The Moment of Truth — July 24, 1999
Reflections on South Africa
Good morning everyone. I’m mejeffdorchen and this is the Moment of Truth, a beacon of hope in the broadcast wilderness of deceit.
Many of you This is Hell listeners know that I, mejeffdorchen, returned last week from traveling for almost a month in South Africa. First I spent 2 days in Johannesburg, or Jo’burg, as the joburgers call it, then went to Grahamstown as stage manager for expatriate avant-garde theater artist Christiaan Pretorius’s triumphant return production of his play Dark Continent for the 25th anniversary of the annual Grahamstown national theater festival. At the same time I also produced, directed and performed a restaging of my own play, Birth of a Frenchman, which premiered in 1993 at the old Curious Theater Branch in Wicker Park. After the festival I went back to Jo’burg, then to the Kruger National Park where I saw wild animals walking around wild in their natural wilderness. Then I was accompanied by fellow Chicago theater genius Mickle Maher to Cape Town, from which we began a tour of the Cape wine country, the Atlantic Coast and the Cederberg Mountains. After lounging in geothermally heated baths, sampling the best wines and eating the finest French-influenced ostrich recipes, I returned to that muddle of contradictory symbols, ideals and realities we world travelers call “The States”.
So what’s it like in South Africa since the end of apartheid five years ago? Well, not having been there back in those days, all I can say is, if black people were worse off in South Africa before 1994, then they are a stunningly patient and generous bunch of people not to have overturned that nation in an orgy of gory vengeance. Because how ever crappy it was before, it still sucks. The white minority, which makes up about 15% of the total population, still lives on about 80% of the land. In airports and restaurants, on the highways driving SUVs and BMWs and Mercedes, the white people are still living in European style first world affluence, while most black people, like three quarters of the nation’s population, are living in shantytowns, serving and sweeping up after white people and living in conditions that have more in common with the poor of India than those enjoyed by their pale-fleshed countrymen.
No white South African ever does a dirty dish. In one house we stayed in in Jo’burg, that of a sweet queeny gourmet who works as script editor for South Africa’s cross-cultural hit soap opera, “Isidingo: The Need,” we would eat a meal, or even just a snack, and if you turned your back for a second, a black woman who lives in what were formerly and for all practical purposes still are the servants’ quarters, this woman, Dora, would have been watching through her window into the kitchen of the main house and, as soon as your back was turned, she was in and out having cleaned up your little whiteboy mess.
Even the formerly progressive artists we stayed with in Cape Town, bohemian by South African standards with their lovely house in the beautiful neighborhood, one of them teaching drama and the other directing plays full time, complain about their own poverty even though they have a cleaning woman who probably lives with her family in a house half the size. And they complain about the crime rate and the government’s corruption and they whine and they cry about how they also are African and why don’t they get any respect and why should they try to do anything to help poor people or black people when they steal from you and the cleaning lady wants more pay and a vacation. And the real thing they’re whining about is that they, who like other formerly progressive whites like Alan Patton and Athol Fugard and JM Coetzee saw themselves as important to the struggle against apartheid, whether the black revolutionaries knew it or not, they, these whining pussies who by some miracle weren’t massacred but instead continue to live privileged lives – these artists are the most repulsive of all, and they know it. They’ve lived at the nexus of the most important progressive revolution since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apartheid, the system that existed as a caricature of Europe’s imperial domination of other cultures, that has become a metaphor for all forms of persecution, leading to phrases like Stop Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan, Stop Religious Apartheid against Scientology, Stop Apartheid in the United States – a web search of the word apartheid will dish up less than 50% of results having to do with South Africa – and here they were, at the nexus of the peaceful overthrow of the Actual Apartheid, a system of forced relocation, a racist police state in the most overt sense, a nationwide prison system for 75% of the population just based on skin color – there they were, and all they can do is whine and complain and act like the most spoiled of babies.
Yes, it’s because they realize that they are now useless, irrelevant to culture. If they think they’re going to be the guardians of European culture they’re totally wrong, and they know it, cuz Europe and New York are doing just fine preserving their own. And if they think they’re going to redefine African culture, they’re wrong too. They’re bummed out because they’ve been revealed, not as revolutionaries, but simply as a few more members of the overpriviliged 15%. Yet so self-important are they, so egotistical, that rather than find out how they can actually BE involved in the changing culture, they sit there crying about the lack of artistic quality and the incompetent corrupt government and bemoaning the barely-perceptible waning of their ridiculous privilege. I mean, even I, snotty antichrist that I am, will admit that TV is more important culturally than any art I’ve ever engaged in or loved, and that not to engage culture with that in mind is unrealistic. And so I’ll take a back seat to Jerry Springer and ply my little trade in the backwaters. But these whiningest of all the world’s overprivileged pussies won’t even try to engage the culture because they’re so goddam defensive and so used to being the center of attention, and they can’t stand it that black artists are now more important than they are.
They are just like the character of the European in Christiaan Pretorius’s play, Dark Continent, which I helped bring to the Grahamstown festival this year – anachronisms, trapped in their little bathtub, carried along by the currents of African history, irrelevant to it, becoming more dotty and crotchety and helpless as their insignificance looms ever larger ahead of them, and beyond that… the final insult of death.
Now, the scary thing is, I think it’s possible that, were I in their shoes, erstwhile kings of the boho landscape, I might have ended up just like them: bitter and complaineous at the isolated southern tip of white civilization, doomed dinosaurs at the end of a millennium while everyone around them is ready to begin the new one. And so I’m duly humbled by the whole cultural and economic situation of South Africa, and everything I witnessed there, and everything I was complicit in and every way I might have touched someone positively, and I have to say I take that whole situation as a warning for myself to be vigilant, to remain committed to openly and definitely supporting economic justice, and never to allow myself to be deceived into thinking that esthetic excellence is somehow a replacement for caring about and engaging with real people.
And if I come through the revolution alive and able to make art at all, I’ll consider myself one lucky antichrist.
Until then, this has been mejeffdorchen with the Moment of Truth.