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DM168 Reflection

An uncomfortable case of art imitating life in SA

An uncomfortable case of art imitating life in SA
Father Come Home Tate Etla Gae starring Marcus Mabusela and Josias Dos Moleele. Photo:Thandile Zwelibanzi/The Market Theatre

The reasons behind the poverty, racial inequality and broken family structure can be tracked to our past. But what is depressing is to realise that the same situation that prevailed during the times of our fathers and their fathers still exists.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This week started on a good note, with the country recording fewer than 1,000 daily Covid-19 infections on consecutive days.

The good thing with the low infection rates is that life returns to some kind of normalcy, at least until the next wave engulfs us.

That’s why, this past weekend, I found myself at The Market Theatre – having only been to a few public places since the lockdown was declared.

With a little cajoling I went to see Tate Etla Gae, the theatrical adaptation of Es’kia Mphahlele’s 1984 novel, Father Come Home.

The book was translated into Sepedi by renowned actress Rami Chuene and beautifully adapted for the stage by the talented Clive Mathibe.

The brilliant five-member cast did not only magically narrate the story, they also brought Mphahlele’s book to life. As with most writers, the late Mphahlele, born in 1919, borrowed from his own experiences in some of his works.

The story revolves around Maredi, a restless young man who grows up longing for a father he never met. It follows his travails in rural Limpopo, growing up with his loving mother, a protective aunt and an abusive uncle.

Although he finally meets his father and sees his parents reunited, Maredi is still unsatisfied with his life. He sets off in pursuit of a future he knows nothing about.

It is a story of black life in apartheid South Africa – broken families, poverty, dispossession of land and the condemnation of black men to a life of cheap manual labour in the mines.

The physically distanced crowd of not more than 100 inside the theatre hall could relate to the story. It was all too familiar.

After all, Johannesburg still remains the alluring city where thousands flock in pursuit of the elusive “better life for all”. For decades the rural poor have left their homes in provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, following their dreams to the so-called “City of Gold”.

Not much has changed.

Ironically, the play was on circuit in the same week that Statistics South Africa released the Children’s education and well-being in South Africa, 2018 report, which showed that 71% of black children did not live with their biological fathers. The report measured a number of factors – education, economic and health – that affected child development between 2014 and 2018.

“In 2018, while 74% of black African children aged 0–17 years lived with their biological mother, 84.3% of coloured, 94.2% of Indian/Asian and 92.6% of white children aged 0–17 lived with their biological mother. By contrast, in 2018, the percentage of children who lived with their biological father was the lowest among black African children (31.7%) and the highest among Indian/Asian children (86.1%),” said the report.

The statistics make for a depressing read, with 62.3% of children 17 years and younger living in low-income households. Black children make up 73% of recipients of child-support grants.

But there were a few green shoots, with the report showing a decline in child mortality.

The results of SA’s progressive education policies, with the guaranteed universal access to basic education, are also bearing fruit. While “close to 99% of children aged 6–13 and 96% of children aged 14–17 attended school in 2018”, there is a worrying picture of grade repetition, especially among male pupils in primary school. Like Maredi in Mphahlele’s book, there is a lower percentage of children who lived in farm/rural areas with their biological father.

The reasons behind the poverty, racial inequality and broken family structure can be tracked to our past.

But what is depressing is to realise that the same situation that prevailed during the times of our fathers and their fathers still exists.

It was the late Nelson Mandela who famously said: “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation.” But if the Stats SA report is anything to go by, then that future looks a bit dim.

The factors that affect children in their development phase have a direct impact on them in later life – in terms of economic and education opportunities.

These should be the issues that concern our political leadership, instead of petty political squabbling and looting state coffers.

Policymakers should be wading through such reports to formulate government policies and inform decision-making that affects the poor.

Unless the cycle is broken, we will continue to create modern-day Maredis in this world. DM168

Sibusiso Ngalwa is the Newzroom Afrika politics editor and Sanef chair.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • Kanu Sukha says:

    While the observations are pertinent, I would suggest that the heading relating to the connection between life and art has always between vacillating, sometimes this way and at other times that way. It is never static! Growth of ‘independent’ parents, will result in more one parent children.

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