By Dr IAN BETHELL BENNETT
A DEEP-SEATED and morally troubling play about life in Apartheid-period South Africa written by Athol Fugard, John Kani & Winston Ntshona, and adapted to the Bahamian stage by Philip Burrows, “Sizwe Banzi is Dead” exposes the sub-humanity blacks lived in that country.
Art is a therapeutic tool to use for grief, anger and depression, all of which are easily felt in the play.
In Bahamian society we tend to laugh. Laughter is our greatest release, yet we laugh when things are sad. We laugh when situations are uncomfortable. We laugh when we look bad. But when do we really laugh?
The question posed by Mark Humes in the play, “Am I not a man?” reverberated around in my head all night. It had repercussions beyond the stage. It must have resonated with thousands of Bahamians who saw the play. Except we are often unable to talk about these feelings because our society does not give space to feelings that are not built around anger and rage.
The play may have initially been created to reflect a South African cultural, but the undercurrents in the play as it flows into our Bahamian cultural context are deep.
They are intense, and very troubling, but we need to take the time to reflect on them.
Most Bahamians do not even remember the Apartheid period in South Africa. They are as close to that as they are to the extermination of the Jews in Nazi-ruled Germany.
They feel that as closely as they feel the impact of the middle passage and African slavery in the Bahamas. It is all too far removed and unimportant to our comfortable reality.
Apartheid has created scars on the South African psyche, white and black alike.
The political system used to create barriers between whites and non-whites, caused the death of thousands of black and white South Africans. It also caused the suffering of millions of others. Jews, Chinese, Africans, gays, all were dehumanised by policies that made them “wear” national identity books that defined who they were and where they could go.
The play, part of Shakespeare in Paradise this year, captured this fantastically. It showed that how rights can be stripped away in a country that is otherwise a democracy.
The state can exclude people based on their height, skin colour, eye colour, hair texture, foot size, nose size. The state can remove them from their homes because their land is now too valuable for them to inhabit and must be taken from them and given to others who are more equal than they are.
The laws provided for such treatment. The state can tell people where they can work, walk, eat, drink. They are not allowed more than so many miles from their home or they cannot look for a job outside of their prescribed profession or trade. Does this seem troubling to us? A country that has been removed form slavery for just over 150 years and left segregation around fifty years ago, should find it easy to identify with such suffering and yet the struggle to survive and overthrow the divisive political structure continued and deepened as the years progressed.
Ironically, the play underscores the inhumanity of the system. It also brings it into the 21st century Bahamian context. Are we blind to these realities? Do we not see how we justify treating people as less than human because they may be poorer than us.
Based on a woman’s sex or gender, she should not have the same rights as her brother, her husband, her son. We do not see the irony in our Christianity, yet celebration of not allowing others to participate fully in our democracy, much as the de Klerk and Botha governments did in South Africa.
They stripped blacks of their humanity and their identity other than Kaffir or boy or girl. That’s my boy, he can do that work for you. My girl can clean your house for you for free.
Humes’ character’s question, “Am I not a man?” comes back to life. Does he not deserve to live? How many Bahamians think it is their right to do whatever they want?
They assume that their rights are born with them and they are automatic. They assume that equality does not matter or is inherent and does not need to be sought after. They simply assume that it is okay to treat someone like property because they come from somewhere else.
According to many of the whites in South Africa at that time, blacks came from somewhere else, even though they were there before the whites. They owned land and had full rights prior to the enacting of the Apartheid laws. After that, they could only go as far as their identity cards allowed.
If they challenged any aspect of the law, they were incarcerated, better known as detained, and often tortured to death, or as was expressed in “Biko” and “Cry Freedom” or even the Nelson Mandela stories such as “Invictus”, most of which our population are unaware of as I understand from my students, or think of as unimportant, unrelated to our cultural reality, and far too historical to be able to happen.
Yet these realities can be repeated every day every where. The Civil Rights fight was all about equal rights in the US. Bahamian struggles such as the Burma Road Riots were all about equality. Dupuch getting up to leave the House of Assembly until it was desegregated was all about equality. How is that too unrelated or too far away form us?
Today, the way we treat Haitians and Bahamians born to Haitians parents is exactly like the way blacks were treated in South Africa under Apartheid.
We round them up, work permit or no; we ship them out, application in for their passport or not; we detain them in subhuman conditions in a hole, much like the prisons in South Africa during Apartheid, even if they are children, babies, or nine-months pregnant.
We rape women because we can. We are better than they are. While there will always be outcries about the way we treat immigrants, why can we not simply try to remember that they are humans.
Yes, there is a serious problem with our immigration policy or the way it has allowed or encouraged thousands of Haitians to move through this country, dehumanising an entire people is not the answer to the problem.
Dehumanising an entire group of people born and raised here who know no other life who speak with Bahamian accents and eat the same food, is no way to rectify our flawed immigration policies. We are treating Haitians and Bahamians born to Haitian parents the same way all blacks were treated in South Africa.
We justify this because they violently resisted slavery; that was a bad thing. We say that they are uncivilised much like all the colonial masters claimed as a way of keeping the Bahamian and Jamaican Africans quiet happy, calm and pacified.
We are perhaps a generation out of having the word “African” stamped in our passports at birth, yet seem to have forgotten that it was not that long ago that we were second class citizens in “our own country”.
“Sizwe Bansi” is dead captures all of this – Are we not men? Are we not humans? Are we not able to identify with this pain and suffering that we are now callously inflicting on a group of people who tend to work for us?
South African style Apartheid was awful and tragic point in history. Why would we want to repeat it in the 21st century Bahamas when there are so many possibilities to do things differently.
We talk about all the crime and violence in our society, yet we create more of the same each day with the way we dehumanise humans who live with us.
Let’s use art and the lessons it give sus not to repeat the same mistakes from Nazi to Africaans.
Can we not take students to see this play and allow art to do its job in unsilencing the pain and anger that are an inch under the Bahamian skin?
Art is an incredible tool for working through trauma. We are living an extremely traumatic moment in our national history; can we not use art to undo some of the trauma and move on?