Angola: Skeletons in the spotlight

Modise Mphatsoe as Comrade Sizwe in Angola. Photo: Sanmari Marais

The torture and murder of Umkhonto we Sizwe soldiers, carried out by their own ANC comrades in Angolan training camps, and particularly the infamous Quadro rehabilitation camp during the anti-apartheid struggle, is well documented.

Shocking and disturbing facts have been brought to light by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as internal ANC inquiries.

A brief reading of news reports emanating from the TRC and the ANCs own inquiries reveals the fear, paranoia and brutality that spread through the Angolan training camps after a section of MK cadres known as Mbokodo returned from training under the East German Stasi. This security branch of the ANC’s military wing used jackboot KGB tactics, subjecting soldiers to abuse, torture and deprivation. Accusations that they used their positions to become involved in illicit smuggling for their own gain also abound. Reports reveal that conditions in the training camps became so bad that after 1980 guerillas started refusing to return to them after being deployed on field missions. This sparked a witch hunt as the commanders declared there was a plot to oust them and replace them with apartheid security branch plants.

At one stage almost half of the Quibaxe camp were suspected in being involved in a plot against camp leadership.

Conditions led to a mutiny at Viano and Pango camps in 1984, after which seven MK operatives were executed. There was alo a mutiny at the infamous Quadro detention (or ‘rehabilitation’) camp in 1983.

Information from the ANC’s internal inquiries into the camp’s scandal revealed that detainees “were made to crawl through colonies of red ants with pig fat rubbed into their skin”, wrote David Beresford in the Sunday Times on 22 February 2009.

“A prisoner had his lips burned by cigarettes and his testicles squeezed with pliers; a detainee was buried up to his neck before being suffocated with a plastic bag; a woman had a guard masturbate over her because she refused to have sex with security officials. A trainee tried to commit suicide after his girlfriend was ‘taken away’. People were locked up in goods containers, in suffocating conditions. And people simply disappeared,” Beresford wrote.

Evidence also emerged in the TRC of friend being ordered to execute friend and in one case, a son was ordered to kill his father who had been accused of leaking information to the South African security police, although his father was executed before the son was sent to do so.

It appears many of the executions were a result of people being falsely accused of being impimpis for the apartheid police, with no proper trial ever taking place. Often those falsely accused were deemed a threat to leadership because they spoke out against atrocities.

But what is most disturbing is that despite these atrocities being documented, it has largely remained out of the public discussion. Possibly because many of those involved are senior leaders in the ANC today. Jacob Zuma was part of Mbokodo and questions still remain about years in which his whereabouts and actions cannot be accounted for.

Yet one ANC cadre is not keeping quiet. Rather, Youth League chair of Tshwane’s Ward 29, Sello Maseko is shouting it from the stage. Maseko, who is also a theatremaker, is writer and director of the musical, Angola.

Staged earlier this year at the State Theatre, just a short drive away from the Union Buildings housing the ANC government, Angola delivered its message again at the Arts Incubators’ Trade Fair which took place at the Market Theatre precinct this week.

Maseko, whose uncle Vuyisile Maseko died in Quadro camp, does not hold back when it comes to throwing a spotlight on the ANC’s skeletons. Angola opens to the deafening sound of small arms fire as MK soldiers are ordered by their hard faced general to execute their own. But one of the soldiers isn’t firing in the right direction. One of the men condemned without trial is a comrade who saved his life. The plot thickens as the disenchanted soldiers plan to overthrow their leadership, played by the hard-jawed Soyiso Ndaba as commander Majure and Kabelo Moremedi as his general. But the commander and the general have their own political battle which revolves around the defiant but hard-fighting Cmde Sizwe, played with stoic determination by Modise Mphatsoe.

The balance between marching and dancing is neatly held by Tsogo Tshephe’s choreography as the soldiers shift between defiance in the absence of their commanders and obedience when they make their jackbooted appearance, with confrontation as they start to openly rebel. The fight scene at the culmination of the story, so difficult to achieve realistically on stage, is also a pip on Tshephe’s epaulette, while the scenes of torture, assisted by a loud and often disturbing soundtrack, are suitably traumatic.

And here comes the ‘but’: While Maseku succeeds in maintaining the tempo the genre of musical demands, mostly through war-like marching beats, struggle songs and toyi-toyi, he fails to give us enough space to connect emotionally with the characters. So although we are shocked, moved, traumatised, and even laugh at many off-the-cuff one-liners, this is more due to the assault of the soundtrack and the spectacle of abuse meted out on stage than any empathetic connection with the wretchedness of the characters’ situation. This may be partly due to Maseku’s desire to create a political statement over riding his desire to craft a play. “I am a political activist…all my plays are political protest theatre,” Maseko is quoted by the City Post as saying. Which is fine, but being focused on the message can, and often does, get in the way of creating meaning.

There are also problematic design choices. The rifles, which are lined up at the front of the stage as we enter, are decommissioned R1s, which were used by the apartheid SADF in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They strike a confusing and false note, as MK used AK47s. Additionally, the projection cast onto the back wall, which is meant to set the scene, is of a pine forest, such as found in northern Europe or Canada, certainly not in Angola. So that is weird. And the foliage placed on stage is type of variegated ficus, commonly used as an indoor plant, which creates and oddly indoor setting rather than evoking the bush veld the soldiers lived and died in. These undercut the aspects of reality in what is an important work that not only serves to educate its audience, but holds a ruling party to account and keeps a thin line against the wholesale rewriting of a particular period of history.

It is rumoured Angola may tour internationally. In which case, it is imperative Maseko shift this work from being hard-hitting to become the devastating knock-out it is capable of.

Angola was performed as part of the State Theatre’s contribution to the DAC Arts Incubator’s Trade Fair which saw the six publicly funded Performing Arts Institution showcasing work at the Market Theatre precinct from 16 to 22 September.

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