Pieter-Dirk Uys brought his show, Adapt or Fly, to Pietermaritzburg last week. We joined a group of friends and saw it on Friday evening. Uys took us on a roller-coaster ride through South Africa’s recent history, parading Prime Ministers and State Presidents, from Malan to Zuma, before us on stage. Each one came alive in front of us through Uys’s extraordinary ability to adapt his voice and facial expressions while using a minimum of props.
But it wasn’t all laugh-a-minute. Ordinary people joined us to tell their stories, along with the extraordinary ones like Nowell Fine and Evita Bezuidenhout, of course. One of the more poignant was that of a Coloured family on the Cape Flats. We joined the brother during the violence of the 80’s; his younger sister told her story many years later. The brother told us about their black granny who lived in a beautiful house in Newlands with high ceilings and a veranda that went round three sides of the house. She had a piano and a beautiful stinkwood dining-room table with six chairs. She was moved under the Group Areas Act to a miserable little house on the Cape Flats. It had an outside toilet with no door. There was no room for the piano or the grand stinkwood table. Granny died of a broken heart. The grandson wondered where the table was, and who was living in the house with high ceilings and a sweeping veranda. We joined the daughter years later. She was eking out a living from the same little Cape Flats house. It was the day when, miraculously, the stinkwood table was delivered to her back door. But what did she want with such possessions that couldn’t fit into her tiny home or her impoverished world.
Such reminders of the face of pain and poverty are critical for our own humanity. In South Africa we have become immune to stories and images of violence and suffering. Communities erupt in violent clashes with authorities, strikes degenerate into excesses of violence, businesses and homes are trashed and ordinary people suffer. We read the headlines, and we say, “Not again,” as we move on to more comforting news about defaced paintings, corruption and the failure of our municipalities to fix streetlamps.
We need to be reminded that violence affects individuals; whether it’s one person against another, a mob taking the law into its own hands, or a nation at war, violence affects individuals. Individual people perpetrate it; individuals suffer it. We must beware lest, when we turn away from stories about violence and suffering, we turn our backs on real people in pain who need our compassion and intervention.
Last Friday marked the 40th anniversary of an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War, Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a nine-year-old Kim Phuc running away from a napalm-bomb attack on her village. Her clothes had melted off her body, her left arm was burning, and she ran down the road, naked, crying, “Too hot; too hot.” Richard Nixon’s cynical comment on the photo at the time was, “I’m wondering if that was fixed.” At another point, Nixon chided Henry Kissinger for being too concerned about civilian casualties.
If we fail to take account of civilian casualties, if we fail to notice the individuals affected by war, then war and violence have no real consequences; it’s all just unavoidable collateral damage.
In the controversy about The Spear there were those who said, “But it’s not just Jacob Zuma who is being humiliated; what about his wife (sorry, wives) and his children.” Exactly! Individuals matter. But the individuals that matter in this case are not just the family of a State President who seems to act as if there should be no restraints on personal ambition, lust or self-gratification. What of those who have died because we have not taken HIV/AIDS seriously, or because we have not taken violence and rape seriously; or because we continue to parade male dominance as a right, and marvel at men of power?
Thank you Pieter-Dirk Uys for reminding us of the plight of ordinary people who matter, who have little room to adapt, and no money to fly.
- Woman in historic Vietnam photo honoured (vancouversun.com)
- The value of the individual (carpenters-shoes.blogspot.com)
- All South Africans Are Equal But… (petersprogress.com)