This article contains spoilers.
Having been a boarder since the age of four, Qondiswa James knows school hostels intimately, from their dark passageways to the tangible structures that form the perimeter of the grounds. She knows, too, the invisible structures that determine life within these boundaries. Despite her discomfort with the institution, the concept of school has been a recurring theme in her activism. From these experiences emerges A Howl in Makhanda, a semi-autobiographical play written and directed by James.
Howl follows four grade 11 girls, two black and two white, in an all-girls boarding school in Makhanda. Inside the tightly regulated borders of the school, the girls work to carve out a place of their own. When their hideout is discovered and they are caught smoking weed, the trajectories of the four girls’ futures differ dramatically under the scrutiny of the disciplinary board and the refuge their parents can provide.
On 17 January 2020, the body of 13-year-old Enoch Mpianzi was recovered from the Crocodile River in North West province. The raft built by Mpianzi and his peers fell apart in the water. This tragedy took place at the grade 8 orientation camp of Parktown Boys’ High School.
In 2007, a 16-year-old James attended the annual grade 10 camp that took place along the Fish River. She, too, was instructed to raft down the river. She refused and walked away, determined to find another way along the riverbank. When they found her, she was silent, no longer able to speak.
For James, this incident signified the end of a romanticised childhood. “It marked the closure of that pathway.” It was this incident and the events that followed that birthed A Howl in Makhanda.
Rigid rhythms and curriculums
The stage opens with Bawdy (Kim Adonis), Xoli (Yamkela Ntendiyo), Karla (Megan Theron) and Sam (Amé Strydom) huddled close together on a table – their dormitory room. A black male figure dressed as a security guard silently crosses the stage. Their slumber is abruptly cut short as the man (Zukisani Nongogo) vigorously rings a bell.
The play teases out the tension between the safety of private space and the surveillance that governs the rest of the school. The stage floor maps the geography of the school in sharp white chalk lines. This rigidity is echoed in the rhythm of their school day, throughout which their movements and thoughts are interrupted by the male figure and his ringing bell.
In the classroom scenes, the girls dutifully pull out their books. They diligently copy the teacher’s notes and recite the contributions of a “white man who died 100 years ago”, as told by Bawdy. In each of these sequences, the girls break the fourth wall (speaking directly to the audience) and inform them of moments in history left out of the curriculum.
World War II, Newton’s Law, and the tenants of Abrahamic religions are taught. What is omitted is an acknowledgement that the Holocaust was not the first time the German empire committed genocide. Just 40 years earlier, the Herero and Nama people were slaughtered in Namibia. What do the youth make of the lack of adequate public housing and the Red Ants demolishing the “illegal structures” people call home? And how is Rojava understood under the banner of religious studies?
Speaking to New Frame, James explains that the school system is part of a larger capitalist system. “You can leave school in grade 9 and go to a technical [college] so you can go and be a labourer. But if you make it past school, you can go and be a white-collar worker. Still a labourer”, James explains. “I think we should be educating each other and ourselves for a different end. I want to have agency over my conditioning, and I feel like everyone should.”
A multidimensional girlhood
Xoli, Bawdy, Karla and Sam find reprieve in each other through the intimacy that the proximity of their dorm room brings. This evolves into friendship and a shared secret outside the school, their covert smoking spot.
Jannous Aukema’s musical score is the perfect accompaniment for the girls’ dreamy travel sequence to this spot, a nostalgia-driven nod to conventional notions of girlhood. The girls in their school dresses, sometimes just their white shirts, run along forgotten paths, clumsily bumping into each other and stifling their laughter as they make their way to the outskirts of the school grounds.
James’ depiction of girlhood is not one-dimensional. One of the hallmarks of her work in performance – theatre, performance art or film – is how the ritual of undress is used as an invitation to intimacy as well as a way to subvert an imposed sexual gaze on to the image of a pubescent woman.
James’ writing works deftly to sketch the emotional landscape of the girls in lengthy confessions. This is done through monologues that often end in poetic musings and uncomfortable questions about their world. In the quiet of the dorm room, when the rest of the girls are asleep, one by one we are privy to their thoughts.
In Sam’s confession, she narrates her past sexual encounters. Her inexperience and lack of confidence led to situations that felt wrong and often ended with her feeling hurt or humiliated. Her experiences were all consensual. She is just unsure of how to speak about them.
Xoli is the character most obviously connected to James’ life. She grapples with the weight of the school’s history, the ghosts of those who passed through the same halls the girls now traverse. She thinks about this, or her mother’s Christianity and how her fear of perversion has made her drag her daughter over concrete, praying the demons away.
This kind of honesty extends to the way in which the girls speak to each other. Their dialogue is to the point. They provide commentary on each other with a sharp wit that is hilarious and brutal. When Bawdy finds out she is pregnant and the father doesn’t seem to care, Karla tells her to tell his mother. An irritated Bawdy tells her: “I can’t just call his mother, Karla. I’m black.”
The spirit of Ginsberg
A Howl in Makhanda carries the spirit of the poem it references. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl defined the American Beat Generation. In 1957, two years after its release, the poem was put on trial for obscenity. Howl is a sprawling piece of work that moves swiftly through distorted images of 1950s Americana and the rise of a complacent middle class after the country, through war, had destroyed countless people’s lives. Through its hallucinatory, drug-fuelled images and graphic descriptions of homosexual exploits, it illustrates the desolate state of American existence through the eyes of Ginsberg and his peers.
There are similarities between Ginsberg and how Xoli, Bawdy, Sam and Karla see the world. And, of course, there are similarities to James and her friends. They would also meet to discuss and challenge their theories. “I feel these impulses towards pain and truth and existence in particular ways … Me and my friends started to dig deeper and talk about things. Yes, we are in pain. Let’s just start there. And it’s angst. There’s … existential pain that we’re trying to understand.”
This is what the girls are doing in their smoking spot. They have created an autonomous space for themselves to exist. They break the rules by existing outside the spectre of surveillance. When they are caught smoking weed, it is made clear that safety and security is not a priority for all.
Surveillance is not safety
After the news of Mpianzi’s disappearance and later death was made public, the responsibility for the death was put on the parents in multiple reports. The school and the lodge were largely absent from the narrative, despite reports that Mpianzi was only reported missing 17 hours after his peer noticed his absence on the bus.
On 15 January 2020, 13-year-old Keamohetswe Seboko was found drowned at the bottom of the Laerskool Bekker swimming pool. Seboko’s mother has raised several inconsistencies. According to Lucia Seboko, the drowning was only reported to authorities three days after the fact. She also questioned the lack of eye witnesses, despite there being 60 pupils swimming in the pool at the time of the incident.
These deaths happened in public spaces under the surveillance of the school. But this tragic negligence is placed at the feet of the parents. In A Howl in Makhanda, Karla and Sam are shielded from the scrutiny of the school and consequences. Sam’s parents pull her out of the school before the school hearing. Xoli and Bawdy are expelled, and Karla stays and eventually matriculates.
Considering the recent events concerning the safety of children within South African schools, A Howl in Makhanda poses interesting questions around what it means to be safe and at whose expense. The significance of Xoli, Bawdy, Karla and Sam is their choice to find a shared space outside the perimeter of the school, a space where they could question their curriculum, friendships and beliefs in a way that was not harmful.
Seboko and Mpianzi died under the watchful presence of the school. Surveillance does not ensure security. What A Howl in Makhanda points to and recent events illustrate is the influence of parents, identity, wealth and circumstance in spaces – like schools – that present themselves as, but do not provide, protected spaces for all.