Showdown at Revolver Creek


Watching, in New York, a preview performance of Athol Fugard’s new play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, I thought about the real meaning of the “post” in the term “postapartheid”, a compound I have begun using as a noun rather than an adjective. After all, we’ve been living in this “state”, “phase”, “place” and “time” long enough now to conceive of “it” as a thing, an achieved condition, right? No? Well, it’s precisely this determinate indeterminacy that Fugard got me thinking about.

Many of us would agree that the chronological meaning of the prefix “post” is the term’s least important slant, and that what we’re looking to find is a conceptual “after” in the signifier “postapartheid.” We want a revised manner of understanding the way things go down in this historical turn, and the transformed social workings so signified.

But it’s always better to approach difficult abstractions through concrete examples.

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is an excellent work, especially in the way its dramaturgy comes off, that is to say, how it works on the boards, in performance, as a piece of theatre involving emotional engagement between actors and audience. The stagecraft is vintage Fugard. It creates dramatic scenarios, visual, aural and embodied, that bring individual characters into confrontation with deeper truths about themselves than they are generally prepared to admit. In the process, their illusions get stripped down, and feelings of both sympathy and dismay are evoked in the audience.

All around me, after the standing ovation by many in the audience, I heard whisperings of “wonderful”, “excellent”, “lovely play”. Apart from some inevitable quibbles, one can expect that Revolver Creek will get good reviews in the New York press.

The potent dose of catharsis that the play delivers – and believe me, it is strong stuff, recalling the Fugard of old – is based to some extent on a particular reading of the postapartheid condition. It is here that I suspect some people may possibly want to argue with Fugard.

The play features the life and death of an old black man, a typical “subject” of apartheid, one of the millions who were turned into “garden boys” and general factotums, in this case on a farm in Mpumalanga owned by a white Afrikaner couple. The first act, set in 1981, sees an 11-year-old boy witnessing the old man’s humiliation at the hands of the farm’s white matriarch. In the second act, set in 2003, the boy, grown up and educated, comes back to confront the woman, who is now stricken with fear amid a spate of farm killings.

I have left many important details about the play out, and I would urge people to go see this production, if at all possible. The issue I want to raise here is the play’s resolution, in which the now-enfranchised young man forces the old white matriarch to hear and see him as a human being rather than a vassal, and the white woman in turn compels the postapartheid citizen to listen to the Afrikaner’s side of things, and to understand her people’s stake in the country.

The issue, for me, is whether this more general matter – rapprochement between Afrikaners and black South Africans – is in fact the key issue in postapartheid South Africa. One should of course widen the perspective and read it as remediation between all white South Africans and all South Africans of colour. Fugard presents an emotionally resonant resolution in which such reconciliation might be read as the only way to get by in the “post”-era, or to get through the barrier of racialised perception that in many ways still haunts the country.

Although I agree, as most liberal and/or progressive people would, that “reconciliation” remains an important goal, I don’t believe it is the real issue in postapartheid. Not any longer. I think it has been overtaken by an entirely different set of dynamics.

One sees these dynamics in the way most analysts have perceived the Marikana massacre. In this matter, there is plenty reconciliation between white capitalists and black capitalists, Cyril Ramaphosa and his ilk in particular. The more critical issue, especially after Marikana, is in fact too much “reconciliation”: the alliance between (black and white) capital, backed by the state, that is then used against (mostly black) workers.

This is the deeper horror of Marikana: that the police, in cahoots with the state and big capital, shot down the poorest of the poor in cold blood. Many of the 34 victims were gunned down in the back or at close range. Marikana was postapartheid’s Sharpeville.

In saying this about the 2012 massacre, I am not making any original claims. Google “Marikana”, and read, especially, Greg Marinovich’s dispatches in the Daily Maverick, among others. See what advocate Dali Mpofu had to say in his summing up of the case, specifically about Ramaphosa being “Accused No 1”. This is the current deputy president we’re talking about. There is overwhelmingly strong evidence to suggest that Mpofu was not dreaming his version of events up.

So, despite thoroughly enjoying Fugard’s new play, I was left wondering whether Revolver Creek did in fact capture the “post” in postapartheid. No doubt Fugard would say, justifiably, that he wasn’t trying to do anything of the sort. Also, in posing this question, I am not taking anything away from what remains a very fine piece of theatre.

In fact, I dearly wish racial reconciliation between white and black were the “big issue” in postapartheid, because I think then we’d have a better chance of success in South Africa. But the real problem, as set out decisively, sensitively and thoughtfully in Raymond Suttner’s new book, Recovering Democracy, is the weakening of the democratic project. For Suttner, who went to jail for opposing apartheid and served as an ANC member of parliament during Mandela’s presidency, the Zuma regime has placed self-enrichment and crony capitalism ahead of empowering the poor. It’s as clear as that, although the causes of this condition are not, and Suttner never oversimplifies the matter.

