Monthly Archives: March 2009

“The Fat Black Women Sing” is brilliant

I might be one of the last people to see this play/musical in its run at the Market Theatre, due to a range of life issues, but I sure am glad that I did. It is on an extended run until March 29, 2009 due to popular demand. I can see why, and if I manage to, I will see it again this week.

[Warning: Please note that this is not a review, because regular readers know I have that weird love/hate relationship with reviews. It is a series of reflections on my most recent obsession. Most reviews I have seen have spent more time telling you how fabulous Napo Masheane is, which she is, than on the actual play. One misses the boat completely and thinks that women only conversations are the terrain of victimhood.]

Napo Masheane’s play is billed as an adaptation of Grace Nichols’ _The Fat Black Woman’s Poems_. I don’t quite agree. I love, love, love Grace Nichols’ work. Napo Masheane may just be the most exciting playwright working in South Africa today. Ms Masheane is a magician with words, and she has that very enviable talent of weaving magic across layers of language. Most of us do our best writing in one language, and maybe write well in another one or two. Not Ms Masheane. Even in her Feela Sistah days she would deliver exquisite poetry in English and elegant seSotho/seTswana.

Masheane’s play is clearly in conversation with Nichols, and ideologically both pieces are in the same conceptual world. Masheane’s play, however, works very differently stylistically and this is not just because of the different genres adopted by the two Black women writing.

Starring Nomathamsanqa Baleka, Sheila Katende, Tumelo Moloi, Bomsa Buthelezi and Simphiwe Zungu, the play is a journey into the worlds of Black women’s diversity. The acting is phenomenal as these women take us deep into the fraught business of beauty, sex, relationships, abuse, pleasure, language and self-esteem. The four “fat” and one “thin” woman banter, allowing us see the various ways in which beauty is elusive. The fat women are harassed for being women and for being fat black women in the streets of South Africa as they mind their business. The thin woman is shunned at school because boys consider her too skinny. But these are not victims who suffer and then tell tales of woe to a patient audience. Rather, these are performers in a double sense, making us aware of the very many layers that exist in how Black women are talked about in various narratives.

The bulk of the play is in isiXhosa/seSotho/seTswana with occasional isiZulu and some English. It is not an English play. The friend I watched it with speaks isiSwati and English but enjoyed the play sufficiently, even though I only translated some of the seSotho/seTswana dialogue. Language is a very important aspect of the play too. Masheane uses language to do more than cover all the basics and bring exciting contemporary content to our languages, as crucial a project as this is. She does this well too. However, language is a character in the play itself. There are things, names, textures of this play that simply cannot be captured in the standard English we speak. There are character types and forms of familiar strangeness that would make no sense in English. Yes, the play can be translated. But my friend and I comcurred that it would have to be into some African American dialect or Westindian creole. But then it would not be about South Africa.

There are things about relationship that are negotiated through language, so that women’s exchanges are not romanticised. The Xhosa character, for example, has some wit that resonated and reminded me of a specific type of sophisticated sister, not a single hair out of place, has her life set as she seems to want it, who every now and again reminds you, as did the character, that yena uliqabakazi lakuQumbu. And there is a hint at some tension that complicates sisterhood when she doesn’t quite “pronounce” things properly.

You know the historic rumour about how Xhosa people don’t pronounce English and other African language names properly. Well, it is flirted with here, but also cleverly undermined and questioned in the dialogue. This is just one of the many, many ways in which the language is layered and recognition is key to the play. There are turns of phrase that take you back to some place you haven’t been to in a while. And you find yourself wanting to join in the conversation.

