NAF | In Commission Continua, the power is in the paper

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Tony Miyambo is in solo show Commission Continua. (Mark Wessels/ National Arts Festival)
Tony Miyambo is in solo show Commission Continua. (Mark Wessels/ National Arts Festival)
  • Commisions, like those in history, exist to capture the citizenry's quest for justice. 
  • Considering this, commission Continua interweaves affidavits, addendums, testimonials, submissions and reports. 
  • The result is a powerful, affecting and rigorous historical analysis combined with clever use of simple tools.

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” – Michel-Rolph Trouillot

If indeed, as instructed by Trouillot, the mark of power is its invisibility, Commission Continua confronts the ultimate challenge of exposing its roots. The roots of power are made tangible through substance: Paper!

Paper plays a significant role in our lives, so ubiquitous that we hardly give it a second thought. Within this production we feel the presence of paper; weighty, creased, folding and unfolding. Through archives, filing, printing and photocopying. But of course, it’s not just about the material, it’s also about processes the material points to, as noted by the writers: “Paper doesn’t blush – and mountains of paper seem to be an essential upshot of the numerous investigation commissions that have existed, and still exist, in South Africa.”

Commission Continua probes South Africa’s struggle for justice and true reconciliation through critical and historical consideration of the “commissions of inquiry” attempting to account for injustice yet repeatedly undercut by corruption, inaction and incompetence.

We are introduced to Bright Maluleke (played by Tony Bonani Miyambo), an archivist of official documents from various commissions. Maluleke’s daily activities expose some of the most critical and catastrophic moments in the nation’s history. The archive is not only a site where memories are store; it becomes a site where such memories are reproduced and reconstructed. A sheet of paper – flat and mute – contains extreme realities of violence and oppression. Throughout the entire performance, Maluleke is awkward, troubled and anxious, perhaps believing that by obsessively copying and filing away painful histories, he might be able to free himself of their burden.

An air of unease lingers, exacerbated by a haunting soundtrack achieved from a loop station and microphone. Sound is employed to bring forth fragmentation, disruption, repetition, layering. It becomes a material able to express nuance. In one instance, two sheets of paper and dried tea leaves activate the sonic imagination. The leaves shifting between sheets of paper evokes the shovelling of dirt onto a coffin, a final act of honouring the dead as the priest calls upon family and friends: “Next. Next. Next.”

In another scene, Maluleke reads a case file containing the circumstances of human rights lawyer Bheki Mlangeni’s murder at the hand of apartheid security forces. The phrases “ swear to tell” and “witness upset” loop over the reading, combining with other sounds to eventually crescendo into unbearable noise, and incoherence echoing the illogical structure of violence continuously leading to black death.

Life Esidimeni, Marikana, police brutality. “I’m trying to understand how we got here,” Maluleke wonders aloud. Evil. Violence. Aggression. Inaction. So many commissions, such little justice. It seems all we have to show is paper — affidavits, testimonies, evidence, draft reports, addendums, submissions.

Commission Continua is a powerful and affecting production. Miyambo succeeds in delivering a complex concept with care. Rigorous historical analysis combined with clever use of simple tools (photocopier, a microphone and a loop station) add weight to the production.

Production credits

  • Concept & Writers: Tony Bonani Miyambo & Phala Oookeditse Phala
  • Director: Phala Ookeditse Phala
  • Performer: Tony Bonani Miyambo
  • Dramaturge: Khayelihle Dom Gumede
  • Sound Designer: Zain Vally
  • Stage Manager: Dimakatso Motholo

Commission Continua  was streamed live on the National Arts Festival on Sunday 11 July, and will be available to view on demand between 27 and 29 July.

This article was first published by The Critter. Arts24 has partnered with the National Arts Festival to bring you exciting content before, during and after the 11 day festival. 

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