By Ismail Mahomed
Even in a time of COVID-19 it must Aluta Continua on all other fronts.In an article in The Guardian on Friday 20 June 2014, theatre writer Jaff Klaff wrote about the enduring power of South African protest theatre that “roared around the world, bringing pressure to bear on the regime back home”. He cited several plays including Sarafina, Woza Albert and Sizwe Bansi is Dead as productions that raised the international community’s consciousness about political conditions in South Africa prior to 1994.
South African artists have developed a unique political vocabulary in the creation of theirworks. Whilst the Market Theatre, Baxter Theatre and The Space Theatre in Cape Townbecame renowned for presenting protest theatre often many more works which did not seethe mainstages were developed in communities where the works resonated with localpollical activities and community activist agencies.
Post-1994, the loud and buoyant voice of protest theatre somehow began to disappear. Itwas taken over by a new kind of political theatre that was committed towards healing SouthAfricans from our past political traumas. Productions such as John Kani’s Nothing but the
Truth and Phillip Miller’s Rewind Cantata or SindisweMagona’s Mother to Mother are someof the strongest works that were about remorse, redemption and reconciliation.
The power of political theatre often speaks more passionately and more sincerely thatreligious sermons from a pulpit or political speeches delivered from a podium. Politicaltheatre draws its audience into embracing an experience that is deeply reflective,emotionally moving, visually engaging and intellectually, it drives the participant into raisingtheir consciousness which then brings about a change in social attitudes and values.
With the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the globe, theatres and festivals which havebeen hubs for artists to present creative expressions of protests, have all now temporarilyshut down. The stage which once moved audiences is now dark; and it is unknown for howmuch longer the theatres will remain closed. An increasing number of artists who once onlyworked on the stage are now exploring ways in which they can take their voices on thedigital platforms.
The National Arts Festival in Makhanda which for 42 years has been the meeting place forartists working across all genres will for the first time not take place this year. Instead, theentire National Arts Festival will go digital for the first time. This exciting initiative is likely topush artists out of their comfort zones as they explore new ways of engaging with theiraudiences. The greatest advantage is that the internet will now enable them to reachaudiences in places they may have previously not contemplated.
In December 2012 following the gang rape of a 23-year old physiotherapy student on a busa wave of protests spread across India — some peaceful and others not so peaceful —- tohighlight and bring an end to rape culture in India. One of the most extraordinary protestswas in the form of a musical tribute to the 23-year old rape victim when 600 guitaristsgathered in Darjeeling and in harmony played John Lennon's Imagine”. Thereafter, for awhile the musicians and the vast audience sat together in a meditative silence.
The extraordinary silence as the guitarists strummed on their instruments gained globalcoverage on social media. It was this very powerfully moving statement that brought tearsto many eyes but the power to re-imagine is what drove so many men into a consciousnessthat made them voluntarily say, “not again. Not on our watch”. Whilst the emergencymeasures of combatting COVID-19 restrict audiences to less than 100 people in any space itis this kind of global audience that social media can provide to artists.
There is something unique about protests where the power is vested in silence! Silentprotest is not dependent on political leaders who try to gain capital out of the protests.
Silent protests are a powerful form of theatre in which peasants and professionals canparticipate as equals; and where silence becomes visible enough for everyone to see andloud enough for politicians not to ignore. Silent protests are anchored on a theatrical devicethat aims to bring about change by allowing protesters to engage in a shared activity that isreally about discovering and experiencing their deeper humanity.
In this time of COVID-19, where theatres are dark and when artists will be taking their workto audiences via social media it will most significantly be about how the arts community isresponding to fight Corona Virus. In trying to combat the virus in South Africa artists mustalso highlight just how unequal our society continues to be. There are millions of peoplewho cannot access hand sanitizers, face masks and who don’t have flowing water in theirhomes.
They cannot socially distance themselves in a crowded shack. They cannot afford tostay awake from work for a single day. A day’s work is their only subsistence. Even at a timeof fighting the Corona Virus it must still be Aluta Continua on all other fronts.