The Horseshoeby Sihle Mthembu / 23.01.2012
For how much longer in our post-apartheid jargon are we going to ignore the role of black people in helping to oppress other black people during the bad old days? The racial charges in our society are tired. Too often, they have been exercised in the pursuit of self-benefit. These people were there in Sharpeville in 1976, wielding knobkerries and firing bullets on command. They are the kind whose seven-room house in the township had electricity long before it was government policy. These are guys who are not confronted by our post-apartheid creative bile. The image is basically nonexistent, and if it is shown at all, it tends to quickly become invisible, dissolving into the background, painted over by clean film loglines and texts that speak too elegantly of a dirty era.
I arrive half an hour late, at the Catalina Theatre and am still, somehow, early. The Musho Theatre Fest press secretary said the rehearsal would start at two, but when I walk in the actors are still only mapping out their technical footprint and deciding on which lighting system is going to best showcase the full might of their acting fists. There is a loneliness in the room. The kind of loneliness that builds up when a two-man theatre festival is opening later that evening. I am always reluctant to come to the Catalina, for no reason other than it’s just inconveniently located. It’s a little unnoticeable, around the back of the harbor, in a sort of mall, surrounded by boats and the smell of crumbed prawns and calamari from the adjoining nautical-themed restaurant franchises.
Onstage, two men direct the lighting guy at the back. They go through their script and detail the track of the show. One is a lanky, bald-headed black oke. He wears three-quarter pants and has a slightly overgrown belly. His name is Bhekani Shabalala. His companion is much shorter, but strongly built. Bheki Khabela, but everybody calls him Khabs. They are rehearsing the opening play of the festival, The Horseshoe. They carelessly joke about not going to have enough of a crowd on their big night. They are probably right.
The play (if the festival handbook is to be believed) is a “moving story of two young men who make the difficult decision to leave their families and go into exile.” I always have trouble with stories that assume they know what is going to move me, that their creative process is a prerequisite for some far reaching emotional connection.
The play sees two friends before, during and after exile. Immediately from the start, you are sucked in by the pace of the narrative. It’s not tedious viewing, rather The Horseshoe has an inherent high-pitched quality to it, and that is compelling.
It is worth noting that there is an elitism that is a part of theatre in the localsphere. A lot of playwrights have a disgusting tendency of flowering their dialogue with big words and unnecessary argot. It’s surprising how articulate and functional The Horseshoe is. Here are two township guys making theatre that is directly reflective of the pre-1994 experience. They transition flawlessly between isiZulu, English and a morbid version of 80’s Tsotsitaal. I think it’s a shame. Even they are aware that not enough people will see this play.
Somewhere in the middle of the show we find the comrades as they cross the border. Shabalala has now morphed into an old lady who helps the young boys cross over into Swaziland. The stage has plummeted into complete darkness. The only source of light is a candle. They hush and speak softly on their dark journey.
For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had found a narrative in local theatre that is directly introspective of a large South Africa experience. A story whose primary point of departure is accuracy. I grew up around weird men. Not because my house was a brewery, but because my grandmother felt it was a good idea to use the base of her bed as a place to hide guns. I have never seen that in a South African film or play. There were many people like her in all parts of the country and The Horseshoe is both a tribute to them and an indictment of how their roles so often go unacknowledged. The Horseshoe reminds us that the apartheid story stretches beyond Biko and Mandela and is part of a larger social order. An everyday reality that people like this old woman and the black knobkerrie-wielders were a part of. It’s a play that revives important conversations that have been drowned out by the contemporary political jargon.
We, as South Africans, have an unspeakably large amount of collective trauma. This trauma is often fermented by our lack of communal confession. When I hear my uncles and grandmother speak about liberation, they don’t talk about De Klerk or Verwoerd or any of the other poster boys of apartheid. They talk about the former local police commissioner. They re-tell stories about the members of the Special Branch who killed comrades during the week and still managed to live in the township on weekends. For me, and I am sure this is the case for many South Africans, apartheid is not some grandiose plot that happened in the upper tiers of a hierarchy. It was a systematic policy that encouraged ordinary working class South African’s to kill and ill-treat each other, to rip our country to red tendons. The police that we see beating up kids on the street in our nostalgic TV doccies, they had families. They had kids and wives who worried if they used the right amount of salt in the stew, just like our families did. This is an idea that comes across in The Horseshoe.
