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Handled with care

The play is about the rape, three years ago, of Baby Tshepang — a nine-month-old baby girl. Foot Newton — the director/scriptwriter —uses the device of telling the story through a kind, slightly ponderous, but sympathetic, storyteller acted by Mncedisi Shabangu.

Foot Newton’s interpretation demonstrates the danger of glib explanations of baby rape and cautions against making judgements about communities. She tells how a psychologically deranged man was the perpetrator, but also manages to effectively portray the magnitude of the social problems in the perpetrator’s life: alcohol, poverty and family violence — each of which must have contributed to his mental state.

What is inspirational about the story — and Shabangu’s outstanding telling of it — is the way that the narrator made me laugh, feel moved and become absorbed into the lives of the poor people who live in the small town of Louisvaleweg. Their lives are desolate and lonely. They are trapped in an unbearably hot, still place where there are not enough jobs, no money and little recreation.

Alcohol plays a central role in these people’s lives. They get paid in dops — drink every day, often all day. It seems that any money that there is in the community is spent on drink. And people sit around a great deal — doing nothing or waiting. Waiting for nothing in particular. Like Baby Tshepang’s mother. She waits, every day, all day — literally scratching around in the sand, going nowhere. She waits for her baby to be brought back to her. The infant was taken away after the rape and sent to an orphanage in Cape Town. She has been waiting every day since — for three years. And before her child was raped she was probably waiting for a job, a distraction, hope.

Yet the storyteller’s life, and the lives of his community, are shown to be funny, moving and interesting at times. The script deals with the texture of the experiences of these people by observing the details — the storyteller’s first sexual experience with Sarah, a young woman in the community who makes him finish before she has turned three pages of the comic she reads; the man who ties and unties fishing lines with children — the street life of the community.

The narrator tells of the community finding the raped baby. She was lying on a blanket in the veld, her legs apart and a mess, like a bloodied cauliflower, between them. He tells how shocked they were, how angry, ashamed and upset. He narrates how the press swarmed into the town where no one ever came before — and no one has been since — to tell the story. He reflects on the anger, shame and confusion felt by the community who were being vilified, questioned and almost accused by the reporters.

And then six men were arrested for the rape. This intensified the vilification, blame and accusation. The storyteller tells how he felt that the community was being judged. Theories were being expounded by the writers and reporters. It was poverty, idleness, drink, patriarchy and boredom that caused men to rape babies. The narrator conveys the bitterness of the community, whose lives were being unpicked by people who had no knowledge of their desolation.

Some time later the real perpetrator was arrested — Alfred, who as a child was beaten to a pulp by his stepmother. Alfred, who was the baby’s mother’s boyfriend. Alfred who was regarded by everyone as strange and disturbed. Alfred who had wanted sex that night with the mother and, having been refused by her, blind drunk, raped her baby. But Alfred was sick — and that was important. That allowed the community to rest, relax and carry on their desolate lives. At least the whole community was no longer to blame. It was one very disturbed man.

Sakie Niehaus, an anthropologist at the University of Pretoria who has written extensively about rape in a rural community he has studied, confirms in his research that a child rapist is generally an outsider in a community. One who is not integrated, lives apart, is ostracised and is someone feared by the community. In a more affluent setting such a person would probably be managed by a mental health institution.

I found the play’s explanation and portrayal important. It gave an accurate and textured description of the event with a clear understanding of the social issues. Foot Newtown’s style is able to evoke such immediacy. I really felt the poverty experienced by the community very palpably, their difficult lives and their endurance. And that is why such care has to be taken when we reflect on why there is such an ‘epidemic of child rape”, as Foot Newtown describes it in the programme. We cannot be glib. It is important that innocent people and communities that live under such unbearable conditions should not bear the guilt.

The details

Tshepang: The Third Testament shows at the Baxter Theatre, Rondebosch, Cape Town, until November 23.

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Erica Emdon
Erica Emdon
Erica Emdon is an attorney and the director of The Public Interest Practice.

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