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Wearing an oversized sombrero and carrying the rhythm with cymbals, Yise Gasa announced to the curious, almost frightened faces that something quite out of the ordinary was about to happen. For the gathering section of our performance I wore a Roman helmet made originally for some forgotten production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and oversized hands of white-gloved foam to greet, wave, and attract people to our performance. Gasa and I roamed the outdoor market clowning, shaking hands, patting children's heads, and comically cajoling people to attend our performance.
Crossing the street from the main market--performance adrenaline pumping as I shouted some mad nonsense--I stopped, realizing that it was right there, only days before, that two people had died and scores were injured when a hail of [AK.sub.47] bullets assaulted a transit bus. The distant abstraction of a front page newspaper report and photos of sprawled bodies in pools of blood was jolted to life with a shock. Across the street was the taxi rank where 50-plus Zulu-owned passenger kombis stood. The kombi owners and the Moslem Indian-owned bus companies were at war, the latter trying to undercut the Zulu taxi business and gain access to a very lucrative and growing market. The situation was reminiscent of the territorial gangsters in Chicago during the 1920s. Such a confluence of images, ideas, and feelings make South Africa a unique complexity. Politics, however, was only one element that blended into the swirl of history, race, greed, money, and power at a time of monumental change.
In December 1993 a group consisting of four Zulu actors, a Danish percussionist, and I performed street theatre in the township of kwaMashu, 35 kilometers outside Durban, in the province of Natal, South Africa. In the southern hemisphere, December is the height of summer, and being near the coast of the Indian Ocean means humidity with temperatures around 90[degrees]F--with an unrelenting sun. When we pulled into the kwaMashu bus and train station with our new white "kombi," a ten-seat Toyota van, we caught the attention of many. Shoppers and merchants alike turned to stare intently, their bodies suddenly still as our kombi passed through the open-air market. But the children--the dozens of smiling faces and excited eyes--paused for only a beat before they trotted alongside the vehicle, jumping to peek into the windows.
The swelter from the heat reflecting off the tarmac created a languid atmosphere that people seemed to swim through--the tropical atmosphere belying an underlying tension of caution and alertness. Walking around the busy station to determine the best performance area only added to the curiosity and uneasiness of the passing crowds. In kwaMashu, considered one of the most violent townships in South Africa, strangers and unusual activity draw attention and are immediately suspicious. This was especially so during the time of rising fear and uncertainty that preceded the country's first multiracial elections.
KwaMashu, as most other of Natal's townships, is predominantly Zulu. Established under apartheid, townships were set up as racially defined areas-cum-ghettos that geographically isolated nonwhites from the white areas where they served as domestic and industrial laborers. Since the lifting of the last of apartheid's laws in 1990 the situation has, in reality, altered little. Blacks may now travel, work, and live wherever they choose in the "new" South Africa, but few can afford these newfound freedoms. The legacy of apartheid's social, economic, and psychological traumas will take generations to remedy. And, as elsewhere in the world, racial segregation has given way to a "new world order" based on economic stratification.
The population of kwaMashu is 400,000, give or take 100,000; no one is sure, given a system of census-taking that is no match for the unwieldy squatter camps that occupy most open spaces within the township. Rural Zulus seeking urban employment swarmed into urban areas after the Group Areas Act was abolished in 1989. KwaMashu is not an area frequented by whites. Whites who do go there go as government officials, police, or members of the feared paramilitary "Internal Stability Unit."
Many people turned, stopped cold, and stared quizzically as Thubani Ngubane, Eric Hadebe, and I walked through the market. We were lead to the station manager's office by a tall, chin boy who made us his responsibility and kept the small group of cautious but curious children bursting with playful excitement respectful. Seeing a white man was a rare event for the children. My saying "hello" sent some of the children into fits of laughter, while others hid from my glance. Two precocious girls were fascinated by the hair on my legs and arms. As I had done before, I paused and stooped, inviting them to feel my arms and the hair on my head. They giggled with the experience of touching white skin, and we all exchanged close-up smiles. Thubani and Eric waited, chatted, and joked in Zulu with the adult bystanders. After six weeks of performing our traveling show we had come to realize that the show itself was only a part of a larger event.
Everywhere we went, we first secured permission to perform from the person of authority, be it a station master, local chief, magistrate, or rural shop owner. Requesting permission was a matter of respect in terms of the Zulu hierarchy; however, just as importantly, getting permission was a way of assaying or allaying potentially volatile situations. Experience had taught us that it was most effective if a white man and a Zulu went together to ask for permission to perform. It frustrated the Zulu members of our group but was an accepted reality. Even in kwaMashu, one of the more politically conscious townships in postapartheid South Africa, the mere presence of a white man still gave a request credibility and authority.
It was decided that Thubani Ngubane would do the talking. Ngubane was born, raised, and still lives in kwaMashu--a stark, rugged, overpopulated place filled mostly with weather-beaten homes and shacks that sit close to one another. As an actor, singer, and playwright of several years, Ngubane was excited about the prospect of finally performing a show for his community and friends. The manager of the run-down shopping center and adjacent outdoor market across from the bus and train station was welcoming. Wearing a soiled white shirt and tie, he responded with authority and responsibility at our request for a decision. The small manager's office, its paint peeling, contained scarred metal cabinets and a single desk with one phone and a few papers on it. Sitting back in his swivel chair, the manager looked into the distance, apparently deep in thought, as I and about ten others waited in silence for his properly considered decision. Like a Zulu chief giving a decree, he said that he was more than happy to oblige our request to perform even though he was uncertain what "theatre" was. It took us a few minutes to explain, then we struck a chord.
"Zulu dancing! When?" asked the manager in Zulu, with a smile missing teeth.
"Right now, in ten minutes, after we set up," replied Ngubane in Zulu, a language full of clicks and pops and accompanied by physical gestures.
When we got back to the kombi, there was already a crowd of shoeless and mostly shirtless children dressed in rags and dust--their group watching our group from a short distance, knowing that something out of the ordinary was going to happen.
It took us ten minutes to set up our show, Makanda Mahlanu--which means "King Five Heads" in Zulu.
A painted canvas went over the kombi to create a colorful green backdrop. We set up our cartoon-inspired props, donned our costumes, and put on our funny hats. With a loud bang of a goatskin Zulu drum and a cymbal crash, the show began. Our ancient Zulu drumbeat created an odd contrast to the sounds of the nearby market and the passing traffic--the drums evoking the rich, hidden rhythms that live deep within the hearts, bodies, and earth of the Zulu people. The rhythms of the drum drew the Zulu near; it is a phenomenon we had witnessed before and that always gave the cast a special delight.
Reactions to us in kwaMashu were extreme, as they always were. Some audience members went into a sort of shock, freezing stock-still with a wide-eyed stare until we coaxed them with our comic antics. I was later told by a Zulu sangoma (a traditional diviner/healer) that this frozen expression "was what the Zulu did when they saw a ghost." Others, however, smiled, did a little dance, or laughed with delight. Some, both children and adults alike, would run or huddle in fear, confused by the perplexing sight of a funny-walking, goofy-talking white man with oversized white hands.
Children waved to us with excitement from across the road. As highly theatrical traffic cops, Yise Gasa and I stopped the buses and cars, and with my big hands I ushered the children across. The Indian bus driver and his few passengers waved, bemused and curious, as Gasa and I rushed across the street like …