Defend Truth


Digging deep into the soul of SA under clear Karoo skies


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees presented a microcosm of stories that belong to all of us

Just so you know, if Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater were from Willowmore in the Eastern Cape, they would have shared that broken door in the icy waters as the Titanic sank. Maybe then both of them would have survived, sharing the struggle, taking turns to help keep each other alive.

This alternative ending for Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is conjured for the briefest of moments in Jefferson J Dirks-Korkee’s play Rooilug (Red Air), an award-winning solo work that has just had a run at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in Oudtshoorn.

Now in its 28th year, the festival annually captures the zeitgeist as creatives from across the country gather in this breathtakingly beautiful part of South Africa to offer a mirror to audiences. Though at first a very white and very Afrikaans festival, it has been transformed beyond recognition.

Since its inception in 1995, the KKNK has grown into a showcase for culture, music, theatre, literature and dance, launching the careers of many young artists. And though the bulk of the work is still in Afrikaans, it transcends language and race – an existential leap only artists can accomplish.

Cultural injection

Oudtshoorn, during the “feather boom” years in the early 1900s, became the heart of the ostrich industry and a vibrant and rich cultural life as regular theatre, music, dance and opera performances grew.

There is thus a tradition of performance in the region where generations of different origin had settled – some the children of freed slaves and others, like the poet CJ Langenhoven, who wrote Die Stem, as well as traders, German missionaries and a community of Jews from Lithuania.

And so it is that the Easter holiday week draws crowds to the region where some of this history and magic is recaptured, reworked and renewed. Audiences this year could choose from 119 activities including theatre, music and children’s theatre, as well as discussions, markets, workshops and walking tours. And though the scale of the festival has shrunk along with the economy, what is now on offer is world class.

Business has helped to grow this event as well as the local arts industry. The main sponsors include Absa, Checkers, Netwerk24 and the Nasionale Afrikaanse Teater-inisiatief, and partners include the Baxter Theatre, the National Arts Council and the government in the Western Cape.

Sharing the door

Dirks-Korkee is a playwright, activist, actor and educator who was born and raised in Willowmore, situated at the entrance of Baviaanskloof, about 140km northeast of Knysna. The sky in Willowmore is endless and the light divine. The evenings are showered with stars and, sadly now, satellites.

Under these skies, Rooilug confronts the intergenerational ripple effect of poverty, domestic violence, a deeply rooted patriarchal culture and the damage it causes to men, women and children alike – and society in general.

The playwright’s intimate and simple telling of the story, with all its bruises, scars and broken dreams, all its angels and devils and future hopes, is so universal to South Africa. It is us, right here, right now.

The metaphor of a door and the story Dirks-Korkee tells is profound. It’s about children watching Titanic, the 1997 blockbuster, on television through the window of someone else’s house while gunshots go off, husbands beat their wives, dogs howl and kids play in the street.

He describes how the ocean first swallows the working classes; he asks who the hell plays music while a ship sinks; and who does not think to share a piece of floating debris with a fellow survivor?

Another outstanding piece, Fietsry vir Dommies (Cycling for Dummies), written by Tiffany Saterdaght and performed with virtuosity by Eldon van der Merwe, is about a man who seeks to find a way out of the cycle of poverty and the black tax this generation carries as less fortunate family members lag behind.

Deploying rap and music by Dean Balie, it is the story of millions of ordinary young people who live in geographical pockets, often remote or far-flung, that were created for their parents and grandparents by apartheid spatial development.

A past is excavated to make space for a road and a way forward. The play will feature at the Suidoosterfees between 26 April and 1 May in Cape Town. More on that next week.

After rage comes pain

Goed wat Wag om te Gebeur (Things Waiting to Happen), with an award-winning text by Philip Rademeyer, is about the burden of history and its hefty warts that young Afrikaners carry.

In the long run, these are warts no less ugly than the history of others across the globe. In this three-hander, Hendrik (Gideon Lombard) returns to his childhood home. He encounters his mother, played by veteran actress Antoinette Kellerman, his sister as well as his former girlfriend, played by Emma Kotze.

Inside, the house is a crime scene, with Hendrik recalling his father’s abuse of his mother, beating her to a pulp and raping her. Hendrik believes he is cursed; the blackness is in his DNA and he can never escape it.

It is a play about “seeing your shit”, because being blind to it results in a half-life, trailing ghosts and acting out this very shit on others.

Later, while I was photographing an old Buffalo military vehicle, an elderly white man stood next to me doing the same. His interest?

“Those were the same vehicles we used on the border. Many young men were resuscitated in those Buffels.” After a long pause, he looked at me and said, “They fucked me up”, before walking away. Naming his shit.

A cosmic constellation

What are the chances that writers and artists from disparate corners of South Africa should come together with the same theme in almost every work? Well, it happened.

Dig up the past with all its broken bones and dried blood, look at it, see it, then look up from the graves at the horizon. This certainly was a festival with an underlying theme of youth, optimism and hope.

Sharing the door. DM

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.


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  • District Six says:

    One day, when I’m big, I want to do the KKNK. It’ll be nca, ek se! Big stage. Lights. Creative-like. Afrikaaps. It’s to-do! Hob-nobbing with the writers, actors, and stage crews. Doing culture. Een dag.

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