly forty years. He was appointed Deputy President reluctantly by Nelson Mandela in 1994 and anointed President by Mandela, again with a heavy heart, in 1998. Mbeki, after 15 years as the de facto commander in chief of the country, was rejected by an overwhelming majority of his comrades at the party’s 52nd Congress in Polokwane last year. He had hoped for a similar outcome as that achieved by Vladimir Putin. Proscribed from a third term as President of the state, he wished to be the real power behind the office as President of the party. But democracy in South Africa is healthier than it is in Russia. It was a devastating defeat for a tragic man who has had no purpose or even personal ambition, beyond his dedication to the ANC.

Mbeki was born in rural Transkei in 1942, into a family of educated communists fighting against the implacable erosion of their rights as black South Africans and the brutal attrition of their material upliftment hard won through education and brave entrepreneurship. His resilient mother, now in her nineties and still living in modest conditions in her community, is of the industrious, Christianised and elite Bafokeng lineage. His father’s people were Mfengu. Whatever one’s belief in genetic determinism might be, his heredity strikes one as deeply symbolic. The Mfengu (or ‘Fingo’ in the colonial lexicon) were expelled by Shaka’s Zulu army around 1830. The first of the Nguni to convert to Christianity and accede to be subjects of the Crown, the Mfengu became black ‘settlers’. The colony enfeoffed them in British Kaffraria as a bulwark, and enlisted them as auxiliaries (where they acquired a reputation for brutality). Their participation was the decisive factor in British victory during several frontier wars with the Xhosa. The Mfengu position was contentious, regarded with suspicion but jealously admired for their prosperity. During the calamitous cattle killing of 1856 following a millenarian prophecy, unswayed by superstition, the Mfengu turned the slaughter into a tidy profit by buying up the herds of broken chiefs.

Perhaps of greater significance to Mbeki is that the Mfengu were ultimately betrayed by the white colonists, the British government and unforgivably by the missionaries. Mbeki’s grandfather had the vote as early as 1852. He and his descendants would watch as the title to their lands was abrogated, their people pressed into slave conditions on the mines, and their franchise eventually revoked (by an act of law in the House of Commons one must add), all this long before apartheid came to deal its final sadistic blows by trying to eliminate even the possibility of acquiring higher education. Thabo Mbeki has in the 20th Century recapitulated the contradictions of his ancestors in his ambivalent relationships with Africa and the West.

Mbeki chose exile in the 1960s, leaving behind his two-year-old and only son (conceived when Mbeki was 16), along with 27 students, including Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, our unpopular and internationally ridiculed minister of health who Mbeki has ever since loyally supported beyond all prudence. Unlike many of his comrades, he would never be imprisoned by the apartheid state.

He read economics at the new, experimental and politically radicalised University of Sussex. Unfortunately, his university records are missing, his secondary school records incinerated in a fire and his class records at the Lenin Institute in Moscow shredded.

The outwardly conservative Mbeki (he dressed like a county squire in tweed and smoked a pipe) was however permanently influenced by the British Labour Party. He even campaigned in the swing constituency of Kemp Town that proved vital to Wilson’s slender majority, though the black Mbeki was discouraged by the Brighton Labour Committee from canvassing door to door.

Mbeki became known as the Crown prince under the personal guardianship of Oliver Tambo, who held the ANC presidency in curatorship during its long exile while most of the elected leadership (including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki’s distant father, Govan) were imprisoned on Robben Island. Tambo was his surrogate father, and the ANC his family, even arranging his marriage to Zanele Dlamini.

Instead of joining the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) cadres in the African bush, Mbeki begged to complete his Masters at Sussex. He finally received military training in 1969 in the Soviet Union, a stark and uncomfortable contrast to swinging Sixties London. He became a Central Committee member of the South African Communist Party (SACP), a move that with hindsight may have been more for expediency than from ideological commitment. The Soviets bankrolled the liberation movement. Mbeki would march in protest against the American invasion of Vietnam, but join the ‘tankies’ (as they were called) in support of Brezhnev’s crushing of Prague in 1968.

From the 1970s, Mbeki maintained a high profile, constantly on the move around the world, a pattern he has maintained to date, becoming the familiar face of the ANC amongst the international political and business elite.

