/ 1 December 1995

Theatre of mass action

THEATRE: David Le Page

IN February 1956, in the foothills of the Drakensberg near Bergville, a group of Zulu dagga farmers took severe umbrage when the South African Police attempted a raid on their crop. It was, after all, not only a traditional indulgence, but their livelihood.

At first the police retreated, but it was clear they would return in greater force. With the help of a sangoma, the men prepared for battle, and when the police returned, a short, bloody skirmish left five of them dead. The rest retreated into the forests and hid, but later surrendered when their children were threatened. Twenty-three men were tried, convicted and executed in Pretoria Central

In 1990, the townships of the Witwatersrand were a battleground. Members of the ANC and Inkatha were at loggerheads; violence was being fomented by shadowy, unknown forces. Residents of the hostels found themselves surrounded by enemies; they were trapped, angry and confused, in the claustrophobic confines of their barracks. The hatred of the communities among which they lived was, for many, bewildering and hurtful.

These two fragments of history are the subjects of Duma kaNdlovu’s Bergville Stories, an ensemble piece of considerable power. His narrative has men from the Bergville area trapped in a hostel, thirsty and filthy, surrounded by police and angry township people, some of whom are ready to kill on the basis of a strong Zulu accent. Trapped in body, they tell, through song and dance and rhetoric, the story of the Bergville rebellion in order to bolster their spirits and recover their pride. “We have fought wars all our

It is not a conventional theatre of strong, individual characters. No part is greater than the whole, which seems to amplify the sense of being involved in the story of many, not just a few. The gravity of strong individual personalities is not there, and the narrative resonates outwards, representing unnamed and forgotten people.

The drama shifts focus constantly from the story of the dagga raids to the hostels, a technique which would sustain interest even if the content of the drama did not demand it. Working without sets, with stark lighting, in an intimate theatre, adds to a sense of intimacy with the cast who dance, mime and sing with resonance.

But as a warrior history (for this is how the characters see themselves), it is a rather anachronistic tale. The play ends in peace, with “comrades”sending water to the trapped men, but the origin of this is not explained. If anyone took creative steps to end the impasse, they are not represented.

For these chauvinists, the greatest insult is to brand others “nothing but a bunch of women”. If the “comrades”were “real men, they would have called us out to the soccer field”. Such sentiments are hardly likely to end the wars that plague the men of Bergville; they remind us that violence is always imminent in our society.

Bergville Stories recovers a forgotten piece of history, an incident that makes it clear that blunt assaults on people’s land and pride during the years of apartheid were not simply endured, but sometimes vigorously resisted. As theatre, it achieves a satisfactory result not through individual craft and fineness of emotion, but through rolling mass action.

Bergville Stories runs at the Market Theatre until December 23