I am not quite a “fat black woman”, most of the time. But I was once a fat Black girl and as I try to lose the excess pregnancy weight, I have thought of myself as a “fat black woman” at times. As I watched the play, there were multiple moments of recognition that are not premised on beng a fat black woman necessarily. How many of us do not know the discomfort that comes from your inner thighs rubbing against each other painfully? Or the fertile ground that is the anticipation or arrival of the first period. And here, I did wonder whether Ms Napo had actually used my story as I listened to one of the women tell of the bizzare interpretation of the first period. I tell it often in friend’s homes when the conversation turns in that direction, and I know I have told it in Ms Mash’s presence before. I’ve also shared it with Lebo Mashile and audience in the L’atitude episode on menstruation. Masheane is more than welcome to my story and well edited and used too. You can go and watch the play and wonder which story is mine. If you are a friend of mine, you’ll probably recognise it.

Zoe Wicomb says you can’t trust writers with anything because you might see yourself in her work. Makhosazana Xaba reminds us that we are not so special that we have original experiences. Whatever we think is ours has happened to someone else. So, maybe ‘my story’ is not just mine alone.

And this is part of the utter beauty and joy that comes from watching this play. Even the stories that were not strictly my direct lived experiences are mine. It is one of the few times I have watched a beautiful piece of art and felt completely seen, and at home. I loved this play so much I can’t stop thinking about it.

I liked it so much that if I can get a script out of Ms Masheane, I want to write a longer piece on the play.

There are a few other people who wrote about why they loved this play, and how it was about them too. In a beautifully written review, Chisanga Kabinga said the songs were a soundtrack to her life. Jabulile Ngwenya writes a fun, if somewhat journalisty take, on the play. There is nothing wrong with journalisty writing. And award winning reviewer, Chris Thurman offers his take here.

As I left with my friend, I could not have been more grateful to the friend who watched my baby that evening so I could take this wonderful piece of art in. I left feeling like I’d been hanging out with a group of crazy friends.


ANC Presidential names I could vote for

If my national ballot paper had one of the following faces next to the ANC logo, the party could keep my vote:

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma
Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge
Cyril Ramaphosa
Zwelidinga Pallo Jordan
Vytjie Mentor

But that is not to be.

Taxi driver strike over BRT

Joburg freeways experienced bottlenecks yesterday because of striking taxi drivers. This was the mildest inconvenience caused by the strike. Commuters who usually rely on minibus taxis were left stranded, terrified or both. Why terrified? See the post “Taxi Drivers terrorise commuters” later this week.

No matter where you went yesterday, you could feel the effects of the taxi strike. But that is the whole point of strike action: to force the hand of the targetted/most affected to give in to the demands of the workers. This all makes sense, and things sure were slower yesterday. At my one of my local supermarket, the queues were much longer than usual, with notices all over the shop apologising to customers about the quality of the service on offer (“due to taxi strike action, we are unable to provide our usual excellent service”).

The people for whom this was much more than an inconvenience are those who rely on one or more taxis to get to work every day of the working week. For these people, the limited alternatives (buses, trains, walking) had to do. But if these commuters found these forms of transport satisfactory in the first place, they would not be taking expensinve minibus taxis.

This seems is an argument for the BRT to be fast tracked. The government has a responsibility to provide public transport that is affordable, convenient and reliable to its citizens and residents of the country. This is far from the case currently. As much as the government has done in the last 15 years, efficient public transport (as service delivery)would considerably increase how much money people have in their pockets at the end of the month. The government knows this.

Nobody pays more to get around than people who rely on taxis for travel. The transport used most frequently, and by the largest numbers of poor, working class and newly employed people effectively keeps them poor. Someone who lives in Yeoville/Kensington/Bez Valley but works in Sandton has to first take a taxi to Alex, and then another to Sandton. This costs approximately R25 one way. You do the maths. This young person then cannot buy her or his first car and flat anytime soon. It is a strange spiral that prevents young professionals in debt (students loans also take a huge cut of this group’s salaries).

Now imagine that someone else has to travel farther, in addition to the relatively newly minted graduate workerbee whose image I had in mind in the above scenario. Now imagine the cut from the salaries of another worker: the woman who cleans your office or the man who fixes things in your office building. Given how appallingly these people are already paid, why should they have to use the bulk of their salaries on getting to work? (When you think about the state of our public schools and hospitals you want to cry because these workers then waste money on travel that could afford them better healthcare and schooling for their families).

