F R A G M E N T S O F T H E D A W N
Bring back the boycott!
The price of admission to the global-village show is beyond a joke –
and too high for Bafana Khumalo.
The revolution is over. Damn, there is nothing to watch in the theatre.
In the mid-1980s, at the height of the struggle against the apartheid regime, there was an unprecedented degree of cultural activity. Talented people with scant resources would get on stage and blow you away, sending white liberals on a guilt trip just long enough for them to drive into the placid environs of whites-only suburbia.
Brilliant two-handers, like Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa’s Woza Albert, peopled the makeshift stages of the townships and finally graduated to left-wing centres like the Market Theatre. Of course the stage was also populated by some pure get-on-the-stage-and-scream-at-the-regime garbage. Perhaps that was inevitable.
Then the struggle wound to an abrupt, unannounced end. And what happened to our cultural scene? Well, we went back to the comfortable bad habits of the past and imported ideas from abroad, regardless of how embarrassingly out-of-place the shows were.
How, for instance, can one explain why the biggest state-funded theatre in the country – the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg – saw fit to stage the American musical Hair 30 years after the hippie movement first saw the light of day? It was bloody uncomfortable sitting in that theatre and – in the age of AIDS and restrained sexual activity – having to listen to a sermon on free love. I could not help imagining that park where young hippies always seemed to hang out being littered with used condoms – a disgusting thought.
Towards the end of last year the Market Theatre staged two tributes. One was to a dead American singer, Janis Joplin, and the other to a living-dead American performer who from time to time drew temporary life from foreign cultures to resuscitate his career – Paul Simon.
That may be the way to make sure we South Africans are not too separated from the proverbial global village. But there’s a problem. We seem to be forgetting all those lofty sentiments of the struggle past, of creating a true South African culture that tells our own stories – how we fall in love, how we fall out of love, how we laugh and cry, how we can be a people in pain and pleasure.
TV used to be populated by syndicated American situ-ation comedies and soap operas. Now, with the lifting of the Equity ban on the sale of British cultural products to South Africa, there has been a sad deluge of ancient English comedies titillating the English sector of our society – mostly third- or fourth-generation white South Africans who still call England home and drink tea and eat scones in the afternoons.
Within the past year we have seen The Two Ronnies taking the prime-time slot on one of our state-owned channels. ‘Bring back the cultural boycott!’ some people were heard to cry. I was among them. We are now in the racist clutch of another ancient British TV show, Mind Your Language. Set in a school for immigrants to Britain, it reveals how dumb the rest of the world is and how cultured and reasonable are the British. The show, 20 years behind the times in its racial nature, should be canned. But I don’t suppose that will happen. Our acceptance into the global village seems to be dependent on our buying this kind of dated crap.
So, at the beginning of our new democratic state, is there any hope of our creating a vibrant, local culture? There seems to be none, despite the lofty promises of the ANC when it was still a liberation movement. What was their first vote of confidence in a local culture? Well, they appointed Winnie Mandela as the Deputy Minister for Arts and Culture. The appointment has nothing to do, in my view, with the woman’s qualification in matters cultural. It was a decision by the powers-that-be to put her in a place where she would be least likely to cause trouble. There goes any hope for a cultural revival.
Bafana Khumalo is a freelance journalist and a columnist for the Weekly Mail and Guardian in Johannesburg.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995