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Our Ghosts

by Linda Stupart / 30.05.2011

Some time into the production of REwind, PW Botha’s voice can be heard repeating the lines “I am sick and tired of the hollow parrot-cry of ‘apartheid!’ I’ve said many times that the word apartheid means good neighbourliness.” After this he asks, and the singers ask, and the texts ask: “Who’s laughing?” And then “Who laughed?” The question resonates. The audience sits in silence. This time no one is laughing.

REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony is an opera about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, currently running at the Baxter. The piece is composed by Phillip Miller featuring the voices of Sibongile Khumalo with soloists Otto Maidi, Stefan Louw and Nozuko Teto, the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation chorus, the Heavenly Voices Chorus and a string octet led by South African cellist Marian Lewin, as well as visual and textual projections by Gerhard and Maja Marx. On top of these multiple aural and visual voices, Miller has also overlaid sound from the original TRC tapes. Half-formed words, half-spoken sentences, the scrape of chairs, nervous coughs and tired exhalations are woven into the projections, the choirs and the music. And it is through REWind’s intertextuality that the production finds its strength, for while the singular narrative of one (white South African) man’s tale of the apartheid landscape would be bound to fail, this multiplicity of texts, voices and images allows the ghosts of our recent past to speak with an assertiveness that is their own.

REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony

I remember seeing the TRC hearings on TV. Every Sunday for two years Max du Preez presented the “Truth Commission Special Report” and we watched with horror as the apartheid state’s crimes were played out on stage – a return (and, perhaps, reduction) of the justice system to spectacle. Potential hangings became public apologies. Incredible confessions, accusations and heartbreaking testimony mediated into “based on a true story”. And since these weekly screenings still more movies have been made, TV series, endless books. There is something staged and performative, something inherently operatic, about the whole thing. At one point, TRC translators were even officially asked to “mimic the witness’ emotions” as it was felt that too much of the wrenching affect of their testimonies was getting lost in translation.

Remarkably the theatricality of the actual TRC hearings is subdued in REwind, even though this is an actual theatrical production. The piece steers away from graphic archival footage, or (god forbid) re-enactments of any kind, rather relying on translation itself as a medium. Presenting multilingual incompletions, shards of stories, evidence and charged moments in a harrowing, cathartic 90 minutes. All based on transcriptions from the hearings as script.

REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape and Testimony

It is overwhelming at times. Horribly, wonderfully so. I cried while I was watching REwind. And not in the kind of all-out-bawling way that I cry during a really tough section of a Meg Ryan movie, but rather with a lump in my throat that is still there – one which says: You are so naive, you don’t know, you don’t remember, and, in an important denial of moralistic didacticism, I cannot tell you.

I am the last person to believe that the artist, particularly in South Africa, has some kind of responsibility to represent socio-political comment. However, REwind reminded me that we (South African cultural producers) used to do that, and maybe, sometimes, we still should. Because our ghosts are not done with us yet, and, unheard, they will only get angrier.

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