The cast of Durban Playhouse’s reworking of Wathinta Abafazi. Photo: Val Adamson
There’s this white myth that black people are invulnerable. Or at least less vulnerable. That black people can endure more pain than white people, that they are more immune to the degrading effects of poverty. It was a myth perpetuated by apartheid and it is a myth that remains in operation in America and in Europe. It can be seen in way Europe treats African immigrants and the way segregation and violence still play out in America.
It is a result of centuries of racial othering by white colonialists, which leads to fear and guilt. Because the next step after believing someone is invulnerable, is to fear them, especially when you have acted unjustly toward them to the extent of subjecting them to slavery. This why white policemen empty their weapons into the bodies of black men in the USA for no other reason than they were driving while black. Or arguing for their rights while black. Or holding up a cellphone while black. They are triggered by irrational fear borne on the trope of the strong black male, so well used by the apartheid rulers through their swart gevaar propaganda in the ‘80s.
The other damaging trope is that of the strong black woman. ‘Mama Africa’, who silently carries the injustices inflicted upon the continent on her back. ‘Mama Africa’ who cooks the food, takes care of the children, maintains the home, without complaint and with outward calm.
It is harmful to the women who labour beneath it. Who have injustice upon injustice heaped upon them while those placing the load on their back celebrate their ability to carry it.
Which is why ‘wathinta abafazi, wathint imbokodo’ is a problematic phrase. It was of its time in 1956 when it was a message to the apartheid government that black women would not bow before the state structure, would not break. But that battle has been won, decades have past, and women should no longer have to be rocks. They are human beings, they are vulnerable, and they deserve to be treated as such.
This much is said in the beginning of the Durban Playhouse’s remake of the 1980’s Wathinta Abafazi classic written by Phyllis Klotz. We hear it in the soundtrack before the play begins, as interviewees respond to the question of what ‘wathinta abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo’ means to them. And the question of whether the play itself is still relevant arises as we watch an ensemble of five young women who were born into South Africa’s new democracy, tell stories that belong not to them, but to their mothers, or grandmothers.
It was plain that they could not relate. The words – mostly sounding like a history lesson – were there but there was emotional disconnect; the text was delivered by each in a single register of faux-anguish.
And when a character says “…so I joined the UDF, an organisation of civic structures, churches, students, unions and others led by Allan Boesak to unite against…” engagement falls away.
Fortunately this version, reworked by the Durban Playhouse Actors’ Studio with Matjamela Motloung, did not remain pre-’94. It was amazing to see the actors start coming alive as the stories of current oppression moved into the text about two-thirds of the way through. Stories of domestic violence and daily murders by intimate partners, of rape and the ‘corrective rape’ of lesbians. That was when the tears started flowing and things started getting real. But they still stuck to the format, so before us, for instance, was a young woman pretending to be a middle-aged mother grieving over the murder of her daughter. Yet despite the transparent layers of fakery piled onto a play dealing directly with topical issues making up the headlines of today, the pain and the message hit home.
I wasn’t convinced when the one male cast member, Thobani Gama, who initially berates men for their patriarchal oppression and then makes various appearances as an oppressive force stripping the women of parts of their all-white garments, asked (ordered?) all the male audience members to stand up. We were berated once more for our inaction and complicity and told to look at the man next to you and ask ourselves whether he has been or will be one of those who hurt, rape or kill women or children. Or if we’ll just punch each other on the shoulder and laugh the possibility off as ‘boys’.
But then, this morning I received a photograph of a news article via Whatsapp. A former colleague, who I never would have believed capable of such a thing, has been arrested for the rape of a seven-year-old girl.
Wathinta Abafazi is performed at part of the Arts Incubators’ Trade Fair taking place at The Market Theatre precinct this week. It will be performed again on Saturday, during a day of plays, at 10h15.
Thobani Gama, Ayanda Nyawo, Phumelele Majola, Fezeka Shandu, Ntando Madlala, Simphiwe Dladla
Reworked by the Durban Playhouse Actors’ Studio and directed by Matjamela Motloung.