Pumla – rest at the National Arts Festival, Makhanda

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Pumla – rest
A devised play
Directed by Masixole Zinzo Patrick Heshu, assisted by Khanya Ngcuka
Cast: Busisiwe Maphumulo and Thumamna Sibhozo
Venue: Glennie Hall, National Arts Festival, Makhanda

Pumla – rest was directed by Masixole Zinzo Patrick Heshu and Khanya Ngcuka. It is a devised piece that draws inspiration from Athol Fugard’s play The train driver.

Fugard’s play investigates Roelf Visagie’s search for answers about a woman who willingly walked on to the tracks with her child to be killed by the oncoming train of which he was the driver. Visagie is haunted by the memory and goes looking for her grave, in the process meeting Simone Hanabe, the grave digger who tries to warn him not to hang around while the rival gangs are out marauding.

In this play we meet Pumla – a lovely young woman who eventually kneels in front of an oncoming train.


Book to see the show for all the answers. I will give a summary, while trying not to build in spoilers.

Pumla – whose name means “rest” – meets a lovely young man called JJ. They fall in love, ride the train together, and eventually she falls pregnant from him.

The train travels through the shanty towns, where gang members frequently shoot and engage in open warfare.

While travelling together, or waiting for the train, the two swop stories.

Pumla’s favourite uncle was murdered in what would have been an orchestrated political killing.

JJ begins to relive some of his own horrors. He had left the country in support of the freedom struggle. During his time out of the country, and also later, upon coming back, he had lived through untold horrors. He had even pulled the trigger on many occasions.

As the ghosts of JJ’s past are awakened by Pumla’s stories, JJ’s untreated post-traumatic stress disorder drives him to drinking. While drunk, he falls asleep and Pumla hears things that are immensely upsetting.

Pumla – rest is by no means easy, but I am glad I managed to see it.

It opens when Pumla and JJ meet, she tells him she is seeking the truth, and he says, cynically, that the truth is hard to find.

While trains and the railway lines (created with white chalk on the floor) provide vehicles for the characters to meet and engage, they also represent perpetual centres of potential violence. Our South African trains travelling through the townships are not safe. The play ends with a repeat of the opening scene, which suggests that the cycles of violence may be perpetual and not limited to a single event.

The characters in Pumla – rest speak a mixture of Xhosa and English. My own Xhosa is, sadly, quite limited, but I understood the gist of the conversations. Every now and again the characters would switch to English and those snippets provided enough for me to follow the play, but I often missed the punchlines of the jokes that made the cleverer members of the audience laugh.

Busisiwe Maphumulo played Pumla and Thumamna Sibhozo played JJ.

The set of Pumla – rest was simple – a few platforms on low trestles standing in the middle of an empty stage. On two sides railway lines (made of chalk) flanked the platforms. The sound of trains played at regular intervals over the speakers.

Lighting was simple, but effective.

I do recommend Pumla – rest, but only if you have a strong stomach and a keen interest in post-apartheid politics.

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