The talk of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe was Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s intense, post-apartheid rendering and relocation of Strindberg’s classic, which won a Fringe First and near-unanimous five-star notices. This year there are two new South African contenders for the critical crown.
Not least is Lara Foot Newton’s Solomon and Marion, in which an unlikely friendship blossoms against a backdrop of grief, loneliness and cultural divide. It was written for Dame Janet Suzman, who recently spoke to the Guardian about the 2006 killing of actor and former colleague Brett Goldin, an incident that informs the play’s premise. Solomon and Marion has already won the Fleur Du Cap Award for Best New South African Play and will play at Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall in August.
The newcomer is Omphile Molusi, a South African writer, actor and director, whose new play Cadre – a powerful blend of autobiography, oral history and political commentary – will have its British premier at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre.
Molusi is a former Fringe First winner for his play Itsoseng (2008) and his work evokes the spirit of Athol Fugard, who’s pioneering political theatre gave a voice to the oppressed in South Africa. Cadre is co-produced by The Market Theatre of Johannesburg, who are synonymous with the work of Fugard, as well as the aforementioned Yael Farber.
The story of Cadre was inspired by my uncle’s life. I was on a journey of searching for my family tree when I unexpectedly came across his story. Not knowing my family very well made me feel as if I was living with a group of strangers at home. Hearing my uncle’s story made me realise that I was lost in my own home – ‘lost’ in the sense of not knowing my own people and being unable to connect with them. It is difficult for one to care if one can’t connect. That was my biggest fear. I began to understand a Siberian proverb I once came across: ‘If you don’t know the trees, you may get lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories, you may get lost in life.’ This is when I began to write Cadre. I felt it was a story worthy to be told because it was not only my story, but our story.
The story of Cadre bounces back and forth between the present and the past because I believe history is very much a part of our present. History is not only timeless, it is also valuable. It is worth preserving for we are our own history. The universal truth is that we preserve things that we care about, things that we hold dearly in our hearts. If we do not care about our history, then, even if we are not aware, part of us does not care about ourselves. Countries are what they are because of their history.
People are what they are because of their history. I cannot imagine a country that does not acknowledge its own history. In South Africa we speak of being ‘proudly South African’. We are not ashamed, we are proud of our own country. But the question is: what does it mean to be proudly South African? Does it mean we are proud to be a diverse community? Does it mean we are proud of having a black president? Does it mean we are proud to have fought oppression and racism? What I’m sure of is that we cannot be proud without acknowledging what made us proud South Africans; otherwise, we are only being half-proud. Therefore we would be incomplete as a people. It is the trials, humps and mountains that determine the kind of people we are today. We do not want to experience those trials, humps and mountains again.
The truth is that our past is as ugly as a machete cut on a human’s neck. This is a reality we can never erase from our minds. I came across a quote that says something like: ‘The only thing we ever learn from history is that we never learn anything at all.’
It has been a kind of a norm in African countries to have post-war conflicts and tensions after independence. We have seen this in about fifteen countries – in West Africa, East Africa, North Africa, as well as Angola and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. South Africa is one of the luckiest countries in Africa because it has not dissolved into a civil war after independence. We have even become idols for other countries. But we are currently experiencing a bumpy ride with a huge number of industrial actions, the bloodiest of which was the 2012 Marikana tragedy, when the police opened fire on striking miners.
We are also experiencing an elephant in the room called ‘corruption’. We do have service delivery in South Africa, but we also have service-delivery protests, with about 372 such protests recorded between January and May last year, 2012. The gap between the rich and the poor is enormous. One of the most dangerous obstacles is the ruling party’s factional tensions.
Perhaps all these challenges are inevitable in a transforming and growing country. But these could be signs that we, too, are not learning from history. If one does not learn from history, from past mistakes and experiences, the possibility is that history could repeat itself, either in the same way as before, or in a different form. This is why I tell the story of Cadre: to warn us that we should remember that history is there for a reason, to teach us never to go back to where we were before, so that we can protect what we have, so we can have a better future because we know better. But mainly to emphasise that having a black president was only the beginning. The journey to complete freedom still continues.
Omphile Molusi, 2013