South Africa: losing home

This was protest theatre. Expressing pain and hope through art.

I visited one of my favourite coffee haunts here in Marseille. The barista is a young French Canadian woman and I mentioned that I’d just watched Bon Cop Bad Cop, and how hilariously bad it is.

She asked me if there are any similar South African movies, and I was a bit stumped. High movie production values and South Africa don’t go together. Then I remembered The Angel, The Bicycle & The Chinaman’s Finger, and that led to a bit of a nostalgic mindfuck. Because that movie was in 1992.

This is the only relic of it online:

I watched that because of Nicholas Ellenbogen and Raiders of the Lost Aardvark, a physical theatre and random props show that is still running, with annual updates, and which I first saw more than 30 years ago, when I was 14. I laughed watching Raiders, and Angel, in ways that I haven’t since. Laughter where you think you may actually die. There’s a scene in Raiders where they use a drill and a metal disk – which barely turns –to demonstrate its power. They cut a banana in half and sprayed the tiny audience with banana gunge. Ellis Pearson shot me in the head with a poison dart and then mourned my “death.”

Nicholas Ellenbogen, Ellis Pearson and everyone else were Theatre For Africa. And you can’t talk about Theatre For Africa without talking about 1991’s Gathering of the Beasts, possibly the most astonishing piece of physical theatre I’ve ever seen in my life. 17-year-old me was already a theatre buff – I almost studied acting – and I fell in love with theatre and limitless creativity in that moment in a way that I have never fallen for anything since. Through Gathering of the Beasts I got to see Michael Atkinson, then John Kani, Sandra Prinsloo, Marius Weyers, The return of Elvis du Pisanie by Paul Slabolepszy … shit, I’m tearing up just writing this.

This was protest theatre. Expressing pain and hope through art. I devoured the fringe at the Grahamstown Festival, sleeping in my car and watching 5-6 shows a day, starting in the morning and finishing past midnight.

Post 1994, this was incredible. South Africa till 2001 was a kaleidoscope of hope and frenzied creativity. And I was part of it, working in the townships, experiencing this bold brave mad insane experiment we called “the new South Africa”.

But it started here, before the Lion King, with this song:

Gathering of the Beasts is about a painted dog. The same dog I put in my second novel. It is about a breeding pair. The female gets shot by poachers and the male goes mad, killing livestock. The story is about the gathering of the beasts. How elephant, played by Michael Atkinson, asked for the animals to intercede before hunters would be sent to kill painted dog, the “little yellow hunter,” and – perhaps – bring devastation to the wilderness. It involved puppetry, masks, physical theatre. There were few props, no backdrop or stage design other than a black curtain. Ellis Pearson was the master of physical theatre long before Andy Sirkis claimed the title. Everything was created through movement and music, all played live on stage and all the songs sung by Neill Solomon.

Nothing was derivative. Everything was new and original.

Neill Solomon has finally found a way to make his music available. There is so much that has been lost. The full Gathering of the Beasts album is here:

This was the world I got to know intimately. All the small theatres all over the country. The actors, the musicians. I followed the fringe art scene. All of it. Dance, music, rock, theatre, art, sculpture. In the townships, in the rural areas, in the cities and suburbs. I absorbed everything. The people, the culture, the food, the language and design.

It was the world I wanted to grow old in.

And then that path, that world, vanished.

In 2006 there was a choice. And the choice was Jacob Zuma.

What followed was the defenestration of a country. Anything of value was ripped out and handed to whoever was brutal enough to take it. South Africa became a centre of fraud, corruption, money laundering, state capture. The state institutions supposed to stand in the way of corrupt state power were gradually and inevitably uprooted and obliterated. The wealth you see is purely the froth remaining from payoffs and crime. The violence and crippling inequality are the consequence.

There is no recovery.

Perhaps in 15 years you’ll look back on 2016, on the choice of Brexit and Donald Trump, and wonder about the homes you lost too. The world you thought would last. The world where you would grow old. And then look at the place you are now. All that was lost, all that is memory.

I am doing my best to make a home here in France, but the distance to travel to gain even part of what I felt when I last knew “home” is very great.

Ask me again in 15 years. Ask yourself too …