In his first performance back on a Johannesburg stage, 82-year-old Athol Fugard is a white-bearded, cardigan-clad dynamo, crackling and fizzing with theatrical life force. Later that August night, leaving the Market Theatre, he suddenly looks his age, sunken beneath a flat cap and seeking to exit untrumpeted through the draughty foyer. Perhaps he is pushing himself too far.
But the following morning, in a discreet guesthouse down a discreet street, Fugard is firing again. South Africa’s greatest-ever playwright turns out to be also one of its most likeable. Ebullient and gregarious, sprinkling my name into a few of his answers with never a false note, he settles into a seat on a veranda overlooking a manicured garden, lights a pipe and is interviewed against a ripple of birdsong; it is a scene that could be taken from one of his recent elegiac works.
“Even as we sit here talking, a few of the remaining brain cells are dealing with and thinking about and keeping on a back burner another play I want to write,” he says, smiling. “It’s slowly, slowly surfacing and taking shape.”
Like the artist Paul Klee, he says, he prefers to work on small canvases. But his words moved mountains in apartheid South Africa. His works include The Blood Knot, Master Harold … and the Boys and The Road to Mecca and collaborations with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, including The Island (set in the Robben Island prison) and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, recently revived at the Young Vic in London. Fugard won a Tony lifetime achievement award. A recent Market Theatre platform event billed him as a “Legend”, using a capital “L”.
“I couldn’t hit a nail in straight if I tried,” he admits. “But pen in hand and blank paper, yes, I know exactly who I am, why I am, who I am and what it is all about.”
He is not as well known as an actor, despite a distinguished turn as Jan Smuts in Lord Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. His current role, in the semiautobiographical The Shadow of the Hummingbird, will be his last, he says. “I’ll never go on to the stage again because it’s hard enough now.
“It was hard stepping through that door last night and going out and facing a Johannesburg audience. But, I must say, all of you were very generous, giving us back the energy were trying to send. It was good tennis.”
Fugard fought the liberation struggle as playwright and impresario. He organised a multiracial theatre company, supported a boycott of South African playhouses in protest of audience segregation and was a scourge of the white minority regime. In 1961, in The Blood Knot, he and Zakes Mokae became the first black and white actors to appear together on a public stage. Mokae would become a close friend and creative partner.
“I remember taking a train from Cape Town to Johannesburg where we were going to do the play The Blood Knot, and Zakes had to travel third class and I was, of course, white and could travel first class. What do you do? Don’t go? No! The dilemma of having to accept the compromises in order to get the work done to raise the issues that white South Africans were reluctant to raise — the issues that were happening in the country. “I ended up having to carry Zakes’s passbook — that was a dreaded document — because he had refused to carry it. So I said: ‘You give it to me, because you are going to end up in jail,’ and he did many times when he was by himself and I had to bail him out.”
‘Writers should remain outsiders’
According to urban legend, he says, Nelson Mandela acted in a production of The Island during his long imprisonment on Robben Island. Mandela was released in 1990 and elected president in 1994, serving one five-year term. It was the opening act in a new democratic South Africa, but now the king is dead, there are many who fear this is playing out as a tragedy. “It’s sad from that halcyon, golden period of Nelson’s one and only term as president,” says Fugard, who has never voted for the ANC, explaining his view that writers should remain outsiders.
“I think one of the tragedies is that he didn’t take on a second term and entrench his vision, because lip service is paid to it but the reality is anything except what Nelson himself envisaged for South Africa.
“Starting with Thabo Mbeki. Thabo was responsible for one of the most colossal tragedies in our recent history, which was his blindness to the reality of Aids. That killed thousands of South Africans, possibly more than the machinations of the nationalist government ever did. “That’s not just me saying that.
“After Thabo, we end up with Jacob Zuma. Oh my god! The level of corruption in high places. Every administration or municipality or provincial government, people have got their hands in the cookie jars. It’s frightening. There just doesn’t seem to be any end to it.
“During the apartheid years, if there was one man who really I thought, yes, you are what the future should be about, it was Cyril Ramaphosa, when he was head of the miners’ union, and he’s now vice-president to Zuma.”
The ANC faces a new, noisy rival in Parliament — Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, pushing a radical agenda for the nationalisation of mines and seizure of white-owned land. Fugard adds: “I do think that over the next few years he is going to become more significant. The ANC has got to measure their achievements against what Malema is saying. I think it’s healthy that Malema is sitting in Parliament.”
He has been accused of inflaming racial tensions and jeopardising Mandela’s grand project of reconciliation, but that project is far from complete, according to the octogenarian. “Prejudice and racism are still alive and well in South Africa. No question about it. We made real attempts in the past to try setting up something that will deal with that issue. How do you take prejudice out of a human heart?
“The truth of the matter is that, as admirable as it was with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, you can’t legislate two of the biggest mysteries in terms of being a human being. One is a genuine act of forgiveness and the other is a genuine confession, and we tried to legislate those into existence and set up a court, but it doesn’t work.”
The Shadow of the Hummingbird
Such sentiments have prompted many to leave the country. So, too, the high rate of crime — Fugard was burgled recently. In The Shadow of the Hummingbird, he plays a South African academic who has moved to California, a journey he made himself, though, unlike some exiled writers, he did not sever links with his “fiercely beautiful” home.
“I have never left South Africa, even though I have spent more and more time in America doing my plays there, because I found American audiences and theatres very generous in terms of my work. At 82, you have got to make a few decisions about your life. Certainly one of them is to try and take stock of it.
“I am in the process of doing that and I just felt the time had come to return to the one country that I can truly call home. And here I am.”
For the dramatist, there is always the possibility of catharsis, redemption, a new king. Fugard says he admires Arthur Miller (with whom he perhaps shares a rage at social injustice), Eugene O’Neill and Tom Stoppard, and he believes the finest play ever written is Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.
“I have never arrived at the point of dark despair, which quite often happened to me during the apartheid years. But I am by nature an optimist. I’m always able to rally my thoughts and feelings and believe in some possibility in the future. And now in South Africa, which will never get as dark as it was during the apartheid years, I just encounter time and time again the new generation of young South Africans — white, black, whatever colour — and they embody Nelson Mandela’s dream.
“They are living, visible evidence that all is not and never will be lost, because this new generation has really got its hands on the possibilities in the future.
“At the age of 82, I find myself in the enviable position of knowing that, even if senility sets in tomorrow, I will die believing that South Africa will get it right.” — © Guardian News & Media 2014