A middle class person’s petrol costs for a month are less than half of what the travel costs of the people I mention above, even if that middle class person drives a petrol guzzler. So the less money you make, the more you pay for transport. This is injustice, and the government has every right and obligation to turn this around.

As annoying as the digging up of roads and re-routing in the city are, I can’t wait until I don’t have to drive to get around in the first place. I am looking forward to being on that fast bus that is more convenient than the car I drive. All of us riding on the bus also means a smaller carbon footprint for the children some of us insist on having;) and enjoying. It means more time to read the paper, to have that extra cup of coffee, to listen to the voices of other people, to have a conversation while looking at your partner/friend/child’s face.

I can’t wait!

At the same time, I do feel sorry for the taxi drivers. But only for about 5 mins. It’s sad to think that the oldest Black business sector could be decimated sometime soon. It’s also sad to see that government’s approach to the taxi industry leaves much to be desired. What was the point of the disastrous taxi recapitalisation scheme if taxis are now supposed to step up and intergrate themselves – without proper discussion, consultation or co-ordination – into the new BRT and other public transport? Many of the cars forced down the throats of taxi drivers are really crap – the worst Chinese imports available which fall apart at the first opportunity, cannot really be fixed because there aren’t enough affordable, available parts, require different mechanics from the ones the taxi industry has been keeping in employment for decades, etc. I have always thought that the taxi recapitalisation programme was daylight robbery. It did not just take the rickety minibuses off the road. It affected most taxi drivers the same way – even if they had fairly okay taxis still.

Against this backdrop, then, you can’t blame the taxi industry for not taking government at their word. This is especially if the taxi associations have really not been briefed on exactly how they will be intergrated, how this shareholding deal will work, etc, etc. No matter what you think of taxi drivers, when you hear taxi association from different cities saying the same thing on different radio and tv stations, you have to wonder about what is really going on.

And, for those of us who are not entirely convinced about the increasingly pro-free market directions of government policies, the fate of taxi drivers – and all residents in the country – are the responsibility of the government.

As expensive as taxi fares are, taxi drivers would have a lot of support if they did not terrorise the very people they depend on. That’s why my sympathy lasts for five minutes. But more on that on Friday.

2009 Elections: wassup with COPE? (Dandala)

What is up with COPE and their presidential candidate? I have read the justifications in the papers and listened to discussions of this on radio and tv, and I still don’t get it. Why does COPE think that having Bishop Dandala as presidential candidate is a good thing? How does this move make COPE more attractive?

As far as I can tell, there are a few broad arguments in favour of Dandala’s election, and I find them all unconvincing. Then I have a few additional reservations of my own about putting my X next to COPE now. I am not saying that I was ever sure I’d be voting for them. But I was considering them for my national X, along with the two other liberation movements I had not considered seriously before. Terror Lekota’s face would have tempted me to put my national X for COPE, for I certainly will NOT be putting it next to Zuma’s face, so my national vote is up for grabs. How I feel about Zuma as state president is no secret, as I have noted numerously in public writing, here and elsewhere. But Lekota’s face I could have lived with, even if I knew the ANC would win anyway.

Before you send me lots of comments about how reactionary I am to say this, let me say upfront that I don’t care who thinks I am reactionary for not voting for Zuma. I won’t vote for a proud misogynist homophobe just to prove I am not reactionary. I am still torn about voting ANC privincially and eventually locally.

Many of my friends have already told me how absolutely dodgy I am to like Terror. And maybe I am dodgy. Maybe it’s nostalgia from when he was Free State premier and he kicked butt. Maybe it is because he is convingly anti-ethnicist and I just love it when he refuses to be bullied by people who claim to speak one language better than he does. I liked that when people were pulling the Xhosa trip when he said “uZuma akabhadlanga”, Terror retorted “that’s nonsense, I speak Xhosa as well as the next person”. He said he meant Zuma has no sense; they said he meant he was stupid. In English it sounds the same, but ngesiXhosa I am convinced it is not the same thing. Akabadlanga is closer to saying someone is crazy than to claiming that they are stupid. Maybe I like that Terror says he has changed his mind about various things, and he may keep changing his mind – like he did before when he moved from BC to ANC. All of this is perfectly fine because we are human beings, and we live in a democracy. But Terror is not going to be president, so that is a moot point.

