When non-South-Africans think of South Africa, theatre might not be the first thing that comes to mind. In fact, the same might be said for many South African citizens.

If you come across an article in the international papers about South Africa, chances are it will be about another spate of gang violence, rising murder rates in Jo’Burg, police brutality, corruption, enduring inequality or government in-fighting. Or, bucking the trend every now and again, you might find a feature on South African safari holidays.

Theatre doesn’t tend to feature much.

This is strange considering the wealth of historical and contemporary contextual material that has been developed into world-renowned novels and even films. South Africa was, until very recently, the only country that boasted two Nobel laureates (Nadine Gordimer and J.M Coetzee). South African director Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 was a huge Hollywood success, not to mention the Oscar-winning Tsotsi. There have also been a raft of international film productions about South African stories (Invictus and Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to name a couple of the most recent).

Meanwhile, theatre has continued to play second fiddle.

This trend ought to be reversed. The power of theatre to tell important and previously unheard South African stories should no longer be neglected or underestimated. There is surely no other art form, when done well, that can have such a visceral and lasting effect on its audience.

Anyone who follows South African theatre closely will have noticed that in the last few years there has been a gradually increasing number of young theatre creators, directors, choreographers, actors and so on who seem innately aware of the power that theatre can and should have in South Africa. While there should always be room for “art for art’s sake”, personally I continue to be impressed by the sense of responsibility that these young South Africans seem to feel for South Africa’s troubled past, as well as its present and future.

Perhaps nowhere is this sense of responsibility or “duty” more strongly personified than in Thola Antamu, whose first solo production, Exhibit S: Ode to Saartjie Baartman by a Black South African Woman, is showing as part of the first Cape Town Fringe festival at the end of this month (25th September to 5th October).

Thola Antamu
Thola Antamu

A 25 year old black South African, Antamu was adopted as a baby by white parents, and went on to attend a number of very good schools and then Cape Town’s top performing arts academy. She is the first to admit that, sadly compared to so many in South Africa, her ride has been a very comfortable one.

Yet her forthcoming production is predominantly focused on a very different kind of story: that of Saartjie Baartman.

Originating from a Khoi San group in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, in the early 19th century Saartjie Baartman was smuggled over to England, most likely on false premises, by her then employers. There she was exhibited in Piccadilly Circus to the curious Victorian audiences as part of an exotic “freak show”.

While Saartjie was said to be a talented musician and performer, the crowds that came to see her were predominantly drawn by a fetishistic fascination with her large, high buttocks and rumours that she also had elongated labia. Spectators at her “shows” were encouraged to poke and touch her, which they did with equal parts fear, relish and revulsion.

Thola Antamu as Saartjie
Thola Antamu as Saartjie

Though Saartjie rose to substantial fame in both the UK and subsequently France, it was her employers who reaped the vast majority of the benefits. Meanwhile, she became increasingly depressed and developed a severe drinking habit and, despite attempts by the anti-slave movements of the era, she never went back to South Africa, dying of tuberculosis in France before the age of 30.

After her death, Saartjie’s body was sold to a French scientist who cut her up and presented her private parts and her brain to packed lecture halls across Europe, literally using her body as supposed proof of a number of archaic theories about black sexuality and intelligence.

Saartjie’s body parts were finally returned to South Africa in 2002; only then could she finally rest in peace. (Nelson Mandela formally requested the return of Sarah’s body in 1994, but it wasn’t until an act was passed in 2002 that the French actually handed over her remains. They were apparently worried that they would have to return further museum artefacts to other countries.)

Last resting place of Saartjie Baartman, on a hill overlooking Hankey in the Gamtoos River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa
Last resting place of Saartjie Baartman, on a hill overlooking Hankey in the Gamtoos River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa

One of the most tragic aspects of Saartjie’s life was that she was allowed no voice of her own – all that we know of her comes from the mouths of others; even the abolitionists who wanted to free her did not deem her worthy to speak on her own behalf and took it upon themselves to speak for her.

What Antamu has done is develop a “voice” that belongs to them both equally. In the piece, the character of Saartjie, having told her own story, cast off her chains, and emerges, slowly and tentatively at first, then proudly, confidently, transformed into the proud figure of Antamu as herself.

Through this transformation, Antamu reconciles a difficult and often sad past with a vision of a more positive and hopeful future (personified by herself) and signals the power that theatre and performers like her can have to give a voice to all those who, for so long, could not be heard, could not (and still cannot) tell either their own stories or even other people’s – because of their gender, because of the colour of their skin, because of poverty, because of ridiculous censorship laws and so on.

Above all, Antamu says she chose the story of Saartjie Baartman because she feels that South African women are still “being ignored”. She goes on to say:

“I have been given a life where I have a lot . . . and I feel that it is important for me as a black South African woman to appreciate what Saartjie went through and to help her story live on… . I want to make other South African women aware that unlike Saartjie they can speak out, and I want to show them that there are people who will listen when they do.”

And when a big, new event like the first Cape Town Fringe comes around, there should be plenty of people listening. And that’s a good thing. For as much as young artists like Antamu might feel a sense of responsibility to tell these kinds of stories, we all should feel a sense of responsibility to see and hear them. We’ll all be better for it, and so will South Africa.