A Glass Door Distorting The Truth.

This is a true story. Last Friday night 200 striking students held over 150 people hostage in the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre at KZN during our performance of my latest show Common & Class – Ian Von Memerty & Gino Fabbri.
Just before the end of Act One – the chanting students (some of them carrying stones in their hands) started pounding on the glass doors of the foyer. The front of house manager talked to them – and they demanded that the show stop and if it did that they would not harm anyone.
At about 8.20 pm I was doing Sweet Transvestite in full drag as Frank n Furter and Gino was in his Riff Raff outfit ready to come on stage when the stage manager said to him, “We have a situation! the audience need to stay in the theatre”.
So the entire audience is on its feet doing the Time Warp when at the end Gino says to me, “tell them to stay in the theatre”. I did and the audience waited patiently for 20 minutes. As the students got rowdier we then led the entire audience, some of them severely physically challenged, downstairs into the dressing rooms, blacked out the theatre and for the next 2 hours we waited for security and police to deal with the situation. Thankfully we had a policeman in the audience who managed to liaise with the police outside through what seemed to be communication spaghetti – and eventually the students were dispersed and we could lead the audience out.
The Elizabeth Sneddon theatre staff were magnificent, and the audience were calm and supportive. And the students kept their promise and harmed no property and people – but the essential fact was 160 people, who had no involvement with university, were held hostage for 2 hours. What the story was with delay with the police and the campus security I cannot answer for.
We naturally cancelled all future performances at the Sneddon and within 18 hours, had arranged a tour of 6 performances in three different venues. I then put the story out on Facebook, to try and sell these future shows.
And the reactions were fascinating. From supportive, to outraged, to ranting racism from white commentators who were not there. And I found that several black students were answering with natural outrage at the outpouring of hatred and racism.
So I contacted one of those students, and Thuthu and I arranged to meet for a coffee to find out what was story on the other side of the glass door that separated those protesting students from the frightened hostages inside.
Apparently it boils down to two issues, both standard in South African – non-delivery and apparent corruption. So here is my understanding of the gist of the story from the other side.
The government has assigned money to accommodate all students who have qualified to attend university. These students come to Durban to chase the dream of education and employment from as far afield as Mpumulanga and Limpopo. And they arrive to find no accommodation has been arranged or payed for, and they literally sleep on the grounds of the university. In passages and on the grass, guarding their luggage.
If other students go and find these homeless students and offer them accommodation, those ‘helping hands’ are liable for fines, and expulsion from the university. The ‘housing department’ over the years, at UKZN has apparently installed students in houses which operate as brothels. Other students have apparently fallen prey to attack, abuse and exploitation in all of its less salubrious forms whilst waiting for housing which they understand to have been promised to them.
There are stories of students being ‘sold’ accommodation from some housing officials despite the government having already paid for this accommodation. Whether all these stories are true or not, the perception is that the weak and the vulnerable are being exploited – and their only strength is in banding together.
As a visiting production we had been at the theatre for 5 days, with no disruption so we were completely unaware of why these students were rioting. The students, most of whom were waiting for a room after 2 weeks could see a production happening on a campus which was supposed to be closed down.
Now let us not be naive. I am sure that some political activists saw a situation and exploited these first year students to co-ordinate a riot. But when money is there, surely a short term solution for registered students to sleep under shelter is not an impossible task.
Should the students have held us hostage, when all of us have nothing to do with the university and damage the public’s trust in one of the city’s most important Arts Venues? No! We had a severely physically challenged wheel chair user and his parents in the audience, who have been severely traumatised by the incident, and one survivor of a previous attack has been hospitalized since that night.
However, despite the fear on our side no-one was physically hurt and no property was damaged. But equally, should these young poor South Africans, who have already been given an appalling education be sleeping with their possessions out in the open in a strange city because they have qualified for a university education? No! They have the right to be angry. There are no winners when it gets down to it.
And for all those people who used this story to rant about undeserving freeloading students who were ‘destroying our culture’, amidst far more blatant racist attacks – I would ask this question. If students were locked out of their accommodation at Stellenbosch University, and a visiting black show had been closed by student protests – would the reaction have been quite so vehement, or even one quarter as racist.
Of course there is a third side to this – the UKZN’s version, and I don’t claim to know what happened there – I am sure it is a beaurocratic nightmare. But whatever the reasons, two groups of people were held hostage on Friday night. And we need to work to make sure we always understand the other side – if we are to bridge the divide.
But for now, I am on tour, trying to make a living. So book today for Common and Class, KZN this week, Gauteng Feb 28 – March 2nd, and WC March 6 – 11th. We’re all over the web.
#OpEd #IanvonMemerty #TheShowGoesOn #LiveTheatre #Durban

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