Text: Nduka Mntambo
Commissions of inquiry are often nothing but cynical political tools to re-establish a form of normalcy after a nation’s traumatic event. It happened in South Africa after the Marikana massacre where on 16 August 2012, the South African Police Service killed 34 striking mine workers. A day later President Jacob Zuma announced a commission of inquiry into the traumatic events.
But the two year long sitting wasn’t the only examination of the events that day. Two years later a spectacularly successful musical on the massacre was first performed at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria.
I first encountered the Marikana tragedy in the editing room of the university where I used to teach, a day after the massacre. I had been editing an unrelated film with two senior students, when I entered the editing room to their laughter over a YouTube video of the Marikana policemen shooting at the protesters.
One of the students kept saying, “look at these stupid miners, do they think they are supermen”. The second student responded that “these niggas are high on muti”.
I was shocked by the inappropriate response and gave them a piece of my mind about human beings being shot in front of our computer screens.
I wondered what it was about the representation of violence in mediated form that could generate such a callous response. But beyond my righteous talk to the students about the value of life, particularly black lives in the context of South Africa’s racist past, I was anxious to understand the implications of representing a tragedy as brutal and contested such as the one that happened in Marikana.
It was with the same anxiety that, on the third anniversary of the massacre, I found myself seated in the State Theatre to watch Aubrey Sekhabi’s, Marikana: the Musical. Adapted from a book – We Are Going To Kill Each Other Today: The Marikana Story by Thanduxolo Jika et al – the director Sekhabi explained in the programme why he used that format. It’s the “best aesthetic with which to honour the fallen and the brave”.
Sekhabi pre-emptively answered the sceptics who might argue that it would be distasteful to use the upbeat form that a musical implies. He asserted that during the Marikana strike, the miners expressed their frustrations, miseries and poverties through song. Secondly, that the format shouldn’t be restricted to the saccharine idea of upbeat storytelling.
True to the director’s ideas of the spectacular epic, the play opens with the grand ascent of the miners from the bowels of the stage clad in white overalls. Simultaneously, the main set piece, which is the structure that depicts the hill (koppie) and also houses the band, rises on the stage. These elements are accompanied by the projections of the songs’ lyrics translated into English.
Morally and Politically Dubious
Unfortunately my initial anxiety about the representation of violence in mediated form wasn’t unfounded. The songs’ lyrics and the decisions about the choreography of both the miners and the police illustrated the problematic – and at times morally and politically dubious – decisions by the creators of the play.
Take some of the songs. Although the lyrics of I am a warrior and Ngonyama, are derived from the actual songs sung by the miners (if we accept the version from the book), it is in the charged choreography characterised by the menacing display of spears, pangas, sticks and “inculas” (sharpened rods) that the picture of wild and murderous miners emerges.
Spurred on by the ululating and applauding audience at the theatre, the actors imbibe their muti. In the rendition of a song in which the miners go on a panga buying spree, there’s a caricatured hunchback Indian trader pushing a trolley packed with pangas. Depicted as an oriental snake charmer of sorts, he marvels that he would never in his wildest imagination have thought he’d sell so many.
The miners are led by the actor Meshack Muvuso. His depiction of Mgcineni Noki, dubbed “The man in the green blanket” in the media, oscillates between the menacing warrior ready to kill, and a comic playing to the gallery. In We are going to kill each today, we get a nuanced and contextualised portrait of Noki, a respected leader among his peers who carried himself with great dignity.
With the claims of fidelity to the book from the director, it was curious to see how the musical failed to render Noki and the miners beyond dangerous, dancing and muti-charged black men.
The inverse is true about how the police commander and his charges are depicted. This empathetic representation is taken to the extreme in a duet between one policemen and his wife in a song called The Chaplain. The officer is dreading to go to work.
I must go my darling, I am scared that I may die or I may kill someone’s father or friend – no you can’t go – yes I must go, when you see the chaplain at the door, know I’m no more…
Amid the orgy of dance and sentimental song from the stage and wild applause, ululations and laughter from the audience, I had the same terrible feeling and anxiety akin to the ones I’d experienced with the students. It seemed to me, sadly, that the musical from the State Theatre, an agency of the Arts and Culture department headed by Minister Nathi Mthethwa, had curious ideas about mourning the brave that fell in Marikana as stated by the director.
Of course, the depiction of traumatic events in nations’ lives is not unique to South Africa. Consider the energy the authorities employed to induce a national amnesia around the banana factory massacre in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Or how the lead character Anjuma refuses to utter a word about the massacre she survived in Arundhathi Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
But when cultural depictions – such as Marikana: the Musical – become like a song and dance version of commissions of inquiry they simply make the amnesia more effective.