After Tambo suffered a debilitating stroke in 1989 on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release, Mbeki became indispensable in spearheading the peaceful resolution to apartheid’s dismantling. The key role he played in these negotiations was his finest hour.

The assassination of Chris Hani in 1993, the MK chief of staff and his archrival, removed the last major obstacle to Mbeki’s inexorable ascendancy. To many in the ANC, his trouncing at the last national congress by populist rival Jacob Zuma and his removal as the president of the country, feels like retribution if not outright revenge. The MK vets were particularly active in co-ordinating the show of support for Zuma outside the courts in Pietermaritzburg.

Since Mandela, the relationship between South Africans and their President, (whether they have met him or not) is personal. Reading or writing about our President is cathartic. Attitude rather than thoughtful examination of his policies has been the locus of Mbeki’s biographers.

Ronald Suresh Roberts’s Fit to Govern is an intellectual hagiography posing as an exegesis of Mbeki’s philosophy. Written in close consultation with Mbeki and for around ₤100 000 solicited from the private sector by a minister in the presidency, Roberts sets out to demolish Mbeki’s critics, egregiously caricatured as anything from “academic rent-boys of imperialism” to one “noted jihadist of neo-conservatism”.

Much of the Roberts is between quotation marks, amassed from diverse sources including third party e-mail correspondence. His scattergun approach fails to offer a coherent and logical analysis of what forms Mbeki’s opinions. He all but ignores the intellectual products of which Mbeki is chief architect – NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and his conception of an African Renaissance. Roberts is glaringly without the persuasive credibility of a Said, Sontag or even latter Chomsky.

He does however raise important issues on which debate will be sharpened under a Zuma presidency: policy capture in the developing world by global financial interests; the hypocrisy of the so-called liberal establishment who still refuse to face up to the nation’s ugly past; the ongoing need for revision of Africa’s colonial history. An empathetic approach would have helped clarify how South Africans talk past one another, how they lack critical self-awareness around the way they see each other. Given our country’s past, it is unsurprising that debates over major challenges facing the country – economic disparity, health, education, foreign policy – are obfuscated by unconscious racism and racial hypersensitivity from both black and white. Instead, Roberts manages to fuel those flames. Immersed in Frantz Fanon, whose oeuvre he uses as a sort of periscope to glimpse his targets, he maliciously torpedoes mostly fellow commentators, editors and journalists.

No serious analysis should take a sitting politician at his word at all times. Roberts never examines to what extent Mbeki has lived up to his high-minded speeches. Mbeki’s words are often political acts. He is adept at window dressing, gesture politics and political distraction, regularly shifting the debate from the issues – such as the crises of AIDS and crime – to debates about debate. In this, he has found a deft collaborator in Roberts. Criticism of Mbeki is dismissed as a function of an “old and largely unreconstructed media oligarchy bereft of electoral influence”. Mbeki’s recent humbling put paid to that untruth. Mbeki has been orphaned by the only constituency Roberts recognises as conferring legitimacy on his subject’s legacy. He too will, to use his own phrase, “need to heed the verdicts of the South African native electorate”.

Roberts’s grossest act of disinformation is his spurious argument that “Thabo Mbeki is not now, nor has ever been, an AIDS dissident”. Besides the fact that Mbeki has with calculated neglect failed to show leadership on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and his own government’s antiretroviral rollout plan, if he is so grossly misrepresented by the media as Roberts argues, he has fuelled controversy rather than ever seriously attempting to set the record straight.

Events have overtaken Roberts. As Mark Gevisser’s handsomely illustrated and magisterial biography of Mbeki, A Dream Deferred, nine years in the writing, was poised for the presses, Mbeki couriered Gevisser an updated copy of the influential Castro-Hlongwane document that expounds both AIDS denialist and dissident positions. He said it accurately reflected his views. Mbeki wanted it to be clear-cut in Gevisser’s text that he still questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and regretted withdrawing from the debate under pressure from Cabinet.

