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5.2.Orrells

What does it mean to witness the founding of democracy? Can this moment, can this process, be witnessed? Or is it only ever mythical – mythologized? What does it mean to say that (a) democracy has (had) a beginning? Can we even recognize democracy when we see it? Aeschylus’s understanding of historical events posited democracy as the transition from a cycle of vendetta to a system of litigation, from Argos to Athens, from muthos to logos, which could only be comprehended, paradoxically, through the lens of myth. Just as what it meant to recognize (what counts as) democracy would remain a fraught process at particular moments during the fifth century BCE, so what democracy has come to mean for South Africans since 1994 has also posed more questions than provided answers. Rather than simply consisting of a set of laws and regulations, South Africans realized very quickly that democracy was something that was performatively done, not simply written. And this was made expressly clear during the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC), in which victims and perpetrators of the apartheid South African regime gathered to witness the appalling human-rights violations carried out during that period of history. The public enactment of justice and human rights saw to it that the TRC were often viewed as public ritual and national theatre. The disclosure and examination of evidence and the legitimatization of the truth became, in effect, performative processes. But at the same time, because the truth was often simply too traumatic to be told, theatrical performance stood in, in order to tell that truth. The retelling of tragic events brought about a wave of theatrical productions in 1990s and twenty-first-century South Africa, in order to examine the history of that nation. In 2008 Yael Farber took this process into a highly self-reflexive direction in her play Molora (the Sesotho word for ‘ash’). Reworking Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and explicitly written against the backdrop of the 9/11 attack on New York, as well as against a canvas of xenophobic violence that has recently sprung up in today’s South Africa, Farber’s play asks what it means to look back on the TRC of the 1990s. This powerful play raised a number of difficult questions, which this paper aims to explore: how does an adaptation of Greek tragedy witness the ‘birth’ of democracy in South Africa? By turning to Greek myth, what gets highlighted and what gets occluded in witnessing that process? How is the historical specificity of contemporary South African democracy understood and witnessed by its re-presentation as classical Greek tragedy?

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