Shakespeare and the politics of identity in South Africa

Shakespeare and the Coconuts: On Post-Apartheid South African Culture by Natasha Distiller, Wits University Press, 2012

One of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare’s plays is unity. Union, reunion, reconciliation, compromise, synthesis: these are made manifest at the level of plot and characterisation, and emphasised in speech after eloquent speech. Yet “Shakespeare” is a word – a symbol, an historical figure, a body of work – that has, if anything, a deeply divisive effect. Mention of Shakespeare tends to invite a love-him-or-hate-him response, forms of Bardolatry or Bardophobia that are typically reductive.

You’ve heard them before. Shakespeare is a universal genius. OR Shakespeare represents colonial oppression. OR Shakespeare’s words are the acme of poetic expression. OR Shakespeare stands for linguistic imperialism and the homogeneity of “Englishness”. The fact is, however, that Shakespeare is and does all of these things, often simultaneously; the sooner we (thespians and theatre-goers, film makers and consumers, teachers, students, writers, readers, critics – the whole lot of us) can get our heads round this paradox, the better.

For this reason, Natasha Distiller’s latest book is a welcome intervention. Most of the material has previously appeared in scholarly journals and other academic publications, but its collection together in this volume is given thematic continuity through Distiller’s sustained invocation of the trope of “coconuttiness” – a clumsy word, to be sure, but a very useful concept. “Coconut” is familiar to South Africans as “one of several edible designations” (Distiller also lists Bounty and Topdeck chocolates, fruit such as apples and bananas, and of course the Oreo cookie) describing “someone who, due to their behaviour, identifications, or [upbringing], is ‘black’ on the ‘outside’ and ‘white’ on the ‘inside’” (p.7)

Distiller’s project is to redeem this word and to subvert its use as a derogatory term, to vindicate coconuts and indeed to celebrate coconuttiness. To do so, she affirms, “is to take a political stand, one which refuses to see colonial history and its aftermath as containable by binaries: coloniser/colonised, oppressor/oppressed, European/African” (p.4) Thus, one might say, we are all coconuts – irrespective of our race, and whether we want to be or not – we all evince that “messy in-betweenness, the mixed-up inside-outsideness” that ought to be nurtured and cherished if we are to make sense of the complex politics of identity in South Africa. (Here it may be noted that this syntactic and semantic inventiveness is a feature of Distiller’s prose; while she avoids the more opaque registers of “academese”, the prose is rich but dense and she is not shy to wrestle language into doing her bidding.)

The key text in Distiller’s argument is Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut, a novel in which “Shakespeare has a small but significant cameo role”: one of the characters, the protagonist Fikile’s uncle, is fond of (mis)quoting lines from Shakespeare’s plays – “rhetorical trappings in the speech and subjectivity of an emasculated, abusive, poor, black man with a useless English education” (p.21). Distiller acknowledges that this is one version of what Shakespeare can mean in South Africa (particularly to black South Africans), but she goes on to offer other versions. Her starting point is Sol Plaatje, “the first South African coconut” (p.35). While this is not an entirely accurate label, and while Plaatje was not the first black South African to engage with, translate and appropriate Shakespeare’s work – as recent scholarship has shown – he remains the most significant figure in the local history of what might be called “black Shakespeare”. His political (African National Congress) credentials are impeccable; yet Plaatje is part of an intellectual tradition largely eschewed by the current ANC leadership and its particular brand of ahistoricism and anti-intellectualism.

Insofar as this is itself a reaction to former president and would-be philosopher-king, Thabo Mbeki, one might trace a long trajectory from the ostensibly “elitist” founders of the ANC to the “populist” rhetoric used for and against the party in recent years. Distiller’s penultimate chapter addresses the pre- and post-Polokwane moments by attempting to untie the tangled knot of signification in Mbeki’s vision of an “African Renaissance”. What does it mean to pattern a putative African rejuvenation on a partly-mythologised European past – the Renaissance, for which Shakespeare commonly functions (whether appropriately or not) as a metonym? Distiller’s answers to this question critique the “party-political sloganeering”, “commodification” and “reification” that shaped the “vocabulary” of the African Renaissance – she chooses not to focus on the deception and megalomania that were also part of Mbeki’s presidency – but she does affirm its potential (p.127). After all, the term simultaneously reinscribes and collapses African/European and contemporary/historical distinctions, which allows it to instantiate a “much more interesting and difficult history, which is a productive part of what it means to be South African” (p.135).

Arguably, Mbeki did Shakespeare-in-South-Africa a disservice by quoting from the plays so frequently in his speeches, and likewise the poetry of William Butler Yeats and a handful of his other favourite writers. By exhibiting literariness and at the same time exuding aloofness, Mbeki exacerbated longstanding prejudices against literary studies and, in particular, what Distiller calls “Eng Lit” – the reading and writing practices (as well as the canonical attitudes) typically inculcated by university English departments. The discipline of “Eng Lit” has historically, Distiller claims, depended heavily on some of the assumptions about the European Renaissance on which Mbeki’s envisioned African Renaissance was based.

