South African Discomfort

On the verge of a historic election, South Africa is showing its Democratic growing pains.

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I recently went to the venerable old Market Theater in an increasingly populated downtown Johannesburg. It had been all but abandoned after the end of apartheid. Now the city is coming back, and white people are coming back, and they (along with a healthy number of blacks) are coming back to the Market Theater. But that’s not the point.

I went to the Market Theater to see MacBeki, a new play written by a South African comedian as venerable as the theater in which the play is now running. Pieter-Dirk Uys, according to one pretty accurate write-up, “has taken his main inspiration from Shakespeare's MacBeth and structured a satirical play around it, with the focus on a familiar political setting …. Unlike Shakespeare, Pieter-Dirk Uys does not spill blood in his play. He spills the beans. He makes us laugh at the transparency of the ruling elite who lie to protect themselves at all cost.”

The title, clearly a take-off on former president Thabo Mbeki, a great quoter of Shakespeare, who, in the minds of some, was murdered—politically that is—by Jacob Zuma, a rival who all the polls predict will be the next president of South Africa.

From where I sat, most of those in the mixed-race, mixed-age audience didn’t seem to know quite what to make of this work that hits close to the bone of South Africa’s current politics. What I heard was a lot of “hmmms” and “I need to think about this a bit.” There were some who thought it was “humor without facts—very disturbing” as one prominent celebrity in the audience told me later.

The reaction in the theater was so complex that I was happy when I rolled over and turned on my radio the next morning to find an extended call-in discussion moderated by Tshepiso Makwetla, whom I had spotted with knitted brow at the performance. Her show, The After Eight Debate, included Pieter-Dirk Uys (pronounced Ace, sorta), who was calling in from his home in a place called Darling and the actors who played two of the characters from the play—with the interesting names of MacTrevor (the minister of finance in reality is Trevor Manuel) and the other MacZum. (Is there any doubt who he is modeled after?)

The discussion, ostensibly, was about the play but involved even more about the current state of politics in the country.

Uys, who is widely known for his political satire, especially when dressed as a woman known as Evita Bezuidenhout, won a lot of praise in the discussion, but he also took a lot of heat. He was accused of having a hidden agenda (a lot of that is going around these days). But he seemed to be loving every minute of it and was the one who came closest to summing up the prevailing mood in the country: “Discomfort is where we are right now.”

Hello, Understatement!

South Africa is in the midst of a political campaign that is set to make history. Not that we don’t pretty much know the main outcome. The ruling African National Congress will continue to rule, but for the first time since the end of apartheid, it has a serious challenger, and the challenge is from within.

Late last year, a group of ANC members, disgruntled over the party’s unceremonious dismissal of Mbeki as president with only six months left in final term, split and formed a new party—Congress of the People (COPE). In a very short time, the new kid on the political block has garnered support from a wide range of South Africans who say they were more disgruntled with the ANC, itself, than its punitive actions against Mbeki.