Dirty rainbow

2014-04-28 10:00

Live theatre touches our lives most profoundly when it pulls the veil from our complacency about who we are as individuals and as a society.

The “statement” plays staged by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in the apartheid years portrayed the reality of apartheid for black people in all their diversity.

Whether it was Sizwe Banzi Is Dead or The Island in the early 1970s; or even the The Blood Knot in the late 1960s, the goal was to show on stage what some wanted to push away into the realm of the “invisible”.

The play, A Human Being Died that Night, which recently completed its run at The Fugard theatre in Cape Town and The Market theatre in Joburg, probes the dark past of Eugene de Kock as the head of the apartheid government’s covert operations unit.

The remarkable power of the play is that it reminds us of moral lapses in a government – and voters who kept it in power – that supported and financed De Kock’s actions.

The play urges its audience to consider that far from being “prime evil”, De Kock is the product of a time when moral codes were turned upside down. We witness on stage De Kock’s character – played by British actor Matthew Marsh – cast away by his former bosses and by a society who offered either tacit or explicit support for the dehumanising policies of apartheid.

While De Kock was receiving accolades that made him the most decorated police officer under apartheid, the electoral tides in support of the apartheid government kept on rising. “White South Africans were very happy to be protected,” De Kock’s character tells his interviewer. “They didn’t care how. Or what our methods were.”

De Kock’s actions were part of a larger systemic strategy of denying black people the privileges bestowed upon whites by virtue of their whiteness. Those in positions of political power who could have done more to reverse the carnage in a country that was headed towards becoming a “failed state” refused to take responsibility for the chaos that was unfolding.

A culture of collective blindness prevailed: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.

I have asked myself how conscience gets suppressed to the point where people can allow themselves to commit horrible acts against others, or to turn a blind eye to these acts.

Should one also ask what kind of society enables such suppression? Does knowing that the actions of the government one votes for are wrong and persisting in voting for it reveal a greater depth of moral decay than having the kind of blindness, lack of reflexive capacity, or malfunctioning ethical compass that makes one unable even to realise that something is terribly wrong?

No question about it, the moral compass of the nation plunged to a new low in 1980s South Africa – the brutal necklace murders by black youths in the townships; the destruction of black life in the townships by young white conscripts and vigilante groups; and the dehumanisation, torture, poisoning and assassinations of anti-apartheid activists.

When De Kock’s character described the horrific human destruction committed in the name of the apartheid government and the white society they served, one is reminded of the levels of depravity to which our country had plunged during the apartheid years. It had to be done to maintain the status quo.

It is difficult to watch the play without asking oneself how De Kock might have turned out had there been a significant chorus of voices by white South Africans speaking out against apartheid.

But today, most of those who supported apartheid, and those who benefited from it, are caught up in a vortex of denial of the reality that they are “guiltily implicated” – to use German psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich’s expression – in De Kock’s past. The tragic part of these denials is that they render the painful reality of those who suffered under apartheid invisible.

Statements such as this one by Melanie Suchet in the academic journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues are rare: “I do believe that assuming individual responsibility, as a white South African, for the acts of apartheid committed while I lived under the system, even if not directly committed by me, is a necessary act of collective moral responsibility.”

There are important lessons to be learnt from the gradual erosion of moral values portrayed so clearly in De Kock’s story.?Moving from the stage of live theatre to the stage of political theatre, in the wake of the Public Protector’s Nkandla report, the cast of actors in this shameful saga shows little sign of a desire to reclaim the proud legacy of the party that once put people first as champions of our freedom.

Instead, we witness the ANC leadership’s vociferous denials and the considerable amount of state resources being spent on maintaining the status quo rather than pursuing a meaningful vision of nation building.

The erosion of ethical principles in the leadership of Nelson Mandela’s party has been relentless, chipping away at the moral foundation of our democracy.

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