Were it not for the exploitation of mineworkers over the past 130 years, Nigeria would likely have overtaken South Africa as the largest economy on the continent decades ago.
The fact that it has now done so through recalculating the contribution to GDP made by its creative, tech and telecoms industries illustrates how we remain stuck in the 20th Century paradigm of profit off the back of cheap labour while elsewhere African countries leapfrog into the technological age. It is easier, and better value-for-money to find a developer in Kenya today than in South Africa where we crow about a ‘Silicon Cape’.
Here in the complacent south we seem hell-bent on maintaining an unjust and outdated status quo and are then shocked by what happened at Marikana. And the mine bosses, in league with the economists, still have the gall to complain that continuous strike action in the mining sector is what is preventing economic growth while it is outmoded business practices that are the real threat to stability.
And not only are the people who sweat and die in dark tunnels deep, deep underground to harvest the mineral wealth enjoyed by the few paid a pittance, once their health and productivity is broken by a system that maintains their poverty what remains owed to them in the form of pensions or compensation is often not paid out.
There is about R5.7 billion in social security benefits owed to former mineworkers now able to do little more than sit outside their huts on bare land in Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho.
A regional study conducted by Dr Mathias Nyenti and Prof George Mpedi which was presented at a regional dialogue in Pretoria at the end of February, notes this money remains tied up in a number of pension funds, provident funds and retirement funds, with little to no real attempt being made to expedite payment.
In addition, Nyenti and Mpedi found that over 274 000 former mine workers are yet to receive occupational disease compensation totalling about R700 million held by Rand Mutual Assurance and the Mines’ 1970 Pension and Provident Fund. There are widows eking a living hawking chips or veggies yet they are owed thousands of rands, money that hardly compensates for the loss of their husbands but could at least provide the capital enabling them to establish profitable small businesses.
It is this context that makes a play like Undermined tasteless at best. Not only is it tasteless, like the business practices of today’s mine bosses the theatrical form it indulges in – a ‘90s style comedic physical theatre – is worn and outdated, now suited to children’s theatre, really.
The unrelenting comic tricks of actors Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, Luke Brown and Stefan Erasmus amount to little more than a series of skits, often going off on tangents that have no relevance to the story or plot beyond providing laughs for the audience, and serving to obscure the tale they’re ostensibly trying to tell rather than leading us into it.
The result is that the actual ‘true story’ recedes into the background. Becomes little more than an excuse for stringing together outdated physical theatre tricks, clever as they may be, interspersed with pedestrian song-and-dance routines, all performed with wide smiles plastered onto you’re-really-enjoying-this-aren’t-you expressions.
If it were my story, I’d be appalled. The entire show, which had me groaning from beginning to end as I sank ever lower in my seat, undermines the toil and dignity not only of the man whose story they’re telling, but mineworkers everywhere.
Not that one shouldn’t stage a mineworker’s story. In fact, given the current situation in South Africa, it is a concern that theatrical and visual artists seem to be leaving this subject largely to journalists and authors. And I’m not saying such a play shouldn’t contain humour. Of course it should, we would not cope without it. But as any theatre maker should know (for humour really should be an area of their expertise) humour has many types and variations, and whether it is crass and cruel or humble and inclusive often depends on which character employs it and to what end.
The way humour is employed in Undermined makes it feel like the kind of light entertainment organised for soldiers at war (or mine workers living in appalling conditions) by their superiors as a morale-boosting diversion.
Not that there’s anything wrong with diversion either, but, like humour, a lot depends on whence it originates.
If mineworkers themselves wish to gumboot dance and take part in swag shows as a means of alleviating the drudgery of menial labour underground, that is their prerogative. They are the ones doing the suffering. It is not the prerogative of the theatre maker to turn a mineworker’s story of injustice – a true story – into a three-man Punch and Judy show. And then tack on a fairy-tale ending replete with white wedding dress that, given the insincerity of all that has gone before, does not ring true.
Mkhwanazi, Brown and Erasmus are very good at what they do, there is no doubt. Possibly too good. Like specialised machines that can perform only one function. Given that Mkhwanazi and Brown wrote the play, that they’re too mired in their particular theatrical paradigm is the only answer I can think of to the question: how did director Tara Notcutt let this happen?
Either that or she suffered an awful lapse of reason.
She was after all the guiding hand behind the fantastic, up-to-the-minute political thriller Three Little Pigs. Having shown that level of political nous, it was glaringly lacking here.
Furthermore, besides directing a clutch of excellent work, she assisted in directing Cracked Mirror with performers from Port Elizabeth’s Opera House acting as mineworkers. The depiction of life underground had a sensitive and powerful touch. They evoked that world, with all its grunt and effort and monotony and small rewards and humour. A humour that emerged from within, not a jarring comedy spread over the entire play like an excess of cheap four-fruit jam.
It’s a pity that her name on this play is surrounded by outmoded practices becoming increasingly Jurassic as the rest of the world moves on. But perhaps, like Nigeria, all she has to do is recalculate her worth.
As do the rest of us. - Steve Kretzmann
Undermined plays at the Kalk Bay Theatre until May 3. Tickets cost R80 and R70 for gallery seats. To book visit www.kalkbaytheatre.co.za
Guests can also enjoy supper before the show, with a Tuesday night special. For information and to book a table for dinner, call 079 361 8275.