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Op-eds

Cry the beloved State Theatre

  • Geoff
If an overseas visitor wanted to understand some of the reasons people want to leave South Africa for Israel, the United Kingdom, or other countries, he or she might visit Pretoria’s State Theatre.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jun 21, 2018

This huge complex was built during apartheid in 1981 by the government in the brutalist architectural style of the times, and contains theatres and auditoria equipped with facilities for major productions. Its shows were never radical like the Market Theatre’s protest shows in Johannesburg, but in the euphoria of Mandela’s becoming president in democratic South Africa, expectations rose.

Today, it is in a state of such disgraceful decay, you would be ashamed to bring overseas visitors there. Upon arrival, you enter the underground parking, which is so confusing, you have ask a security guard where the entrance to the actual theatre is, and he must come with keys to unlock the filthy doors. There are long stairways to be climbed, and no wheelchair access. When you pay for your parking, the guard stands alongside you at the machine, and when your R5 change comes out, he turns into a beggar, holds out his hand, and says, “For bread please?”, implying that if you don’t hand it over, your car might not be looked after.

Most of the complex is closed and unused, like a morgue. Yet, incredibly, within this awful mess, a brilliant play was performed last week in one of the smaller spaces, called The Fall, about the students’ movement to remove Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from Cape Town University campus.

The complexity of the struggle to “decolonise” South Africa is portrayed with such brilliant directing and choreography that one leaves vibrating with the performance and inspired that if South Africa contains such talent in its youth, all will eventually be well.

Then you return to the dirty corridors and tunnels back to the underground parking, and into the street, where you are pounced on by beggars at your car window. The emotions of the evening’s experience fight with each other.

At dinner parties among white South Africans, conversations often turn to which country to emigrate to. Canada? America? Australia? Israel? The criterion is that whatever country is chosen, it must actually “work”. A place where the government does what it’s supposed to do. The streets are clean, the bureaucracy functions. Many people have children or friends living elsewhere. The topic turns to the last Skype conversation with them, and the sadness that most will never return to this country. The families they left behind will die here, lonely.

All the countries listed above have problems. America has Donald Trump, and his support from hard-right evangelists. European countries have dangerously increasing anti-Semitism.

And Israel has its interminable political and security crisis, continuing to tear itself apart in arguments over occupation of the Palestinian territories, flaming kites from Gaza, and Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the country. But nevertheless, it feels like a country on the “upslope”, not the down, its economy booming, and people flowing in.

Does one continue to be optimistic and believe that South African politicians have the best interests of the country at heart and the looting of state coffers will stop? Or that Ramaphosa will turn the country around after the Zuma nightmare?

South Africans are desperately seeking assurance that things will turn out okay. The State Theatre is a metaphor for the country’s best and worst. If the government turned two thirds of it into a hospital, but kept a small theatre for brilliant productions, it would be better than letting it rot. It’s about the difference between despair and hope.

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