Not Redundant after All: Politics in the New South Africa Galvanises Liberal Writers Just as Much as It Did under Apartheid, as the Award-Winning Playwright Athol Fugard (Right) Tells Richard Brooks

By Brooks, Richard | New Statesman (1996), March 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Not Redundant after All: Politics in the New South Africa Galvanises Liberal Writers Just as Much as It Did under Apartheid, as the Award-Winning Playwright Athol Fugard (Right) Tells Richard Brooks


Brooks, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


Athol Fugard is arguably South Africa's greatest ever dramatist. Through award-winning plays such as Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, "Master Harold" ... and the Boys, and Boesman and Lena, his was an eloquent voice of opposition to the apartheid regime of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

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Now in his early seventies, Fugard is once again in the limelight. His one and only published novel, Tsotsi (the word is Soweto jargon for "gangster"), was adapted into a film last year. It has already been garlanded at several festivals; it was nominated for the top foreign award at last month's Baftas and then this month it took the ultimate accolade--the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Based on Fugard's story of a young thug who questions his purpose in life after finding a baby in the back seat of a stolen car, the movie opens in Britain on 17 March.

These days Fugard, a liberal South African, lives part of the year in San Diego in southern California where he teaches, and the rest in his native country. This double life, as he puts it, suits him well. It also gives him the chance to observe two lands having to cope with grave social and ethnic issues. San Diego has huge numbers of Latinos, with Spanish virtually the first language. In South Africa, of course, apartheid is officially over. "Yet there is still concern among the Anglo-Saxon whites about what is happening, just as there is in southern California with the Mexicans and Spanish speakers," he says.

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Broadly speaking, however, he is more optimistic than not about his homeland. "We are still trying to find ourselves in South Africa," he says. "Really, so little time has passed since those first elections which confirmed Nelson Mandela as president. We are still a fledgling democracy, but we are a democracy. We do have a free press, an independent judiciary and constitutional courts. And I'm also pleased to say that, unlike in America, those courts are not loaded with political appointees. So I have every reason to hope that South Africa will not enter the worst-case scenario which, sadly, has happened in other African countries."

He cites Uganda and Zimbabwe, where leaders whom the west thought would be reasonable have turned out very differently. In the case of South Africa's immediate neighbour to the north, the situation could hardly be worse. "There's been what I can only call an appeasement towards Robert Mugabe. Our government has really failed here. And it is not just President Mbeki. I fear that Mandela had a weak spot, too. What upsets me is that South Africa is supposed to set an example to the rest of Africa. We should also make sure that our message is heard in other African countries."

Fugard cites the corruption in some government circles in South Africa and the indictment on rape charges of the former deputy president Jacob Zuma, who had already been implicated in an arms scandal. He also despairs of Thabo Mbeki's "ludicrous" approach to Aids and the president's refusal to accept that the syndrome is linked to HIV. He is angry that Mbeki has taken such an unenlightened line on this disease, which has killed and will continue to kill millions of Southern Africans.

Fugard, whose play The Island is probably his biggest international success, would have preferred another man to succeed Mandela. "Mbeki is Mandela's Achilles heel," he explains, "but he wanted Mbeki. Mandela also was very old-fashioned and conservative, in the sense that he really believed and still does believe in that alliance of the African National Congress and the trades unions which gives the ruling party control and keeps it in power."

South Africans have, of course, fared pretty well over the past decade, not least because of their economy. "We've got the gold and that's helped hugely," notes the playwright. …

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