The human face of colonialism

What if imperialist Cecil John Rhodes had known ANC founding father Sol Plaatje? Would history have juddered on to a different path? Would values have splintered? This is what Duncan Buwalda contemplates in his play Hinterland, a work that is astonishingly prescient and on stage right now.

Plaatje was born in the diamond-mining town of Kimberley, the town that was Rhodes’s first claim to success. The play is set in the time of the 124-day siege of ­Kimberley, during the South African War (Second Anglo-Boer War). At that time Plaatje was in Mafeking (Mahikeng), whereas in the play he appears in Kimberley. In fudging this detail, Buwalda magics into ­existence a friendship that is as provocative as it is bewildering in its possibilities.

The play is not a quickly ­scribbled token in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall student movement. ­Developed out of an interest in the history of both men, it first saw light of day as a reading at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre in 2008.

It’s 1899. The rousing spirit of war infuses our awareness. Premier of the Cape Colony, Rhodes (David Dukas) is based in Kimberley. A colourful character, he spouts racist invective as though it were fact, drinks alcohol with abandon and is in need of a competent typist.

Kimberley is important in Rhodes’s personal and political history. Although it was the place where he amassed his first fortune, his presence there during the siege was controversial: as a civilian, he was not afraid to ­meddle in military affairs and was instrumental in strategising defence.

In Hinterland, Lieutenant ­Colonel Robert Kekewich (Jeremy Richard) introduces Rhodes to young Plaatje (Sipho Mahlatshana), a crack ­typist and wannabe journalist. Electric with unease, the environment between the two settles into an anachronistic friendship.

Arguably one of the most gifted men of his generation and one of the most influential black journalists of his time, Plaatje spoke eight languages, famously enjoyed a passion for politics and literature and landed up editing three newspapers. He devoted much of his adult life to the struggle of black South Africans against the iniquity of injustice and dispossession. And yet, as a young man in a racist environment, he is shaped in this play as unable to offer any retort to the idea of being a house boy and for a white master.

Although Mahlatshana’s embrace of this enormous role begins a little woodenly, it is well directed. The character never fully comes into his own but it rings with veracity: in the context of Rhodes’s living quarters, this is the tale of a brilliant young man unrecognised but for his ability to type well, in the environment of an older imperialist, who has the power to call the shots – at least most of them.

Rhodes’s homosexuality – a rumour in some sources, a point of certainty in others – is the foil in the tale which is about humanity and male bravado as much as it is about the politics of power. It’s examined through the lens of late 19th century hetero norms: admitting to being gay was very dangerous.

Dukas is quintessentially Rhodes. You wince at the racist insults that fall so glibly from his lips and are mesmerised by his blatant disregard for others, yet you can’t take your eyes from him. Richard is less convincing as Kekewich – he seems too young. The two men were both born in the 1850s, a year apart. Kekewich comes across as much younger and easily cowed by Rhodes.

“Every empire builder has to have a little blood on his hands. Every single one.” Rhodes speaks of the filth of imperialism in a narrative that ties so neatly with the student movements rocking universities right now, it’s almost uncanny.

Teetering with text-heaviness and bruised by lengthy costume changes, the work is lent polish by a competent cast – which includes Frank Graham, whose voice you might remember from Springbok Radio’s Men From the Ministry in the 1970s, as Rhodes’s doctor, Thomas Smartt.

The set is distressingly full of several ensembles of period furniture, including a ball and claw bath. But there’s a wisdom here, which is true to the period: given the winding of the narrative between contexts, it successfully reflects a colonial sense of clutter and does not impede the story’s clarity.

Hinterland is a situation where art and life segue and become a cipher for adult reflection. It should be seen by every angry young man or woman intent on eradicating ­Rhodes from our contemporary landscape and history.

Hinterland is written by Duncan Buwalda, produced by Daphne Kuhn and Buwalda and directed by Caroline Smart. It features David Dukas, Frank Graham, Sipho Mahlatshana and Jeremy Richard and is on at Auto & General Theatre on the Square, Sandton, until April 25. Call 011?883?8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.
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