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Makerere Intellecutals Versus Apartheid South Africa

Posted on: August 15, 2011


reflections on the post colony
by john otim

The great Hall teamed with postcolonial students in their trademark red gowns. Present were nearly the entire faculty and quite a few members of the country’s political and administrative elite from downtown. The occasion was the debut of the play: Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature on campus. Murray Carlin fancied himself a liberal. And in the dense postcolonial atmosphere at Makerere he was.

"Makerere University"

makerere university (photo James)

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s drummer one had to know something of the politics and the workings of South Africa’s Apartheid Society as it then existed. And one aught to have some familiarity with Othello, the great Shakespearean masterpiece. In the play set in the medieval city state of Venice, Desdemona, a young White woman of  beauty, grace and nobility, marries Othello, a Black General and war hero of  charms, grace and nobility. That Shakespeare’s Othello, though black was in the age of imperialism,  a commanding figure in the small city state, spoke volumes.

The context of Shakespeare’s play differ from that of Murray Carlin’s;  the women differ too. But Shakespeare’s Desdemona suggested Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young, vivacious and ready for life. Carlin’s Desdemona is older; wedded to the State, and one might say over with life. Neveretheless in their private lives both women run into currents of racism at play in their two societies. For the younger woman in the prime of life, matters end in tragically. For the older woman there are frustrations, but in the end it is politics and officialdom that dominates.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of South Africa fortunately or unfortunately turns black whilst making love to his wife at State House.  In the eyes of the Apartheid State, of which he as President is the ultimate symbol and representative, his and his wife’s relationship become at that moment, both immoral and illegal. In the confusion the First Lady, a true daughter of Apartheid, reaches for the phone and calls the police, to report the illegal presence of a black man at State House in the bed chambers for that matter. Was he an intruder?

Within moments apartheid police burst into the Presidential Mansion located at an exclusive suburb of Cape Town. Police could recognize the President for what he was. But now they saw only a black man, who was naked and who was in bed with a white woman who was also naked. Police arrest the pair for a breach of Immorality Act. Law and order following its due course. Shocking headline revelations across the land, the President and the First Lady go on trial, charged with the crime of making love across the color line. In the Republic such as it was, this kind of situation had occurred before. But now it was different.

At the trial, perfectly legal according to the laws of the land, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transfiguration of the President from a white to a black person occurred in the heat of passion. If the color change occurred after the act, the President and the First Lady had no case to answer. Although the President, now as a black man, could still face other charges. If  the color change occurred, during the act or before the act, the pair were clearly in breach of the famous Immorality Act and would face long years of jail terms.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin was determined to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid. Look how stupid it is.  But in realiy Carlin ended up trivializing the horrors of a system that had blighted the lives of so many; the systems whose legacies stood to haunt South Africa for years to come. Of course it is true that many African rulers today by their own deeds have made Apartheid look like child play.

At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened sympathetically and turned to the First Lady for explanation. Madam at which point during the affair did the President turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Tell this Court precisely the moment in which the President turned black? Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during … Madam was a Stateswoman.

Makerere students and faculty burst into laughter. On stage before them a white woman and a black man stood side by side accused of making love together. The audience could not withhold itself. At that moment it saw only the luscious act of sex, not the scores impoverized or jailed and murded by apartheid.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall. When he heard the burst of laughter and the prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a success. Many in the audience of Makerere University students and facul thought so. But in reality this was a sad moment. Few if any in the audience came out of the play better informed or more engaged with the burning issue of the continent that apartheid really was at the time. 

"Makerere Main Hall"

Makerere Main Hall


Not now Sweet Desdemona had reduced the serious business of Aparthied to something as mundane as sex. It directed attention at the outer trappings of Apartheid and hurled insults. The audience for sure had a good laugh. But the play and the performance left no dent in the bulwark of Apartheid. Had the President in reality turned black as the play imagined him to do, he would have been swiftly and smoothly replaced. The system would would have gone on. Apartheid like postcolonial barbarism in Africa today, was a logical system within itself. There was nothing in it to laugh at. Apartheid was not a commedy of the absurd. There was everything in it to be abored and opposed, to struggle against, and to defeat.  as eventually was done.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala, June 2011

Copyright john otim 2011

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1 Response to "Makerere Intellecutals Versus Apartheid South Africa"

I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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