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July 05, 2007

Reconciliation between black and black in South Africa: Nothing but the Truth - John Kani

Posted by Brendan Simms

John Kani's Nothing but the Truth
directed by Janice Honeyman
starring John Kani
Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge
12th - 16th June 2007

Those who grew up in South Africa before the introduction of apartheid in 1948 often used to say that the real divide was not between Black and White, but between Afrikaner and English speaker. Others, observing the revelations of terrible atrocities perpetrated by guerrillas against alleged collaborators in the 1980s, and the internal disputes which have wracked the African National Congress since the end of white rule in 1994, have argued that the deepest split is between black and black. Watching John Kani's Nothing but the Truth, which premiered in Britain this year, and is currently on tour, it appears that the greatest gulf in South Africa is in fact between those who stayed and those who left behind.

The hero of the play, Sipho Makhaya, played by Kani himself, is the man who held the fort, and the family together. Abandoned by his wife many years earlier, he lives alone with his daughter Thando. He is serving out his last years as the assistant chief librarian of Port Elizabeth. Thando works as a translator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sipho's recently deceased and impossibly charismatic brother Temba, is the man who went into exile in London. His daughter, Mandisa, very much a sophisticated Londoner returns with his brother's ashes for burial in the family plot. To her bewilderment, Thando explains that though they are cousins in blood, they are "sisters" in the African sense.

It is a great strength of the play, that the divide between the two girls is never overplayed. Despite very different upbringings, they relate to each other on more than just a human level. Thando, however, steadfastly refuses to be drawn by her cousin into the discourse of revenge against the vanquished white minority. And when Mandisa lectures her hosts on the injustice of letting the apartheid killers off scot-free in return for their confessions, Sipho's resentment at the privileged status of the ANC exiles boils over.

This anger is not free of self-interest or self-regard, of course. Sipho still seethes at the privileging of his younger brother on whom an expensive university education was wasted, while he had to earn the family keep. He rages against the injustice of the new dispensation which continues to deny him promotion within the library, and at the memory of his brother, who failed to return with other exiles after 1994.

It may be that Kani is making a biographical point of his own here. Among the credits listed in the programme notes are not only the plays and performances which have made his reputation, but - rather defiantly - the politically incorrect thriller The Wild Geese, which warmed the hearts of the robust across the free world in the late 1970s. Apart from its transparent ideological baggage - the plot features an intervention by white mercenaries in an African dictatorship - the film was controversially filmed in apartheid South Africa. In it Kani played the young Sergeant Jesse who is treated with benevolent condescension by the white officers. On the other hand, given that Jesse is one of the raid's few survivors, while the two main Afrikaner characters - played by Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger - both perish, perhaps Kani had the last laugh.

Anyway, it soon becomes clear - indeed some fairly crude signposting prepares us for this almost from the start - that Temba's precipitate departure from South Africa had something to do with his relationship with Sipho's wife. Thando and Mandisa may well be sisters in the literal sense. In this way, Kani skilfully explores the ambivalence of victim and perpetrator. Temba is both: he suffers at the hands of the apartheid regime, yet he hurts his own brother much more deeply and intimately than the regime ever could. Sipho in turn threatens to stifle his own daughter, who yearns to sample the cosmopolitan delights which Mandisa dangles before her eyes. Yet Kani invests him not only with a sympathetic but also a heroic character. The "struggle", he spells out with what is clearly authorial voice towards the end, was not just waged by the Tembas, but by the Siphos - all the assistant chief librarians - who marched peacefully into the white areas with Bishop Tutu, who braved the tear gas, and buried the dead (including Sipho's own son).

At one level, Kani has written a play for blacks about blacks. There are no white characters in the play: that world lurks off-stage in the brutal policemen whose testimony Thando records and in the kindly if rather fusty Mrs Potgieter, Sipho's patron at the library. Yet, at another level the theme is a universal one, and not just because it deals with those hackneyed evergreens of love and betrayal. The problems which the characters grapple with in the play are the same faced by societies emerging from unfreedom and conflict the world over. Kani's play is thus relevant not only to South Africans but also to ex-Yugoslavs, Iraqis, East Germans and Ulstermen. Reconciliation comes at a price, the message is, but it is worth paying.

Those who believe, as this reviewer does, in the universality of western values and that we are all in some ways our brother's keeper, the South African lesson is a sobering one. In Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, coming to terms with the past was a task which fell to outsiders. In South Africa, the process was more or less entirely self-generated, though aspects of it were later exported, for example to Northern Ireland. Watching Nothing but the Truth, who is to say that it was not the more effective mode of reconciliation?

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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