By Anote Ajeluorou
When notable poet Odia Ofeimun and his Hornbill House of the Arts, organisers of 70th birthday celebrations for South Africa-based Prof. Kole Omotoso settled for his post-Apartheid South African play, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter, it was on account of the play’s resonance with modern reality that spreads across the entire African continent. Omotoso, who turned recently 70, was being celebrated in his hometown, Akure, with full compliment of the Ondo State Government at the Cultural Centre.
Indeed, all resolutions of freedom either from colonial rule or Apartheid regime have remained the same – that all the freedom ‘charters’ have often turned mere ‘chatters’ that left a majority of the people further dispossessed and alienated from who they really are so much so that it resolved the fight into something other than desired and therefore vacuous!
Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter takes a critical look at post-Apartheid South Africa, a country he relocated from Nigeria in 1991 during the last gasp of that repressive regime of minority rule. He witnessed the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ referendum of 1992 that dealt a fatal blow to Apartheid and has since been witness to that country’s struggle to wean itself from some of the structures that supported Apartheid, largely the economic structures still rooted in the hands of the whites even as political power is in the hands of blacks.
This then is the major thesis of the argument: What do you do with political freedom that does not give you economic freedom guaranteed by ownership of property? While the struggle in South Africa and indeed other parts of the continent had been for self-rule, the freedom fighters gave little heed to economic freedom symbolized by land in a place like South Africa. While the protagonist successfully fights against his white master to regain freedom even after murdering his own wife and child as acts of self-negation, with the intent to also take his own life, his freedom becomes hollow when its realities star him in the face.
He and his fellow road-travelers come to the shocking realization that there is more to attaining political freedom than they set out to achieve. The fertile lands of South Africa, as is the case in Zimbabwe, are firmly in the hands of the white settlers and those for whom freedom has been granted have no means of economic empowerment; they would have to depend on their erstwhile masters for livelihood. Or they wrest or negotiate economic power from them for their own survival. But this is unacceptable situation. The white masters are not ready to let go of stolen lands, which have profited them for so long. In a face-saving move and seeing that they could loose everything, the whites are ready to negotiate terms that would ensure they are part of the new country so as to retain what they stolen from the natives.
This becomes the burden of leadership, having to negotiate with former repressive masters, with the baggage of International Monetary Fund and World Bank, mostly usually with terms that hardly favour poor of black folks. Here, the majority rise up against whatever treaty the African leaders are out to sign and disrupt the process…
Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter presents the dilemma of a country and a continent as shown in the South Africa example. As the country begins to slip out of the hands of the white settlers, the dilemma of transition ensues and the question of what vision of a new country to forge looms. As part of the resolution, even the playwright invites the continent’s ancestors to bear witness to how their wards lost control of a continent to visitors from far away. The alien visitors, made up of administrators and the clergy, often the dregs of their alien, barren societies, swooped on Africa and dispossessed its owners of their prized possessions.
While the play is strikes at the heart of current economic issues plaguing South Africa, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter resonates with realities in most African countries. Nigeria may have been freed from military rule, but what true political and economic freedom has 14 years of democratic rule offered ordinary Nigerians? How have those who manipulate the political space fared in managing the commonwealth for communal good? Isn’t the upsurge of militancy in various guises a direct result of how poorly the politico-economic space has been badly managed?
But Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter is heavy stuff; it’s a highly cerebral play that is somewhat preachy, in line with the revolutionary fervour of its author, Omotoso. Its near linear plot takes the viewer straight into the heart of the freedom fight and its complex contours that leaves the viewer breathless. But the play’s heaviness is mitigated by the energetic dances infused into it by the director, Mr. Felix Okolo.
Indeed, Okolo brings along with him into this production ingredients of Odia Ofeimun’s dance dramas – Nigeria the Beautiful and Itoya… A Dance for Africa and A Feast of Return. These drama are heavy historical narratives rendered in poetic form that provides panoramic excursions for the play-goer. Omotoso’s Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter provides no less theatrical thrill.
Also, Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter is a close to call for the author in its thematic preoccupation for the dispossessed of the earth, who like himself, have had to migrate to other lands to find refuge away from anomie at home. For Omotoso, majority of Nigerians are still dispossessed and it explains his current disposition not to stage a return to the country of his birth. As Omotoso put it, “you can’t have successful politicians without a successful polity”; Nigeria’s political environment is fertile soil for all sorts of murk.Ofeimun’s Hornbill House of the Arts is planning to stage Yes and No to the Freedom Chatter in Lagos as soon as it finds a willing sponsor to bankroll the production. The intention is to expose the play to much wider audience than the one that saw the play in Akure, the Ondo State capital last week.