The last thing I am going to say about Terror today is that he had a lot to do with COPE entertaining me in the first place. As can be seen from previous posts, I like being entertained in the run up to the elections.

With all due respect to Bishop Dandala, why should I vote for him? First of all, I don’t think just because Zuma is deemed “immoral”, that the best way to counter that is having a man of the cloth. I think that makes for predictable, boring politics. Give us someone we can believe in, who has charisma and who grabs and keeps our attention. You are not going to get me to vote for anybody based on a morality argument. That argument belongs in a religious community not in a secular state.

I want a president that is ethical, whether he is moral or not. Frankly, I don’t know what is moral and what is immoral. I do know what is oppressive, violent and as a result wrong. The language of morality is irredeemably religious and extremely shortsighted. Moral people have no problem with the death penalty, or throwing their lesbian daughters out of their homes when they come out.

I don’t care about Zuma’s morality. I care about the political implications of his actions and words. Morality is one of those fuzzy concepts like “taste” or “decency”. These fuzzy concepts can be made to mean anything, and historically they have worked in the most oppressive ways – against slaves, against Blacks, against the Irish, against the Jews, against lesbians and gay men, etc. As far as I am concerned, “moral regeneration”, “family values” and talks about morality, when they are not faith confined, are just conservative rubbish. I don’t even talk morality in church. Leave that kind of stuff to the ACDP.

I am an active Catholic, so this is not even about not believing in religion. Nor is it about that silly business of factionalism and denominations between people who identify as Christian. I would say exactly the same thing about a Catholic bishop, or an Imam or a Rabbi, for that matter.

Secondly, I like living in a secular state. Religion is a personal choice, and I cannot see how a priest in the presidency does not send the same kinds of worrying messages that a soldier in the presidency does. The only cool thing about a priest in the presidency would be the fact that the president goes drag sometimes. Let’s keep the uniformed people from powerful regulatory institutions (church, army, police) out of the presidency, please.

Thirdly, Bishop Dandala was the head of Methodist Church of Southern Africa until recently. The Methodist Church’s stance on termination of pregrancy and same sex marriage is unclear to me. I recognise that members of any faith community differ – just like I am feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-reproductive technologies even though I have not left the church I was raised in. The Catholic church has policies that oppose termination, contraception and artificial insermination, but it also has a sterling record of fascist top leadership. (That was a trick “but”.) I am a walking contradiction in this regard, but my religious political hope comes from people like Sister Bernard Ncube, Father Smangaliso Mkatshwa and Archbishop Mpilo Desmind Tutu. So, I am not judging Bishop Dandala on what he chooses to believe in his heart. Nonetheless, a presidential candidate who wants my vote needs to tell me in a straightforward manner how he feels on abortion and lesbian marriages.

Fourthly, I am not sure that a “new” political face is the best way to go at this point. I am all for change, but too much change at once needs much explanation/clearly articulated direction. Change in an uncertain direction leads to insecurity. People don’t vote for parties they are unsure about. Did COPE not have enough headaches from the Affirmative Action controversies? Are they really as clueless as they pretend to be about how many Black votes that confusion has cost them? Do they not realise how pissed off many professional Black women are about the affirmative action PRACTICE at COPE which reinforces the national standard? Do they really have to make everything new?

Maybe they do, but then this will affect voter confidence. People won’t vote for COPE if they’re not really sure of what COPE stands for. This new kid on the block has a lot of potential, but COPE will need to do a lot to recapture the November excitement. If it manages to do that again, then the party stands a chance of double digit percentages in the polls.

