I have always had slightly mixed feelings about the South African playwright Athol Fugard. I would rate his Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, on which he collaborated in the 1970s with the actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as among the supreme testaments of the dehumanising nature of apartheid.
Fugard’s 1982 autobiographical play Master Harold and the Boys is a deeply moving study of ineradicable liberal guilt. Other works, such as Dimetos (an allegorical play about a man living in rural exile with his niece) and A Lesson from Aloes (in which a white Afrikaner hosts a farewell dinner for his black activist friend), strike me as top-heavy with symbolism. But watching a new two-hour documentary about Fugard, by award-winning director Tony Palmer (Bird on a Wire, with Leonard Cohen; 200 Motels, with Frank Zappa), I felt I got a new insight into both the man and his times.
Palmer’s prime achievement is to see Fugard’s work in the context of South African history. It is astonishing to watch Hendrik Verwoerd, who in the 1950s was the principal architect of racial separatism, blandly describing apartheid as “a policy of good neighbourliness”. It is also horrifying to see again documentary footage of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which 69 people were killed and 180 wounded when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against new laws restricting non-white movements.
Fugard recalls being in London at the time and seeing the images of Sharpeville in an evening paper. As he recalls that moment, he simply buries his head in his hands in silent despair.
The film reminds one just what Fugard was up against, both politically and culturally, in writing about marginalised people in the South Africa of the 1960s and 70s. Not only was apartheid in operation, Fugard had to work to enlist the help of the people he was seeking to champion. Kani was a militant supporter of ANC when he first collaborated with Fugard in a drama workshop: he recalls that he had been taught to hate whites in general and to believe that, when the revolution came, his first duty would be to kill them. But Fugard was also, in setting up small theatre groups in Cape Town and Johannesburg, defying a tradition that associated theatre with warmed-up versions of West End hits.
Antony Sher recalls the sheer astonishment of going to see Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye in late 1960s Cape Town: “To see on a South African stage, a play about two destitute poor whites was like a blow in the face.” It made Sher determined to pursue a career in theatre.
Fugard’s obstinacy and courage emerge strongly from Palmer’s film. His father was a liberal-minded ex-jazz pianist, descended from Manchester immigrants. His mother, who ran a tea shop in Port Elizabeth, came from a Calvinist, Afrikaans background that left an even more decisive mark on the young Athol. As the comic actor Pieter-Dirk Uys says: “Athol’s plays are really Afrikaans works translated into English.”
But it is also the physical context that helps to explain the man. When we see Fugard wandering around the semi-desert Karroo region that was his homeland, we understand how its “Calvinist landscape”, as he describes it, has shaped the bone-dry austerity of his plays. There is a revealing moment when we see him visiting the Port Elizabeth public library and recalling how he would go to the top floor to read the novels of William Faulkner.
“He encouraged me,” says Fugard, “to tell regionally specific stories without fear or compromise.”
What also comes across is the high price Fugard and his fellow artists had to pay to practise their art. He and his wife, Sheila, were constantly harassed by state security police. Their passports were taken away in 1967, and they were encouraged to believe that their best bet was to take a one-way exit permit. For Kani and Ntshona, it was even worse. Palmer uses footage of them jointly receiving the Best Actor award at the 1975 Broadway Tonys, for their performances in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. With great dignity, they say a brief “thank you” as they receive a standing ovation from the black-tie audience.
But no sooner did they return to South Africa than they were arrested and imprisoned.
Theatre was part of the struggle in South Africa. As Janet Suzman says, “Athol’s plays were always driven by a moral outrage and, when you have an enemy, your aim is sure and true.”
What of Fugard’s post-apartheid years? This is less vividly sketched, although at one point in Palmer’s film he says: “I think I failed. Our whole generation failed. We didn’t get it right.”
It’s not altogether clear whether he is offering an indictment of today’s ANC-led South Africa, which has its own restrictive laws, or whether he is suggesting that writing and performing plays was an ineffectual means of countering apartheid. If the latter, I think he is wrong. His work helped expose the inhumanity, injustice and blind stupidity of the system to audiences around the world. That is no small achievement; and the reason why, on his 80th birthday, we should remember this fearless, flinty, obdurate Afrikaner.