Night after night they would skip the first three verses.
In the Karoo, the starlight reflected off Hilux canopies and Weber braais. The air smelled of petrol and boerewors. Pop songs thumped in the background.
Then silence, and from the stage a lone voice would begin: “Uit die blou ...” Then the deep-throated answer of a hundred voices: “... van onse hemel …”.
Night after night “Die Stem” unfurled over Oudtshoorn.
Bystanders sighed loudly. Not this again.
The last time I travelled to the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) was in 2013, just before I moved to the UK. My first Kunstefees was in 1994 – the very first one – and I’ve lost count of the number I’ve been to since. Eighteen or nineteen. Now, after four years of England’s endless rain, its damp pubs, I was once again at the KKNK, and eager to see what had changed. Most of all I wanted to know: Would the drastic political changes of the last few years be reflected on stage?
It had, after all, been a rough few years by anyone’s reckoning. Nkandla, Marikana and state capture in South Africa. Abroad we had to contend with Trump, Brexit, Syria and the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe. And David Bowie had died.
Political history was being made and remade every day. On the eve of the KKNK, South Africa’s credit rating was downgraded to junk status by a second agency. During the week of the festival, thousands of South Africans marched on parliament to demand the resignation of the president.
To the festival’s credit, the political earthquakes were eagerly dissected in a range of discussion forums. At a daily discussion event hosted by Die Burger, Mathews Phosa called Jacob Zuma a “junk president”, while a committed Jimmy Manyi tried to convince a hall full of Afrikaners that everything was still going according to plan. The credit downgrade meant nothing to people who had been on junk status all their lives, Manyi said. “Let you be judged by history,” countered Phosa.
A few days later, at a discussion about Donald Trump, academics Lindie Koorts and Leon Schreiber cautioned that South Africa was not immune to nationalism, and that it was equally vulnerable to Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema and Steve Hofmeyr. Nostalgia is a powerful, powerful force, warned Koorts.
Yet, as much as the blistering rate of change was acknowledged in the Media24 and ATKV discussion forums, much of the festival seemed determined to ignore it. It felt as if the debut drama productions in particular had nothing new to say. The ideas were well-worn, well-explored. Comfortable, even when they tried to unsettle. It had been four years since I had last seen a production at the KKNK, but it could just as easily have been the same drama productions as were presented a decade ago. Or two decades ago. And if new drama pieces are a reflection of a cultural dialogue, then the Afrikaner cultural dialogue has become as familiar as a defiant “Die Stem” and the corresponding eye-rolling. A well-rehearsed back-and-forth. Verligtes and verkramptes. It was that same night 20 years ago that Johannes Kerkorrel stood aghast as the audience pelted Miriam Makeba with beer cans.
The intention is not to suggest that these productions were not worth seeing. They were uniformly well acted and directed. The writing was good, the production quality was high. But there was little that was new in them. Conversations were happening in the art and film installations, in the comedy shows and in musical theatre, but not in drama. In fact, it was difficult to find genuinely new South African debut dramas on the festival circuit, or ones that address contemporary issues: Asem, for instance, is a translation of Reza de Wet’s 2004 play Breathing in. Die reuk van appels was first published in 1993 and is set in 1973. And this trend continued among those productions not making their debut: Koöperasiestories was first broadcast in 1983; Pa, maak vir my ’n vlieër pa was published in 1963. So ry Miss Daisy was an (excellent) adaptation of a 1987 play.
In Buite Land (written by Neil Coppen) a young Afrikaans doctor struggles with his homosexuality and his religious, conservative Afrikaans family. He has a fleeting relationship with Sizwe, a Zulu student who has received a calling to become a sangoma. Sizwe struggles to reconcile his desire to become a sangoma with his conservative Christian mother. Jacques defends Western medicine, Sizwe defends his beliefs. Suicide is mentioned. Jacques eventually moves to Canada.
Moedertaal (written by Nico Scheepers) tells the life story of a teacher and her author husband. The following concepts are discussed: farms, suicide, suicide on farms, dementia, affairs, cancer, the death of a child, high school athletic meets.
Even a protest piece such as Piekniek by Mpande née Dingaan (written by Louis Roux) struggled in a fresh engagement with the original 1988 cabaret, which it acknowledged. The cabaret touches on, among others: Voëlvry, Woolworths, over-enthusiastic Christian youth pastors, Afrikaans pop musicians who are in it only for the money, white people speaking, and sometimes struggling to speak, Xhosa. Orania (!).
All of these productions were entertaining and professional, yet it was hard not to shake the feeling that we’d had these conversations many times before. In a world moving so quickly, it was troubling to see a cultural dialogue that was more of a comforting murmur. Outside it may be raining, but inside we’re having roosterkoek and discussing the meaning of Gee jou hart vir Hillbrow. It was troubling to see such complacency, that we’re still stuck in an argument between verligtes and verkramptes.
Nostalgia is a powerful force.
Night after night they would skip the first three verses and “Die Stem” would rise above the small Karoo town. The people clustered around the Weber braais and Hilux canopies would join in, or roll their eyes and sigh. We’d done this all before.
Night after night.