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The South African Season in France came to a close last month with several memorable achievements for both countries. The Seasons is a festival which promotes an under-standing of our two countries’ culture and history through the arts.
South Africa is the first country in the sub-Saharan region to take part in this programme and more than 1 200 South Africa artists showcased their talents in France from May to December. They included Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri and Johnny Clegg, who performed in several of the 100 cities that took part in the festival.
“When we started the South African Season in France earlier this year, we did so as a tribute to those who had fought for South Africa’s liberation,” said Bongani Tembe, the commissioner-general of the South African Season in France.
“Ahead of our 20 years of freedom celebration (this year), we were honoured to share with the French public a special exhibition on the life of the late great former statesman, Nelson Mandela,” he said.
The Mandela exhibition was entitled From Prisoner to President and scheduled to run between May and July, but was extended several times, earning it record numbers of visitors.
Although the Mandela exhibition started well before his death, the fact that the season’s close coincided with his death amounted to the perfect send-off, the French way:
Throughout Paris, there are several memorial gardens named in honour of French heroes from the past or their allies. To immortalise Mandela, one of these gardens was named after him just before Christmas.
“We are honoured that the French have taken our hero and given him this great status. We take this gesture home as a sign of unity and solidarity between our countries,” said the Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile.
In addition to the naming of the garden, the season declared a Mandela Week which saw the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the colours of the South African flag for three days. The Trocadero facade had the inscription “Nelson Mandela 1918-2013” illuminated, in 5m letters, for 10 days to celebrate his life.
“There is a great spirit around celebrating Mandela’s life around here all year long. In fact, the movie The Long Walk to Freedom has just opened here and we hear a lot of good things from that end as well, which is humbling,” said Mashatile.
Playwright and director Paul Grootboom was one of the South African talents who put on a final performance, a play called Rhetorical. It featured, among others, the seasoned actor Presley Chweneyagae, who enjoyed showing the world a bit about South Africa through theatre.
“The show was received very well and we had full houses on most nights,” said Chweneyagae.
“They really enjoyed the play and it was really motivating for us to come from South Africa and be able to perform at an international level.
“When the French want to show their appreciation they keep on clapping and clapping and for several nights we kept getting standing ovations after every show.”
In Rhetorical, which was written by Aubrey Sekhabi, Grootboom looks into the recent past of South Africa, focusing on the time of Thabo Mbeki in the presidential seat. Using the voice of a fictional character, Daniel Mokone, who is modelled on Julius Malema, Grootboom raises points around the decline of Mbeki’s presidency.
“The most important thing in the play is to tell a positive story about our country and the legacy of our former president, Thabo Mbeki,” said Chweneyagae.
“A lot of people know about his speeches so it was very important to do it in speech form because it is still relevant now, especially in telling other people how far we have come and how far we are going.”
Although he enacts a number of characters, Chweneyagae spent a lot of time preparing for the role of Mokone.
“It took a lot of preparation to play Tata Mokone because the character is modelled around the former Youth League president, Julius Malema,” he said.
“I had to look at Malema videos, trying to see how he spoke, and see how I could blend that information with the fictional Mokone. I also involved myself with the character to breathe in some life into it, so it has been quite a journey. I am happy to portray all the other characters because that helps me exercise my acting muscle.”