On 4th September 1984, I turned 16. One day earlier, and not even 100km from my middle class, sheltered white South African suburban existence, the events began to unfold for what was to become a legal decision that shocked, and in many respects, rocked the world. It was the heyday of apartheid. Many things were happening in South Africa under the cover of bureaucratic governmental decisions. The events in a small township called Sharpeville irrevocably changed the lives of six ordinary people. Eighteen years later the reverberation of those events continues.
On the one hand, we have the Sharpeville Six: five men and one woman who will never again experience the joys of carefree youth, who will never know what their children were like as young toddlers, and who will probably never be compensated by the powers that destroyed their lives arbitrarily. And there is a lot of sadness and bitterness.
On the other hand, we have the flow of creative juices that serves a narrative and healing role. Yael Farber is a theatre director of note in South Africa. She has been invited by Ong Keng Sen, a Singaporean Shakespearean buff and theatre director (this year’s curator of In Transit a brand new international cultural festival in Berlin), to showcase a new work based on the strength of her previous successes. The festival’s focus is on transitional culture and on the international flavour that constitutes so much of our world’s culture.
In Transit’s blurb presents it as a festival, not about the presentation of ready-made art, but one which focuses on art in process, of performance art that takes time to see and has to be rekindled in the memory rather than through a commodifiable artifact that can decorate a home. In Transit, which functions under House of World Cultures, sees itself as an ongoing laboratory, with its audience as a part of the work.
Farber intuited an opportunity for a project when she met Duma Khumalo, one of the Sharpeville Six, a few years ago, after seeing him in a play. Khumalo is not a trained actor. He is a man profoundly hurt by the damage inflicted on him by the state. Due in large part to bearing the social stigma of the infamous jail sentence, the Sharpeville Six were not able to find regular work and were not even compensated by the state for the gross injustice they suffered. “We have been betrayed,” Khumalo said. “The previous government gave killers the golden handshake and the present government gave them amnesty. But the victims have been left empty handed.”
And at this juncture the role which creative realisation plays is pivotal. Farber comments, “The exceptional thing about Duma goes beyond his horrific experiences. It is his capacity to carry the details of his experiences to a listener with immense humanity. The impact he has on one is about the passion to retell his pain in an act of healing both himself and the listener. To put it simply: he recounts in a way that reaches out beyond himself.”
One of the tools which informed the evolution of Farber’s play was the writings of Italian Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi. In his final book, The Drowned and the Saved, Levi commented, “Those who experienced imprisonment are divided into two distinct categories : those who remain silent and those who speak. [Those who speak,] speak because, at varied levels of consciousness, they perceive in their imprisonment the center of their life . They speak because troubles overcome are good to tell.”
Levi’s works were central to much conversation between Khumalo and Farber. His work is not about hating those who tried to destroy, or about forgiving them, it’s rather about coming to terms with what one has become as a result of this hatred.
He Left Quietly is a three-hander, featuring Khumalo, Lebohang Elephant and Yana Sakelaris. The latter two have collaborated with Farber in the past, and each has a fine reputation in theater.
But the background to the tale behind the play is central to its manifestation during June 2002 in Berlin. This story has different inroads. It’s about the complexity of the cultural interface that makes South Africa exciting. It’s about synchronicity, and the ricochet of apartheid-instilled negativity. The characters in this tale are diverse, and the time in which it is enacted stretches from 21 March 1960 until now. It’s a story about coming to terms with the kicks and pricks that living in this unfair, biased and crooked world entails, and it’s an affirming story.
Farber comments, “There’s an enormous process that we’ve gone through in South Africa that most people have sidelined, and consciously or not, there’s very little acknowledgement of it all, and everyone’s tired of hearing about it, but they haven’t actually heard about it, they’ve heard the half of it.”
Farber is central to my story. Weaving together disparate voices creates the very fabric of the narratives.
So to many, Sharpeville is a date, not a place. On 21 March 1960, a large crowd gathered to protest the “pass” laws that forced black adults to carry an identity document at all times. The pass was, however, a tad more than an identity document: its function was primarily about curfew. If a black person was found in an urban area without the legitimation of a white employer, he or she was subject to punishment, which could mean a ghastly assortment of possibilities ranging from police brutality to detention without trial. Of course, the pass law and its methods of enforcement were all sanctioned by the crooked arm of the apartheid police. So the passbook was a shackle and the people protested. And on that day the police lost their heads and fired into the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 186.
