Nelson Mandela died five years ago but his figure still looms large over South Africa’s recent history.
In his home country Nelson Mandela was variously labelled a communist, terrorist, freedom fighter, pacifist and statesman. Ultimately, however, he is remembered as Madiba, the founding figure of modern South Africa and a man who enfranchised millions of Africans and helped to dismantle the brutal state-sponsored system of Apartheid.
He’s a symbol of hope and reconciliation in deeply divisive times, and South African actor Perci Moeketsi can barely believe that he’s playing the role of Mandela in Madiba The Musical. “As you can imagine, for someone with such clout, the honour is beyond expression,” he says, clearly struggling to express his feelings. “Even just using words feels empty. The best way for me to express it is to play the socks off of the part.”
Madiba is a book musical in which the song and dance sequences are integrated into the storyline, but Mandela has not morphed into a terpsichorean talent. “Mandela wasn’t much of a ballerina or a tap dancer,” Moeketsi laughs. And fortunately the script “didn’t call for him to be a hectic dancer. He’s more of a singer but the Madiba dance is included, so that’s what he does.”
The famous Madiba dance was Mandela’s signature move, and YouTube has plenty of clips showing him rocking gently from side to side in brightly coloured batik shirts with fists held out in front. There are just as many of South Africans imitating the genial grandfather’s moves, but Madiba portrays a much younger man. The action starts as he founds a law firm with Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg and follows his path to the presidency at the nation’s first fully democratic elections.
It’s a celebratory note on which to end, but much of the action that precedes it is considerably darker. Madiba chronicles his time in prison and as a lawyer representing Africans oppressed by the brutal regime that Moeketsi calls “torturous, murderous, even genocidal”.
“It’s not ugly, but there is violence,” he says of the production. “It’s in your face; murder, violence and the truth of the two sides. It’s not only mentioned, it’s shown and it’s quite confrontational because this was really harsh.”
It’s an unavoidable part of the story, but the scriptwriters have been careful to keep the action suitable for younger audiences. They’ve tried not to be overly didactic, but this is written in part to tell these stories for a new generation. Madiba might carry the subtitle “A celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela”, but it’s also a chronicle and condemnation of the system that robbed millions of Africans of their basic human rights.
The musical has just had its English language world premiere in Sydney and Moeketsi says that already he’s found that many in the audience are unfamiliar with the setting. “A lot of them admit that it’s been educational, especially a lot of the younger generation who have not known Madiba that well. It’s like a re-education about how harsh the situation was. It was a real battle and there are parts that the history books might not capture.”
Madiba ventures away from the history books in a few key ways. Though Mandela is front and centre of the play, the action also has room for several fictional characters whose paths are influenced by their interactions with him.
Moeketsi refers to them as “the stories that did not make the headlines”. The press was heavily censored throughout Apartheid, meaning that many of these stories were never widely heard.
These characters have arcs that represent individual experiences, but also function as metaphors for the wider elements of South African society. For Moeketsi, this truth within the characters resonates deeply. “We’re not pinpointing individuals, but we’re telling the story of what life was like for the common African man.”
It’s a tough balance, finding room for gravitas and celebratory musical numbers, paying tribute to Mandela and showing the mechanisms of the system that oppressed and imprisoned him. But for Moeketsi, one challenge stood out above all others in this epic story. “The trickiest thing is that it’s only two hours – to try to fit everything in, it’s hard!”
Madiba The Musical Adelaide
Entertainment Centre Theatre
Thursday, January 17 to Sunday, January 20