Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa: Shakespeare, Thomas Mofolo's Chaka, and Welcome Msomi's uMabatha: the Zulu Macbeth.

Author:Balogun, Lekan

Lekan Balogun holds both BA and MA (Distinction) in Theatre Art from the University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria and PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in the broad area of postcolonial (Shakespeare) adaptation, African and Diaspora Literature, Theatre and Intercultural Performance. Lekan is also an award-winning playwright, who has written plays for the Royal Court Theatre, London; FLINN Theater, Germany; British Council, Nigeria; Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization in Nigeria (CBAAC) and the National Troupe of Nigeria among others.


To be thus is nothing/But to be safely thus.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.50-1)

The bones of the innocent speak to me, they say that the vicious dog must die.

(Msomi 186)

Scholars have sought the origin of violence in several historical events including the story of Cain and Abel in the Holy Bible, the foundational myths of the so-called pagan deities that were propitiated with both human and animal sacrifices, the Passion of Christ that Christians globally consider the ultimate redemptive act upon which Christian faith and its belief is predicated, the World Wars, religious extremism and ethnic cleansing, mid-twentieth century persecution of the Jews, and to the often overlooked corporal punishment that was deemed necessary for character formation (Carroll 1-2), as well as the heinous trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Through graphic pictures of violent occurrences in the Middle Ages, similar to those in contemporary society, and their portrayal in literary and dramatic texts as well as in related medium, Eve Salisbury et al draw attention to the "heightened public awareness about the precarious nature of human society" and the global "collective expectation of moments of apocalyptic demise" (1). They insist that their book shifts critical attention though not exclusively from "manifest public violence" to engaging the "dynamics of domestic and household violence". Yet, their definition of "domestic violence" as those behaviour or actions that are social, psychological, economic, spiritual, physical, verbal, sexual--all of which are intended to injure another person in some way (2-3), speaks directly to the heart of the issue that this essay addresses, even as I aim to examine the violence that is both outright debilitating and public, and the place of William Shakespeare in the subject, most especially Macbeth of our concern.

R.A. Foakes laments the troubling problem that violence constitutes to the world by drawing attention to the way Shakespeare dramatizes violence. He cites the US response to the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001, in order to underline the impracticable reality of extirpating violence through violence. Although he acknowledges the difference in Shakespeare's and today's world, Foakes contends that of all other writers in history, Shakespeare's plays offer us the best examples of literary representation of violence and its social discontent. He insists that a study of the trajectory of Shakespeare's plays often follows such a discernable pattern which reveals a delight in the representation of violence for entertainment, to the exploration of the various problems of violence that culminates with a detailed study of human aggression in relation to restraint (2); and of the plays in the Shakespeare canon, Macbeth readily fits into such a description.

Shakespeare's shortest but one of his most gruesome tragedies, Macbeth is widely thought to have been first performed at the Globe in London in 1611, even though some argued that a performance of the play was earlier given in court in honour of James I, the new Scottish-born King of England on 7th August 1605. Meanwhile, critics have also identified a contrast in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres, a contrast that was also reflected in Shakespeare's own plays since he wrote in both periods. In Dunton-Downer and Riding's opinion, while "Elizabethan theatre was in the main optimistic, the Jacobean theatre was often more sombre, moralizing and introspective." Moreover, a darker undertone that characterised works of his contemporaries was also reflected in Shakespeare's early Jacobean tragedies that dwell on "violence, evil, lust and madness overwhelming love, beauty and hope" (30), which are features of Macbeth, the story of Macbeth, a distinguished soldier but also a heroic and ambitious man who, acting on the prophecy of three Witches and urged on by his wife, murders his king, usurps his throne and unleashes a vicious reign of violence and terror upon his kingdom.

