The cast of Ubuze Bam in performance. Photo: CuePix/Jodi Jansen van Vuuren.
What the performers of Ubuze Bam do in telling their truths, is allow us to look at our own truths. As I heard the Xhosa and realised I wouldn’t understand much of the text, I reflected on why I get to get away with speaking and understanding only one language. Because I haven’t ever ‘needed’ to learn another; I speak the world’s 3rd most spoken language.
Because of my historical privilege and whiteness, my white privilege.
In my own country, English speaking whites make up a dismal count of the population but almost all of South Africa’s African language speaking majority speaks English (or at least can communicate with it) – how tiny is the percentage for the reverse scenario?
But Ubuze Bam is not about language, although it is, isn’t it? Language, knowledge, power, privilege, opportunities, wealth = all these are intricately and intrinsically linked.
This is not a play by ex-inmates who try to excuse their actions, or plead for forgiveness, or display their remorse. The young men simply tell their honest experiences and leave it to the audience to “please listen”. Directed by Thando Doni, the play is crafted into a reflection of the journey from incarceration to the other side. And ‘other’ is part of what’s highlighted, them ‘others’ outside of us and our normal society. As if more dichotomies are what our world needs.
Of course the reasons are offered up – gangs and needing to belong, the threat to oneself if one doesn’t partake in the violence; a threat to manliness and gangster reputation; the role of drugs and booze, of course.
But more so, the reasons behind the social structures that create gang life are brought to the fore. Particularly in Bongani’s story, which had one audience member sobbing throughout. The man cries out to his god, asking “Why was I born black? Why was I hungry? Why is the colour white better?” It’s systemic yet particular racism that keeps the poor poor and the rich getting richer off the backs of their hard work. And our ruthlessly colour-saturated history caused it all.
As Lazola tells in his story, “…we were playing Robin Hood at white people’s houses…” except keeping the spoils for themselves, because they are the poor. Why operate by someone else’s law and morality which only ever works against and oppresses you?
A note on the excellent use of staging to enhance the impact of the content: the stark lighting created the impression of top lit prison cells; the shared bathtub brings home the impersonal and indignity of prison life; and the ever-present other cast members on stage speaks to never being alone no matter how lonely one is. These elements drive home the dehumanisation that current punishment systems put in place.
It’s a tough subject and everyone knows best. Our country is beset with daily violent, malicious, evil crimes – and everyone is scared. I’m scared after being followed and catcalled at twice already this week (in a ‘safe’ place like G-town, in daylight). Imagine the daily fear of people not living in the ‘burbs with regular police patrols or private security firms. Imagine the lifelong fear and desperation of growing up in a society that gives you no worth, no decent education, no hope.
Ubuze Bam has two shows left at NAF. The men in the cast supply a morality lesson of a different kind: actual truth. It’s worth taking the time to hear what these marginalised voices have to say – they’re not trying to say crime isn’t the individual’s responsibility and they’re not shifting the blame.
What they do is shift the conversation and understanding around crime, being criminal, retribution and reconciliation and rehabilitation.
– Sarah Roberson
Ubuze Bam is next on tomorrow 08 July at 17.30 at Princess Alice Hall. For more info & credits & bookings click here.
The cast is Eric Menyo, Ntsika Tyalana, Lazola Sikhutshwa and Bongani Dyalivana.