by Brent Quinn. Excerpt from Fade to Black, a memoir of sorts.
South Africa – the eve of our first democratic election.
It’s an epistemic shift. The liberation heroes are free, and instantly we’re in a new country. Apartheid’s curse has lifted and miraculously, there’s laughter on the wind and a shine in people’s eyes. It’s utterly contagious – everywhere people are happy.
Sarafina is being screened at the Market Theatre cashing in on the imminent election euphoria. The hype is massive as I stroll toward the entrance of the Market Theatre, wearing my black porkpie hat. I work as a writer/director mostly on advocacy/educational media, nothing this grand. The Sarafina poster looms large, featuring the glamourous Leleti Khumalo, fist raised and heralding victory over the cruel white man. Great poster, the movie a tad cardboard.
The Market is where the less risky liberation struggle was fought through art, spewing indignation through words not bullets. Some was good but most was just incredibly valid outrage parading as art. Struggle theatre was a prompt to what had just birthed on the streets although her artists, would argue their utter centrality in triggering meaningful change. Whatever, tonight is about showbiz not dialectics, right. And little did we know, tragically Struggle Theatre would not last after the head-shrinking that was Apartheid. Without something stark to rail against our stage lights dimmed terribly.
The foyer is abuzz, I head for the security of the bar. It seems, everyone has a ticket except me. But hey, I’m just an observer. A chronicler from the shadows. And like so many, pale lefties, I’m comfortable on the side-lines. The foyer of the old vegetable market is majestic, columns and high ceiling. It is already uncomfortably glitzy, in a b/w, bourgeois kind of showbiz way. The thespians network, gesturing perfectly and lapping up attention where they can as do the comrades, who have clearly arrived in more ways than one. It all feels so advertising campaign. Then I glimpse who I think is Cyril – the NUM guy – General Secretary, Labour’s kingpin! Is it? Oh yes, that’s definitely our Cyril–Injury-to-one-an-injury-to- All-Ramaphosa, despite the larny suit. And what a fine job he is doing, drafting our new constitution… (You decide if this makes the suit OK?)
But I’m curious, Labour is heading outside. Running actually, as oft the Left has had to. I follow. Once outside, he’s gone, lost in a bigger vibrating crowd. Where’s that General Secretary? Then people begin to part, part like one imagines they did when palm leaves were laid, heralding a great return. Suddenly, I have a front row seat and I witness walking directly toward me two giants! Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. Camera lights snap on and the heroes are now framed in a lit area on the red carpet, just outside the entrance, with of course, Sarafina’s poster as their backdrop. I’m frozen – they live – they are real! Surprisingly short men but massive icons both. They personify something rare, impeccable cinematic style from the era of Bogart, Cagney et al. Both have hats, shiny shoes and walking sticks. The media jostles, people gasp and hold their mouths. Cyril is ushering, facilitating. It’s perfect hovering protocol, affording the stars the limelight they’ve so profoundly earned via decades of exile and prison respectively. The legends linger. Two learned socialists, discoursing and gesturing, fathoming I’m sure, a conundrum of great consequence for the proletariat. Then it dawns on me, the icons are in a manner performing for history. It is just so beautiful, not forced nor pretentious. At last, artful political theatre but with unmatched style and the promise of a happy ending. But then, bewilderingly, I notice Cyril is withdrawing.
Everyone has spilled outside, drawn like moths to the cause. Labour passes me. Why? I’m momentarily torn but the writer in me decides to follow a hunch. Back through those big doors. It is now almost empty inside, then I hear a very loud, distinctly white, upper-class shriek! The translation of which is darling!
I can only stare, beholding in the foyer of the market, with the politburo chatting outside, a white woman, dressed in elegant flowing black with dark raven hair, running – as one does in the climactic scene of any epic. And our leading man, comrade Cyril, is running toward her, arms also outstretched. My memory slow-motions their falling into each other. Labour raises her aloft and rotates, swinging his Joan d’Arc around and around. She clings, a whirling dervish, her head buried in his neck. Then they’re laughing, really laughing and heading off, arm-in-arm. The happy b/w romantic couple, utter taboo in this land, a few historical seconds ago.
Someone is smiling next to me. I ask: Is that who I think it is? No, not Cyril…? Mary Slack – Harry Oppenheimer’s daughter.
The soundtrack in my head hits crescendo. At the opening of Sarafina, in the foyer of this old fruit market, labour and capital dance, while outside, the noble architects of our revolution chat, their hearts aglow with optimism.
I’m hearing warning bells, just not sure who the composer is.
Looking back, this divided land has always been a landscape of irony. Here struggle heroes shape-shift so effortlessly into struggle royalty, willingly seduced by and seducing capital. And how generously the old white elite embraced the opportunity for genuine inclusion. Beneath the dance, everyone knew the subtext was and has always been about money, striking compromises, so to speak, for not having one’s throat slit at revolution’s midnight.
Today, decades later, we now know the consequence of how our glorious revolution failed her people. But back then this was just not yet apparent, but I knew, I had just witnessed a piece of political theatre of some import. Watching as one does, from the shadows, without a ticket.