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The power of silence in protests

Artlooks & Artlines is a monthly column written by Ismail Mahomed, CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation.

In an article in The Guardian on Friday 20 June 2014, theatre writer Jack Klaff wrote about the enduring power of South African protest theatre that ‘roared around the world, bringing pressure to bear on the regime back home’. He cites several plays, including Sarafina!, Woza Albert! and Sizwe Banzi is Dead, as productions that raised the international community’s consciousness of political conditions in South Africa prior to 1994.

Woza Albert! State Theatre Joburg
PHOTO Val Adamson

South African artists developed a unique political vocabulary during the creation of their work. While the Market Theatre, Baxter Theatre and The Space Theatre in Cape Town became renowned for presenting protest theatre, many more works that did not see the main stages were developed in communities where the works resonated with local political activities and community activist agencies.
     Post-1994, the loud and buoyant voice of protest theatre somehow began to disappear. It was taken over by a new kind of political theatre that was committed to healing South Africans from our past political traumas. Productions such as John Kani’s Nothing but the Truth and Philip Miller’s REwind: A Cantata for Voice, Tape & Testimony and Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother are some of the strongest works that were about remorse, redemption and reconciliation.
     The power of political theatre often speaks more passionately and more sincerely than religious sermons from a pulpit or political speeches delivered from a podium. Political theatre draws its audience into embracing an experience that is deeply reflective, emotionally moving, visually engaging and intellectually, it drives the participant into raising their consciousness, which then brings about a change in social attitudes and values.
     In December 2012, following the gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a bus, a wave of protest spread across India – some peaceful and others not so peaceful – to highlight and bring an end to rape culture in India. One of the most extraordinary protests was in the form of a musical tribute to the rape victim when 600 guitarists gathered in Darjeeling and in harmony played John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Thereafter, the musicians and the vast audience sat together in meditative silence for a while.
     The extraordinary silence as the guitarists strummed on their instruments gained global coverage on social media. It was a powerfully moving statement that brought tears to many eyes but the power to re-imagine is what drove so many men into a consciousness that made them voluntarily say, ‘not again. Not on our watch.’

To read more about what Mahomed writes about silence as a powerful form of protest, purchase the February 2018 issue of Creative Feel or continue supporting our role in the South African arts and culture sector by subscribing to our monthly magazine.

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