Nelson Mandela Foundation

A review of Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater.

The way we speak about Apartheid measures it as an opaque and inescapable nightmare. It is this time where being African suddenly meant to be Black and to be Black meant to be dying. It’s a dark nightmare where gangs of White men rode in in unmarked bakkies carrying guns, bibles and Black Label. Everyone was always afraid, cowering in terror in our labour reserves, too scared to make a sound, living these depressed and sorry lives. It was the evil time that had no colour, no smell or feeling. The mines, the hostels and filthy stinking barracks, the farms, the dogs, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the death squads, the massacres: The dead time. 

Imagine my complete amazement learning that my grandmother employed a domestic worker in this time and bought her husband a car, an emerald green Mercedes Benz no less. That’s the feeling I got watching Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater), at the Market Theatre by Neil Coppen and Mpume Mthombeni. It makes that dead time visible, and explicable. The dead and flat time of Apartheid takes real, complicated form in the story the two of them have to tell. The people that lived it have agency and are big and capable. It takes the life of Zenzile Maseko seriously. It is neither a moral tale of good versus evil nor a spectacle of the pathos of “the Black woman that had difficult choices to make”. Watching it, I felt deeply that as much as the past lives in the present, the present lives in the past.

What I learnt was that Black people are necessary, capable, and human. The notion that Blackness has something to do with dying cannot mean the demise of Black people. We will always be here - not because we are resilient, or the innocent meek that will inherit the Earth, but because we are necessary. 

Isidlamlilo is the story of Zenzile Maseko, who has been declared dead by Home Affairs. She’s sent home to wait for them to call her back and there, in a woman’s hostel in KwaZulu-Natal, she prays to God not to turn their face away from her when she reaches the pearly gates. Zenzile has a thing for surviving attempts on her life. First, it was impundulu, the lightning bird with a hammer for a head, that struck her when she was a child, and all the children at school that called her a witch for surviving such a thing. Then, working for Inkatha as an assassin who killed African National Congress leaders, a group of ANC men body-snatched her and drove her to the top of a hill, poured petrol over her body and left her for dead in the gutters. And now by “the system” at Home Affairs.

This rapport with death she unpacks has nothing to do with White people, at least not directly. In fact, White people do not feature at all, if I remember correctly, in Zenzile’s life. The thing she is fighting is men and the conditions of being Black in Apartheid. After her husband is killed, she is trained as an assassin in Nzdono’s army primarily to avenge the killing of her husband. The Inkatha leader, Nzondo, has a regiment of assassins that are women that go by the name “Amakhosazana ‘Ayisikhombisa, Seven Sisters”, izinja zeGame. 

These women killed people. Zenzile took on the alias Impundulu and became infamous as a being impossible to kill. There is an intimacy, a deep and aching relationship with death since the death of her husband. But why? Why can she not die?

This is the question that Fallists kept describing, the thing that so many Black people communicate when we tuck the right hand behind our back, clutching the left elbow. It’s the thing Saidiya Hartman describes when she argues that being subjected to acts of routine violence, commonplace degradation, and systematic dehumanization, has erased the social existence of Black Americans. Isidlamlilo is thorough and deliberate in exhibiting the stakes involved in living so close to death. 

They are the same stakes of this country right now and so I wonder how different Apartheid must not have been compared to Democracy. Two years ago there were food riots in at least two provinces. A year before that the police shot and killed a man sitting in his own yard because he wouldn’t go into the house during a lockdown. Eight years earlier the state massacred striking mine workers. As much as this condition is a product of our history, in some ways, this condition produces our history to justify itself too by closing off the discussion as blindly worse than this.

This intimate relationship with death that we have cultivated in our violent democracy still does not overcome us, in the same way it could not overcome Zenzile Maseko. We’re a stubborn country. And more than that, it must not overcome us if this country itself is going to persist. The social death of Black people is like COVID-19: it exists by extracting the energy and life force of the host, but if it kills the host, there is no longer a host to survive off of. So the body must be held at the useful verge of death always.

