“Every struggle song is about him; who is this Oliver?” Poet and playwright Sipho Mnyakeni employs the innocent prattle of a young girl to pierce through the façade of celebration, writes Mpho Matsitle
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
These words of Milan Kundera echo through as one reads Sipho Mnyakeni’s open letter of truth to power, Dear Oliver Tambo: a musical that aims to depict the life and values of Oliver Tambo and other struggle icons through the curious inquiry of a young girl named Tselane, herself facing a multitude of struggles.
But who is Oliver?
It is a bold question to ask this, especially in the era of dilettantes. “Who is Oliver?” Tselane’s mother is in furious shock when her daughter asks this, but for other reasons. One can imagine that other people would be as equally vexed by the question, because it is a question that risks cognitive dissonance. “Everybody knows OR!” some might scream in righteous indignation. Really?
The radical questions are often the ones that question the obvious. The name Oliver Tambo is one synonymous with South Africa and it’s struggle against apartheid. It is the name that has come to define the ANC. So how dare Tselane and Dear Oliver Tambo ask who OR is?
It is, however, a very necessary question, especially in ‘The Year of Oliver Tambo.’ For, even though we might sing his name in song every time we reminisce on the struggle, even though we might shout Viva the Spirit of Tambo, Viva, it is not to mean that we know him. As black consciousness philosopher and art critic Athi Mongezelile Joja has recently noted elsewhere, “The project of remembering … has gone so deep in clandestinely using memory to instil amnesia.”
It seems too that each time we sing, “Oliver Tambo, thetha noBotha akhulul’ uMandela,” and with every spirited VIVA! we shout, we bury him deep inside the dark recesses of memory. We forget who he is, and concomitantly forget who we are, what South Africa is and what the struggle was about.
It is thus fitting that we would be invited to ask – through the arts that Tambo was so fond of – “who is Oliver Tambo?”
Dear Oliver Tambo uses music (the very struggle songs sometimes used as “memory to instil amnesia”), poetry, visual art, dance and drama to offer a fresh inquiry into the legacy of this stalwart. But not only that; in telling the story of Tambo, other lesser known figures of the struggle for self-determination such as Chris Dlamini and Victoria Mxenge are brought to the forefront. Equally contemporary struggles like Fees Must Fall, patriarchy and corruption are called on to dance with the legacy of OR and his comrades.
Nevertheless, it is not a lecture: the viewer will not leave the theatre a PhD candidate on the legacy of Oliver Reginald Tambo, but as is the duty of any art worth its salt, one will be enthralled, engaged and go home with a fresh set of questions and passions reignited. This well-travelled musical written and directed by Sipho Mnyakeni is yet another stone thrown in the “struggle of memory against forgetting.”
The current tour includes showings at the Ernest Oppenheimer Theatre in Welkom on 7 October 2017 and in Bloemfontein’s Andre Huguenet Theatre on 14 October 2017.