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Sunday, 12 January 2014 19:09

By Ashwin Singh

Review by Devarakshanam Govinden

It was the Italian philosopher and organic intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, who stated with passion: “The crisis  consists precisely of the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” After the euphoria of our own “spring”  in 1994 in South Africa – when  new political life and change began bursting with energy and promise all around us  – we have become aware of a  growing winter of  discontent. Durban Dialogues, Ashwin Singh’s newly published collection of plays  is indisputably about the warp and weft of the South African “interregnum”,  our  prolonged transition into a mature democracy [Some would say - lost in transition…]. Indeed, the  plays expose us to the [morbid] symptoms of the present times, showing  the way the old South Africa persists in different guises, of the way the New South Africa  displays rather grotesque  re-incarnations of the past.

The plays show that playwrights can also be sociologists and philosophers, as Ashwin Singh sharpens his observant and critical eye [and his pen], and provides us with what might  be described as a “Spontaneous Sociology of the People” [from  Burawoy 2011:216].

Edward Said, the Palestinian post-colonial critic, for his part, called such a disposition in a writer a “worldliness” – and he meant it in the best sense of the world - “a knowing and unafraid attitude towards exploring the world we live in”.

The plays do have a worldliness about them, in the sense that  Edward Said suggests. They open up a broad window to the  kaleidoscopic world around us -  a world that constantly  revolves and mutates, producing  configurations and patterns before our very eyes, as we shift our vantage point.

And that world is especially a Durban world, with the plays  set distinctively in  Durban’s socio-cultural context, with all its idiosyncrasies and  peculiarities  in a wider  South Africa.  The legacy of separate residential living for different “population groups” is manifest in different ways in the contemporary era,  and provides the social-cultural and economic background to the plays.


The “Indian Voice” in the plays is an important, complex [even contested],  voice, with Durban Dialogues following in the tradition developed by playwrights such as Ronnie Govender [Lahnee’s Pleasure and At the Edge] during the apartheid era when, for one,  Indian patois was first put on stage.  Ashwin shows the  variety and diversity of this “voice” in a post-apartheid moment - away from  one-dimensional stereotyping [as in Singh’s dramatic piece, “Who is an Indian Granny?”] - and of the way it intersects with class and race in multiple ways. And while there are characters in the plays which lapse into exoticism, ethnic chauvinism and ethnocentricity, and sometimes act as self-appointed cultural police, there are those who seek commonalities with their compatriots from different backgrounds.

Some of the plays [Reoca Light, for example], are  set against the background of Indian indenture, which constitutes an important part of  South African history [It is this history that prompted Mahatma Gandhi “to hone his political activism under the banner of satyagraha”;Bose 2009:4]. Slave and other labour economies are common to Indian and  African diasporas in the main, but also relevant to Chinese history, among others.

Stories like Reoca Light belong to all who are keen to expand their sense of their South Africanness and, indeed, their wider humanity.  As Bose, who critically surveys the breadth of plays of the Indian Diaspora, notes:

However alive the world of Bollywood globalization and Indian dance may be in South Africa, the identity of South African South Asians has been developed wholly on South African soil, via intimate relations with Afrikaans and Afrikaner culture, apartheid, and a specifically modern race consciousness in a world of South African blackness, whiteness, Colouredness, and Indianness. [Bose 2009:373]

Durban Dialogues, similar to other plays such as those noted above and Kessie Govender’s Working Class Hero, Kriben Pillay’s Waiting for Muruga, and Rajesh Gopie’s The Coolie Odyssey, among others, also broadens and deepens the oeuvre of plays in the Indian Diaspora, and well as inflecting it in a unique way. Alongside Bose’s statement, cited above, it is necessary to remember that the categories of identities are not “pure” discrete or homogenous, and that identities blur.


