‘Apartheid is not dead yet’

Athol Fulgard has been the voice of South Africa’s freedom fight since the battle began. But, as he prepares to direct his latest play at Hampstead Theatre, he says the stuggle is far from over.

HE’S been hailed “the conscience of South Africa” for continuing to challenge injustice throughout the apartheid years.

While others fled, took up arms or sought political office, playwright Athol Fugard and his multiracial casts toured vibrant, stirring political plays to the poorest corners of the country for nearly four decades.

The authorities removed his passport, raided his home, terrorised his wife and daughter, and made threatening phone calls in the dead of night.

But Fugard wrote on, clarion calls articulating outrage, compassion and anger, like The Island, set on Robben Island where Mandela was held, Siswe Bansi Is Dead, about the punishing restrictions placed on black workers, and Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act, about South Africa’s miscegenation laws.

“I am not a courageous man. It just seemed terribly wrong to respond to that sort of bullying by doing what they wanted; shutting up or getting out of the country.

“What was happening to black friends was so much more terrible than anything that could happen to me. I was protected by virtue of a white skin and a growing reputation outside the country, and I realised that with this gift for putting words on paper came an obligation.”

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He adds: “One of the defining moments for me came in the darkest part of the 1980s. Some friends had chosen the option of violence, others had chosen exile and I could do neither. I came to the realisation that putting words down on paper can be as significant and decisive an action as detonating a bomb.”

Fugard’s staying put was, he says, about remaining true to his core identity as a South African and a writer.

“I saw a salutary lesson with others in exile, their creativity dried up. I realised that if I cut myself off from South Africa I would die of hunger and thirst of my spirit because I am rooted in my country.”

Now 78, he continues to write about the evils of a system that divided his country on racial grounds. This month, he directs his latest play at Hampstead Theatre, a powerful two-hander about the dehumanising legacy of apartheid.

He may have slowed up physically but Fugard’s intense brown eyes and battle-worn face transmit his unshakeable belief in the power of theatre, forged in those troubled decades when simply putting black and white actors on stage together was a political act.

“Theatre can do today exactly what it did during the apartheid years – to speak out against abuses of freedoms. The freedoms we won in the momentous moment when Mandela came out of jail are still under assault.

“That incredible day when I stood in a mile-long queue to cast my vote in our first totally free elections, I thought I would be South Africa’s first literary redundancy. I’m sad to say that’s not the case and the new South Africa needs the vigilance of writers as urgently as the old one.”

The Train Driver is based on a true story. In December 2000, a desperate black woman from a squatter camp stood on the tracks with her three children until a train mowed them down.

“The incident is shocking enough – but I realised it was somehow a symbol of what was wrong with South Africa. As a writer, I couldn’t ignore it. But I abandoned my first attempts to write the mother when I realised I couldn’t understand the dark night of the soul of someone who had finally handed herself over to such despair.”

What Fugard could understand was the white train driver, a man who, in the play, travels to the paupers’ cemetery where the woman is buried because he is haunted by her face. There he meets a black gravedigger who enlightens him about the lives of South Africa’s underclass.

Fugard says the train driver’s journey from bigotry to reconciliation is “intensely personal”.

“The journey he goes on in my play, from labouring with a legacy of prejudice to a moment of personal redemption, is a journey that we, as white South Africans, have to make.

“It’s a way of talking about my own journey to try to emancipate myself from the bigotry that was so cleverly and insidiously nourished in us under apartheid and of showing apartheid is not yet dead. Even though we ordered the coffin and signed the death certificate 15 years ago, it’s still very much alive.”

Fugard, whose early work combined Brechtian with Vaudevillian theatrical style, was never solely motivated by politics.

“If you want to preach, get hold of a soap box or a pulpit. I wrote for personal as well as political reasons – that was the tightrope I tried to walk and balance on while remembering that theatre must, above all else, entertain. It must appeal to the mind and the heart, to mentally and emotionally stimulate in equal measure.

“The audience is crucial to the whole transaction. They don’t realise how active they are when they sit in silence in an auditorium. But the mental energy that comes from them is extraordinary. The dialogue is not just between the actors on stage but between the stage and the audience.”

More than 20 years ago, Fugard hit a personal crisis when he came close to losing his friends and family (wife Sheila and daughter Lisa) through his drinking.

“I had got to a point where I was in serious trouble and realised I would lose what I loved – because alcohol makes you a terrible, deceitful liar.

“I never ever wrote when I was drunk but I often did when I was hungover. But, when I got sober, that little anxious voice kept saying, ‘You would be doing so much better if you had a couple of scotches in you.’ I have stayed dry for 20 odd years – and I wouldn’t be sitting here today if I had carried on – but I still find it hard when I am under pressure to pass a bottle of Glenfiddich in a shop window. Oh gosh, I so love whisky.”

He needn’t have worried that his creative juices would dry up. While getting sober, he wrote Master Harold...And The Boys, a huge success in the West End and Broadway.

And they are still flowing in old age although Fugard says his style is sparer and drier than in his passionate youth.

“I look back at early plays and see lurid language and excess, but I can’t help admire that nimble, eager imagination jumping around all over the place.”

He spends much of the year in San Diego, California, to be near his daughter and beloved seven-year-old grandson. He rises early to always-perfect weather, to salute the morning and write.

“To wake up and see you have been given one more day, one more chance to get it right, is the most incredible thing, regardless of your age. Time’s running out, my health is not all that good, so I conserve my energies for what I think of as my essential identity – writing. I no longer go to the theatre, not through arrogance and conceit but because my landscapes are within me and I have no time left to deal with anything other than what’s inside me.”

He adds with a resigned smile: “I am going to be a very reluctant corpse. There will be things I wanted to write about, stories I wanted to tell, but unfortunately time ran out.”

The Train Driver runs at Hampstead Theatre from November 4 until December 4.