Thursday, January 13, 2005

extract from post freedomsongs

Headline news: “DOYEN OF PEOPLE’S THEATRE COMMITS SUICIDE.” He threw himself from the fourteenth floor of a dingy flat in Hillbrow. He was squatting with an actor friend lucky enough to put a piece of bread on the table by appearing in some television sitcom cautioning people against illegal reconnections of water and electricity, land invasion and other such acts of hooliganism. . The story is accompanied by pictures of him flying his way to death and of his body lying dead and cold on the dead and cold concrete pavement. They are juxtaposed against photos of him doing the toi-toi at the ceremony to welcome the returnee exiles at First National Bank Stadium in 1990… performing an outstanding piece on the Sharppeville shooting…conducting a people’s theatre workshop. And…

Obituaries wax lyrical about how patriotic he was and how he selflessly gave limb and body, and mind and soul to the freedom struggle. A group of artists are digging into their pockets to raise money for his funeral and a trust fund has been set up. There are talks of putting up a publication featuring his works of visual art, a collection of his plays, essays and short stories and a photo-album on his stage performances. Some people are suggesting that his works should be in the curriculum at all government schools. A fellow artist commits himself to putting up a dance-drama-cum-opera on his life, off and on-stage. Some big company is ready to fork out the big bucks.

I stare in wonder thinking about our last encounter. He came in the office with a face written anxiety all over. Anger passionately refusing to be suppressed. I have to intervene, he said. He has put all his life in this script. It is beyond narrow definitions and categorizations of artistic expression. In it there is poetry, song, movement, mime, story telling, drama, sermonizing, lecturing, pain, joy, celebration, mourning and everything that is part of human experience. The actors and singers and dancers and storytellers and preachers and lecturers and activists are all masters in their fields. Three years of brainstorming and rehearsals – improvisations and innovations-have gone into it. People who are crewed-up on the subject matter and very passionate about the message have done more than enough research. But funding is simply not coming to put the work on stage. None of the theatres around is prepared to even include the project in their developmental projects. He has also tried to start small and stage in the small community halls and in schools and churches. But nobody wants to have anything to do with the project.

Close comrades he literally spent entire life with- serving in the street committees, doing people’s theatre and sacrificing in the defense committees, suffering under-ground and doing time in apartheid jails- have accused him of being a struggle romantic. They say he’s been sleeping through the revolution. Who is interested in a play about the small people who fanned the fires of resistance through experimental theatre and street theatre? Reality speaking, what happened to the guy who used to do tap dance in the streets of Johannesburg (I can remember the name, I think it was Joe something) is not a priority. Who cares to know who composed “Nantsi Mellow-Yellow” or who was the greatest toi-toi dancer in and around the PWV area in the 80’s at the time such an area is not even on the map of South Africa? Why not move with the song of Umfolozi, dance the protea and the springbok…rhyme to the beauty of the green valleys and smiling hills, compose an anthem for 2010. And hip to the re-birth of Eugene Terreblanche or think something creative over a braai vleis over Whisky & Jack D over the sounds of Mafikizolo on a sunny Sunday morning. His own father has accused him of being hero of yesterday in search of a cause to pursue today because he performs at the gatherings of the Treatment Action Campaign, the Landless People’s Movement and the Anti-Privatization Movement. The old man said frustration at not being in the top echelon of the party, let alone making it to local government, has made him to hang around good-for-nothing ultra-radicals suffering from anti-everything-ism.

“All your friends are in parliament. That boy next door was a police spy in the struggle years but he is a favorite to be the major. Your brother has been re-deployed to the corporate sector. Just now you will call him a fat cat. He has betrayed labor and has embraced capital. But what can you boast of…A great toi-toi dancer turned performing artist. Listen to me my boy. This gray hair is a mark of wisdom, I have been in both Poqo and Umkhonto and most importantly, I fathered, raised you and gave you political education…. All this nostalgic talk about telling the story of people’s culture through new forms of artistic expression is bullshit. And the whole nonsense about combating the tyranny of capital is daydreaming. Everybody has embraced the supremacy of the market in the global village. All the struggle heroes have done so. Even your big friend Gaddafi has embraced real politicks and befriended the West to court global capital. Castro will follow suit in a matter of time or he will eat dust and rust in the dustbins of history like Saddam. Who do you think you are? After all you were never anything but a sloganeering idiot who graduated into a glorified “comrade-slogan”- a people’s poet. But poetry for a cause is a dead horse, man. Stop looking for accolades for being the great singer of freedom songs and wake-up to the post-freedom songs, my man: embrace poetry for beauty’s sake and dance to the poetics of capital.”

In defense he told the old man “I am just an artist giving expression to the voice of the people and articulating their fears and hopes, dreams and aspirations.” To his surprise his young communist brother who had just landed himself a job as Executive Director at Thari E Ntsho Investments exploded: “That’s bullshit, big brother! How can you call supporting people who see no good but wrongdoing in the government of the people as giving the people a voice? Papa is right; you are a good man in search of a cause.” That hurt him more than Brutus’ sword’s piercing Caesar’s heart. Perhaps that’s the real reason why his younger brother asked him to move out of his house, using complains of his wife as a scapegoat. Not only has he become a burden and embarrassment to his family for being uncircumcised, unemployed and unmarried and homeless at the age of forty. He has become somebody they have to disown in order to keep the family’s name in the good books of the powers that be. Now he’s come to me, his child-hood friend and longtime comrade-in-arms. He is skeptical about everybody in the corridors of power and calls them “former guerillas turned gorillas feeding on instead of feeding the poor.” But he has some retained his confidence in me. We have always shared the passion for theatre and the arts and the belief in culture as a weapon of the people. My baritone voice always complemented his mellow tenor whenever freedom songs where sung. I vividly remember one morning at the hideout. He woke up in excitement. He had dreamt us ambushing a mellow-yellow. After the job was done he stood on top of a rock and sang a song celebrating our fearlessness in the face of the system’s sophisticated weaponry. We sat and worked on the song while other comrades tucked on morabulo, going to town about what Marx meant by the withering away of the state. He struggled to remember the words but finally we put some lyrics together. I came up with the tune. We sang at the top of our voices and the comrades stopped everything they were doing and joined us. The song became an instant hit.

