People are talking, but must it really be through Shakespeare’s works because it remains my view that South African big screen and television production houses tread on the thin ice of historical authenticity and relevance when they simplify the country’s highly emotive past, especially when dealing with the issue of so-called ‘black-on-black violence’ as suggested in the six-part adaptation series of uGugu no Andile, based on Shakespeare’s immortal play, Romeo and Juliet.
To give and to find love amid the chaos and confusion of unresolved family squabbles, tribal and clan disdain, religious, social and political alienation and class divisions, constitutes the central theme and objective in the Romeo and Juliet saga. In the uGugu no Andile drama, it really boggled the mind that a love relationship between a Xhosa boy and a Zulu girl, should spark such intense and deadly tribal rivalry in that East Rand township – in the ominous presence of other more sinister forces of political and social manipulation and instigation, especially when it is common knowledge that there were (and still are) women of various ethnic tribes living with their Zulu spouses in the hostels.
Perhaps the story is not about uGugu and Andile; perhaps they were merely spring-boards for a political commentary on the physical and psychological madness that visited South Africa during apartheid. A history that we appear to be hesitant to investigate, expose and one with which we refuse to come to terms.
I concur with a filmmaker/educator/critic who told me: “The idea behind the story is that when two people fall in love so deeply, not even death can separate them…” Point taken, but the problem I have with the erroneous political backdrop, is that it overwhelms that ‘Great Love’ element by reducing the moral and endearing propensity of the Bard’s tale, to being mainly a battle between tribes.
It is a sordid tale many of us know too well and have survived. We accept that that tale of the battle for political ascendancy cannot be adequately told in the uGugu no Andile series and more stories have to be told for us to understand and appreciate this past, but greater care should be taken when revisiting it.
The performances in the story are interesting, but inconsistent. uGugu’s volatile and warring cousin, Mandla- played by Jabulani Hadebe, is a menacing and believable character as are the Third Force raiders at her family home. The attitude and peaceful philosophy of the reasoning but ill-fated Rastafarian character, Ras Benni- played by Breeze Yoko, presents an important antithesis to the rule that differences among people, societies and nations must be resolved through bloodshed. However, that much-needed element is not effectively exploited. The belligerent and coercive self defense Xhosa comrade, Bullet Ntini- played by Lusuko Nkqeto, is a true-to-form copy of the typical ‘struggle Com-Tsotsi’ whose ilk still parade with impunity on today’s political and social podiums.
However, many of the other characters lack depth and authenticity such as the white priest who gives refuge to Andile – his role shallow and without real substance. Somehow, someone may have thought of Bishop Paul Verryn’s sterling contribution during those inter-factional wars. The so-called leader of the comrades, Bullit, shows no leadership qualities at all as does uGugu’s granny. She lacks the matriarchal and stoic force of mind we have come to respect in most family structures. The soldiers or police on the hippos is another clear statement of shallowness.
There is no real defining scene or moment; nothing to come close to the dramatic Shakespearean saga of futile death - despite excellent camera work and good sound. The death of the two young lovers is not the powerful climatic moment it should have been because there is no anticipatory emotional or physical build-up to carry the viewer to the tragic moment. What we have instead are two distraught and frantic figures walking (almost aimlessly, it seemed) in search of each other.
Neither the purple-cassocked priest, nor his flock could portray the anxiety, fear and concern that could propel the viewer to that climactic moment – so powerfully done in the Romeo and Juliet tragedy. Indeed, for this critic, there was no real emotional and physical evocation or conviction of the dictum: “Amor Vincit Omni…” – Latin for ‘Love Conquers All.’
The inexperience (of both actors and perhaps the director) was glaring, particularly in the pen-ultimate and final episodes of the series with their stage-managed demise- a Xhosa-bullet for Andile and a Zulu-bullet for his Zulu Juliet – and with that, the brief lifting of the historical veil into a violent, costly and tragic past that was orchestrated, manipulated and funded by the apartheid state, is lowered. I support the view that finally, the antagonist was ethnic, racial and political prejudice. However, I must express my disappointment that there was not one graphic incident which captured the full weight and terror of the military action against the township communities of that time – other than the raid and the implied shooting at uGugu’s home.
For the record, that 1990–1993 war in the townships was not between Zulu and Xhosa factions. Space does not allow for a more profound analysis of the wide terrain of the political involvement of the liberation movements outside of the ANC (as implied in the series). Also, many of the hostel inmates during that period were workers from other
South African tribes, including migrants from neighbouring African states, who later revealed that they had been “forced to join Zulu-speaking inmates” during the attacks on township residents.
The indigenous languages, as well as the translated English text were commendable.
Shakespeare In Mzanzi
uGugu no Andile is of the 6 six part mini series to be televised under the SABC’s groundbreaking strand of Shakespeare in Mzanzi.