There are many voters whose voting choices are unclear for the first time. COPE is neither giving me hope, nor making me feel particularly excited right now.

2009 elections: where are the COPE posters?

It is hard to go anywhere in Johannesburg these days without seeing all sorts of election posters.

The ANC started way ahead of everyone else with the trendy youngsters vote ANC posters. That’s not what the posters said. (That’s just what I call the posters.) ANC election posters are almost always boring, plain, predictable. The two notable exceptions were the trendy youngsters vote ANC” ones and before that the very first 1994 posters with Madiba surrounded by the rainbow children. Visually the Mandela ones were really cool, but I am battling to find the images I mean online. It is easier to find the usual “Mandela for President” one that you see everywhere now. I have since lost my 1994 poster, otherwise I’d have posted a pic. I still have a pin with the one I mean, so maybe I’ll post that pic closer to the elections or whenever I remember.

The UDM had those cool billboards on the M1 north and south with Holomisa that we could not miss as we sat in traffic. The enviromentalist in me really liked this approach because you had visibility that was kinder on the environment. It was much later that UDM paper posters went up on street poles, but there are fewer of these than for the other parties. I am also quite chuffed by Holomisa’s new status as the rabble rouser in the lead up to the elections. I like being entertained in the lead up to elections. Most of the time political figures make me very tired, so excitement is good. I still have no idea who the other people in the UDM are. Once I saw the vice president on what must have been his most inarticulate day ever. At least I hope that was an off day and that he doesn’t always sound like that.

The DA posters are very strange. Nobody I know can figure out whether the faces are people we are supposed to know, or whether the DA’s narrow reading of race and identification has led to random faces chosen to stand in for phenotypically African, phenotypically Indian, phenotypically coloured, etc. It is more than interesting that the white person on the posters is identifyable as the DA leader, Helen Zille. What? They could not get some of the known Black faces to be on the posters? Instead we have anonymous random Black faces for the different kinds of Blacks, and an identifiable white person. The DA posters reveal the real elephant in that party’s room: the equation of race with phenotype and the slippery sloap that leads to.

But this posting was actually supposed to be about COPE’s strange relationship to election posters. I have been wondering aloud about first the absence of COPE posters, and now the boring ones we have started to see on street poles in the last week. Is this a clue of things to come from COPE? How can the new kid on the block be so overwhelmed so soon?

The late COPE election posters are dull beyond measure. COPE seems to be competing with the ANC for boring. The colours are the same as the Zuma ANC ones all over the show. Now, the ANC can afford to have boring posters because they will win the election, as the default party that most South Africans will vote for. COPE should be trying to do something else.

What happened to all that excitement over young people organising for COPE? I expected that there would be some funky electioneering from their end, but this was not to be. Where is my entertainment, COPE, where, where, where? First the delays over an election strategy, then the missing COPE posters, then the debacle over leadership and the presidential candidate. It is all confusing. And you don’t want to be confusing in the run up to the elections because that will cost you badly.

For its own sake, I do hope that COPE gets its act together and starts having more interesting visibility in the run up to the elections. There was almost tangible excitement leading up to the November convention and the launch of the party in Bloemfontein. It would be a damn shame if COPE remained just plain boring when it counts. And here I mean boring in both senses — the general English one and the ‘black’ one.

RIP Susan Tsvangirai

Susan Tsvangirai died in a car accident last Friday, and I know that her husband, Morgan, has said he really thinks it was an accident, but I remain skeptical. I saw footage of him on the news saying something along the lines of there being 1 in a 1000 chances that the accident was deliberate. Regardless of what we may want to think, it is very sad that she was taken away now during this tentative time in Zimbabwe’s history.

I felt quite deflated when I first heard on Friday night. Haven’t Zimbabweans been dealing with enough with that Bob Mugabe who is STILL president, albeit illegitimately? And then I started suspecting that someone was trying to kill the new Prime Minister. How many people don’t know about the unofficial history of the political car accident in Zimbabwe?