South Africa and History Re-lived, Re-enacted, Reconsidered

The Afrikaner thunders his god-like proclamations as ancient cultures slip away in a feast gone awry. Meanwhile Sowetans hang at their new Mall of America prototype…doing exactly what Minnesotans are doing half way round the world—spending money on designer labels, new cell phones, junk jewelry, DVD’s, washers and dryers. It has been an eye-opening couple of days here in Jo’burg where the rain has departed, the sun shines and we more and more absorb the big vitality and excitement of this country—so like the US in so many ways.

A second week of contemporary dance of every size and shape begins today. I vow to eat less, a difficult task since the food is delectably good here (although I can’t speak for the crispy, greasy, salty quotient of the endless array of fried chicken places) and the wine does seem to be way above average—even the house wines are always smooth with a kind of sunny freshness that  my seriously untutored palate actually notices. The African Crafts Market is appropriately stuffed with souvenirs from around Africa. Mostly beaded, carved, wired, tall, short, brown, gold, stripped, spotted giraffes, elephants, lions, zebras and hippo/rhinos abound; they’re called The Big 5 and they are the stuff of tourist nirvana—on hoof, paw or shop shelf. I would name South Africa’s Big 5 a little differently. Let’s see—how about the DANCE; the wide-open debate among everyday people and politicos about the future and SA’s continental role; the endless spaces of desert, veld, bush and farm country; the energy and excitement of the approaching world cup and finally the palpable presence of history-making in the very air you breathe.

About history then. An astonishing piece of work happened Sunday afternoon at the Dance Factory. Called The Time of Small Berries, created and performed by Sello Pesa, Peter Van Heerden and Andre Laubscher. I am doing my own interpretation, my own description here with some trepidation. I had to let the piece work through my psyche overnight before I even knew quite what it was—but a few minutes in I knew it was going to be important to me. Quite simply the work is what happened to the traditions of the indigenous people under colonialism. The Time of Small Berries was a special feast time in traditional African cultures—until Afrikaner colonialism obliterated it along with many of the other traditions of the Xhosa and Zulu people. The Afrikaners, founders of apartheid, in fact destroyed everything in their path that threatened their desire for total domination, replacing it all with a harsh and bitter Eurocentrism of the most regressive sort. The Time of Small Berries forces us to recognize that loss.

The audience wanders to the stage loading door, nearby Sello washes in preparation for the celebration, a pig slowly turns on the spit, drops of grease sizzle and the smell reminds me of a New Mexico political gathering in the South Valley on a crisp fall afternoon. When we finally enter the theater it is to sit in chairs circling the centerpiece…how incongruous a centerpiece it is with the chickens and dripping greasy messy meat and cases of beer just nearby…it is a white tablecloth and silver-set long table where visual artist/social activist Andre Laubscher, invites various audience members to sit. And talk. Meanwhile Sello Pesa and Peter Van Heerden pace, struggle, tie themselves literally in knots amidst sacks of spilling corn and beer. The chickens run under the chairs cackling in annoyance, stacks of plates are smashed violently by the actors over their own heads, a little more hesitantly by the audience, beer is everywhere, I guess what is South African/Afrikaner country music plays. Sello pees in a pail (discreetly) and donning his soccer uniform pontificates in an I-am-an-Afrikaner speech endlessly replicated—the irony building as platitudes from the whitest of cultures emanates from the throat of a powerful black African man. And still polite society sits around the table of colonialism discussing how to be happy, discussing what you do if your baby’s raped, somehow making it equally fit into the most inane of dinner table conversation. .

Peter Van Heerden and Sello Pesa are both respected dance/theater artists coming from very different places it seems. Peter is grappling with/exploring, through highly confrontive site-based and staged work, his identity as an Afrikaner white man in a society that has moved on from a time when that identity represented the source of all power. To see this work with roles reversed, Sello mouthing the Afrikaner speech, Peter literally tied, bound, struggling with his burdens of corn and history, so angry. This is an important piece, I think…I know. And a big messy theater piece. Not so many artists willing to delve quite this far into these relationships probably. I hope to ask both Sello and Peter via e-mail a little more about this work and include their comments in here.

There, I have dissected this work through my own naïve dance/South African history lens—it’s my story and I’m sticking to it in other words—only to be terribly embarrassed later if I find I completely misinterpreted everything.

History is contemporary is everywhere is alive here. Gregory Maqoma, our Dance Umbrella host and one of our favorite dance artists in this rich South African dance landscape, took some of us visitors on a drive through his hometown, Soweto. I’ve been before, the tourist route to the Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum (the 13-year-old child who was shot and killed as students marched to protest the forced teaching of Afrikaans in the schools—the resulting photo of the boy carried bleeding from the site by two other fleeing children was a huge chink in the armor of apartheid), we drove into the Beverly Hills of Soweto where the modest little home first shared by the young newly-married Mandelas and the only street in the world that has been home to TWO Noble Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu)  and we saw from the hill Winnie’s current rather grander house where she lives and maintains a still powerful role in the ANC.

The best part was simply driving around contemporary Soweto. While the area does have its Beverly Hills, it is more about the ordinary pleasant homes in the older communities—the kind of homes in which most of us live or grew up. The very word Soweto conjures up massive blocks and warrens of hovels and crime and hopelessness and while those areas do still exist, most lives are lived in modest little or not-so-little homes, agreeably furnished, well-maintained, filled with family and cooking and dogs.

Gregory took us to meet his mom, a lovely vital woman, a widow with three sons, the dancer, the soon-to-be sangoma (traditional healer) and the soccer player. Her home is spacious and comfortable and, if the treat she sent with us is an example, she is a cake baker extraordinaire. Gregory’s brother was home, the dogs were playing, the mom and sons equally proud of each other. It is such a rare treat to get to meet the artists’ families—we are most grateful to Greg for the opportunity. We also found out that Greg has been commissioned to choreograph the opening dance number for the World Cup games held in the massive Soweto stadium. Now I have a reason to watch the Cup!

Kids coming home from school, scuffing their sneakers, teasing each other, kids rehearsing in a community center, sun shines on the giant Orlando Towers, a disused power station whose two cooling towers are landmarks on the Soweto skyline. They now serve as a showcase for the electric blues, greens, reds and golds of everyday life in Soweto as a train winds past the musicians playing, the fruit waiting to be tasted in the biggest mural in Africa—they could be said to power a certain irrepressible Soweto energy and pride. I am not trying to convey that all is love and roses in Soweto but there is something very infectious about the pride everyone from there seems to find in those origins. After all Soweto and the townships of Cape Town are where it all happened. They forced a nation to freedom—pretty inspiring. Remember we fought a civil war in addition to our marches and freedom rides, and South Africans managed to do it without resorting to the battlefields in the way much of the world expected. Sorry about that…but I am simply over and over impressed with this place and these people—black and white South Africans.

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