Nelson Mandela Foundation

Notes Towards A Model Opera 2  With Dado Mashilo 1600X758 Image: Kathy Berman

When the ghost train crashed through the living room, the impact did not slow its momentum. Almost instantaneously, the structure and foundation whirled around me, the doors became floors, the windows became ceilings, the table a chair, the chair became my son, my son was missing, the Glen Grey Act, 100 years of war, the revolt of Chief Langalibalele, the leg left in Lusaka, the Sharpville Massacre, the mines, the death squads, "he has another family now", the Black Administration Act, the rent-labourers, forced removals, the train kept crashing through and crashing through. Carriage after blinding carriage of an onslaught poured through the walls’ mangled mouths, opened by the train.

Part of the energy created by the impact translated itself as heat energy as our flesh melted into the carnage. The trauma joined our bodies. To be heaved from the wreckage is to be dismembered of a fresh limb.

Last year, I went to go see Why Should I Hesitate: Putting Drawings to Work by William Kentridge at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town. What struck me was the scale of the show, the traces of time spent creating multiple floors of stop-motion animation, the humour of Kentridge, the social commentary, the coming to fruition of a style evolved over decades, the modesty and ingenuity of Kentridge. All the while, I could hear the train whistling. This past month, I went to see another production by Kentridge, For Once: Why Should I Hesitate, accompanied by Kyle Shepard on the grand piano, at The Centre for The Less Good Idea in Johannesburg. Before the doors opened, I thought I’d enjoy a Black Label so I joined one of two queues at the bar.

The space is cluttered with elderly white women wearing khaki kaftans and hues of orange pashminas. The queue I’m in is almost cut by a couple that look like human rights veterans, but the white women in front of me give a glance that makes them realise they’re cutting into the queue. I reach the front. There are three bartenders, two managing either side of the bar with another moving anxiously back and forth, reaching into crates and closing fridges left open. The human rights veterans move out from behind me and stand at the bar – of course, their social capital has them served first. Eventually, the bartender serves me.

“A black please”. The Yoco machine fails to connect so he turns to serve a pair of watercolour painters. Fine. He returns and tries to reconnect the machine with his phone. Another failure. He turns again and serves a pair of elderly primary school teachers. Eventually, I ask to use the Yoco machine on the other side of the bar. The anxious bartender receives the request and turns over to take the machine from the other bar but is interrupted by another couple of yoga instructors. I rest my chin in the palm of my hand to express my dissatisfaction. Eventually, I pay and move to take my seat. Suffering from the same self-hatred as the black bartenders, I leave a space between myself and the fine art history professor next to whom I am sitting. I hear the train rattle its tracks.

Kentridge’s current themes incorporate a lot of absurdism, exaggerations of scale, playfulness, gibberish and abstraction carried through reflections on South African history, the First World War and anti-apartheid activism. In both shows, the black body is used as the symbolic site of South African history as it is depicted dancing the ballet, marching in Zionist parades, standing on soapboxes with absurdly large loud-hailers, carrying signs that read “nationalise the heavens”, gumboot dancing to a trombone, carrying a baby on its back through the veld.

There is something dehumanising of Black people in Kentridge’s current works. It is as though black people are a two-dimensional simulacrum, whose struggles against oppression are antics in a vaudeville production. It is as though it is true that not nearly enough black bodies died under colonialism and apartheid for either to count as crimes against humanity - there is no humanity there, a sign signifying nothing.

The show is compelling and intriguing as I reflect on the opening remarks from Kentridge asking whether “what we see can change what we hear, and what we hear what we see”. As we leave, the kaftans are roaring, both hands being used to describe the brilliance we had just witnessed, not one remarking on their absence in the absurd iconography of the show. The chorus of us moves out of the theatre towards the Fox Street entrance to Arts on Main where a black security guard has been waiting all this time. The white people move through him, over him, under him - he is not "there", a cardboard cutout moving in stop-motion, an economic animal whose humanity stayed in the train wreck.

I light a cigarette. I do not smoke but hold it out at the borderline of my personal space to stop the khaki kaftans and orange pashminas from walking through me, over me, under me, and almost burn the unrepentant hair of one doctor of English literature. There is another ghost train asking if I am boarding. Its carriages are not numbered but marked "Sofasonke", "One Settler One Bullet", "Rhodes Must Fall", "Black First Land First", "Shackville", "fuck the pedagogy of the oppressed", carriage after burning carriage of militancy and black hysterical discourse run to screech tracklessly through the manmade forests of Parkhurst, through Bedfordview, down through “Umshlanga” and into the ocean after Clifton and Camps Bay.