The Kaffirs: Cruel humour

With a play called The Kaffirs, you really don’t know. It could well be an hour of your life wasted. An hour you’ll never get back. That it’s produced by the Gauteng Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture is also not promising, although, it is intriguing that a government department would sponsor a play with this name.

That name, which we shudder to pronounce, is also the reason I had to go see it. It cannot be ignored.

On day one in the bowels of the Monument I waited a long half minute as a woman blocked the doorway, transfixed by the poster, before eventually noticing I was waiting, and exclaiming ‘are they for real?’

Many others seemed as intrigued by this blasphemy as I, filling up the dour B2 Arena venue, unsure of what awaited us.

We were surprised. The play lived up to the promise of its blurb: we laughed, uncomfortably, and often.

The Kaffirs is a hoot. It’s also tragic. More so in that it reflects the reality of millions of South Africans.

It’s a family scene, the backdrop curtain forming a realistic divider between the bedroom backstage and the living room/kitchen where the action takes place, just as a curtain divides living areas in RDPs and shacks housing families of five, six, seven people.

This one is five. The drunken father, the working mother, eldest brother who is a gangster, sister who is a prostitute, and the laat lammetjie son who minces and plays with dolls, an orientation that elicits anger from his father and religious sanction from his mom. Also on the scene is the uncle who quietly keeps the family in food and is in love with the mom.

At first I thought the acting was overcooked, but I thought about families like this that I’ve encountered before and realised this was pretty much exactly how they behaved. The larger-than-life gestures, the bravado and the love expressed in a counter-intuitive intrafamilial agression are accurate depictions of a family constantly on the backfoot in an unsympathetic, uncaring and violent society. Violence, alcohol, or religion, are the limited range of coping mechanisms.

Under Charlie Samson’s direction there were quiet, heart rending moments sensitively portrayed by the older sister (programme provides no indication of who plays whom, unfortunately). The mom also drops her brittle shell on ocassion, letting us see the embattled, struggling woman within.

While the term ‘kaffir’ makes a couple of appearances, initiated when the young son is beaten and verbally abused by school bullies, as a title it seems a misnomer. There is no real attempt to reclaim the slur, nor to examine its current usage (for, shocking as it may seem, it is still used). Neither is race examined, the play essentially a realist depiction of a all-too-common poverty stricken family, how they deal with the compromises of their lives and the daily humiliation of their situation.

Humour is the main tool used to mask brutal reality, yet it is desentisation to this very brutality that allows us to laugh. It is a perplexing psychological conundrum; we need to laugh to deal with the cruelty but in order to laugh we need to be cruel.

The Kaffirs is on at the National Arts Festival until Saturday 8 July. Book here.

Director: Charlie Samson

Cast: Sivuyise Kibido, Lunga Mofokent, Patrick Stithole, Hloni Pitso, Mswazi Yende, Sibongile.

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