The knot thus takes on Gordian proportions; also tied into it are the strands of English-as-language, Englishness, English literature and literary studies (Distiller herself, despite her nuanced analysis, occasionally lapses into using these terms interchangeably). If this is a knot that cannot be disentangled but can only be slashed, does this mean that Shakespeare needs to be “cut away”, resected from South African public life and especially from educational syllabi? The book ends on a gloomy note that, it seems, suggests this as one possibility:

Because of ‘his’ public image, Shakespeare easily becomes the ultimate tinsel in the window dressing, a more important literary, political, and psychological history in the region notwithstanding ... Has Shakespeare grown, not just old, but white, here? After all this time ... is ‘he’ the fluff on the coconut? (p.165)

Yet the content that has preceded this somewhat despairing conclusion in fact strongly asserts that this need not be the case – Distiller discusses a handful of prominent examples from the intriguing “literary, political and psychological history” of Shakespearean allusion, quotation, appropriation, production and adaptation in South Africa. Towards some of these she is sympathetic, particularly works from the Drum era by Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane (although she hints that a feminist reading of these writers would take issue with the “brutal use of women’s bodies” in their stories). Towards others she adopts a more critical stance, most notably Sir Antony Sher, whose Shakespearean “interventions” in the land of his birth she finds uninformed, ill-considered and ultimately narcissistic. All of these figures, of course, committed the fallacy of “Elizabethanism” (to borrow from Jonathan Holmes): that is, to argue that South Africa was/is “like” Elizabethan England and in so doing, as Distiller writes, “to construct African life as premodern, chaotic ... violent in a glorious way” (pp. 52-53).

Scholars of Shakespeare in South Africa are both aware of these examples and wary of falling into similar traps. But we are a small group (an observation that allows me to add a brief disclaimer: given the size of the pool, it is inevitable that the fish know and are friendly with one another – so I do not approach Distiller’s work in an impersonal, objective way). A much larger group of Shakespearean disseminators is, of course, that constituted by high school teachers and the educationists whose policies, ideologies and textbooks inform their teaching. Shakespeare and the Renaissance may no longer be as dominant in “Eng Lit” at university level as they once were; reciprocally, university-based Shakespeareans have long been grappling with the problematic place of their subject. But, Distiller points out, “work done in universities in recent decades has had little effect on the teaching of Shakespeare in schools” (p. 117).

My own experience with first year students certainly bears this out – the love-him-or-hate-him divide is there once again. Students who love Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts alive, accessible and relevant; students who hate Shakespeare invariably had teachers who made the texts dull, incomprehensible, irretrievably distant from their own lives and time. Both of these camps are able to trot out the formula: We Study Shakespeare Because He Is Universal. But having had this verity shoved down their throats for years, students leaving high school are unable to consider more interesting answers to the question, “Why Shakespeare?”. This was brought home to me recently when, hoping to provoke some thought on the matter, I ran a Twitter competition with the hashtag #WhyShakespeare and found that few students could muster a 140-character response.

Distiller is eloquent on this point:

If we dispense with the too-easy answer of ‘universality’ ... we can explore more interesting answers to the question, why was it Shakespeare these writers [Plaatje, Themba et al] appropriated, and with whom we are still concerned in sometimes quite highly charged debates? (p.5)

These answers demand an exploration of material and ideological histories, of:

how cultural value is invested and perpetrated, bought and sold ... It also enables us to trace the power relations in English literature as a field of study, and English as a language of social and political power, in our region. (p.5)

This does not happen at secondary school level, beyond “an awareness that Shakespeare has become contested territory” (p.117). Distiller considers four school editions of Macbeth, finding that each of them misses the mark in some way. She is careful to acknowledge the constraints under which both editors and teachers must work, and accepts that each of her case studies might be “a useful tool in a beleaguered education system” with “efficacy in the classroom” – but, she insists with a combination of idealism and pragmatism, “I want to attempt to improve on what editing Shakespeare makes possible, in theory, which is a starting point for practice, even if the practice is itself a complicated affair” (p.108).

In Shakespeare and the Coconuts, Shakespeare’s work is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. For Distiller, “exploring aspects of the ways Shakespeare has been used, appropriated, symbolised and reproduced in post-apartheid South Africa” – indeed, over the last hundred years – “is one way to begin to see the complexities and paradoxes of our national history. This is a particularly apposite argument now, as raced identities are increasingly reinscribed in public discourse, encouraged by the posturing of some of our leading politicians” (p.5). So this is, ultimately, a book that tells us more about contemporary South Africa than it does about Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. And that is as it should be.

Nonetheless, the ideas it conveys can and should inform those who teach, direct, perform and research Shakespeare’s work per se. They are ideas I have encountered in Distiller’s work before, and I am happy to see them given a different inflection here. Putting “Shakespeare” together with “Coconuts” in fact constitutes a provocative answer to some of the criticism received by Distiller’s South Africa, Shakespeare and Postcolonial Culture (2005). David Macfarlane, reviewing that book, wrote: “I had a clear sense throughout the book of what Distiller is against, but by the end remained unclear about what she is for.” The author, Macfarlane suggested, had not answered the question, “Why should we bother with Shakespeare at all?”

Shakespeare and the Coconuts is more explicit in demonstrating that the answer lies in the ineluctability of Shakespeare’s influence on material, literary and political culture(s) in South Africa. The universalist credo, “Shakespeare helps us to understand ourselves”, is too simplistic; what we have instead is the complex contention that “[u]nderstanding how Shakespeare has become part of ourselves – whether we like it or not – helps us to understand ourselves”.

The book also implicitly poses a further question (the answer to which may lie in other books): does the affinity between coconuts and Shakespeare lie in Shakespeare’s own “coconuttiness”? Here was a man who, judging by his creations – and that is all we have to go on, apart from a few biographical fragments – sided both with the Tudor state and with its opponents, endorsed both hierarchy and egalitarianism, sympathised by turns with Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Atheists, was a misogynist and a feminist, a war hawk and a pacifist, a racist and a strident anti-racism advocate. That’s about as “inside-outside” as you can get.

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