What remains murky are the reasons for Mbeki’s intransigence. Mbeki, who unlike other African leaders such as Mandela, Kaunda and Buthelezi has not lost his children to AIDS, indulges in sophistry that doesn’t grasp scientific process. Science is a systematic explanation of the world as it is experienced, not a revelation of a philosophically incontestable reality.

Mbeki’s “intellect is marked by perpetual questioning: he advances not through enthusiastic exclamation points or staccato full stops but along a line of question marks”. Gevisser’s description is also the method Gevisser employs, often concluding with a series of speculative questions, notably when touching sensitive issues that might offend his subject. I have the impression that Gevisser is trying to find a point of identification with Mbeki and perhaps offering a tacit apologia for his public probing.

Gevisser, unlike Roberts with his disingenuous glossing, sincerely attempts to understand Mbeki’s arcane positions, such as Mbeki’s paranoid outburst to an astonished ANC parliamentary caucus that he is the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign by the CIA working hand in glove with “Big Pharma”. Ironically, Gevisser creates more empathy for his subject than Roberts, whose polemical style backfires. As difficult as it clearly often was for Gevisser, he modestly states at the outset that he has tried to balance his perspective “with the voices and opinions and subjectivities of others who know Mbeki far better than I do”.

The Dream Deferred is a psychological biography taking as its theme “disconnection” (Mbeki’s word) referring to his awkwardness in placing himself within his traditional culture, not only after returning from 27-years exile, but as a child.

Mbeki emerges from the Gevisser text as highly functional, but callously detached. Govan Mbeki was of the same ilk and during his 25-year incarceration, Thabo didn’t write to him. When the death sentence hung over his father, although mounting a 60-mile march to 10 Downing Street to highlight his plight, Mbeki stated coolly that the “revolution produces new leaders all the time”. Mbeki’s brother, Jama, was murdered, but Mbeki has not prosecuted the matter for political reasons. Jama’s widow sadly observes, “In the Mbeki family there is no [such] family value. They believe in politics [more] than real life”. Perhaps the most moving accounts surround his only child Kwanda, which came to light in testimony given by the mother, Olive Mpahlwa, at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Mbeki sent his estranged son a “beautiful watch” with his name inscribed on it, which never worked and even “the best jewellers…could do nothing”. Kwanda “just could not believe it”. He disappeared in 1981 and there is evidence to suggest a violent death. Mbeki refused to meet with Mpahlwa despite her tenacious attempts for closure.

The “dream deferred”, taken from a poem by Langston Hughes and quoted by Mbeki, refers not only to his psychological difficulties at reconciling himself with his African identity, but also the postponement of delivering to his people on the promises of the national democratic revolution because of the inability to implement his policies. The Mbeki led ANC to date have only managed one-half of the equation – macro economic security and growth while reintroducing South Africa to the global economy. Fiscal austerity has so far failed the egalitarian dreams of the vast majority, who remain frustrated and impoverished with few prospects for economic self-determination, and who have now elected Zuma, a leader susceptible to demagoguery.

Gevisser is careful not to be judgemental (and his will be the more enduring biography of those under review here), but it was published at a time when perceptions of Mbeki as President are low, even amongst his core constituencies. Many in the white community are angry at his shift in recent years from a position of national reconciliation to one emphasising racial inequality and the need for social transformation. Gevisser’s biographical revelations were inflammatory, at the very least they have allowed Mbeki’s detractors to distil and verbalise their criticism. Mbeki is now deemed to have overplayed his hand and hopelessly mismanaged the succession battle for the presidency.

Although Gevisser achieves a judicious balance, he is susceptible to occasional sycophancy. Mbeki’s appointment of the Hefer Commission to investigate spy allegation made by struggle veteran Mac Maharaj he writes “was a stroke of genius”. Mbeki already had the facts and evidence. The commission was simply “a public drama” “calculated precisely” (its terms were altered three times) to humiliate his challengers. Gevisser fails to realise that in so doing Mbeki undermined the judicial process, abused his executive power, and fuelled perceptions of him as a vindictive political manipulator. Conspiracy theories abound and stalk South African politics. Mbeki’s unprovable accusations of plots against him and his executive interference in Constitutionally independent structures, such as the National Prosecuting Authority, means that widespread belief in these conspiracies is not altogether irrational perhaps even true. The consequences are lethal to the rule of law.

