Tuesday, October 14, 2003

On Friday I saw a very good play by South African playwright Greg Coetzee (of 'White Men with Weapons' fame) called 'Happy Natives.' The play starred an old friend of mine - Ben Voss - and the excellent Sello Sebotsane, whom I'd previously seen in Brett Bailey's 'Big Dada' at the Grahamstown Festival. Given that this blog also covers cultural matters, I thought I'd attempt a review.

'Happy Natives' was apparently written in response to the narratives that typically emerge from, or are written about, South Africa - tales of adversity, of good versus evil, that culminate in happy, dancing indigenous people. Instead, Coetzee aims to show us the complexities of the real South Africa, being played out between ordinary people in the suburbs of Durban.

Kenneth, an actor, has been in London for two years. If you're a white English-speaking South African, you'll recognise him, if you're not him yourself. He claims that London is 'lapping him up' because 'South Africans know how to work hard - no safety net for us.' Mysteriously, despite his alleged success, he's living with his parents. All his money, he explains, is 'wrapped up off-shore.' Kenneth also claims to be 'African' - whatever that means. In Kenneth's case, it involves a sprinkling of Zulu, an awkward political correctness and a vague yearning for Durban's waves.

Back in Durban, Kenneth meets an old friend of his, Mto, from university (where Kenneth produced a dialectic between Marx and the bushmen - the world's 'only true socialists'). He invites Mto to participate in a production with him - a government project, intended to attract foreign investment to South Africa - and Mto agrees. The process of their collaboration gives rise to the central events of the play, which are juxtaposed against the narrative they produce - a tale of adversity, replete with wildlife and Nelson Mandela, that culminates in happy, dancing natives. The juxtaposition is deliberate; the world of Kenneth and Mto, it quickly becomes obvious, is far more morally complex than their representations of South Africa, which are intended to 'sell' the country to a foreign audience.

Apart from Kenneth and Mto, Ben and Sello play several other characters - Mto's racist neighbour Jimmy; Jimmy's domestic servant Prudence; an Indian storekeeper; a government minister; and a policeman. Their ability to switch between roles is impressive, and the picture of South Africa, and especially Durban, that emerges is familiar, convinving, and - for those overseas - nostalgic.

I won't delve too deeply into the events of the play. That would be boring and, besides, you might want to see it yourself. Suffice it to say that 'Happy Natives' culminates in Kenneth being excluded from the production. He assumes that this is because he is white and immediately undertakes to return to London on an ancestral visa. He tells Mto that is 'tired of apologising for the colour of his skin.' He says this with no hint of the dreadful irony involved. Compared with what black people such as Mto have been through, he has nothing to complain about. Given what he would have been through had he been black, he should count himself as fortunate. His African-ness - his few Zulu phrases, his little Zulu shield that he carries around, his determination to learn black peoples' 'real' names - crumbles as a mere affectation.

The other whites in the play don't come off much better. Jimmy is an unreconstructed racist - an ex-soldier still traumatised from doing border patrol in Mozambique. Chanaye, on the other hand, is what we South Africans call a 'kugel.' Vain, wealthy and shallow. She is learning Zulu, and carefully cultivates black clients, but only for commercial advantage. The heroine of the play turns out to be Prudence, who is revealed as caring, generous and morally steadfast. As for Mto, his integrity briefly lapses when he becomes complicit in Kenneth's exclusion from the production, but, other than that, he seems decent, level-headed and fair.

All of this left me wondering: what role for white people in South Africa? 'Happy Natives' criticises whites who, in the face of the enormous cultural changes being wrought around them, retreat into the dead-end of fearful prejudice (like Jimmy), keep one foot firmly in England while claiming African-ness (like Kenneth) or who adjust for all the wrong reasons (like Chanaye). This shouldn't be seen as a criticism; this is how many - most? - whites have adjusted to their new society. But I found myself wondering about the alternatives. How can whites, as a cultural minority, feel themselves to be rooted in South African society? How can they feel themselves to be 'African', if you will? And how can whites live positively and confidently, projecting a genuine future for themselves on the Southern tip of Africa? These, to my mind, are the more interesting questions. I'd like to see art that takes them up.

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