Fast forward to 1984. Sharpeville was a township for black labourers. Located close to the iron-and-steel industries in the nearby white towns of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg, Sharpeville was devoid of any of the niceties that could make a residential development seem like “home”. Other than the main arteries, Sharpeville’s streets were really only dust roads. The government-owned houses were standard pre-cast affairs, lacking anything beyond the bare essentials.
Situated back-to-back, each of the 6,000 houses in Sharpeville occupied not more than 45m2 of land. Devoid of proper ceilings (the houses are like small cold boxes, roofed only with a sheet of gray asbestos) and for the most part, electricity, each house at least had its own privy out in the yard, and a single tap for water.
Every address in the area was distinguished by a four-digit number, rather than the pretence of domesticity, like an identifying street address: lest the occupants forget that they, too, were anonymous numbers to be just tolerated by governmental decrees. For the 40,000 people living there, Sharpeville was poor, indeed, but it was also rich in the detail and buzz of day-to-day existence.
In 1983 the tricameral parliament in South Africa was established. People of mixed blood (known as “coloured”) and Indian origin were permitted to play a parliamentary role. Blacks, however, still remained excluded from decision-making. To compensate for this obvious disparity, the government passed the Black Local Authorities Act in 1982. This meant that black town councilors could be elected, and essentially, in their district, they would be where the buck stopped. A job as town councilor for your district in the heyday of apartheid was both a feather in your cap and a possible knife in your back. It meant that you enjoyed some kind of a relationship with the people who were abusing your people. A bit of a sell-out.
Kuzwayo Jacob Dlamini, deputy mayor of the local town council, was the highest placed dignitary-resident in Sharpeville in 1984. At 41, Dlamini had the material possessions about which most of his peers could only dream. He seemed to be straddling issues of home life and work adequately and in the process, had earned a reputation for not being completely sincere. At the trial of the Sharpeville Six one woman said, “I heard that he evicted people from the house, but with us he helped us. He helped my mother get the house.” Another commented more astutely, “Councilors administered houses. Dlamini would get people out, and get you a house if he liked you.” Given the tiny geographical parameters of Sharpeville, livable space was a major issue, and the open show of selected favors in circumstances like this is a political no-no, however you see it. Consequently, Dlamini was also quickly becoming known for greediness and kowtowing to those from whom he could benefit: the very people who were hurting his own people.
The plot thickens. On 1 September 1984, a 12.5% rent increase, payable to the government, was announced. Two days later, a mob planned to march to the governmental offices to object to the rent increase. En route, they passed Dlamini’s home. One thing led to another and the mob stoned Dlamini, then burned him. His car was turned over and set alight, and his house and material possessions set afire.
Two months passed, and then eight people were arrested and accused of instigating or taking part in the events which led to Dlamini’s death. Existence in such a bleak area was neither easy nor beautiful, but each of these people, Oupa Diniso, Ja-ja Sefatsa, Theresa Ramashamola, Duma Khumalo, Francis Mokhesi, Motseki Christiaan Mokubung, Motsiri Gideon Mokone and Reid Mokoena, worked hard for a living. They were Christians, involved with their families and hobbies and domestic lives. None of them was politically active. They were the “you” and “I” of Sharpeville the people who adhere to the rules. It was subsequently revealed in the complex and elaborate trial which followed, that not only did they not know each other well, but they were not even all in the area at the time of the violence.
The whole court case embraced hearsay and manipulation of words by governmental legalities. This manifested on different levels. Of the accused, Diniso is Xhosa-speaking, Khumalo Zulu-speaking and the remainder spoke South Sotho, all indigenous African languages. The prosecuting men behind the bar, on the other hand, preferred Afrikaans, the official language of apartheid, and the defence council was English speaking. This necessitated translators which prolonged and stultified the give and take of questions and answers in the trial. But not only was language a major obstruction in the name of truth, the judge and prosecutor clearly had an agenda they needed to address in this matter. Someone had to pay for the council damage incurred. Simple as that.