William Mervin Gumede in Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC gleefully enters the fray in the style of a newspaper columnist. This is the work of a hardbitten journalist. It does not have behind it the laborious research into primary sources and the discipline of a historical biographer like Gevisser, nor his meticulous referencing, but it is informative and fluent, if somewhat inelegantly cobbled together. Gumede’s accomplishment is the collation of a large amount of material in the public domain and in the new extensively updated edition, he goes further in examining Mbeki’s track record and machinations in government than any other extant work.

Gumede’s thesis is that Mbeki and a small group of technocrat centrists imposed undemocratically upon the ANC an economic policy that embraced the Washington consensus foreign orthodox global capitalism, a shift to the right which risked splitting the ANC. Recent events bear out his analysis.

How the biographers differ in their approach is illustrated by their take on Mbeki’s controversial “quiet diplomacy” towards the crisis in Zimbabwe. In defending Mbeki, Roberts deflects the issue by crying hypocrisy: those who opposed sanctions on the apartheid government now call for them against Zimbabwe; many howling for regime change by force in Zimbabwe are against such measures taken in Iraq. Roberts is forthright that “Robert Mugabe at the height of his murderous campaign [in Matabeleland]…slaughtered an estimated 20 000 black people”, but concludes peculiarly, “Mugabe in not a genocidaire”. Meanwhile Gevisser has uncovered Mbeki’s close working relationship in the 1980s with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the leader of the notorious Fifth Brigade and perpetrator of the ethnic massacre (who also presided over the torture and detention of the ANC’s MK operatives in southern Zimbabwe). When Mugabe triumphed, Mbeki was quick to support him, astounding his ANC comrades who favoured Joshua Nkomo. Gevisser’s reductionism, I think lamely, places Mugabe as a father figure to Mbeki, a wayward one whom he is unable to confront expeditiously. Mugabe on the other hand outmanoeuvred Mbeki at every turn, possibly as time may tell even in the recent agreement. Gumede puts it down to cynical and petty Africanist politics and incompetence. He lambastes Mbeki for having “squandered countless opportunities to make a difference in Zimbabwe”, and his policy is a “gross betrayal of blacks in Zimbabwe and everything that the liberation movement fought for”. He cites how Mbeki’s hand picked team of election observers shamefully declared the manifestly unjust 2002 election that returned Mugabe as free and fair, even though Mbeki’s own unofficial observer team reported widespread violations.

Perhaps the greatest, and to date still not fully excavated danger to his reputation, will arise from the corruption surrounding South Africa’s R60-billion armaments purchase. It was Mbeki who championed the deal, closed down the parliamentary investigation, bullied the parliamentary caucus in to kow-towing to the executive, and who now stands accused of selective justice and is himself implicated in impropriety. At a crucial moment in establishing South Africa’s fledgling democracy, Mbeki sent all the wrong signals.

Mbeki’s departure has ramifications well beyond the borders of South Africa. On his legacy, the jury will be out for some time still, his successes at present obscured by his monumental blunders.

(an abridged version of this article appeared in The Weekender) – Brent Meersman

Mark Gevisser
ISBN-13: 978 1 86842 301 9
892pp. Jonathan Ball Publishers.

William Mervin Gumede
ISBN: 987 1 77007 099 8
456pp. Zebra Press.

Ronald Suresh Roberts
ISBN-13: 978 1 919855 64 6
296pp. STE Publishers.

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Itsoseng and For the Right Reasons by Omphile Molusi

Junket Press 2008

I first saw Itsoseng North West Province playwright Omphile Molusi as a work in progress on the National Arts Festival Fringe in 2006. Molusi who performs his text, was the first recipient of the Brett Goldin Bursary Award and spent time working with the Royal Shakespeare Company last year. He has this month completed a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (he won the Scotsman’s Fringe First award) and transferred to the Soho Theatre in London. The play has been read overseas as highlighting the crossroads South Africa faces today.

