Coenraad Bezuidenhout
Coenraad Bezuidenhout

South Africa’s ripe for Living Newspaper

Life imitating art taught me form does not always have to trump function. Running the Leader of the Opposition’s office in Parliament until shortly before the 2009 elections, an invitation from a Jewish community forum in Seapoint known as The Living Newspaper was one of the last engagements for which I had to see preparations through. It emerged that the forum’s name was actually borrowed from a style of documentary theatre for popular audiences that urged social action and was codified under depression-era America’s Federal Theatre Programme. Living Newspapers were composed of news events bearing on a particular subject, interlarded with non-factual representations of the effect of these news events on the people to whom the overarching problems was of importance.

The Seapoint event bore no resemblance to theatre, but brought into recall The Cradle Will Rock, a 1999 Tom Robbins film which chronicles the shut-down of the American Federal Theatre Programme in 1937 due to anti-Communist paranoia (yes, the Living Newspaper has Bolshevik roots), and the spontaneous make-shift performance of the last Living Newspaper that followed in protest. It also reminded me of a University of Cape Town student play presented by Heike Gehring (currently a Rhodes lecturer) at the 2001 National Arts Festival. Work-shopped from parliamentary debates into dialogue for a nuclear family representing a micro-cosmos of South Africa, Trivial Pursuit offered an often entertaining, but equally ominous contemplation of the voyage embarked on by our young democracy. Shorn of the preachy calls to action reportedly de rigueur for the Living Newspapers of yore, it nevertheless signposted the genre’s local possibilities.

Many fewer South Africans were as audibly worried about the trajectory of our democracy before the 2009 election as they are today, but the arms deal, the alleged abuse of state institutions by former president Thabo Mbeki and his successor, president Motlanthe’s, respective suspension and dismissal of subsequently vindicated National Prosecuting Authority boss Advocate Vusi Pikoli did raise concerns. The concept of the Living Newspaper seemed well-disposed to take news events surrounding such issues of democratic abuses and to make them plain to the people who still very much exhibited the type of naiveté associated with the frog in the pot of warming water.

Outside of the venerable Pieter-Dirk Uys’s work, my limited theatre-going post the 2009 election recorded only one slight blip in the flat-line that was political theatre: the ill-fated 2010 staging The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists at The Fugard in Cape Town. Based on a century-old seminal leftist work by former Capetonian Robert Tressel, the work was ideal to be projected as commentary on the social divides in South Africa. To their credit, some of the Western Cape arts media picked up on this too.

With recent award-winning Afrikaans theatre hit, Balbesit, which finished its run in the State Theatre recently, things are different altogether. Using rugby as a common denominator it controversially broaches issues such as the loss of power, ownership and violence through text based on real-life clippings from news websites. It invariably offends due to the cultural precepts it purveys, but also because it exposes a very particular type of vulnerability in our society that is almost universally denied: the vulnerability of the white male. It has broader significance too, in that it gives expression to the frustrations of living in a country that Antjie Krog recently described to be like “a 100 boats in a stormy sea … and they’re all going in different directions”.

The play was thought-provoking because it gestured at a number of problems that impact us as South Africans. It also spreads hope and enjoins us to solve the lack of leadership that besets our unsure future by mentioning a number of principled, public bellwethers; strong leaders that also happen to be female and black: Rhoda Kadalie, Thuli Madonsela, Mamphela Ramphele …

Perhaps because of my particular journey through the arts and politics, I believe a play like Balbesit poses a very unique challenge to critics, ordinary audience members and theatre makers alike. That is, to recognise its unique position in the South African oeuvre, the relationship it bears to a historically rich genre such as the Living Newspaper, and to exploit the increasing relevance of this form to the South African situation.

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