Translating the truth about apartheid
November 8, 2006
By Will Ross
‘You must not become involved,’ are the opening words of the play Truth In Translation.
This was the instruction to the freshly recruited interpreters when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission started in 1996.
Director Michael Lessac researched the TRC for two years reading testimonies and meeting people who had taken part including its chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
But instead of focusing the play directly on the story of the victims and perpetrators, he put the experiences of the interpreters centre stage.
‘They were witnesses like us except they couldn’t turn away and hide. They couldn’t close the newspaper and walk away or turn off the TV.
‘There they were sitting in the middle absorbing everything so they became what we would become if we paid attention all the time,’ he said.
‘They poured acid on his face and chopped off his right hand. Why? Why did they want my husband’s hand?’
The TRC later learnt the real reason why his hand was cut off: It was kept in a jar in a police station and routinely, sadistically displayed to detainees as a scare tactic.
The detainees were told it was a ‘baboon’s hand’ - the hand of a communist.
It was interpreting such testimonies that at times made the work a nightmare for real translators like Khetiwe Mboweni-Marais.
She was a political activist under apartheid and was detained.
Watching the play brought back memories of what it was like sitting in a booth translating the victims’ harrowing words.
But Ms Mboweni-Marais found it hardest to translate the testimonies of perpetrators especially when she knew they were lying.
‘You had to identify with that person and say I did this or I did that. Some of the incidents we knew to be true through media reports or families or comrades. But they came there and completely denied it,’ she said.
‘You felt so angry you felt like punching them in the face while they were speaking, especially as that lie had to come through me through my voice.’
The experience has also been harrowing for some of the actors who like the real interpreters have had to take on board other people’s pain during months of rehearsals and performances.
‘It is incredibly harrowing. I still often can’t sleep and I go through intense bouts of anti social behaviour where I can’t be with people,’ says Quanita Adams.
The talented multi-racial cast wrote the script from scratch with the director.
They brought their own diverse experiences to the constantly evolving script.
One of the interpreters is played by Robert Koen whose real father had been a policeman during white minority rule in South Africa.
On the other side of the colour divide, Fana Mokoena had tried to jump the border to join up with the military wing of the Africa National Congress.
The diverse cast has not surprisingly had its fair share of heated arguments as they have trawled through their own experiences of apartheid and discussed the idea of reconciliation.
The views on the legacy of the TRC in South Africa are very mixed.
Actor Andrew Buckland says a huge proportion of the white population either dismissed the TRC or didn’t want to hear about it.
‘When it was over, it was beautifully convenient because it had dealt with all that guilt and now everyone could get on and be new South Africans and everyone would love as and we would be busy reconciling.’
But he says the reconciliation has been extremely limited and the situation in South Africa has remained the same with the majority of the poor still black and a huge amount of resentment remaining.
His view is that, although limited in its success, there is now something to build on,
‘The argument in the play is that the TRC was 10% successful but if you have 10%, at least you have a model for how we need to deal with ourselves everyday when we wake up from now on.’
Truth In Translation has toured Rwanda, where there is a great reluctance amongst the population to talk about the reasons behind the 1994 genocide.
‘Many Rwandans who saw our play, were saying: ‘Don’t talk to me about the past and about Hutus or Tutsis,’’ Mr Buckland said.
‘But there were others who were saying: ‘If we don’t talk about this thing that happened, the more the emotions aren’t allowed to be expressed, the more it’s going to repeat itself.’’
The aim of the play is to create dialogue around the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation.
The plan is to take it to other countries affected by conflict including Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland and the Balkans.
The audiences are treated to a music score composed by one of South Africa’s greatest - Hugh Masekela.
Eventually Mr Lessac hopes to take Truth In Translation back home to the United States, which he says as a country has fallen into a state of denial about everything going on in this world. He hopes to change that.
‘Where I come from we have to become part of the world again. And I’ve chosen this play to see if we can all come together and begin discussing that we live on the same planet.’