Originally, the young playwright simply wanted to bring to the nation’s attention the plight of his hometown, Itsoseng, an impoverished and forgotten township near Lichtenburg. On the rare occasions Itsoseng makes the national news, it’s for all the wrong reasons: homicide, high rape statistics, and then there was the case of the mortuary failing to cope with a stockpile of unclaimed decomposing corpses.

Back in 2006, the play was billed in the programme as ‘a scathing indictment against the government’s indifference, cynicism and incompetence’. Molusi told me hope was ebbing away and patience running at an end. “You can’t eat politics,” he said.

When the people of Itsoseng shrugged off Bophutatswana, they burned down the shopping mall with its library and cinema. Molusi was then a toy-toying 14-year-old. He has changed, but life in his hometown has hardly progressed.

Molusi tells the story, which is partly autobiographical, of Mawilla, a man who loses the love of his life, a pretty girl called Dolly, to prostitution. Mawilla rejects her; then helplessly watches Dolly’s steady dissipation, which ends in her death. Their relationship could not withstand the social collapse caused by a dysfunctional political system. The play is narrated from her graveside.

The despair of the township, “that dryness within”, is quenched by alcohol. As Mawilla says in the play, “Friday tavern. . . Saturday funeral . . .Friday tavern. . . Saturday funeral. . .”

Molusi shies away from calling this protest theatre. But it remains an overwhelmingly political work – a cry for help. Itsoseng deals with an issue of crucial national importance that has not yet found sufficient expression in our theatres: a sense of helplessness inculcated by several generations of systemic pauperisation. Frustration stems from a complete loss of agency amongst the poorest. It is no surprise that in this climate we are seeing a national resurgence of calls for the national democratic revolution to be completed. – Brent Meersman(This article appeared in Die Burger)

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Publishing play scripts in English in South Africa

After a show, when the audience bursts out of the doors of a theatre, there are usually ushers brandishing paperback copies of the script for sale. In London that is, not in South Africa. However, the situation may now be changing.

South Africa has always had a chequered history when it comes to publishing plays, but it has become increasingly patchy since the mid-1990s.

In the 1970s A.A. Balkema put many playwrights from Guy Butler to Athol Fugard in print. Collections of plays would emerge sporadically from various publishers, especially AD Donker and Ravan (Contemporary South African Plays, 1977). International publishers often weighed in, such as Methuen Drama (Woza Albert, 1983), Penguin Books (publishing Pieter-Dirk Uys) and Heinemann, sometimes collaborating with Nick Hern. In addition to various plays, A.D. Donker brought out two important compilations (Market Plays, 1986 and More Market Plays, 1994). Fugard was kept in print throughout those years by Wits University Press (WUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP).

Individual scripts are today rare. The small publishers have fallen away and the larger houses have not produced any specialised imprints.

Of the many plays produced since 1994, few have reached book form outside of anthologies. Notable are OUP’s South African plays for TV, radio and stage and Heinemann’s collection of three plays by the Sibikwa Players in 2005. Double Storey brought out a luxuriously illustrated glossy compilation of Brett Bailey scripts entitled The Plays of Miracle and Wonder (2003).

WUP has been the most active, though they have only published a handful in the past eight years and only the big names: Zakes Mda, John Kani (Nothing But the Truth, 2002), Athol Fugard (Sorrows and Rejoicings, 2002) and Lara Foot Newton (Tshepang, 2005). To complete this brief survey one should mention that Oshun published At Her Feet by Nadia Davids in 2006, David Phillip Exits and Entrances by Fugard in 2005, and STE Relativity – Township Stories by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and Presley Chweneyagae in 2006. At this point, dear reader you are hopefully recalling plays you have seen and lamenting that they are no longer extant. Apart from some foreign anthologies, the list above is pretty much it from our publishers for this past decade.

The market is therefore ripe for a small publisher to create a niche, especially since modern technology has drastically reduced the costs of typesetting, printing and binding.

Around 2000, Compress (which now does annual reports for corporations) tried to fill this niche by vanity publishing with various playwrights and working with the Baxter Theatre Centre’s New Writing Programme. The latter produced a volume 2 2 Plays that included such important hits as Suip! and Fiona Coyne’s Glass Roots.