This idea of working class discomfort in our current era has always been something that worries me. Because while I know that I grew up around these stories, I also know that others didn’t. I worry because I have white friends. We play drinking games and we cheat at poker together. We debate about whether Bela Tarr’s films are more visually appealing than Von Trier’s (Bela Tarr wins every time). We high five and have a well-rounded, good time. But when the LOL’s are done, what about urgent reflection on what white kids were told in those days? This conversation never happens. What was the narrative that was presented over dinner tables in white suburbia? What was the supposed explanation for Daddy shooting the black kids in the township? Was he a hero or a tool in an unjust cause that was bigger than him, or any one man? I think these are the kinds of debates that plays like The Horseshoe can help open up on a larger scale.
Later, after rehearsal, Khabela tells me about how the production was a result of stringent research. “We observed the life of one of our friends who was in exile,” he says. “We were just surprised by his life story, how he was part of that movement and now he is forgotten. These are the stories were happening and are happening. These are the kinds of things we discuss in our homes over dinner, so why should they not be reflected in the theatre? That’s why we, as creative people, made this production.”
Plays like this remind us that there is a stench that comes with the post-1994 liberation. A mixture of unreasonable hopes and the aftermath of differed dreams. Often this disillusionment with the Simunye-We-Are-One bridge manifests itself in unreasonably naive racial debates. Jimmy Manyi and Trevor Manuel, anyone? And what about a side order of Helen Zille and Simphiwe Dana? The reason we are so obsessed with the racial question in South Africa is not because we are interested in having frank conversations about the state of our society, but because we are afraid of amendment.
There are things that we collectively, as a nation, need to own up to and get over. As a young black person who has been scanning the culture for some years now and mingles with various sides of the debate, I have to say that it is, for me, a matter of concern that I have never heard a regular, working class white South African speak candidly about their role, or lack thereof, in the apartheid system. I am yet to hear a person say, “we were complicit and complacent and maybe not all of us were directly racist but by doing nothing and saying nothing we were accomplices to an unjust system.” Or for the younger kids to say this about their parents.
This might seem unimportant, after all, who cares about a working class apology when we have poster boys like FW De Klerk apologizing for the sins of white South Africans and telling us everything is going to be fine, right? Wrong! The poster boys of apartheid were not the ones effectively implementing the policies.
In equal footing, after watching the play, I felt that there was a lingering sense that more could be done beyond expressing these things through our art or even a white working class apology. There are also a lot of things that need to be confessed by black South Africans who are intent on making the post-racial dream work. Chief of which is that not every black person was a direct victim of apartheid. In fact, there are many people I know who exaggerate their strain and live vicariously through the struggle because, let’s face it, apartheid was, and still is, an attractive excuse for underachieving. We also need to own up to the fact that not every white person benefited directly from apartheid. I think we will feel so much better when we do.
The Horseshoe also does well to take away the romanticism that comes with images of exile. Many people think that Angola and the Zambian war camps were philosophical hubs where comrades would talk about politics in flambouyant tones and discuss the importance of Fanon in the African diaspora. Shabalala and Khabela don’t just question this myth, they shatter it. There is a particularly unsettling scene in the play where they act out the atrocious labour that was carried out in those camps. They sing songs of liberation as their pick and shovel strike the earth. This is how I like to consume my culture, in bite size chunks that are deliciously relevant and precise.
Later, when the boys have come back from exile, there is a disparity in their outlook. They still mix and mingle, but one is now a hopeless nobody who relies on luck at betting on horses and the other has graduated to being the bodyguard of the local mayor. This is a display of the democratic dream and its persistent reality. Towards the end, the horse-man muses about the importance of storytelling and legacy. I am moved by his words because the issue of storytelling is part of my reality, as is the case with a lot of other young people who grew up in the luxury of democracy. It is a reminder that we need to be reminded.
Many young black people who grew up in the township know exactly what I am talking about. We all, in some way, grew up around the apartheid storyline. We have uncles who walk with a limp because they got shot by the police en route to fetch weapons. We know grandmothers who speak somberly about sons they never got to burry. A few blocks from my house there is a woman who watched as her boyfriend was slaughtered by gunfire in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. She was three months pregnant at the time. They say she was so distraught that later that week she had a miscarriage. She never got a payout and nobody from the government ever sent her a letter. These are the failures of the TRC. She was collateral damage in the pursuit of a just cause. That’s why I was not moved when I saw the ANC celebrating its 100th anniversary. The stories that were being churned out in an act political arrogance from the elite of the former-liberation movement do not resonate with me. For me the personal is still political and I do not feel connected to those narratives. Rather, I find solace and hope when seeing a work such as The Horseshoe because it is a non-arrogant display of the reality of both eras, delivered with poise and precision.