Seeing South Africa as a tourist is fun, but having a mission, and seeing it through that, makes for an experience out of the ordinary, says Zoë Hofstetter.
Have you ever travelled with an academic purpose rather than a touristic one? Well, it has a tangible effect on one’s sense of self-importance, making the ego proudly parade itself in unknown countries. The very first day in Cape Town I strode through its parks, among its big-barked African trees, making my way through the morning assemblies of squirrels and school girls, walking past sleepy homeless people proving their right of ownership of all the benches in the city. You see, I had an interview with an expert on dramatic theory. Once at the train station I had an hour’s waiting time for the next train. Standing in the station, people walked slowly with no sense of urgency and a group of children laughed at someone who could just as well have been me. Just then I realised that I had been barely aware that I was in Cape Town: my meeting had completely clouded my tourist lenses. So I walked back onto the streets and began smelling the prunes, mangoes and bananas displayed in stalls on the pavement, looking at peoples’ slow motions, tasting the warmth unknowable to Scottish residents and feeling the first of many streams of sweat slide down my back. Feeling revived, I climbed onto the train and sat on the stiffest yellow bench my buttocks have ever felt. The lady next to me took out a butter tub and began eating homemade food from it—what a dining room she chose, with sweaty workers glancing at her because she was sitting next to the only white person in the train compartment. And that was so for the rest of the ride.
The interview having been a success, and having safely secured the recording in my stomach pouch, I headed once again to the amusing train station of Stellenbosch. By having laughed at a couple of fellows’ amusing dance moves on the platform I had made friends with the “bad boys” who would not sit, but swung out of the doors of the train which had been forced open. The only body part they had within the train were their thin fingers holding onto whatever they could find. They jumped off before the truly African experience of trains came upon us: stopping for half an hour, for no reason, at a deserted station. Here the passengers would run in and out of the trains, coming back with soaking heads and sneaky grins on their faces. A lot of people were just hanging about on the platform. When a false alarm spread that the train was about to leave, they all came running and laughing back into the train. When the train stayed as still as a hippo in its mud bath, the people streamed out again, as if the hippo had given a slow, deep exhalation, some suspicious molecules snorting out.
Once again in the city, I was reminded that I was there on a mission. So for the rest of the trip, instead of being a tourist sunbathing on the idyllic Cape Town beaches or climbing the Table Mountain, I started my search for a smorgasbord of South African Theatre. First, I headed to the Baxter Theatre. An impressive theatre decorated with 1920s elegance; its vastness lent it grandeur. I was there to watch Voices Made Night, an adaptation of a short story, Vozes Anoitecidas by Mozambique writer Mia Couto. We walked into the theatre room through the stage, walking on a strand of earth next to which the actors laid sprawled across the floor, moaning and screaming at intervals. The setting instantly set the tone and raised petrified goose bumps on my arms, which remained throughout the performance.
The next performance I saw was in Maynardville, an outdoor theatre in the midst of African vegetation and beneath the skies of The Lion King. The performance was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a truly African twist. At first my eyes had to adapt to the extreme colour of the costumes and the bouncing around of the actors from tree to stage to…somewhere behind the trees where the promiscuous characters had taken suspicious excursions and made noises. I must confess, of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve read, this one was my least favourite because of its superficiality and light-heartedness. However, the African twist surely was the remedy to my negative opinion! I was soon doubling down in laughter when Helena, with her memorable retard-accent, chased Demetrius around the stage and through the plants losing more and more clothing. I was quite surprised to see children in the audience considering that at one point all the actors were practically naked – Helena featuring bright purple lingerie.
But it was time to move my research to more fertile grounds: Johannesburg. On our way to a ballet at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, I had my first impression of the city: rubbish. The rubbish men had gone on strike and the effect was visible everywhere in downtown Johannesburg. The people were taking advantage of the situation by wheeling towering piles of cardboard, furniture, glass bottles and what not through the streets. My second impression was: the whites hide in their cars in the suburbs; no whites to be found downtown. The civic theatre was an overly elegant venue, with flashy lights and the red velvet look. The ballet was not South Africa’s strongest suit, but at least tequila shots were available in the fancy theatre bar!
The next day was an excursion to Pretoria, a very colonial city with its red sand painting the pavement and the Union building standing proudly on its grounds. Here I watched a contemporary theatre piece, which was a political satire based on the life of Thabo Mbeki, a former post-apartheid South African president. This was veritable black theatre. My two friends and I were the only whites in the audience, missing out on the many Zulu dialogues and songs in the play. There was a very tangible connection between the audience and the actors on stage, a kind of understanding which I was unable to grasp. The mere singing voices of the actors tempted to bring that teary feeling crawling up the back of my throat. This was juxtaposed by the comical dancing of the men whose hips moved like no European man’s hips will ever move! So the play went with whipping hips, singing and dancing all twirling into a satire, depicting Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema going to parties and having drunk girls grinding against them.
The great variety of the performances I attended in one week reveals how theatre is a vehicle to analyse the complexity of the South African reality. Although few people travel with drama as their main objective I can say it was, travel-wise, quite enlightening. It was a way of seeing the history of the country and people not as pictures and information plaques in museums, but as living, breathing beings, acting only in the shadows of what travel guides recommend.
Images by Zoë Hofstetter