Whereas Dunton-Downer and Riding argue that while for Macbeth Shakespeare draws materials from Holinshed's Chronicles, he does not necessarily concern himself with the political as he does with presenting "the human flaws of his protagonist [and] his transformation from a noble war hero into a tyrannical murderer" (359), the play cannot be separated completely from politics. For its performance before James I, saw Banquo (James's ancestor listed in the play's cast) presented in good light, Scotland and England are seen coming under one rule and monarch, that is, James, while King Duncan's pronouncement of the death sentence on the leader of the rebel forces in the play, MacDonwald, also recalls the execution of Guy Fawkes, one of the zealots and conspirators who, in response to the oppression of Catholics in England, planned to blow up the Parliament on 5th November 1605 in the famous Gunpowder Plot: all of these events, whether fictional or historical, deal with violence of some sort.

Although Shakespeare's world was certainly different from the present day, as Foakes writes, "the basic issues [which propel violence in human society] remain"; thus, underlying not only the assumption that irrespective of our spatial and temporal location "our world is deeply troubled by the problem of violence" but also that we all have "the instinctual drives that prompt us to defend ourselves when attacked, to use violence if necessary to defend family, groups, or nation, as well as to maintain or improve status" (1-2). In this essay, therefore, I will focus on the political dimensions of Macbeth, and how the play has inspired South African literature with regard to the treatment of violence, including such works as Thomas Mofolo's Chaka and the adaptation of the Shakespeare text, Welcome Msomi's uMabatha (1970), the isiZulu adaptation of Macbeth.

Because of the focus of this essay, I will necessarily adopt a historiographic approach by using key events in relation to situations dramatised in uMabatha, to chronicle both the history of violence in South Africa and to understand the causes and nature of the violence in light of recent and recurring xenophobic attacks of immigrants by embattled South Africans. While it is recognised that literary creation is fictional but history is not, my assumption is that literature is infinitely tied to the destiny and socio-reality of the people, hence its' potential to mirror that reality.

For example, through the combination of mimicry, farce and scorching humour, Peter-Dirk Uys's MacBeki: A Farce to be Reckoned With (2009), another South African adaptation and parody of Macbeth, treats the issue of [political] power and its (ab)use in post-Apartheid South Africa, by mirroring the conflict among the ANC leadership without doing much to hide the identity of the personalities that it ridicules, especially Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. While this version of the Shakespearean tragedy is solid in its rendition and appraisal of postcolonial in-fighting among the ANC leadership and its dramatisation of the people's disenchantment with social life in general, uMabatha, as we shall see, focuses on the culture of violence with which the country has now become identified.

South Africa, Macbeth, and the culture of violence.

"South African literature" writes Christopher Heywood, emerged "amidst confusion, violence and conflict [and] a long tradition of resistance and protest" (1). This story of violence, carnage and resistance goes as far back as:

[The] Dutch colonisation in conditions of slavery (1652-1806), followed by British colonisation (1806-1910) and the removal of direct colonial control by Britain in the ensuing half-century. A brief interregnum was formed by the British occupation of the Cape, 1795-1802. The period witnessed widespread movements against slavery and genocide, and mounting protest against segregation and its successor, apartheid. Main events in this period were: the weakening of Xhosa (southern Nguni) power through the eighteenth century division in the royal house and the Xhosa cattle-killing of 1856; the rise of the Shaka kingdom and the mfecane/difiqane, a state of war between the Zulu (northern Nguni) kingdom and its Sotho neighbours; the Afrikaners' Trek into the northern grasslands during 1835-8; industrialisation after the 1880s and the wars of 1899-1902, 1914-18 and 1939-45; and the publication of the automatically banned, anti-Hamite Freedom Charter(1955). (Heywood 20-1) Over the years, South African writers have been appropriating in their literature this history of violent extremism, including the war of 1899-1902 the circumstances of which were only matched by those of the Sharpeville massacre (1960) and the Soweto student rising (1976). While these events were significant to the development of "Protest Literature" in South African literature in general, they are equally central to its chronicling of a state of existence that has "remained persistently hostile to exploitation and encroachment through colonial and post-colonial violence" (39,21), that is still being experienced in various forms in post-Apartheid South Africa of today.

Andre Brink opines that "Protest Literature" became relevant for South Africans to engage the horrors of the South African reality under the brutal system of governance that the Apartheid...

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