Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom and Aubrey Sekhabi
Theatre Royal Stratford East and Space Town Entertainment
Rhetorical was commissioned as a play to be based on the speeches of Thabo Mbeki, deputy to Nelson Mandela, first President of South Africa after the end of apartheid, and his successor as head of state. It goes very much further than a succession of his public political statements.
While the structure follows Mbeki’s political career it also gives us something of the man and of the effects of his policies and his style of government and some of the problems of post-apartheid South African society.
Mbeki left Africa on the instructions of the ANC soon after the banning of that organisation, one of a group of young men posing as a football team to facilitate their escape. In England, he worked with Oliver Tambo (effective overseas leader of the ANC) while study economics at the University of Sussex.
Eight formative years in London and two in Moscow before transferring to the ANC base in Lusaka gave him an education and a more European outlook as is reflected in the play’s opening when, from a stage scattered with books, he picks up titles by Sartre, Brecht, Plath, Hughes, Steiner and W B Yeats.
While in the West his urbane diplomacy had countered any image of the ANC as terrorists, in South Africa some found his style as president distant and academic. As he says himself, “as a politician you can’t afford to be out of touch with your people".
The play implies that he was always trying to prove his African identity and satirically shows him trying out the styles of Winston Churchill, Mark Luther King and even Adolf Hitler. When dissension within the ANC forces his resignation, this is represented with a struggle between himself and other parties to take over control of a microphone.
With film clips of Mbeki to establish identity, Sello Zikalala plays him with a mixture of authority and uncertainty that matches this image of a politician secure among intellectuals but less able to create a popular public persona.
Strong African accents sometimes make dialogue difficult to follow, but the episodes that reflect life in post-apartheid South Africa are played with an emphasis on physical performance and sometimes add welcome elements of humour.
These are led by the charismatic Presley Chweneyagae (star of Oscar-winning movie Tsotsi and, like writer-director Grootboom, known to Stratford audiences from Township Stories) and show the underlying problems of a society where, though universal suffrage may bring hope and a black-dominated government, there isn’t equality. Money rules and it is still a white minority who have economic power.
We see violence, though the thieves and muggers claim they have to work hard to steal that hard-earned money. We see township dwellers who lose their homes in a fire. We see how men have to leave their families and go off to the Jo’burg mines to find work.
This is an opportunity to show a black foreman teaching a new arrival at the miners’ boot dance. This leads into a sequence that proved the high spot for the largely teenage schoolgirl matinée audience with whom I saw it. A miner, far from his family, visits a glamorous Jo’burg hooker and learns a whole new range of sexual excitements that he takes back to his village to introduce his wife to.
Unfortunately, that’s not all he takes back. The red ribbons that tokened erotic excitements now taken on fatal symbolism as the miner succumbs to Aids, the handling of which is perhaps the worst blot on Mbeki’s record.
With Pulani Jantjjes, Melissa Matshikiza and, Manyeste Ontireste playing other roles, this company performs with an intensity that demonstrates their commitment to this warts and all presentation of a figure overshadowed by his noble predecessor and not nearly so well-known to their Western audiences, though he was a behind-the-throne policy maker during Mandela’s presidency.
Rhetorical is presented is part of the Afrovibes Festival, which is now taking place across Britain in 17 different venues following a season in the Netherlands. Check the web site for any performances near you.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton