Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Egelhof explores identity & history in powerful theatre piece

I know Kurt Egelhof as a Durban boy whom I first met way back in the eighties. In his play, For Generations, Egelhof interrogates his past to get a better understanding of himself and who he is in the world today.

This introspection and this interrogation of family and heritage is something many of us are too afraid to countenance, and are even less likely to do in a public forum. (Believe me, many Coloured Durbanites do not want to dig too deeply into their origins; they would rather bluff and pretend than confront or honour the realities of their past.) But Kurt opens his photo albums, the kist and the closet and unveils what lies behind his Durban upbringing for the audience.

Kurt (in the past referred to as Kurtie by a friend, Dawn Robertson) cut his teeth in theatre in the eighties, but in the last fifteen years has strayed from the stage to television production. His current play, For Generations, highlights what we miss when voices such as his go into management or high powered executive jobs.

In For Generations, first launched at the 2008 Grahamstown festival, Egelhof investigates the male lineage of his family – tracing the line from his grandfather through to his son. He speaks of hardship, of intermarriage, of male reticence (that is both stubborn and tragic), of racial injustice and of the "debt" owed and the restoration that needs to take place. His (German) grandfather was shortchanged, partly because he married a Xhosa woman and partly because the world would not honour the talents of a local jazz musician. His father, Basie, fell short because he worked long hours – to the extent that it destroyed his marriage. He was often denied advancement in his work, thanks to apartheid. In the end, he died prematurely in a workplace accident.

Kurt studied a drama degree, one of only a handful of black people in an otherwise all white class in 1980s. As he tells it in For Generations, on graduating he had to face the harsh reality that decent parts were hard to come by. As a 'coloured,' he was viewed as unsuitable for a Shakespeare role and for a part in, for example, a production such as Welcome Msomi's Umabatha. He also had to endure racial discrimination at social venues and at the hands of sections of Durban's population.

For Generations is about a man getting clarity about who he is by understanding his background – the turns and twists his forbears were forced to take in a land dominated and distorted by apartheid. In the play, Egelhof depicts what life was like for his grandfather and father; he takes a brutally honest look at his own experiences, and; he engages with his son's dreams. Through all of this he discovers what he must do. Salvation lies in acknowledging his Xhosa grandmother, in speaking out against the denial of dignity and in calling for truth and accountability regarding the past. He must break the silence, he mustn't acquiesce, he must push back – and in doing so, he must sometimes spoil or disturb the genteel and polite social engagement in present day suburbia.

This play deals with being Coloured in South Africa. This is done not ideologically nor in a didactic manner, but on the basis of relevant experiences skilfully drawn from lower middle class existence and from a particular set of stories about dignity that is both crushed and resurgent.

Egelhof's play is powerfully authentic. It grips you, draws you close and gets you to empathise with a set of ordinary but clearly defined characters (that include his forbears and himself). The play avoids sentimentality; instead, it shares with grit and honesty Egelhof's own moment of awakening. Indications are that Kurt's moment of realisation and insight came during the making of the play itself - in the researching and writing process. One can venture to say this moment of truth is – incredibly – recreated on the stage each time the play is staged. The techniques used in the play, the intimate approach and his direct way of engaging with the audience, makes the play akin to an open-hearted chat with Egelhof.

The play has not yet travelled to all of South Africa's main centres and has yet to make its debut in Johannesburg. It will be interesting to see what Johannesburg critics and audiences make of it, and whether it will get the attention and plaudits it deserves.

Expect greater turbulence in the wake of Zuma court outcome

The Jacob Zuma judgement (of yesterday 12/1/08) is eliciting cheers in some quarters and jeers in others. But for me, a sense of weariness and foreboding is a more relevant response.

It seems the justice system is unable to make charges stick - and the situation is not helped by widely conflicting judgements from the judiciary. All the latest judgement does is send the process back to the legal starting point, from where a new cycle of legal games and contestation between state and Zuma's legal counsel will most likely ensue.

The attempts to prosecute Zuma take place in a context where:

  • Corruption appears to be part of the operating mode of many major companies – in most cases of corruption, a company is often the corruptor;
  • The arms deal remains controversial – and Zuma correctly points out that he was not part of the national political scene at the time the arms deal was being forged and signed;
  • The government's tender processes has in general been undermined; the ANC has itself in an official 10 January 2009 statement argued that the tender process has been poisoned by corrupt practices and needed to be changed;
  • The crossover between business and politics in the last 14 years has raised its own questions - and serious ethical issues. Big Business has used BEE strategically and expediently; it has focused on "empowering" political connected people, ones who help them with information and inside insight about government plans, decisionmaking and tenders. Zuma has not been a central player in BEE deals.

The above context raises question about why Zuma in particular was selected for prosecution. Of course, while we are free to pose such a question, it is not wise for Zuma or those closest to him ask why he was singled out for prosecution. Anyone who is charged should accept that theoretically and legally anyone is eligible to be charged; those who are innocent should be confident they can prove their innocence or that they were wrongfully charged; any person (moreso a politician) has greater credibility when he or she submits to a legal process; and cynics (or in this case, critics of Zuma and the ANC) will argue that most people will cry foul at being prosecuted.

However, the long and short is that the months ahead will be turbulent (above and beyond what one normally expects during an election year). In terms of whether Zuma should go to court and face charges or not, we have two powerful forces facing off against each – one being the establishment and the other a mass based politically movement (sometimes termed the Zuma juggernaut).

In addition, there are many (potential) flashpoints – and tinder dry conditions for conflict in a number of areas. Any Zuma court appearances will become physical sites for expression of mass anger. As Cope calls for the ANC to drop Zuma and denounces him as an unworthy presidential candidate, the level of tension and conflict between ANC and Cope will be increased. And what with persons such as 702's John Robbie raising question's about the judiciary's credibility after such widely divergent decisions on Zuma, the judiciary will again become a target of vicious verbal attacks. Last but not least, the ongoing controversy around Zuma (coupled with his immense mass support) continues to fuel uncertainty and instability in the financial markets.

In this context, no one should be crowing about the outcome of the case, or about the likelihood of ongoing legal contestation (appeals and counter appeals) in the immediate and many months ahead. The political rollercoaster ride – distracting us from critical national tasks, from real debate about developmental policies and from the job of optimally positioning ourselves as a country in the world – is set to continue.