Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Politics of Hope: Engaging Lara Foot Newton's Tshepang: The Third Testament1

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Politics of Hope: Engaging Lara Foot Newton's Tshepang: The Third Testament1

Article excerpt

LARA FOOT NEWTON'S POWERFUL PLAY TSHEPANG (2001) invokes "hope" in its eponymous character, the nine-month-old baby, who is raped and miraculously survives. The epigraph, "Based on twenty thousand true stories," reminds us that the play portrays just one of twenty thousand stories per year about child rape in South Africa. The play has two characters onstage - Ruth the mother of the baby and Simon a friend who has loved her since childhood - and takes place three years after the rape of baby Siesie, who is later named Tshepang (hope). Ruth was expelled from the village and they manage to survive in a new locale, where they eke out a meagre existence. We learn about the village from Simon, the narrator, who speaks to us throughout the play, moving between the past and present, and between stories and enactments; as a storyteller par excellence, he evokes the lives of diverse villagers and provides a context for the horrifying details of the rape of baby Tshepang. In contrast, Ruth, the mother of Tshepang, remains verbally silent throughout the play except for the final word, the quiet uttering of her baby's name, which signifies hope on different levels. Strapped to Ruth's back is a small version of the big bed in which Tshepang was raped, signifying the way that African women carry their babies and, in this instance, foregrounding the indelible memory of her baby and the burden she always carries. Ruth's gestural communication is masterful; not only does she respond physically to Simon's stories, her facial expressions and postures convey her grief, despair, regret, and guilt. Throughout the play, Ruth sits on a pile of salt, which she rubs into animal hides to cure them. No small reminder of how black women in South Africa were foremost menial labourers, "(her manic and obsessive rubbing of the salt)" produces an incessant scraping sound that reminds us of how she traumatically revisits the event, "rubbing salt into her wound," and also relating to Simon's response to the ambulance driver who came to deal with the raped baby: "We stood, bags of salt."1

Even as it evokes a context of abject poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness in a village in the Cape Province, a place where "nothing ever happens," Tshepang is, I believe, a watershed play in post-apartheid South African theatre. It is a cultural expression of the on-going work of restorative justice in South Africa, through its attempt to transform violence, refuse modes of vengeance, and promote an essential societal process of healing. Situating this work in the stark reality of a post-apartheid South Africa, I explore the ways in which the play innovatively contributes to the disruption of the cycle of vengeance and engages the politics of hope. In the South African context the play embodies small glimmers of hope unlike the much- vaunted expressions of hope and change that formed the basis of Barack Obama's Presidential election campaign and his book The Audacity of Hope.2 Despite inheriting a dire national scenario linked to a global downturn, in 2008 President Obama promised changes, like national healthcare, aimed at the basic needs of the working class and the poorest members of American society. In contrast, the South African Government has unfortunately fallen far short of its goals of uplifting and improving the lives of millions of its poverty-stricken people. The crime-rate rises daily; statistics about violence, especially against women, have reached devastating proportions. Yet this powerful play, Tshepang [hope] The Third Testament provokes spectators to remember the bold promises and dreams of South Africa's first non-racial government and refuses to allow them to ignore urgent societal issues, so that the future may offer a little more hope than the present and past.

At the outset, it is necessary to clarify the term 'post-apartheid', which I define as a stage following apartheid (from 1948 to 1993) not in the sense of completion but, rather, as another phase that continues after the watershed democratic election of 1994. …

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