Reflection on South Africa and the workshops for A Song To Sing

So much has happened since the previous blog it’s hard to know where to start.  I’ve just got back from South Africa, so I want to talk about that, can’t help but talk about it, and then talk about our current project, A Song To Sing and the outcome of the workshops so far and what’s next.

I went to South Africa via the Swallows Foundation, with a team of Cultural Leaders and/or art practitioners as an introduction to the country and its challenges and to reflect on the role of leadership with Culture and the Arts.  The challenges the country and its people face are many and on every level, from the government to the Municipals (councils to you and me), to the schools, communities (and I mean the black communities living in townships with limited or no access to fresh food, health care or good schools etc).  We were told of corruption, racism, violence, discrimination (including that of refugees within the country via black South Africans).  We witnessed poverty and learned that because of ‘white flight’ there is a huge skill shortage, so lack of engineers, accountants etc.

There was a lot of talk about how it’s still early days for this new country, and that with time things will get better for black South African’s.  However you could hear the frustration and feel the anger that things aren’t changing fast enough.  It’s been 18yrs since the end of Apartheid, and with every year it takes to fix the country, its a year of someone’s life, a missed opportunity to learn, access to good healthcare, to live without fear of rape and violence or to live without discrimination and racism.   The enormity of the challenges people are facing is overwhelming and one thing that really struck me was the courage and strength of the people who live there.  We were introduced to the people both past and present (black and white) who fought to make change happen, men and women, and the young people of Soweto.  People who took to the streets, faced guns, death and violence, people who stood together and said ‘no’ to inequality. People who in the face of death, sang songs that demanded the right to be free and to be treated with humanity.  We met people who, in spite of the current challenges they face from corruption and inequality are fighting still to make South Africa a country where all people have access to the quality of life that every human being has the right to have.


Our tour of South Africa was, in the main part, narrated by men, some white and some black, so, as lovely as they were, it was through their eyes that we saw the country, and I wondered what the trip would’ve been like if it was narrated by black South African women.  This isn’t to say that we didn’t hear the stories of women, the museums were a testament to the courage of many women who stood shoulder to shoulder with men to make change happen.  We also met some amazing women who are pushing forward to have their voices heard both professionally and personally.  However it’s important to remember that when someone is telling their truth it’s through their eyes, their experience, as men, women or young people, or lesbians, gay people, it’s a view point and a truth narrated from that point of view.  For example, I asked a couple of the men about ’lobola’, which is when a man wants to marry a woman he has to pay the family a price for her (I was told this was to compensate the family for the loss of their daughter as she has a key role is supporting her family to survive etc).  It was insightful that this was a common occurrence, and was communicated as something that was a cultural norm and not necessarily oppressive for women.  At the same time I was reading a book ‘African Women: Three Generations’ by Mark Mathabane.  Though, again this is a man writing, it’s the words and viewpoints of his gran, mam and sister, its narrated through their eyes and it tells a different story of lobola, one were women lack power and control because she has been paid for.  If the man decides he would like to take another wife he can, if he wants to have an affair or a mistress he can, if he wants to take the children he can, if he wants to gamble or drink rather than feed his kids he can….so there is a different view point, and one that exposes the inequalities and the oppression experienced by a cultural norm – a cultural norm where the man is the one in charge and has the power.  This is my experience of working with women over the last 14 years and a cultural norm with women across all cultures, countries and communities.


This experience of having a country narrated through men’s eyes made me think about the work of Open Clasp. We create theatre from a female gaze, so the story telling is through the eyes of the women we work with.  I believe that this is not only needed (there are still too few women in positions of power to create a balance in public decision making) but this insight is a valuable asset when we are trying to make sense of the world around us, when we are looking at inequalities e.g. gender, sexuality and/or culture.  This is what we do, and it’s essential that women’s stories, experiences and their voices, are given value and recognition. 

So this is where I’m at now, it’s that part of the project, it the writing the play part of the project.  This is when I reflect on the workshops and create a script that gives a platform to the voices of the women we have worked with, the stories that need to be told, and what we might learn if we look at the world we live in through the lens of women.  

The discussions within the workshops have highlighted two things for me; one is that gender violence and the cultural norms that support inequality and oppression of women are a running theme.  However the second area that stands out for me is, like the people of South Africa, is the courage and strength of women as a cultural norm.  I’m struck by how brave women are, the journey’s they have travelled, the strength and resilience shown, not only from their previous experiences before coming to England e.g. so rape, Female Genital Mutilation, gender violence, trafficking, slavery, but it’s also their ever present danger of that knock on the door that will lead them to prison, a plane and then quite possibly death.  Women who, in their desire and hunger for freedom, have taught themselves to read and write, to drive a car, to learn English, to move away, to get away.   Not unlike the women in South Africa, they know what freedom is, that they have a right to it and make brave a courageous steps to get it.  I think we can learn from the courage it takes to make change, and this is something I want to explore with this script and this project.

Catrina McHugh

Artistic Director and Writer