Sharmini Brookes: Khwezi … Say My Name is sympathetic portrayal of the woman who in 2005 accused President Zuma of rape, based on the book by Redi Tlhabi.
Her name was Fezekile Nitsukela Kuzwayo, but she was called Khwezi by the media in an attempt to safeguard her anonymity during the trial and that is how she is best known by the public. In the 2016 municipal elections three women held up placards with her name during President Zuma’s address to the electorate.
Playwright and director Napo Masheane has a passion for storytelling that she feels transports us to different worlds, but she also feels that theatre has to go beyond entertaining and impact on our understanding of our African traditions, culture, rituals and spirituality.
In Khwezi, the audience is forced to deal with the issue of her rape against this background alongside the awareness of modern-day feminism and the focus on the position of women in our society today.
Khwezi’s story is an uneasy one, born into a family of anti-Apartheid ANC activists living in exile, she was allegedly raped as a 5-year-old child by political comrades and then again in 2005 at the age of 31 by Jacob Zuma, an uncle by relation and a close friend of her father who had died in a car accident when she was still very young.
The ANC comrades were allegedly docked pay for their alleged rape of the child but were never found guilty in a court of law for lack of evidence. Zuma too was found ‘not guilty’ of the alleged rape, mainly because of the emphasis allowed by the judge in the trial on Khwezi’s sexual history.
Khwezi was HIV positive and on medication when the alleged rape by Jacob Zuma took place in his Forest Hill home and his defence that the sexual act was consensual and that he took a shower for protection against HIV after sexual contact with her has become a stock joke on the comedy circuit. Cartoonists like Zapiro often show Zuma with a shower attached to his bald pate.
I have to admit that I have not read Tlhabi’s bestselling book on which the play was based, and as the play was performed in both English and Zulu or Xhosa I did not fully grasp all the nuances that may have been suggested.
Masheane has tried to be faithful to the book while using her imagination to portray the explicit scene of rape by Zuma in a beautiful and abstract way using a long rectangular red cloth that Zuma winds around Khwezi pulling her towards him as he imprisons her in its folds.
The stage set was simple and used innovatively. I liked the use of the two back-lit shadow columns on either side of the stage showing some of Khwezi’s remembered scenes.
The play begins strikingly with a chorus sporting red shower heads and a coffin being carried off the stage.
The court scenes are quite effective in showing the devastating effect of the cross examination on Khwezi and my companion and I were shocked by how the defence lawyer was allowed to cross examine her on her past sexual conduct in order to suggest that rape had not taken place and that the sex was consensual.
Nompumelelo Mayiyane plays Khwezi with touching vulnerability and JT Medupe manages to convey a sinister Zuma in the rape scene although we did think he could have been made to look a little fuller as Zuma has a paunch and Medupe is very slim. However, in the intonation of voice and the laugh as well as the dance movements after winning the court case, he certainly does bring Zuma to life.
My criticism of the play is that it seems to have tried to put in too much – too many scenes, too many characters – perhaps too narrative in structure rather than paring down and pulling the important elements together towards a more climactic end. We felt less moved than we felt we ought to feel.
It felt more like a good end-of-year musical drama by a good high school who tries to give everyone a part and have enough variety in it to keep everyone happy.
Nevertheless, it is an important story at a moment when women’s issues are very much on the agenda and raises many crucial questions for us to ponder. In this, Masheane has achieved her intention.
“Khwezi… say my name” is on at the State Theatre in Pretoria until 12 August 2018.
078 477 6938