Without scripts finding their way to print, South Africans are in danger of losing their recent theatre history and an important aspect of their culture. Plays tell us much about a society, particularly if they’re good, which unfortunately one can’t say about all the plays in the Junkets series. However, historically, as cultural artefacts theatre proves a reliable indicator of the tensions and developments within a country; demonstrated for instance by Michael Billington’s recent book State of the Nation examining British society through the lens of the theatre from 1945 to the present day.

The new hope for South African playwrights is Junket Press. It already has five plays out and two more within the month, which is far more than anyone else has done these past five years.

The man behind Junket is Robin Malan. An author of several novels (Rebel Angel and The Story of Lucky Simelane), Malan has worked in English teaching and theatre all his life. He was artistic director of the PACT Playwork theatre-in-education company in the 1970s before moving to Swaziland in 1978 where he lived for fourteen years. He ran a specialist bookshop in Mbabane, Africasouth Books, and he was the Series Editor for the Siyagruva Series of novels for South African teens published by New Africa Books.

Malan may succeed where others have failed for several reasons.

Firstly, he is hands-on in the old sense of what is expected of a publisher. He knows his Junkets authors personally. Nadia Davids (Cissie, 2008) and Karen Jeynes (Everybody Else is F*ing Perfect, 2007) contributed as high school students to English Alive, the annual anthology of high school writing Malan founded and still edits. He assisted Juliet Jenkin (The Boy Who Fell from the Roof, 2007) in developing her work for its first presentation as part of the annual Artscape Spring Drama Season of new plays. He first encountered Omphile Molusi (Itsoseng and For the Right Reasons, 2008) as an actor at the PANSA Festival in Johannesburg where Malan’s own play The boy who walked into the world was presented.

Secondly, Malan is focused on getting the play into the foyer of the theatre. He is in constant contact with the Front of House and buzzes in and out of the theatres with stock.

Thirdly, although the print runs are small, his pricing is affordable. Malan says, “The whole idea of this series is that they must be kept as cheap as possible, so cheap that people will buy them in the foyer. In the theatre they cost R30, in a bookshop R60. It’s crucial.”

Malan adds, “Publishers will tell you nobody buys plays, unless you’re going to be able to promote it in the education area or if you’re very famous, like Fugard.”

Megan Hall of OUP agrees: “The school education market is driving our focus, but it is lovely to be able to offer learners at school something new and interesting. Roy Sargeant’s play adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country was prescribed for school learners of English at grade 12 in North West province – the resulting success has led us to look for other successful playscripts”.

Unfortunately, the education department still thinks in terms of one-act twenty minute and three-act two and half hours plays, neither of which anyone writers anymore.

Maskew Miller Longman and Nassau are now seeing possibilities in the Junkets playscript series. A Tsetswane version of Itsoseng is in the works.

Itsoseng is currently running at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Molusi has taken with him 400 scripts, which at ₤3 each he is likely to sell out.

Sponsorship is another solution. Presently, the Cape 300 Foundation (who also used to assist Compress) generously supports Junkets. Malan still however carries up to 50% of the risk. “I have to like the play otherwise I don’t want to work on it,” says Malan.

The figures involved in small print runs are not prohibitive, and sales may recoup all if not some of the cost. Many producers spend half (sometimes as much) on the programme. This seems short sighted. Producers and producing theatres should make an effort to get the work in print for posterity at least.

“After watching the play in the theatre,” says Malan, “people either want to have nothing more than a souvenir, but quite often people want to be able to go back over parts of the play and to be reminded of what the character said at a certain moment.

“Also those people who aren’t going to see the play and can have the opportunity to enjoy it in another form, that audience is the one I am currently missing.”

Libraries may be part of the answer. Currently, Hiddingh Library holds the series. The only bookshops to keep Junkets in stock are the meticulous Clarke’s Bookshop in Long Street Cape Town and Johannesburg’s oldest bookshop, Frank R. Thorold. The Baxter bookstall also keeps copies.

The series itself is well turned. The covers are attractive, the proofing professional, the typesetting attractive and most editions give introductions, biographical notes and useful context to the works. Here’s to many more. – Brent Meersman

For more information e-mail: Website:

This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian August 8, 2008

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