The plays assist us in rediscovering the ordinary. One of our greatest South African  scholars, Prof Njabulo Ndebele noted that what is really important in South African writing is not the depiction of the grand and spectacular [or  spectacle], but  the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday…

Indeed, Singh’s plays are grounded in everyday  material reality, and deal with issues of survival, employment, poverty, changing lifestyle patterns [eg  old family stores giving way to malls]; there are the familiar experiences of   blue lights, trackers, the body corporate, black-market trading, changing circumstances through loss of livelihood,  Facebook, etc; also references to modern popular culture such as SA Has Talent, Idols,  and the like.


Crucially,  we are reminded in Durban Dialogues of the way Apartheid values persist, of  mindsets  where you are  sometimes judged in the world in terms of the colour of  your skin [or your class] and not the content of your character [the more things change the more they remain the same!]

We are reminded that “All are equal but some are more equal than others”. We have  to  look, for example,  at the  references in the plays, to the partiality of the police, to appreciate that some people have adequate reason to believe this perception.

The plays show us that the fundamental values of our hard-won democracy are under siege, as crass consumerism and materialism rule the day,  and class mobility becomes the driving  values that sustain us and give us a sense of self-worth and identity.

But while we might bemoan this, reading the plays, and seeing the performances, we have to ask :  What are  we doing – we the people on the ground –  to deepen our democracy? The plays draw attention to what is happening in our neighbourhoods, which may be described as “the backyard of the nation”. Some of our neighbourhoods have become war zones, with   groups divided along old racial lines, or new lines of division, such as competitiveness between neighbours.  They have become, not places of good neighbourliness, but of hostility or alienation. Robert Frost had written, ironically,  that “Good fences  make good neighbours.“

And waiting to be embraced just around the corner are new prejudices  - towards those from the rest of Africa, or   from China or the  Indian Subcontinent.

The plays show that there is change, but not always the type of change we might have anticipated decades ago.  The kitchen table is now not for rolling roti, but for rolling dice, in order to practise for the  roulette table. “Enhanced  freedoms” now  include the right to have casinos dotting the landscape - something that would have been unthinkable in Calvinistic apartheid South Africa!

But the present popularity of casino culture is a “morbid symptom” of a deeper  social malaise as, in the plays, we see that our aging generation take to  gambling as a welcome escape from the oppressiveness and loneliness of home and family life.


The depiction of women is an important dimension of the play. We are reminded through the plays that while we are generally enjoying freedoms at a public, official level, so much of the oppressiveness of our society at present resides in the intimate and private spaces of our lives and homes.

Who would have thought that sexism is still not conquered in the new South Africa,  with our great, most liberal  Constitution that legislates unreservedly in favour of women’s rights. What the plays reveal, more sadly, is the discrimination meted out to women by other women. What happened to the many coalitions of solidarity and sisterhood against all barriers when we fought against apartheid?


But  Ashwin Singh is far from being an unrelenting pessimist.  Our neighbourhoods  are also places of great camaraderie. There are in the plays, also instances of sharing together, of laughing together and of finding new and unexpected solidarities.

In “Big Bangs”,  we see the play ending with the young people  coming together, in spite of their elders; we see  common sense and love  triumph. While the ethic of hospitality in its broadest sense  may be  under siege and facing betrayal, it takes the new generation to assume the redemptive mantle, and we are left with an overriding sense of hope.

In Reoca Light we celebrate the legacy of hope of resourcefulness, of the triumph of the human spirit [and of community spirit], that runs through the play, in the face of adversity,  This proves true what Fanon had said:  that “it is to this zone of occult instability where the people dwell that we must come” [“occult” means hidden, below the surface]. But Fanon does not stop there, he continues…  “…it is there  that our souls are crystallised  and that our perceptions and our lives are transfused with light.”[183] [Reoca Light is a play, in my opinion, that achieves this]


An  interesting dramatic device that Ashwin Singh deploys in the plays is that of dramatic monologue, of stepping into the shoes of another character and depicting that character. On stage we admire the great versatility of the actors and the economy of the playwright. This dramatic technique of playing another character also has great comic value. There is a marvelous irony here, when a character dons an imaginary mask to become another, and, in the process, unmasks the persons she or he portrays! But, on a more significant level, we appreciate this  gesture of  “talking back” as   an important way of claiming voice and agency. Given that so much social dialogue in real life – talk with others - entails a great deal of silencing and censoring, this transgressive device  works effectively  on stage.