To this day various versions of the song can be heard sung at students’ meetings, workers’ gatherings and at congresses of various organizations that were part of the liberation movement. How can I forget these sweet moments? How can he not trust in me? I’m the one who launched in defense when ideologues and combatants belittled us and called us “bo-comrade slogan” or accused us of fiddling while Rome burns. “It is the sound of the bazooka and not free verses that shall make the land to be shared amongst those who live in it for the people to share in the country’s wealth…for the doors of learning and culture to be opened…for peace, security, comfort to reign…. For food to be plenty that no one maybe hungry.” I argued that every struggle needs a bard, and that culture is a site of struggle. I said music is the healer and our poetry is the voice of the voiceless. That even in post-apartheid South Africa there will be a need to give artistic and cultural expression to the socio-economic and political realities facing the people. That when freedom dawns there would be fresh matters to address and new issues to hype about and hip to. That people will still be people and they will still need a song and a dance to express their sorrows and frustrations. That our role would be to compose new songs and inspire people to confront the issues of the day and consolidate the gains made by the people on the terrain of the struggle.

I said the bard’s role would be to be a watchdog against revisionism and counter-revolution. My argumentation moved some high ranking party officials to lobby against the party’s decision to close its cultural wing on the eve of liberation. But today I am in a completely different position. As the Director of the Department of Arts and Culture in the local government I have been part of the decision to privatize some of the public theatres, stadiums and other sporting and cultural amenities. I am also in the process of courting private capital to sponsor few of the public theatres and arts and culture centers that have escaped privatization. There is nothing I can do and nothing much I can say. I am just implementing government policy. I have a job to take care of.After all, over the years I have become convinced that if we leave the economy on its own, it will take care of itself and everything shall follow. That in the initial phase the economic growth yielded by liberalization and state withdrawal shall benefit only a tiny and minute propertied and learned few. But in the long run the benefits will slowly, but surely trickle down to the masses on the ground. As much as I have very fond memories of our times in people’s theatre, I simply believe that its time is over. But how do I tell my friend? How do I tell him that his script makes ideological but not economic sense? That I am afraid that being seen endorsing the script might cause me to be added to the list of ultra-radical leftists, and therefore jeopardize my position. I offered to think about the issue and kept skirting around it every time he came to see me. To ease my conscience I regularly offered to take him out on a drinking spree and gave him some money. I also shared all the freebies I get on account of my position in society with him. Stupid as I have become, I never noticed that this irritates him. Oneday he gave me his piece of mind: “Listen comrade, I am not here as a beggar, but as an artist who need nothing but to be given a chance to showcase my talent and make a contribution to the country. Why don’t you simply face up to the truth and tell me that you too believe that the market must dictate which productions gets sponsored and which should receive publicity and a platform?” I was left speechless. I was still thinking of words to philosophize and euphemize the issue when he stormed out of my office. His facial expression and body movement sad it all. “I shall never set a foot in your office”Now I look at his picture and hopelessly try to suppress my tears. I imagine him barking at me, commanding me not to cry for him. The phone rings. It is a request for me to speak at his memorial service. To prepare for the speech I go through his works. I just cannot avoid returning to the script on people’s theatre, so powerfully loaded with striking images of struggle and survival, witty and sarcastic humor and brilliant portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit. I am hooked on the scene portraying the internal and external struggles of one of the many blind people who can be seen on the streets of the cities of South Africa and the world…. Singing their hearts out to a world keen on hearing but not listening to the call in their music. He sits in a corner nearby Park Station and plays his flute all day long. The melody is something that could rock Mozart from the dead out of the grave on to the dance floors. A reckless taxi driver nearly hits him. On-lookers jeer at the driver, who in turn, calls their mothers with all sorts of names. Someone throws some coins in the tin and hurries to wherever his feet are taking him to. Another throws a note. A few are moving and jiving to the music. Others just give symphatheic looks. Slowly, poignantly choreographic, he shuffles and whispers a tune, so soft that to most people it is a wordless hum:“When you are up and I am downForget not to rememberAll that goes up must come downWhen everybody is up and you rise upRemember not to forgetAll that goes up must converge”

The sun is just about to go down and he is now on a completely wordless tune. But my friend with his spiritual ear can hear in the song, the yearning of the blind musician for the people to appreciate his music for its quality rather than simply fork out coins and notes out of sympathy… Without even caring to take heed of the stylistic and thematic content of the music. Yes, says my friend, the song does have lyrics but because people choose not to bother to listen, they will never hear the words and their message. He says the song says something about the frustration of the man at being heard rather than listened to, and being patronized because he is blind instead of being acknowledged because he is terrifically talented artist.“The point is not the sight but the insightMy music is not for the hearing but for the listeningI need no sympathy but understanding”

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