Zakes Mda: redressing the past Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:28:22
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South African playwright Zakes Mda has the outward calm and practiced smile of one who has answered the same obvious questions many times before. In a cool, dark office on the Yale University campus, he sits rather uncomfortably across the table from me, his speech reserved, his hands extended palms downward on the tabletop in a strangely formal gesture. Only occasionally does he raise his fingertips or his voice to punctuate his carefully chosen words. And yet Mda’s passion is obvious when the topic turns to American impressions of South African drama.
“South African theatre is not”–the voice and the fingertips come momentarily to life–“a homogeneous monolith.” What Americans see as representative of South African drama, Mda explains, are plays written “purely for export” and in a manner which is “acceptable to overseas audiences” but which fails to depict the rich and varied cultural and political context of contemporary South Africa. “What is seen outside of South Africa, touring European and American venues, represents only one or two categories of what makes South African theatre.”


Pocket of resistance 

For the past year, Mda has been a visiting fellow at Yale’s South African Research Project. Although his work is virtually unknown in this country (with the notable exception of The Road, which won the American Theater Association’s Christina Crawford Award in 1984), Mda’s reputation as a political playwright, poet, painter and educator is well established in Europe and in Africa, especially in his native country, where his political writings for the stage have seen frequent production since the late 1970s at the People’s Space Theatre in Capetown, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and the Grahamstown Festival. His three volumes of published dramatic works include We Shall Sing for the Fatherland (1978), The Hill (1979)–both winners of major writing awards and the highly acclaimed And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses.
Born in South Africa’s impoverished rural Cape Province, Mda was forced as a teenager to follow his parents into political exile in nearby Lesotho, a tiny independent sovereignty surrounded on all sides by South Africa and heavily dependent on the larger nation for economic survival. Lesotho is widely known as a pocket of political resistance in southern Africa’s landscape, a place of exile for many black refugees. It is also at the heart of South Africa’s sprawling rural outlands: desolate areas of inhuman living conditions, abusive mining practices and slave-like farm labor which constitute a kind of South African “Siberia” far from the urban and industrial hubs of Capetown, Johannesburg and their adjacent black townships.
It is primarily these urban areas and the experience of the township dwellers (particularly young, unattached males) which serve as the focus of South African drama and literature seen in the U.S. By comparison, Mda’s plays evoke a South Africa of rural hardship and exile little known to Americans. Plays such as The Road, The Hill and Dark Voices Ring (1979) document the miles of open, unpaved road and the hostile terrain traversed by mine workers and migrant laborers in search of employment; they are peopled with the unwilling itinerant, the relocated and dispossessed, the political-refugee.
Mda’s latest play, The Dying Screams of the Moon, written while he was in residence at Yale, dramatizes a controversy regularly making the news in post-apartheid South Africa and, not incidentally, serves as the playwright’s response to what he sees as the limited political and racial perspective of another contemporary public event: Athol Fugard’s most recent work, Playland.
Like that drama, Mda’s The Dying Screams of the Moon depicts an interracial encounter between two strangers in present-day South Africa. “I have always enjoyed Athol Fugard’s work,” says Mda. “But at the same time I have vehemently disagreed with him in almost everything he has written. My South Africa is different from Athol Fugard’s South Africa. That’s the crux of the matter.”

No happy endings 

Mda feels that in Playland as well as earlier plays, Fugard has depicted black South Africans as “meek, humble, pitiable people who just accept all with stoic endurance.” Mda refuses to corroborate this fatalistic typing of his people; he also refuses what he calls the “happily ever after” ending of Playland, a piece which one South African critic labeled “theatre of reconciliation.” “Reconciliation,” nods Mda. “That’s a very wishful situation, but the play does not address the crucial issues in South Africa now.”
The ownership of land–and the difference between current government attempts at reconciliation and true reparation for injustices of the past–is the subject of The Dying Screams of the Moon. In Mda’s words, “The past must be addressed. And not only must it be addressed, it must be redressed as well.”
Under the Group Areas Act of 1912, the South African government forcibly removed black communities from their ancestral lands, declaring those lands “white only” areas for purposes of, among other things, economic development. Such “development” frequently meant that white commercial farmers were given exclusive right to purchase the confiscated property at extremely reasonable prices. Since the repeal of the Act in 1989, thousands of displaced and homeless blacks have redoubled their ongoing attempts to reclaim what was forcibly taken from them.

A taste for sexual equality 

“People have wanted to return to their ancestral lands from day one,” insists Mda. “They didn’t just move away like Boesman and Lena and start wandering around. They refused to move. But the government prevailed because it was all too powerful.” Now, explains Mda, the problem is even more complex because the land legally belongs to white farmers, some of whom have been living on it for generations.
In The Dying Screams of the Moon, a middle-aged black woman identified only as “Lady” has returned to the Valley of the Moon to reclaim the land from which she was forcibly removed as a child. The valley is now known as Victory Farms, a title given it by the white landowner whose family purchased the land decades earlier and who has turned it into a highly profitable commercial farm. The farmer’s interests are represented in the play by his daughter, Missy, a young woman who, like the white veteran Gideon le Roux in Playland, is a former soldier of the South African Defense Force, the military body responsible for forcibly putting down black resistance and for fighting the bloody and long-standing war of occupation with neighboring Namibia. Lady, it turns out, is also a veteran of South Africa’s violent race struggles, but from the opposite side: She is a former freedom fighter who has planned and executed guerrilla attacks on South African targets while living in forced exile.

Bitter stalemate 

What these former warriors share, they eventually discover, is a taste for the relative sexual equality they experienced as women given ranking positions of authority in the military. However, that taste has been tainted by the professional jealousy of male comrades and of lovers. Both women have lost their male companions by refusing to resume subservient female roles when returning to civilian life. This shared experience of personal potential cut short by sexual jealousy and oppression becomes a point of bonding between the interracial pair. Like the two men in Fugard’s Playland, these women enact a communal bearing of witness and a mutual absolution of sins in the course of the play.
And yet, Mda ends Dying Screams on a note of bitter stalemate between these two newfound friends over their mutually exclusive claims to the land. In the words of Lady, “Healing and redemption will only come when the pain of the past, which is in fact our present pain, has been addressed.”
“We would like to have that wishful ending that Playland has,” Mda laments, “but the perspective of the black people is that as long as justice has not been served, there will never be any true reconciliation.”
The raised hands now come to rest once more on the tabletop. The voice, which has gradually climbed to a high pitch of insistence, returns to its clear and measured tones. But Mda’s practiced smile has disappeared, as have other signs of his earlier discomfort. In the new smile which spreads across his face, one can read the artist’s desire to engage another in the passionate convictions which have given birth to his work.

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