So many things have tried to kill Black people, not least of all the lists and the lines that gorge themselves on Black people’s time. We are stubborn, stubborn people who kill when we grieve the loss of our love and can use muti to turn into an orange, rolling into the bushes. 

Isidlamlilo tells the story of how Zenzile navigates these stakes and demonstrates how we can slip into and out from the jaws of death itself and arrange presence and absence as tools to navigate identity politics, class, race and even the history we live in. If Apartheid is still here, then we are still here. Zenzile says we will always be here, past the plagues and the pestilence, past the floods and the pouring of the bowls. Past the four horsemen and the coming of Jehova and past Judgment Day. We will still be here. Still here because we are necessary to the world we have come to know as real.

As a student, I took a course on the philosophy of race offered at the University of Cape Town. There was this question about some of the differences between Race and Gender as social constructs and how they operate. The best we could do was to say that gender has many stakes in reproductive labour and sexual desire. At the same time, race doesn’t produce symbiotic relations that pull different races together in the ways different genders are pulled together through sexuality. Rather, racism claims to push different racial groups apart.

I no longer think this is true. The pushing apart forms a bond as long as the arm pushing races apart - they become linked together, defined specifically by their distance from other races. The very idea of race is a consequence of the desire for industrial labour by European colonial powers, beginning in the 15th century with the trans-Atlantic slave trade - people were made to be Black to justify the desire for bodies to produce free and cheap labour to establish the United States as a world power and to fuel the European Industrial Revolution. In this way, the world we understand is not possible without Blackness.

In "Black Skin, White Masks," by Frantz Fanon published in 1952, Fanon examines the impact of racism on Black people and argues that racism was not merely a response to preexisting population differences but a social construct that created and perpetuated racial identity itself.

According to Fanon, the process of racialization was not a natural or inevitable consequence of human differences but a product of historical and social contexts. He sees racism as a mechanism through which power is exercised, and racial categories are created to maintain oppressive systems.

In our capitalist society, Blackness is tragically critical to producing, underpinning and driving the world we understand as real today. In that way, Blackness is necessary. Unlike Descartes’ argument, “I think therefore I am”, Blackness is a matter of Ubuntu, “I am because you are”, our existence is always relational, predicated on the existence of the other. And so Zenzile Maseko pleads with her family that when she dies, please may she be buried face down because she is stubborn and wants to stay dead. She prays to God to allow her to finally rest and if this is not possible, let her be at peace as the last woman on Earth, living with wild dogs laying at her sides and cobra’s sleeping in her soft, warm lap. Zenzile is committed to making good of it all, at the end of it all. 

At the end of history, Zenzile will still be here.

“Lutho awusoze wangibulala mina.” says Zenzile, “ I’ll be here past uJohn’s judgements. Past the coming of the horseman, the breaking of the seals, the sounding of the trumpets and the pouring of the bowls. Past the earthquakes, pestilences, storms, the clouds of ash that suffocate the sun and moon, the floods and swarms.

“Past the melting of the ice, drying of the rivers and dying of the land. After those plagues have sucked the final breaths from the remaining sinners' lips and I’ve washed and sung the last corpse left to sleep there deep…deep…deep in the ground.” Zenzile will still be here.

“No more lists or lines, no more suffering or shame. With hands raised to their heavens, I’ll reclaim the dance of my ancestors…stamp out the coals left by hell's eternal flames. 

“And when the First Rains fall again to cool the  steaming Earth and there’s nothing, not a soul or human left - even after that, I, Zenzile Maseko, life-giver, life-taker, Isidlamlilo, Impundulu will remain.”

Isidlamlilo fills a great missing in the story of this country. It exquisitely brings to light crucial and compelling narratives about women, power and being that complicate and explain our history, all in the same entrancing performance by Mpume Mthombeni. Isidlamlilo is necessary and urgent viewing.

 Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater. Market Theatre, 20 July to 6 August.

Originally published in the Daily Maverick