This device confounds the separation of margin and centre, self and other. Those at the margins, take centre stage, literally and figuratively, colluding with the audience, to create an alternative interpretive community between actor and audience. Paradoxically, a character, playing another, or multiple subject positions, comes into his/her  own, with performance within performance... Maids become madams in an instant, questioning authority figures from a safe, private space, holding them up for ridicule.

bell hooks, in her book, Talking Back, makes an interesting observation, which may be applicable here:

Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice. [1989:9]

Further, there is an interesting concept in postcolonial discourse, which is displayed here,  and that is called mimicry. While mimicry is about imitating, it may also be about imitating to poke fun at, to reverse the balance of power, by reversing the gaze, and express a  culture of resistance.


The space of South  African  theatre has always been a robust, critical, potent,  space.

Black theatre, in general,  draws from a rich tradition of protest and resistance. Our pantheon of South African Playwrights such as ATHOL FUGARD, LEWIS NKOSI, MBONGENI NGEMA, RONNIE GOVENDER, MUTHAL NAIDOO, KESSIE GOVENDER, KRIBEN PILLAY among others, were, and are, indisputably part of our hallowed hall of fame [indeed, our lineage goes even beyond them to the likes of H I E DHLOMO and GIBSON KENTE, to name a few] – playwrights who shaped theatre, and who shaped society through theatre.Playwrights who have relentlessly exposed South African society to itself, and to the world.

Edward Said, citing Adorno, stated that a writer sets up house – writing becomes a place. This was especially necessary when we are looking for homes, places to reside, both literally and metaphorically. Writing also becomes this borderline…between life and living and our representation of it. Writers [playwrights included], throughout our history, and the world over, have done just that.  In the apartheid era, theatre provided this alternative space and, in the present dispensation, serves a similar purpose

Ashwin Singh’s plays working in a contemporary idiom and style and context, become a place for us to set up house, to inhabit, a place filled with humour, compassion and insight. They categorically signal a disposition not to remain silent, not to remain indifferent, prompting us, and nudging us to make  choices about how we live in our world.


Mandela, in his last speech to Parliament as the first president of a democratic South Africa,  reminded  us that “together, we must continue our efforts to turn our hopes into reality.”

And in the final lines  of  A Long Walk to Freedom: “I have walked the long walk to freedom…But I can rest only for a moment. For with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended” Indeed. The long walk to full and fulfilling freedom is long. The long walk continues. And projects like Durban Dialogues usher us on our way until, as our own beloved poet and patriot, Masis Kunene, would say…“…We dance to the limits of the universe…” [in Gunner:1994:144


Bose, Neliesh [ed]. 2009. Beyond Bollywood and Broadway – Plays from the South Asian Diaspora. Indiana University Press. Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Burawoy, Michael and Karl Von Holdt. 2012. Conversations with Bourdieu – The Johannesburg Moment. WUP: Johannesburg.

Govinden, D. 2013.  “A Critical Overview. “In Singh, Ashwin. 2013. Durban Dialogues,  Indian Voice – Five South African Plays . Aurora Metro Books: Twickenham.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1982. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Lawrence and Wishart.

Fanon, Franz. 1961/1965. The Wretched of the Earth. London: MacGibbon and Kee.

Gunner, Liz. [ed] 1994. Politics and Performance – Theatre, Poetry and Song in Southern Africa. WUP: Johannesburg.

hooks, bell. 1989. Talking Back – thinking feminist, thinking black. South End Press:Boston, MA.

Kunene, Masisi. 1982. The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain.



Said, W Edward. 1983. The World,  the Text and the Critic. Harvard University Press Harvard.