Prakash Diar, the defence attorney in the case, explains what happened: “The pushing of the car is like a microcosm of the murder: two got named, so two got blamed, whether in truth they were present or not; and the ‘many’, the others, melted anonymously away into the township and out of the story forever.”
Six of the eight accused were sentenced to death.
But time was against the system. Or perhaps it was fate. Or the fact that the world got to hear of the story. During their incarceration in Death Row for a period of more than 1,000 days, the remaining Sharpeville Six were privy to the last words and gestures of hundreds of men and women hung by the apartheid regime. As they waited and listened, their three-year sentence was punctuated by the possibility of each day beginning with death. This went on for months, years, until they actually wished to succumb to the gallows.
On 23 November, 1988, after much haggling and rehashing of the material produced in court, and under the sanction of a very articulate and passionate defence, in the eleventh hour they were reprieved by the then Prime Minister, P.W. Botha and their sentences commuted to between eighteen and twenty-five years. The reason for this change in their fortune was the prevailing voice, it seemed, of some kind of truth and justice. Finally, after all the psychological torment that these five men and one woman had been put through, unbelievable things were officially acknowledged. Until then, claims that witnesses had been tortured or ill treated in order to make them denounce the Sharpeville Six had never been taken into account by the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal; the court had never been able to prove that any of the Six had played a direct role in the murder of Dlamini; and the trial was resoundingly condemned as unlawful because of the issue of ‘common purpose’.
Fast forward again to March 2002. Farber sits in front of me. We’re in a secluded corner of a local coffee shop that overlooks the freeway in northeastern Johannesburg. It’s a fine autumn night and the light from the traffic outside infiltrates gently, giving Farber’s presence a sense of drama as she sits in semi-darkness. There’s something raw about her presence. Perhaps it’s her honesty to her craft and her unashamed passion for it. Farber is in her early thirties and has earned an astonishing reputation for theatre which is distinctly, brutally, bravely African. Fresh under her belt is a South African version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, SeZar, in vernacular South African tongues and currently enjoying a season in London.
This is where my tale comes together. Like me, Farber is a white woman of Jewish parentage and South African birth. This means that her upbringing was largely imbued with the sentiments of home and tradition. Apartheid-era South African Jews were, by nature, in something of a contradictory position: especially those that just lived normal lives. In principle, they felt apartheid to be monstrous and offensive, but because they had come to refugeehood from a Holocaust-torn Europe in the mid-century, and because in Africa they had found sanction and a home that privileged them above the indigenous people because of their skin colour, their affiliations were complicated. There were a few Jews who took a stand against apartheid, but mainstream Jews were the regular guys in the street: politically articulate, but trying harder than anything else to just make an honest living.
By the time Farber completed her high school education, the country was a morass, but being of a privileged caste, she went to university and studied drama. Amongst other things, she encountered the writing of Primo Levi for the first time. When Farber had the opportunity to meet Duma Khumalo she found the analogy between the lives of Levi and Khumalo palpable. This meeting was the conception for her play, He Left Quietly.
South Africa has a torrid history of creative censorship and creative defiance in the name of apartheid. The 1980s in particular are known for their plethora of hard-edged political theatre and gesture that ducked and dived around the censors. He Left Quietly is not political. It’s about the human capability of Khumalo to articulate the suffering that he experienced at the hand of an unfair regime.
Farber comments, “I do think that anyone who has experienced that kind of darkness has experienced a unique and extraordinary passage in their life, and there’s a certain kind of sacred role that you occupy if you have suffered that kind of degradation and that you are wiser and that you should articulate it, if you can, for the sake of those that didn’t come through.”
The play is along the lines of similar productions that Farber has made, based on the life experiences and human stories ordinary South Africans. Hence, by implication, her stories are universal. Farber is taking something uniquely and hideously local, reshaping it and giving it voice in a completely different context, but without allowing it to lose its original flavour.
The gesture is more than poetic. It represents an opportunity for Duma Khumalo, one of the Sharpeville Six, to articulate his story. At last.