Shakespeare: A worldwide classroom

South Africa - Part 2

February 25, 2013

Tracy's WSF blog 2012 - South Africa

Watching ShakeXperience in action at a Home Language High School in Johannesburg and then leading a short workshop on Othello, I got more sense of South African students' personal engagement with the text; interaction and voicing their feelings is something these students seem very comfortable with.

One of my biggest disappointments on the trip was seeing a schools' production of Othello by Think Theatre. Don't get me wrong: the performance itself was brilliant, one of the best productions of Othello I have seen anywhere, but sitting in the audience were just Lali and me! The Playhouse Theatre in Durban should have been full of young people, many of whom would have travelled 3-4 hours to be there, but a national strike had been called and the schools had to cancel for fear their buses would get caught up in the marches.

The actors told me anecdotes and Margie and Clare, producer and director, showed me film of the exuberant reactions of past audiences, most of whom would never have been to a theatre before. The mass of students will cheer, tut, shake their heads and audibly sigh in response to what they witness and the actors clearly thrive on these visceral responses to their work.

Othello is the set text for Home Langauge Grade 12 students; interestingly Romeo and Juliet is the set text for FAL schools because it's considered 'easier'.

Mualusi's school (a couple of hours' drive away from Lucky's) is a small private school studying international exams. This school has a strong focus on fundraising to provide scholarships, so that talented (usually black) students from difficult and deprived family backgrounds are offered the same educational opportunities as local middle class (usually white) students. The school also runs an outreach programme of weekend and holiday sessions for local state schools.

Of course there is no hiding from race issues here; although the country has come a very long way since the days of apartheid, attitudes and assumptions still create barriers, and educational opportunities are uneven to say the least. The disparity was graphically illustrated on my last day when walking around the departure lounge, I suddenly noticed what I had not noticed on arrival, that black faces are rare among those who can afford to fly.

Of course, the potential of South Africa lies in the strength of sharing: taking the best from African and European heritage. Each school I visited proudly displayed their school mission, involving those universal aims of education: to achieve academic excellence, kind and caring citizens, respect for each other and the environment, etc. But much of this was encapsulated in a Zulu word, 'ubuntu'. This word was translated for me as 'I exist, because you exist, so we must exist together'. With all his neologising, I think Shakespeare missed a trick there.

Travelling around and talking with South Africans made me think a lot about my central question, 'Why Shakespeare?' After all, studying, reading, performing Shakespeare is far removed from the essentials of survival and struggle that form the reality of life in townships.

Life in this country for the majority is seriously tough. Lucky and Mualusi know very well how fortunate they are to have the opportunities their different - but both excellent - schools are giving them. Shakespeare isn't life or death - but perhaps can help us cope with life and death.

Funding for the arts comes a long way down most lists in a country where health issues (particularly AIDS) understandably come first, but organisations like ShakeXperince are clearly needed to help young people process their emotions and experiences and express their ideas and feelings. During my talk at De Wits University, several people expressed a concept of hope and aspiration that Shakespeare brings to difficult lives: 'something uplifting that connects us to global culture'.

At the end of the week, we visited the Hector Pietersen museum in Soweto - in memory of the boy shot by police in 1976 for being part of a protest against the enforced learning of Afrikaans. The museum tells a sobering tale of the extent of fear and ignorance that existed just 36 years ago. Soweto is a much happier place today, but we all know that fear and ignorance live on. I made a note of one quote by Mafika Gwala from the museum that seemed particularly poignant. It was a section looking at the importance of the arts to the black consciousness movement:

'When you face a truth and there is challenging need to express it, you can most emphatically capture it through poetry because there is no way you can twist it about in a poem. You have to bring out the truth as it is or people will see through your lies.'

by Tracy Irish  |  No comments yet

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