Education is a hot topic in South Africa. The declining standards, the apathy and lack of interest from (some) educators, particularly in the poorer provinces, like the Eastern Cape where Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! is set albeit in the mid 1980s, the lack of political will to make text books arrive on time – or at all – are all familiar topics both now and historically. Little has changed since the worst days of Bantu education and a good teacher, like Anela Myalatya, the “Mr M” (Msuthu Makubalo) of Fugard’s story, still makes the difference between lousy and good education, regardless of the excellence or otherwise of the syllabus. In other words, this play is as current as our present education woes. Of course, there are those who will argue that many of our present woes are historically situated in Bantu Education which accepted unqualified teachers and underfunded black schools horribly, making it all but impossible for young learners to break free from a future as unskilled labourers by entering the world of academic endeavour and succeeding there. Well, in this production we go back there – what conclusions you draw are your own business.
Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! is a set work for matric pupils and the National Children’s Theatre have produced the work which is now designed to tour high schools all over the country, ironically, often schools such as Zolile High School where our black student, Thami Mbikiwani (Phumlani Mdlalose), studies, as well as schools such as Cambedoo High School where our white student, Isabel (Christine van Hees), studies, both schools being in KingWilliamstown. The divide is as great as ever, although along lines of rich and poor now rather than black and white – although there are very few white children in the township schools where education is most likely to be inferior.
My Children! My Africa! is a two act play but the director, Siphumeze Khundayi, has chosen to run the whole thing together. I understand the difficulties of regrouping scholars after a break, but feel that the work would profit from some form of delineation between the two acts, even if the audience is not set free to wander around.
The actors dress into and undress from their costumes (by Sarah Roberts) on stage (sets also by Sarah Roberts), probably to enable the audience to distinguish between the performers and the performance. It certainly distances the actors as people from the actions of the characters on stage, which is both a blessing and a pity. It detracts from the relevance of the work to the present context but, in compensation, it highlights the historical aspect of the work, probably a more important consideration to learners who have no memories of the “lost generation of learners” upon which to draw. This dichotomy also highlights the skill of the actors in creating their plausible characters.
Watching the play is not easy. The work is inflammatory. As we smell the petrol from the Molotov Cocktail which the hidden Thami sits making, all the time playing with a cigarette lighter, we are acutely aware of the seething anger underpinning the action, as well as the helplessness and even lack of awareness around the action. The gap between the experiences of the world of white privilege and the realities black resentment and suppressed fury is palpable. Very little has changed, which is stressful for audiences on both sides of the divide.
The strength of the works of Athol Fugard lies in his uncanny ability to get inside the heads of his characters regardless of their backgrounds, to expose the injustices they see, feel and experience and to bring them to their audiences for a confrontation with something they may not have noticed or considered before. The actors become the face of new awareness and no member of the audience can ignore their humanity. Khundayi has created this production in such a manner that this audience empathy for each of the characters is accentuated as the richness of the characters is drawn out. We actually care about the end result. We know, intellectually, what the outcome will be, but our hearts scream for it to be different.
There are very few opportunities for the public to see this work, but it will be staged a few times at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown (3 Junction Street) before the end of May 2018. Please phone 011 484 1584 in order to find out more. I recommend this work to adult audiences.