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‘King Kong’ speaks to South Africa today


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

The classic South African jazz opera, King Kong – presented in a new edition at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in July, and now showing at the Joburg Theatre until 8 October – is a metaphor of South African tragedy. It reflects the obverse of the country’s great historic myth.

King Kong is a drama of failure, speaking to today through the music of Todd Matshikiza and the lyrics of Pat Williams with authentic, compelling force.

First presented 58 years ago to multi-racial audiences at Wits Great Hall in Johannesburg – two years ahead of the massacre at Sharpeville – its production today encapsulates the heroic overcoming of the apartheid system, followed by the breakdown of South Africa’s polity, economy and moral order under the African National Congress regime of today’s national ganglord, Jacob Zuma.

When I saw King Kong last Sunday – having seen the original when I was 17 – the downfall of the musical’s Sophiatown boxer king, based on the real life champion Ezekiel Dlamini, it felt like the downfall of the liberation vision of Nelson Mandela eaten up by the corruption victory of the gangster boss, Lucky, played with terrifying effect by Joseph Mogotsi in 1959 and by Sanda Shandu this year.

Despite the astonishing energy and pizazz of the musical’s concluding effervescence, it was King Kong’s Death Song at the end – sung with deeply moving conviction by Andile Gumbi – which set the moral tone.

How have the mighty fallen.

Has so much dedication, energy, courage and commitment finally come… to this?

South Africa’s prison regime for the country’s black majority was set in place by the pass law system of labour enshrined in the founding Constitution of the Union of South Africa in 1909, but the steel bars enclosing King Kong in the final episodes of this drama felt like a premonition in 1959 of apartheid’s political prison house of the following 30-odd years. They were the prison bars on Robben Island, the cell where they murdered Biko, and Central Prison in Pretoria where scores of political fighters were taken to be hanged. This was unforgettable.

Kong’s death song before he chooses death by drowning in a work-squad prison dam to a life in captive slavery – was this not a premonition? Could one not hear in it a pre-echo of South Africa’s great composer/versifier of the resistance struggle, Vuyisile Mini, as heard in Central Prison in 1964 by his white MK prison comrades, Ben Turok and Harold Strachan, which both have powerfully described, as he was being taken to be hanged with his MK comrades Mkaba and Khayinga?

Does Joyce, the heroine of the play, not remind of us of the independent women of the liberation struggle, such as Charlotte Manye Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi and Gertrude Shope, and Makhosi Khoza today – by comparison with the servile hack service of the ANC Women’s League of today?

It was not for nothing that Makhosi Khoza chose to announce her resignation from a captured ANC at its emblematic museum of struggle, Liliesleaf Farm at Rivonia, where the Rivonia raid took place, capturing the ANC’s underground leaders, and leading to the Rivonia Trial of 1963/64.

And not for nothing that the set and costume designer of the original King Kong, Arthur Goldreich, who was custodian of Liliesleaf Farm as MK’s struggle headquarters when the raid took place, was captured there with his MK fellow leaders in the raid, and later evaded police detention in a dramatic escape.

Life and art, prison and theatre, victory and defeat – all come together in this great gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), as Wagner called his own approach to opera.Don’t miss your chance to experience this historic national production. DM


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