Removing Zuma won’t solve the problem, not even remotely, as Suttner sees it, because there are many like Zuma inside the current version of the ANC, and someone else is likely to step up and play a similar role. That role is to maintain political support by handing out positions, tenders, connections, and by any other name, money; and to enrich oneself at the same time. It’s the “trough” version of politics, and it is consuming large parts of the world. It’s what left-leaning people everywhere call “neoliberalism”, a late version of capitalism that defines idealism and success wholly in terms of wealth and consumption. For Wendy Brown, author of many works on this topic, and recently of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, MIT Press, 2015), it is a condition she describes as a “radically free market: maximized competition and free trade achieved through economic deregulation, elimination of tariffs, and a range of monetary and social policies favorable to business and indifferent toward poverty, social deracination, cultural decimation, long-term resource depletion and environmental destruction” (“Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy”, Theory & Event 7 (1) 2003: 1). Brown adds that neoliberalism effectively increases the vulnerability of poor nations to the vicissitudes of globalization, “yank[ing] the chains of every aspect of Third World existence, including political institutions and social formations”. It is also “compatible with, and sometimes even productive of, authoritarian, despotic, paramilitaristic, and/or corrupt state forms and agents within civil society”. (p. 2)

Sound familiar? Despite the qualms some analysts may have about Brown’s use of “First” and “Third World” terminology, the points she summarizes above remain fairly accurate in their description of broad conditions in many “postcolonies” in the “developing” world (the terms now generally favoured above the “Third World”/”First World” dichotomy). For Brown, what she calls “neoliberal rationality” is the most important issue. This she defines as “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (3). Of course, the matter gets a lot more complex, and reading Brown at greater length is strongly recommended.

Such global economics, if we are to believe Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their book Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument (Indiana University Press, 1999), plays into the neopatrimonial political system of sub-Saharan African states, in which “public services remain personalized by way of clientelism and nepotism”, and “access to the public institutions of the state [including control over financial systems] is seen as the main means of personal enrichment” (p. 9).

Even if we remain skeptical of Chabal and Daloz’s vision of neopatrimonial political systems that routinely instrumentalise disorder, the neoliberal critique has found wide consensus among most thinkers to the left of centre. For them, the real problem in South Africa, as in many other parts of the world, is no longer just, or even mainly, a “national” problem. It is a problem that is thoroughly entangled in global economics, which willy-nilly determines the parameters of “national” politics in what Nancy Fraser and others calls the “transnational public sphere” (see Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere”, in Theory, Culture, & Society 24 (4) 2007: 7-30; for a closer view of how this plays out in South Africa after apartheid, see the special issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly on postapartheid conditions, “After the Thrill is Gone” (SAQ 103 (4), 2004), edited by Grant Farred and Rita Barnard, especially the articles by Farred, Patrick Bond, Zine Magubane, Ashwin Desai and Richard Pithouse, and Neil Lazarus).

Thinking in this way, the “post” in postapartheid becomes something very different from the business of racial reconciliation in and of itself, which in a sense was the biggest issue in liberal, and often white, anti-apartheid literature. In fact, racial conciliation on its own becomes less important than the question, to what end? If rapprochement between the races means Ramaphosa & Co (i.e. the top layers of the ANC) cosying up with white magnates, the richest of the rich, against the interests of the working poor, then it can easily be seen as a new kind of “evil”, a new source of assymetrical power that works to the disadvantage of the poorest of the poor, the very people the struggle for democracy was meant to uplift. The end-result of such “racial reconciliation” is the loss of democracy in any real sense, and the decisive failure of Mandela’s “democratic miracle”.

The sheer ubiquity of neoliberal conditions across the world, and their effortless normalization, prompts one to consider – or reconsider – the role of theatre, and of literature in general. Fugard’s second act, on reflection, occurs in 2003, near the end of the still-somewhat-hopeful “cusp” time of transition. A different reading of the play, and a justifiable one, would see it as offering an earlier version of South Africa’s struggle story, namely the “tragedy” of cross-racial hatred, and the idealism of reconciliation, as “history”, indeed as a kind of romantic history, when it felt as though theatre was still able to approximate, via Aristotelian catharsis, the human element behind political conditions.

Now, in the venal age of Zuma and his administration’s capitulation to Big Money, Deal & Co, it’s all economics. It’s as if art, like the people it is meant to provoke, can do little but stand by and watch as class, race and gender issues are collapsed into the mega-supermarket version of capitalism beyond history, where the rich person wins, and good on yer, mate. Maybe Fukayama was right in his The End of History and the Last Man.

Despite Fukayama’s neo-conservative leanings, The End of History’s conclusion rings eerily true: “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands."

About art, more specifically, Fukayama wrote: "In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed."

It is this “nostalgia” for history that Fugard’s play powerfully captures in Revolver Creek, a time when it still seemed like moral choices could actually make a difference to political economy. In this way of thinking, the play recalls a time when political morality, rather than economic rationality, was perceived to play a key role on the “stage” of a history we passionately believed we could change, or in one of its stages, temporally conceived. No more. Or am I wrong?

* Leon de Kock’s study, Losing the Plot: Fiction and Reality in Postapartheid Writing, is due at Wits University Press in 2016.

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